Get Task & Purpose in your inbox
Turkey says it can fight ISIS. Its record says otherwise
AMMAN, Jordan — Foreign recruits of ISIS, eager to migrate to the territory the militant group had carved out in Iraq and Syria, would prepare their staples — a phone, a solar charger, a few garments — before buying round-trip plane tickets (the better to avoid suspicion).
Their destination? Almost always Turkey.
Once having landed there, they continued on to towns dotting the 566-mile border Turkey shares with Syria, crossing over for a new life among those who shared their fanatical vision.
It was just one of the ways that Turkey was the conduit for all things extremist. Turkey was where ISIS acquired food and other essentials, found medical treatment for injured fighters, and even got the fertilizer needed to make car bombs.
As Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies now march deeper into northeast Syria to battle Kurdish fighters who long served as the United States' surrogate fighting force against ISIS, many fear a resurgent extremist threat that Turkey will be unable to contain. The disruption could give ISIS's dormant army, comprising sleeper cells and tens of thousands of fighters and their families in Kurdish-held detention centers, the chance to reinvigorate its insurgency and use Turkey as a launchpad for attacks in Europe or as far off as America.
Turkey began its cross-border assault Wednesday, after President Trump gave his implicit blessing by ordering the pullout of U.S. troops from the area. The objective, Turkey says, is to seize control of a 20-mile corridor of territory along Syria's northern border and make it a safe zone that would house some 3.6 million Syrian refugees.
But Ankara is also moving to excise what it calls Kurdish terrorists of the People's Protection Units (or YPG), which it sees as the Syrian offshoot of a banned Kurdish separatist group it fights at home, but which had become the U.S.' top Syrian partner against ISIS.
Facing a full-blown invasion, Kurdish authorities say they can no longer spare the manpower for counterterrorism work.
And there are already signs ISIS's sleeper cells are benefiting from the distraction, even in places far from the front lines.
On Friday, the group claimed responsibility for planting a car bomb in the Kurdish-controlled city of Qamishli, 65 miles east of ground fighting in the border town of Ras Al-Ain. A day later, Kurdish authorities said another car bomb blew up near an ISIS prison in the northern city of Hassakeh. And on Sunday, hundreds of ISIS family members escaped from a detention camp managed by Syrian Kurdish forces who were under attack by Turkish airstrikes and rocket fire.
Also in play is the fate of ISIS detainees held in Kurdish-run prisons and camps, numbering an estimated 11,000-12,500 fighters and more than 60,000 family members. In the chaos, almost 800 of them escaped Sunday from a camp near the Kurdish-run city of Ain Aissa during an air barrage by Turkish forces. It followed a similar incident a day earlier, when five fighters escaped in Qamishli and others attempted to do so at another detention camp, Kurdish authorities said.
Turkish officials have done little to allay fears of an ISIS resurgence beyond platitudes that they will monitor the prisoners in the area they intend to control. But it's hard to expect the Kurds to cooperate in handing over ISIS prisoners to their rebel and Turkish adversaries. Besides, some 50% of the interred extremists, Kurdish authorities say, are held in territory beyond the offensive's stated limit. Also far afield is Dair Al-zor, the eastern Syrian desert province where ISIS remnants remain active.
At the heart of the matter is Turkey's priorities versus those of the U.S. and its allies, said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute: most of the latter view ISIS, as a top threat.
"For Turkey it's the YPG first and ISIS maybe second," he said in a phone interview Saturday. "Turkey will achieve its military objectives, but those objectives don't actually include much about ISIS."
Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank, agreed.
"The fact of the matter is that Turkey has never considered countering ISIS to be of utmost importance to its national security or its interests in Syria," Heras said.
That attitude was especially clear in the early days of the Syrian civil war.
In 2011, the government's crackdown on primarily peaceful protesters set off an armed rebellion in which Islamist and extremist groups — including ISIS's precursor — became dominant. These groups framed the war as a holy battle; Turkey, headed by a government with Islamist leanings, sought to empower the rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Turkey gave them carte blanche to traverse its border with Syria.
The move made southern Turkish towns staging grounds for the opposition. Would-be jihadis from across the globe showed up in Turkey's airports, many of them bearded men dressed in military-style fatigues and backpacks, determined to join the fight across the border. They would also frequently head back to Turkey for supplies.
