The main rebel group in Syria says its joint military operations with the U.S. against the Islamic State terrorist group have stopped because of the threat of a Turkish ground offensive and airstrikes, and it is concerned ISIS prisoners may escape from the detention facilities where thousands are held.
On Thursday, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder said that the anti-ISIS mission in Syria was ongoing. “We do continue to conduct partnered patrols with the SDF at a reduced number, based on their request to go to a reduced number,” he said, using the abbreviation for the Syrian Democratic Forces
But Friday a spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said, “As a result of the SDF’s pause on all counter-ISIS operations, CENTCOM forces have also paused all partnered operations against ISIS in Syria.”
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The spokesperson said that “patrols at the al-Hol Internally Displaced Persons Camp and detention facilities continue,” but those are generally instances of U.S. forces driving around the facilities while en route to meetings.
The commander of the SDF, Gen. Mazloum Abdi, said his group has intelligence that the Turks are building up forces to prepare for a ground offensive, and warned that all of northern Syria, which shares a border with Turkey, is in danger. “There will be a war on all the border,” he told NBC News.
The SDF is tracking new movements of ISIS cells and is concerned a Turkish ground offensive will endanger the security of ISIS detention facilities and refugee camps in Syria, Mazloum said. The SDF is responsible for most of the security at the facilities, including the Hasakah prison, which holds thousands of hardened ISIS fighters, and al-Hol refugee camp, which has more than 53,000 residents, many of whom are ISIS fighters, family members or sympathizers.
If security forces abandon the prisons and refugee camps, thousands of ISIS fighters could be released into Syria and threaten the region and the West, say U.S. military officials.
Two U.S. officials confirmed that counter-ISIS operations stopped after Turkish air and artillery strikes late last week on civilian — mainly Kurdish — areas in north and northeast Syria, including locations where the SDF, U.S. and other allies operate.
Three U.S. military officials say, however, that patrols with the SDF continued at a reduced rate and without aggressive counter-ISIS missions. After Turkish strikes stopped this week, possibly due to bad weather and cloud cover, the officials said the SDF conducted a few joint patrols with the U.S. military and coalition partners. On Thursday, the SDF and the U.S. conducted a joint “presence” patrol and meetings with key local leaders, the officials said. “Presence” patrols allow a limited security mission to continue but do not actively seek out or go after ISIS fighters.
The officials say they are tracking a possible Turkish ground offensive in northwestern Syria, near Tal Rifaat, but say at this point it is not clear whether any ground movement is imminent. The U.S. military does not have a presence in the west, but officials warn that a Turkish ground offensive will likely also include air and artillery strikes in the northeast where the U.S. has personnel.
A spokesperson for the Turkish government did not respond to a request for comment.
Mazloum said that U.S. and Russia must use diplomatic means to push back on Turkey’s deadly airstrikes and possible invasion, but he said that so far there has been no strong opposition from the U.S. or from Russia, which backs Syria’s ruling Assad regime. Mazloum said he met with the Russian military commander in Syria, Lt. Gen. Alexander Chaiko, on Sunday, and asked him to stay committed to the 2019 Sochi ceasefire agreement.
So far, the Syrian rebels and the U.S. military say they have not seen signs of de-escalation from the Turks. “We continue to oppose any military action that destabilizes the region and threatens the safety of the civilian population as well as disrupts our ongoing operations to defeat ISIS,” said a spokesperson for Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF–OIR), the U.S.-led multinational military coalition fighting ISIS.
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Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles have been hovering over some of the prisons and refugee camps for the past several days, Mazloum said, and the SDF is concerned about attacks on the facilities.
NBC News was first to report that a Nov. 22 Turkish strike in northeastern Syria last week that killed two SDF fighters came within 300 meters (about 330 yards) of U.S. personnel who were near the sprawling al-Hol refugee camp. U.S. military officials warned that the strikes were putting U.S. troops and personnel at risk and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley spoke with his Turkish counterpart to stress the need to deconflict any strikes and de-escalate the situation.
Since then, no strikes have directly threatened U.S. troops or personnel, according to the CJTF-OIR spokesperson. The U.S. military force posture in Syria has not changed in light of the recent strikes or threatened Turkish ground invasion.
But if Turkish military operations escalate, say U.S. officials, more SDF fighters will move toward the border, leaving detention facilities and refugee camps with inadequate security, say U.S. officials.
“Gen. Mazloum has been clear that anti-ISIS missions are not the SDF’s priority at this time,” the CJTF-OIR spokesperson said. During recent communications with the SDF, said the spokesperson, “the increased security concerns across Syria were emphasized as well as the concern that the camps and detention centers are vulnerable at this moment, given the SDF disposition.”
A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command said it is up to Gen. Mazloum to determine the disposition and focus of the SDF forces. “He can make the decisions he deems are the best fit for his forces to accomplish their goals and objectives,” said the spokesperson, Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn. “The Coalition will continue to offer advice and assistance, and enablement to the SDF, [and] we look forward to fully resuming partnered operations at the appropriate time to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”