Turkey is outraged over a purported pact between US-backed forces in Syria that may have allowed hundreds of Islamic State fighters to leave the city of Raqqa, with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warning that Turkish citizens and others are now in danger of attacks by the jihadis.
The BBC reported this week that the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) negotiated a secret deal to let hundreds of IS fighters leave their former capital last month, with the apparent blessing of US and British coalition members. Local truck drivers were hired to evacuate the fighters and their families, who have now spread through Syria, with some even crossing the border into Turkey, according to the BBC.
“These Daesh members who left there, freed with their weapons, will be the cause of the murder of who knows how many innocent people primarily in Turkey and in Europe, America and all around the word,” Yildirim told his party in parliament on Tuesday, using the Arabic term for the Islamic State.
Turkey has long warned the United States against cooperating with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which dominates the SDF, over its links with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), inscribed on US, European Union and Turkish terror lists for its three-decade insurgency in Turkey that has killed 40,000 people, mainly Kurds.
But Washington has opted since 2014 to work with the secular, Western-oriented YPG, the most capable Syrian faction in the fight against IS, and earlier this year provided the force with heavy weaponry.
The US decision soured relations with its NATO partner Turkey, rankled over the success of the YPG and its political wing, the People’s Democratic Party (PYD), in carving out an autonomous region in northern Syria after the war that broke out in 2011 ravaged the country. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly warned that Turkey could invade Syria to thwart the YPG’s territorial gains.
“What did we tell the United States? ‘No state should work with one terrorist organization to do away with another terrorist organization.’ It is astonishing,” Yildirim said.
IS seized Raqqa in 2013, imposing its strict interpretation of Islam on all residents and using it as staging ground for attacks abroad. In 2015-16, Turkey was hit with a string of bombings blamed on IS that killed hundreds of people and decimated the country’s tourism industry.
The jihadi group lost much of its territory across Syria and Iraq this year, and the SDF declared victory in Raqqa in October after a four-month battle that laid waste to the city. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 1,172 Syrian civilians including nearly 500 women and children were killed in the battle for Raqqa.
Doctors Without Borders said on Wednesday it was “impossible” to know how many civilians were in the city during the siege and how many were killed or wounded. “Nobody cared about the civilians. In the name of a ‘just war’ waged against IS, the coalition — benefiting from unanimous support — inflicted a deluge of fire on the city,” said Natalie Roberts, head of emergency operations for the international humanitarian group.
The agreement, which was previously reported in part by other outlets last month, was an effort in the final days of the siege to avoid more civilian deaths in Raqqa, eastern Syria’s biggest city with a pre-war population of about 300,000 people. Defenders of the deal took to Twitter to say it also saved SDF lives and that coalition forces could have otherwise been forced to “execute” IS fighters, a war crime.
Spokesmen for the US-led coalition fighting IS were quoted as saying 4,000 people, including a potential 300 IS fighters, left Raqqa under the deal, which was agreed between the Raqqa Civil Council, the SDF and local tribal elders, and that they were unaware that evacuees took weapons with them, as the BBC reported.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry expressed “regret” that the US Department of Defense “respected” the agreement. “The evacuation of a large number of Daesh terrorists from Raqqa, through an agreement with the terrorist organization PKK’s Syrian extension, the PYD/YPG … is a grave development,” the ministry said in an emailed statement.
“As we have emphasized on every occasion, the PYD/YPG’s aim is not to fight Daesh but to create a fait accompli, occupy territory and change the demographic structure there. The agreement is another example of the reality that when one terrorist organization fights another terrorist organization, these terrorist organizations will eventually cooperate,” it said.
Since last month, Turkish police have revived operations against suspected IS cells in Turkey, detaining 100 people in one day of raids alone. In the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, two police officers and seven militants were killed in an operation Oct. 26.
It was not clear whether the uptick in arrests is connected in any way with the IS exodus from Raqqa. In past years, Turkey has faced criticism for not doing enough to crack down on IS out of concern that PKK-affiliated Kurds in Syria pose a greater threat.