SDF uses IS prisons as tactic against Turkish operation in northern Syria

Prisoners accused of belonging to the Islamic State in the SDF-controlled areas (edited by Enab Baladi)

Prisoners accused of belonging to the Islamic State in the SDF-controlled areas (edited by Enab Baladi)


Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Since the start of talk about a Turkish military operation that may be launched at any time against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northern Syria, the latter’s statements have been repeated about the seriousness of the operation targeting areas containing prisons for Islamic State (IS) members, pointing to the danger of these elements escaping from them.

The most recent of these statements was the warning issued by the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) in the US, Bassam Saqr, in early July, about the possibility of thousands of IS members escaping from SDF prisons if Turkey carried out an attack on the region.

Saqr said, according to what was reported by the Russian Sputnik news agency, that “the Kurds fear a mass escape of (IS) terrorists from prisons in the SDF areas if Turkey decides to start the military operation in northern Syria.”

Saqr’s statements carried several indications, especially as they coincided with transfers of IS fighters during the past weeks between SDF prisons, some of which are located close to the Turkish border, according to cross-referenced information provided to Enab Baladi.

On 19 June, North Press Agency quoted Ilham Ahmed, president of the Executive Committee of the SDC, as saying that the 30-kilometer distance that Turkey is talking about controlling contains prisons and camps for IS members and their families.

Ahmed said they are, in the Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES), open to dialogue and a peaceful solution to resolve all issues internally and with neighboring countries and any other parties. She also stressed their unwillingness to fight any wars, according to the North Press Agency.

“The Turkish operation will lead to the release of all IS detainees in these areas. This will turn the region into hotbeds of terrorism targeting Russian, Iranian, European, and American security,” Ahmed added.

Transfer of IS prisoners to Turkish border?

Information has been gathered since early July about transfers of IS prisoners in SDF areas from one jail to another, but these operations were intensified near the Syrian-Turkish border.

The questions loomed about the possibility of using these prisons as a pressure card to impede a Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, especially since these prisoners are considered a justification for the American presence today in Syria, in addition to being a declared reason for US support for SDF.

According to information circulated by several local news accounts, the SDF transferred, in mid-July, more than 70 IS prisoners, including Iraqis and foreigners, from al-Kam prison in the town of Shaddadi, south of al-Hasakah, to al-Aswad prison in the Ayn al-Arab (Kobani) region, northeast of Aleppo governorate.

A security source in the SDF denied to Enab Baladi via email that the recent prisoner transfers were in response to the planned Turkish military operation.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, considered that many of the news that talked about the transfer of prisoners towards Kobani were untrue.

Enab Baladi’s reporter in al-Hasakah confirmed that many prisoner transfers took place in northeastern Syria, but no transfers towards Kobani were monitored.

Key powers dispute

Frequent statements by US officials focus on the existence of the US-led International Coalition that it leads and the war against IS. Such a reason legitimizes, in its turn, the presence of SDF in northeastern Syria as a local co-partner in the fight against the Islamic State from 2016 until today.

These statements were repeated after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s demands for the US to withdraw its forces from northeastern Syria. A demand which was reached by those gathered in Astana talks (Russia, Iran, and Turkey). Erdogan stressed that this is what Turkey is waiting for.

Turkey, backed by the Syrian National Army (SNA), is waiting for the opportunity to launch its ground military operation against the US-backed SDF, which is classified on its “terror” lists as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, reiterated that his country is determined to support the SDF as a partner in fighting IS, pointing out that the Kurds constitute an important part of the International Coalition against it and have previously contributed to achieving gains on the ground.

On the other hand, Price linked the fight against the Islamic State to Ankara’s participation as well, saying that his country “has common goals in Syria with our Turkish partners, and one of these main goals is the elimination of IS and extremist elements inside Syria, and we do not want to jeopardize this endeavor.”

During a seminar held by the Harmoon Center For Contemporary Studies, titled “The Repercussions of the Turkish Military Operation in Syria,” the former Chief of Staff of the Naval Forces Command, Cihat Yayci, said that the US presence in northeastern Syria is limited to the economic and political dimensions, contrary to what America is promoting. 

Yayci pointed out that the SDF is backed by the Americans in northeastern Syria, but it is backed by the Russians in the west, which leaves many questions, the first of which is why America left Manbij and to whom.

This contradicts the American narrative about fighting IS, as General Yayci believes that America has been working over the past years to establish an area for the SDF extending from the Iraqi border to the Mediterranean to “secure a corridor for gas pipelines between Iraq and Europe.”

This is what Turkey calls today the “terror corridor,” which was mentioned many times by Turkish officials.

Prisons danger

Experts believe that the SDF, through its control of prisons containing jihadists and ex-IS fighters, is dangerous because it may be used in political operations and settlements, while the SDF believes that the dangers of these prisons lie in the event that Turkey launches a military operation that may lead to the escape of prisoners.

Therefore, the risk ratio of these prisons varies between the opinions of analysts and the parties to the conflict in the region, depending on their different interests in the presence of these prisons.

Military researcher and expert Colonel Abdullah al-Asaad believes that SDF prisons have previously used them as a card to “displace the residents of Ghweran Neighborhood in al-Hasakah city from their homes, following clashes in Ghweran prison between SDF and cells of the Islamic State.

On 19 January, the Ghweran neighborhood witnessed military confrontations between cells of the Islamic State that infiltrated the vicinity of Ghweran prison, which is one of the largest prisons that includes members and leaders of IS who were arrested by the International Coalition Forces in Syria during their military operations between 2017 and 2022.

Al-Assaad explained, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that in view of the parties supporting the SDF against Turkey in the region, the tens of thousands of IS members, who are deployed in these prisons, will have no effect, pointing out that the countries that reject the Turkish operation (America and Russia) will not accept the use of IS fighters against Turkey.

Also, IS fighters in general (outside prisons) are small groups that rely on guerrilla warfare, ambushes, and attacks with light and individual weapons, and it is not possible to play an influential role in this type of war.

In regard to the US position on abandoning IS fighters and its threat, the Acting Coordinator of the US Department of State for Counter-Terrorism, Timothy Betts, stated on 14 July that leaving IS fighters and their family members in northeastern Syria is not a viable option.

There is a risk that these individuals will migrate from conflict to conflict in a way that creates new strife and instability elsewhere, threatens public security, and poses a threat to the lives of civilians, Betts added.

There are approximately 4,000 to 5,000 non-Syrian fighters held in the area, with tens of thousands of their family members in displacement camps, according to the US official.


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