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 Kurds wide open to attack from Turkey.
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 U.S. troops on the ground were unable to travel on the ground without a “high risk” of confrontation with Turkey-backed forces.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS’ “Face the Nation” that the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria are not leaving the country entirely but are trying to avoid becoming embroiled in the conflict.
“In the last 24 hours, we learned that they (the Turks) likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned — and to the west,” he added.
The danger to American forces was shown 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.”
The president’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 since has raised fears it will allow the battered Islamic State to make a comeback and sow terror at will.
The heavy fighting Sunday reached the displaced-persons camp in Ein Eissa, some 20 miles south of the border, which 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.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Turkish warplanes struck villages near the camp, and camp residents fled amid clashes between the two sides. The organization did not provide an exact number.
Jelal Ayaf, a senior official at the camp, told local media that 859 people escaped 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.”
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces were a key U.S. ally in the war against the Islamic State and drove the extremists from most of the territory they once held in northeastern Syria. The force swept up thousands of Islamic State fighters and their family members in the campaign and has warned it may not be able to maintain its various detention centers as it struggles to repel the Turkish advance.
NATO member Turkey views the Kurdish fighters as terrorists because of their links to the insurgency inside Turkey, and it has vowed to carve out a “safe zone” along the border. It launched the operation last week after Trump moved U.S. forces aside, saying he was committed to getting out of America’s “endless” wars.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday ruled out any mediation in the dispute, saying Turkey won’t negotiate with “terrorists.”
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’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.
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, including two in northwest Syria, along with 16 allied Syrian fighters.