Syrian National Army fighters wave Turkish and Syrian revolutionary flags during "Peace Spring" (Twitter account of Raed.sy affiliated with the rebels fighting under Syrian aegis, October 14, 2019).
Turkish President Erdogan holds a map of the planned "safe zone" in norther Syria during a speech at the UN General Assembly, September 24, 2019 (al-Andalou News, October 9, 2019).
The Ayn Issa DP camp goes up in flames after operatives from a rebel organization supported by the Turks, i.e., the Syrian National Army, set fire to is (ANHA, October 16, 2019).
On October 9, 2019, the Turkish army launched a broad military operation in northeastern Syria (called “Peace Spring”). Its stated objective is to establish a “safe zone” in Syria, 18-22 miles deep by 250 miles wide from the Euphrates River to the Syria-Iraq border. The Turks intend to use the zone to transfer Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey back to Syria, in ITIC assessment to replace the Kurdish population. Beyond its stated intentions the operation is also aimed at weakening Kurdish military power (the SDF fighters), which played a central role in the American-led campaign against ISIS, and at weakening their self-ruling administration. The underlying objective is to undermine the Kurds’ separatist aspirations in general and in eastern Turkey in particular. The Turkish invasion and the removal of the American forces are regarded by the Kurds as American abandonment and betrayal.
The Turkish invasion of Syria (as of October 21, 2019): The “safe zone” Turkey wants to establish in Syria is in orange; blue represents the area conquered so far by the Turkish army and the rebel organizations it sponsors; yellow indicates Kurdish control; red indicates the area controlled by the Syrian army; green indicates the area under the control of the rebel organizations (supported by Turkey); the circular Syrian flags indicate Syrian army positions and forces (Step (Khutwa), October 15, 2019).
- The Turkish invasion of Syria was preceded by a phone call between Trump and Erdogan (October 6, 2019). In ITIC assessment, the discussion was interpreted by the Turks as an American green light for the military operation. However, Trump claimed he had not supported the Turkish move and even imposed (ineffective) economic sanctions on Turkey. In any event, after the phone call the White House issued a statement to the effect that “The United States Armed Forces will not support or be involved in the operation, and United States forces, having defeated the Isis territorial ‘Caliphate’, will no longer be in the immediate area.” After the Turkish invasion the American secretary of defense confirmed that the United States was pulling 1,000 troops out of northern Syria to keep them from being trapped between the rival sides. He said the troops would be deployed west to Iraq, where they would join the 5,000 American troops training Iraqi forces and supporting them in the campaign against ISIS (Reuters, October 20, 2019).
- During the first days of the invasion the Turkish army took control of the center of the “safe zone,” from Tel Abyad in the west to Ras al-Ayn in the east. On October 17, 2019, after the American vice president met with the Turkish president, an agreement was reached for a five-day suspension of the operation to allow the Kurds to extract their forces from the “safe zone.” Generally, despite sporadic clashes between the Kurds and the Turkish army, the suspension was preserved. It enabled the SDF to extract most of its forces from the “safe zone” but clearly served Turkey’s interests. It made it easier for Turkey to attain its stated operative objective of establishing a “safe zone” to the south of its Syrian border with a minimum of losses and within a short period of time. However, the suspension is also de facto American recognition of the “safe zone” and of Turkey’s interests in the area controlled by the Kurds.
- The dramatic developments weaken the SDF and its ability to continue to play the central role in fighting ISIS it has played so far – not only because of the blow to SDF morale, but because the Kurds lost American political support against Turkey, which had enabled it to turn most of its force and attention to fighting ISIS. In such circumstances ISIS, which has already proved its ability to change its modus operandi and adapt itself to new situations on the ground, can be expected to increase its terrorist and guerrilla attacks in eastern and northern Syria. However, in ITIC assessment, in the short term ISIS will not exploit the new situation to reestablish the Islamic State with territorial borders and control over the population.
- In ITIC assessment, ISIS’s first priority will be to increase the scope of its mass-casualty attacks in territories under Kurdish control east of the Euphrates and the Euphrates Valley. The area in question is mainly in the Deir al-Zor-al-Mayadeen-Albukamal region in the Euphrates Valley, the al-Raqqa region and deep in the region under Kurdish control (the al-Hasakeh area). A priority target of ISIS’s attacks is expected to be the Kurdish-held internment facilities where more than 10,000 ISIS operatives are imprisoned (see below). Other targets may be the Syrian army forces in the Euphrates Valley, the desert regions west of the Euphrates and the area around Manbij, where Syrian forces entered after the Turkish invasion, apparently in coordination with the SDF forces and the Kurdish leadership.
- At this stage it is unclear if the United States will end or limit its aerial support for the SDF, which has made an important contribution to the campaign against ISIS. If the United States does end or limit its aerial support, ISIS will be able to operate it forces more easily in the Euphrates Valley and desert regions in eastern Syria. That may mean more attacks on the Syrian army and the forces supporting it in the Palmyra-Sukhna area and the regions around Deir al-Zor and Albukamal. ISIS operatives would also be able to carry out raids from the desert west of the Euphrates towards regions under Kurdish control and to cross the long Syria-Iraq border more easily, moving their attacks from country to country.
- The Turkish invasion raised the issue of ISIS operatives and their families held captive by the SDF. The United States estimates that there are more than 10,000 operatives from dozens of countries, including the West, and more than 70,000 ISIS wives and children. ISIS operatives are held in Kurdish internment facilities and their families are held in displaced persons (DP) camps, the most important of which is the al-Houl camp. Kurdish oversight of the camps is weak, living conditions are poor, and the camps are breeding grounds for radical jihadist ideologies. Keeping the ISIS operatives and their families in the facilities and camps causes a wide variety of logistic, political and legal problems. In addition the SDF forces have difficulty in guarding the captives and their families effectively, since the main part of their fighting force and attention are currently drawn to the north to the “safe zone” Turkey is establishing.
- In ITIC assessment so far no more than several score of ISIS operatives have escaped from the SDF internment facilities. According to (as yet unverified) reports from Kurdish sources, hundreds of “ISIS wives” escaped from the Ayn Issa DP camp (located about 21 miles south of the Syria-Turkey border). Some of them were recaptured by SDF forces. A few were freed by ISIS. In ITIC assessment, the ISIS wives and operatives were not deliberately released by the Turkish army or the SDF, but rather escaped from locations near combat areas. However, in the future, because of the Turkish invasion and the turning of Kurdish resources to the north, guarding the internment facilities and DP camps is liable to become weaker, prompting ISIS to initiate operations for the mass release of prisoners.
In all probability, the longer the campaign continues and the weaker the Kurdish forces become, the more difficult it will be for the Kurds to continue holding such a large mass of ISIS operatives. The release of a significant number of operatives will reinforce ISIS’s forces in Syria and Iraq with thousands of skilled, experienced, motivated radical jihadist operatives, a genuine potential threat that will increase ISIS’s strength.
- This report contains the following sections:
- The Turkish invasion of Syria – the situation on the ground
- The Turkish invasion and its objectives
- The Trump-Erdogan phone conversation that preceded the invasion (October 6, 2019).
- The removal of the American troops from Syria
- The Turkish suspension of the operation following the American-Turkish agreement
- The influence of the Turkish invasion and the removal of the American troops on ISIS’s activity
- Assessment of ISIS’s modus operandi
- The ISIS prisoners in the hands of the Kurdish forces
- Estimated number of captives and their families, and the problems in holding them
- Propaganda war around ISIS’s captives following the Turkish invasion
- Escape of ISIS wives from the Ayn Issa displaced persons camp
- ISIS’s response on the ground and in the media