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Pulling US troops out of Syria could lead to thousands of ISIS fighters escaping from jail, Syrian official warns
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
A long awaited Turkish operation to push back against Kurdish militias, once aligned with the US in the fight against ISIS, from its border with Syria threatens to destabilize a fragile region, and raises fears that thousands of captured ISIS fighters could escape Kurdish-run jails amid the confusion.
On Sunday night, the White House announced that it would withdraw US troops based along the Turkish-Syrian border, where they were advising the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their years along fight against ISIS.
By Monday at least 150 US special operations troops in three key outposts near the Turkish border had already started to withdraw towards a US military base in northern Iraq, SDF officials and local residents told Business Insider.
The withdrawal is set to allow Turkish troops to push into northern Syria and launch an offensive against the SDF, which has links with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK in Kurdish. The PKK is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and EU.
SDF commanders immediately accused the US of betraying its long time ally. The SDF was the main ground force in the fight against ISIS in Syria, and has had thousands of fighters killed in the conflict.
After more than a month of negotiating with Ankara over how to push the Kurdish fighters back from the border with Syria, and establish a "safe zone" that could potentially house more than three million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the White House Sunday night appeared to wash its hands of the conflict ordering its troops to stand down operations.
Concerns over a US withdrawal of troops and the abandonment of critical allies last December led then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis to resign, along with other key figures in the anti-ISIS coalition.
On Monday, the SDF directly accused the US of failing to keep its promise to protect its allies from a Turkish offensive.
The force said it had met all its commitments under an earlier plan to avoid the apparently impending conflict.
Despite all the efforts we did to avoid conflict, our commitment to the security mechanism agreement and taking necessary steps on our end, the US forces did not carry out their responsibilities and have withdrawn from border areas with Turkey," the SDF said in a statement.
"Turkey's unprovoked attack on our areas will have a negative impact on our fight against ISIS and the stability and peace we have created in the region in the recent years. As the Syrian Democratic Forces, we are determined to defend our land at all costs."
A SDF military official at a base outside Kobani, a Syrian border city, told Business Insider that Turkish military preparations for a border inclusion were underway in plain sight of Kurdish defenses.
This has led to an organization-wide mobilization to protect the largest autonomous enclave outside of Syrian government control, the official said.
"All of our fighters and units are under orders to prepare to protect Rojava [the Kurdish name for the region south of the border]," said the official, who spoke anonymously because he does not have authorization to speak directly to the press.
ISIS could seize on the confusion to free thousands of imprisoned fighters
This mobilization, said the official, means that SDF-run prisons holding thousands of captured ISIS fighters would soon be understaffed.
"We have been housing 2,000 [captured] foreign fighters from Daesh as well as thousands more Iraqi and Syrian terrorists and this prisons will not be as secure if we are fighting the Turkish military," the official said.
"We are not threatening to release these criminals, but it's not realistic to ask us to both fight the Turks and house all of the west's ISIS members."
While the White House statement said an agreement had been reached that Turkey would take control of the prisoners, comments Monday by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were much less certain.
"There are ISIS prisoners from France, Germany, other countries. They say: 'We don't want to have control over them,'" Erdogan said in televised remarks.
"We can't look after them. What can be done about this? They are going to work on that and I instructed our colleagues to work on that too," he added.
Mass jailbreaks of captured fighters is a long time favorite tactic by ISIS and its predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq.
In 2014, an ISIS campaign led to fighters being broken out of prisons in Iraq's Anbar Province, as well as in Mosul. In that campaign, at least three prisons were hit in the six months that bolstered the groups with thousands of previously detained fighters.
The White House statement giving the Turks the green light to enter northeastern Syria included a vague reference to Turkey taking responsibility for all captured ISIS fighters held in the Kurdish controlled areas, but the SDF said there have been no discussions on how this handover of control would work.
"The Americans have only added confusion to a very dangerous situation," said the official.
There are substantial and grounded fears that ISIS could repeat its jailbreaking tactics in the confusion of a Turkish invasion.