Even though an estimated 40,000 foreign fighters crossed into Syria, along with weapons and explosives, Brett McGurk, Trump's former anti-ISIS envoy, said in a post on Twitter on Wednesday, "Turkey refused repeated and detailed requests to seal its side of the border with U.S. help and assistance."
Turkey had also refused to allow U.S. warplanes stationed at Incirlik Air Base to strike ISIS positions, even as extremists poured into Syria.
It was only in July 2015, after the first ISIS suicide attack on Turkish soil, that Ankara sealed the border. Even then, it did so more to block the Kurdish fighters who had begun working with the U.S. against ISIS.
In a conference with reporters on Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey had blocked 70,000 people and deported some 70,000 suspected of terrorist links from entering the country.
Turkey's partners, the self-styled Syrian National Army, are made up of opposition factions that have seeded their ranks with former members of extremist groups, said Heras.
The U.S. turned to the Kurds, said McGurk, in large part because many rebel factions were reluctant to combat ISIS, whether because they were sympathetic to the jihadists' aims or wanted to focus on defeating Assad.
When blitzing through Kurdish-controlled areas in the past, rebel factions have engaged in widespread looting, human rights abuses and displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, who they see as atheists and separatists, rights groups say.
On Saturday, video emerged that appeared to show Turkish-backed Syrian rebels summarily executing a Kurdish fighter they had stopped on a road in northeast Syria. They also massacred nine Kurdish civilians, activists said. (The uproar following the atrocities prompted the Syrian National Army's command to issue a statement on Saturday urging its cadres "not to take vengeance" or engage in looting against the Kurdish population.)
"That kind of environment, said Heras, primes the pump for an ISIS comeback. "And there's no guarantee these Syrian rebel proxies would have any interest in combating [its] re-emergence."
©2019 the Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
'What happens after that is out of their control' — Former military leaders and lawyers react to Trump's war crimes pardons
On Friday, President Donald Trump intervened in the cases of three U.S. service members accused of war crimes, granting pardons to two Army soldiers accused of murder in Afghanistan and restoring the rank of a Navy SEAL found guilty of wrongdoing in Iraq.
While the statements coming out of the Pentagon regarding Trump's actions have been understandably measured, comments from former military leaders and other knowledgable veterans help paint a picture as to why the president's Friday actions are so controversial.
Raccoon infestations and extreme rust didn’t stop an anonymous buyer from nabbing this Soviet-era submarine
A former Soviet submarine that became a tourist attraction docked adjacent to the Queen Mary in Long Beach is expected to be sold soon to an anonymous buyer, with plans to remove the rusting sub by mid-May.
The 48-year-old Russian Foxtrot-class submarine, known as the Scorpion, had hosted paying visitors for 17 years before it fell into such disrepair that it became infested with raccoons and was closed to the public in 2015.
Former Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, whom President Donald Trump recently pardoned of his 2013 murder conviction, claims he was nothing more than a pawn whom generals sacrificed for political expediency.
The infantry officer had been sentenced to 19 years in prison for ordering his soldiers to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men in 2012. Two of the men were killed.
During a Monday interview on Fox & Friends, Lorance accused his superiors of betraying him.
"A service member who knows that their commanders love them will go to the gates of hell for their country and knock them down," Lorance said. "I think that's extremely important. Anybody who is not part of the senior Pentagon brass will tell you the same thing."
"I think folks that start putting stars on their collar — anybody that has got to be confirmed by the Senate for a promotion — they are no longer a soldier, they are a politician," he continued. "And so I think they lose some of their values — and they certainly lose a lot of their respect from their subordinates — when they do what they did to me, which was throw me under the bus."
Fifteen years after the U.S. military toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Army's massive two-volume study of the Iraq War closed with a sobering assessment of the campaign's outcome: With nearly 3,500 U.S. service members killed in action and trillions of dollars spent, "an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor.
Thanks to roughly 700 pages of newly-publicized secret Iranian intelligence cables, we now have a good idea as to why.
A U.S. Air Force combat controller will receive the nation's third highest award for valor this week for playing an essential role in two intense firefight missions against the Taliban in Afghanistan last year.
Tech. Sgt. Cody Smith, an airman with the 26th Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing at Air Force Special Operations Command, will receive the Silver Star at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico on Nov. 22, the service announced Monday.