LEFTERIS PITARAKIS and SARAH EL DEEB
AKCAKALE, Turkey (AP) — Hundreds of Islamic State supporters escaped from a holding camp in northern Syria on Sunday amid heavy clashes between invading Turkish-led forces and Kurdish fighters, and President Donald Trump ordered all U.S. troops to withdraw from the north to avoid getting caught in the fighting.
The twin developments reflected the rapidly growing chaos in Syria in the week since Trump ordered American forces in the region to step aside, leaving the U.S.-allied Kurds wide open to attack from Turkey.
“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies, and it’s a very untenable situation,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” in announcing U.S. troops would leave the north. He did not say how many would withdraw but that they represent most of the 1,000 troops in Syria.
A U.S. military official said that the situation was “deteriorating rapidly.” The official, who was not authorized to disclose operational details and spoke on condition of anonymity, said American troops were unable to move around on the ground without a “high risk” of confrontation with Turkish-backed forces.
The danger to American forces was illustrated on Friday, when a small number of U.S. troops came under Turkish artillery fire at an observation post in the north. No Americans were hurt. Esper said it was unclear whether that was an accident.
Trump, in a tweet, said: “Very smart not to be involved in the intense fighting along the Turkish Border, for a change. Those that mistakenly got us into the Middle East Wars are still pushing to fight. They have no idea what a bad decision they have made.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. also has come to believe that the Kurds are attempting to “cut a deal” with the Syrian army and Russia to counter the invading Turks, Esper said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday ruled out any mediation in the dispute with the Kurds, saying Turkey won’t negotiate with “terrorists.” NATO member Turkey views the Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to the Kurdish insurgency inside Turkey, and it has vowed to carve out a “safe zone” along the border.
Trump’s decision to clear the way for the Turkish offensive has been condemned at home and abroad by critics who say he abandoned the Kurdish allies who long fought alongside the U.S. to help defeat the Islamic State.
The fighting that has broken out over the past week has raised fears that some of the thousands of Islamic State members and sympathizers held by the Kurds will escape or be released in the chaos, allowing the battered extremist group to make a comeback and sow terror at will.
On Sunday, heavy fighting reached a displaced-persons camp in Ein Eissa, some 35 kilometers (20 miles) south of the border, that is home to some 12,000 people, including around 1,000 wives and widows of Islamic State fighters and their children, held in a special detention area.
The Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria said in a statement that 950 IS supporters escaped after attacking guards and storming the gates. It was not immediately possible to confirm that figure.
Jelal Ayaf, a senior official at the camp, told local media that 859 people broke out from the section housing foreign IS supporters. He said that a few were recaptured but that supporters inside another section of the camp also escaped and were carrying out attacks. He described the situation as “very volatile.”
Esper said he was aware of the reports of escapes and of atrocities committed against the Kurds in the fighting.
“It gets worse by the hour,” Esper said. “These are all the exact things” that U.S. officials warned Erdogan would probably happen in urging him not to invade.
The United Nations says more than 130,000 Syrians have fled since the operation began five days ago, including many who had taken refuge from previous rounds of fighting in the country’s eight-year civil war.
Turkey said 440 Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation began Wednesday. The SDF said 56 of its fighters have died. Turkey also said four of its soldiers were killed, along with 16 allied Syrian fighters.
Turkey’s Defense Ministry tweeted that its forces had taken control of the main highway running between Hassakeh, a major town and logistics hub, and Ein Eissa, the administrative center of the Kurdish-held areas.
Heavy fighting was also underway in the town of Suluk, northeast of Ein Eissa. Turkey’s official news agency said Syrian fighters allied with Ankara had captured the town, while Kurdish officials said they were still battling to hold onto it.
LEFTERIS PITARAKIS and SARAH EL DEEB