Written by Ben Hubbard, Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Patrick Kingsley
America’s former Kurdish allies in Syria on Sunday announced a new deal with the government in Damascus — a sworn enemy of Washington that is backed by Russia — after President Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria.
The deal marked a major turning point in Syria’s long war. For five years, U.S. policy relied on collaborating with a Kurdish-led militia both to fight the Islamic State group and to limit the influence of Iran and Russia, which support the Syrian government, with a goal of maintaining some leverage over any future settlement of the conflict.
On Sunday, after Trump abruptly abandoned that approach, U.S. leverage appeared all but gone. That threatened to give President Bashar Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers a free hand. It also jeopardized hard-won gains against Islamic State, also known as ISIS — and potentially opened the door for its return.
Syria’s deal with the Kurds paves the way for Syrian government forces to return to the country’s northeast for the first time in years to try to repel a Turkish invasion launched after the Trump administration pulled U.S. troops out of the way. The pullout has already unleashed chaos and sectarian bloodletting.
The deal with the Kurds capped a day of whipsaw developments marked by rapid advances by Turkish-backed forces and the escape of hundreds of women and children linked to Islamic State from a detention camp. And two U.S. officials said the U.S. military had failed to transfer five dozen “high value” Islamic State detainees out of the country before the troop withdrawal.
Turkish-backed forces advanced so quickly that they seized a key road that U.S. forces needed to withdraw, officials said.
The U.S. troop withdrawal has allowed President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to order an invasion aimed at uprooting the Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a key partner in U.S. efforts to fight the Islamic State. Turkey sees the militia as a security threat because of its links to a Kurdish separatist movement that has long fought the Turkish state.
The Turkish incursion has killed scores of people, and left Kurdish fighters accusing the United States of betrayal for leaving them at the Turks’ mercy. That is what led them to strike the deal with Damascus, which said Sunday that its forces were heading north to take control of two towns and to fight the “Turkish aggression.”
Turkey’s invasion upended a fragile peace in northeastern Syria and risks enabling a resurgence of Islamic State, which no longer controls territory in Syria but still has sleeper cells and supporters.
Since the Turkish incursion began Wednesday, ISIS has claimed responsibility for at least two attacks in Syria: one car bomb in the northern city of Qamishli and another on an international military base outside Hasaka, a regional capital farther to the south.
Trump has said repeatedly that the United States has taken the worst ISIS detainees out of Syria to ensure they would not escape. But in fact the U.S. military took custody of only two British detainees — half of a cell dubbed the Beatles that tortured and killed Western hostages — U.S. officials said.
As the Turkish incursion progresses and Kurdish casualties mount, the members of the Syrian Democratic Forces have grown increasingly angry at the United States. Some have cast Trump’s move as a betrayal.
The Kurds refused, the U.S. officials said, to let the American military take any more detainees from their ad hoc detention sites for captive Islamic State fighters, which range from former schoolhouses to a former Syrian government prison. Together, these facilities hold about 11,000 men, about 9,000 of them Syrians or Iraqis. About 2,000 come from 50 other nations whose governments have refused to repatriate them.
The fighting has raised concerns that jihadis detained in the battle to defeat ISIS could escape, facilitating the reconstitution of the Islamic State. Five captives escaped during a Turkish bombardment on a Kurdish-run prison in Qamishli on Friday, Kurdish officials said.
The Kurdish authorities also operate camps for families displaced by the conflict that hold tens of thousands of people, many of them wives and children of Islamic State fighters.
After a Turkish airstrike near a camp in Ain Issa on Sunday, women connected to ISIS and detained there rioted, lighting their tents on fire and tearing down fences, according to a camp administrator, Jalal al-Iyaf.
In the mayhem, more than 500 of them escaped, al-Iyaf said. The camp escape came hours before the U.S. military said it would relocate its remaining troops in northern Syria to other areas of the country in the coming weeks.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said in an interview with CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the United States found itself “likely caught between two opposing advancing armies” in northern Syria. The reference was to the possibility of an impending clash between Turkish forces and the Syrian government and its Russian allies.
The deal between the Kurdish authorities and the Assad government was announced Sunday evening, and government troops were expected to enter the city of Kobani overnight.
The Kurdish-led militia said the Syrian government had a “duty to protect the country’s borders and preserve Syrian sovereignty” and so would deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border.
Previously, Trump administration officials argued that keeping Assad’s forces out of the territory was key to stemming Iranian and Russian influence and keeping pressure on Assad.
Trump says his decision to pull U.S. troops out of the way of the Turkish advance was part of his effort to extricate the United States from “endless wars” in the Middle East and elsewhere. “The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
Trump also tried to assuage his critics, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who broke with him over the Syria decision and is promising bipartisan legislation to slap economic sanctions on Turkey. “Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump wrote. “Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought.”
But his decision has had devastating consequences for Syria’s Kurds.
They lost thousands of fighters in battles against Islamic State and sought to establish a form of autonomous rule in the lands captured from the jihadis. Now that project has collapsed, and it remains unclear what rights they will retain, if any, should they fall back under Assad’s government. On Sunday, Turkish troops and their Arab proxies made major progress on the ground, seizing the strategic border town of Tel Abyad and prompting celebrations across the border in Turkey.
On Sunday afternoon, Erdogan announced that his forces controlled nearly 70 square miles of territory in northern Syria. They have also taken control of an important highway connecting the two flanks of Kurdish-held territory, the Turkish defense ministry said. This allows Turkish troops and their proxies to block supply lines between Kurdish forces — and cut an exit route to Iraq.
It also makes it harder for U.S. troops to leave Syria by road. Since the Syrian civil war began eight years ago, northern Syria has changed hands several times as rebels, Islamists, extremists and Kurdish factions have vied with the government for control.
After joining U.S. troops to drive out the Islamic State group, the Kurdish-led militia emerged as the dominant force across the area, taking control of former ISIS territory and guarding former ISIS fighters on behalf of the United States and other international allies.
With Turkey making increasing noise in recent months about forcing the Kurdish militia away from its border, the U.S. military made contingency plans to get about five dozen of the highest-priority detainees out of Syria.
The planning began last December, when Trump first announced that he would withdraw troops from the country before his administration slowed down that plan, one official said.
U.S. Special Operations forces moved first to get the two British detainees, El Shafee Elsheikh and Alexanda Kotey, on Oct. 9, in part because there was a clear plan for them already in place: The Justice Department wants to bring them to Virginia for prosecution. They are now being held in Iraq. But as the military then sought to take custody of additional detainees, the Kurds balked, the two U.S. officials said. The Kurds’ animosity might harden now that they have aligned themselves with Assad, a U.S. foe. That, combined with the Pentagon’s withdrawal of U.S. forces, makes it even less likely the United States will be able to take any more detainees out.