Kurdish troops guard more than a dozen facilities, including the al Hol camp in southern Syria where about 70,000 ISIS family members are currently held.
While al Hol is far from the disputed border, the SDF official told Business Insider that the already overstretched camp — which has been the scene of repeated security violations amid fears that ISIS members have taken control of daily life inside the facility — would be nearly impossible to properly fund and secure during a Turkish military offensive.
"We cannot do both and we will always pick protecting our people first," said the SDF official.
More from Business Insider:
- The Afghanistan war has lasted for 18 years. Here's 1 image from every year of America's longest war.
- These are the only 5 combat jumps by US troops that we know about since September 11
- Lindsey Graham says Congress will call for Turkey to be suspended from NATO and hit it with sanctions if it attacks Kurds
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She's photographed every major war of the last 20 years. Marine Corps boot camp was something else entirely
Conflict photographer Lynsey Addario has seen a hell of a lot of combat over the past twenty years. She patrolled Afghanistan's Helmand Province with the Marines, accompanied the Army on night raids in Baghdad, took artillery fire with rebel fighters in Libya, and has taken photos in countless other wars and humanitarian disasters around the world.
Along the way, Addario captured images of plenty of women serving with pride in uniform, not only in the U.S. armed forces, but also on the battlefields of Syria, Colombia, South Sudan and Israel. Her photographs are the subject of a new article in the November 2019 special issue of National Geographic, "Women: A Century of Change," the magazine's first-ever edition written and photographed exclusively by women.
The photos showcase the wide range of goals and ideals for which these women took up arms. Addario's work includes captivating vignettes of a seasoned guerrilla fighter in the jungles of Colombia; a team of Israeli military police patrolling the streets of Jerusalem; and a unit of Kurdish women guarding ISIS refugees in Syria. Some fight to prove themselves, others seek to ignite social change in their home country, and others do it to liberate other women from the grip of ISIS.
Addario visited several active war zones for the piece, but she found herself shaken by something much closer to home: the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island, South Carolina.
Addario discussed her visit to boot camp and her other travels in an interview with Task & Purpose, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
My brother earned the Medal of Honor for saving countless lives — but only after he was left for dead
"As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night."
Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.
Air Force Master Sgt. John "Chappy" Chapman is my brother. As one of an elite group, Air Force Combat Control — the deadliest and most badass band of brothers to walk a battlefield — John gave his life on March 4, 2002 for brothers he never knew.
They were the brave men who comprised a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) that had been called in to rescue the SEAL Team 6 team (Mako-30) with whom he had been embedded, which left him behind on Takur Ghar, a desolate mountain in Afghanistan that topped out at over 10,000 feet.
As I learned while researching a book about John, the SEAL ground commander, Cmdr. Tim Szymanski, had stupidly and with great hubris insisted on insertion being that night. After many delays, the mission should and could have been pushed one day, but Szymanski ordered the team to proceed as planned, and Britt "Slab" Slabinski, John's team leader, fell into step after another SEAL team refused the mission.
But the "plan" went even more south when they made the rookie move to insert directly atop the mountain — right into the hands of the bad guys they knew were there.
Federal court judge Reggie Walton in Washington D.C. has ruled Hoda Muthana, a young woman who left her family in Hoover, Alabama, to join ISIS, is not a U.S. citizen, her attorneys told AL.com Thursday.
The ruling means the government does not recognize her a citizen of the United States, even though she was born in the U.S.
MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. -- The Marine Corps could train as many as eight co-ed companies at boot camp each year, and the general overseeing the effort is hitting back against those complaining that the move is lowering training standards.
"Get over it," Maj. Gen. William Mullen, the head of Training and Education Command told Military.com on Thursday. "We're still making Marines like we used to. That has not changed."
Mullen, a career infantry officer who has led troops in combat — including in Fallujah, Iraq — said Marines have likely been complaining about falling standards since 1775.
"I'm assuming that the second Marine walking into Tun Tavern was like 'You know ... our standards have gone down. They're just not the same as it they used to be,'" Mullen said, referring to the service's famous birthplace. "That has always been going on in the history of the Marine Corps."