Hundreds of ISIS family members and supporters escaped from a camp in northern Syria over the weekend amid a fast-moving Turkish offensive, Kurdish officials said. They said detainees attacked gates at the Ain Issa displacement camp as fighting raged nearby. The chaos came as the Trump administration announced on Sunday an imminent withdrawal of all U.S. forces from northern Syria.
CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata and his team were among a handful of people on the ground in Syria who got a heads-up about the withdrawal plans, and they had just minutes to pack their bags and get moving, because the situation on the ground was about to change, quickly and dramatically.
D'Agata said the Kurds took a pummeling over the weekend, with Turkish forces advancing faster than anyone had expected. Turkey launched an assault last week aimed at driving America's former allies in the fight against ISIS, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), from the region. The United Nations said on Sunday that 130,000 people had fled their homes in the largely Kurdish northeast region of Syria, and that the figure could rise.
SDF commanders had warned that the U.S. moving even dozens of troops out of the region could force them to turn their attention from securing a network of overcrowded prisons in the region, holding about 11,000 ISIS militants and their families, to defending their territory from the Turkish incursion.
The U.S. military is known to have transferred only two ISIS militants, a pair of British nationals accused of executing American journalists and others, into American custody. More than 2,000 other ISIS suspects held by the Kurds are considered highly dangerous terrorists, and despite assurances from the Trump administration that the U.S. would take custody of dozens of other "high value" ISIS prisoners, no more have been handed over.
Turkey has long accused the Kurdish SDF militias of being terrorists themselves — linked, Ankara says, to a Kurdish separatist movement based in southern Turkey. Turkey has said it wants to force the SDF militias out of a "safe zone" stretching almost 20 miles into Syrian territory. The Turkish government also plans to resettle more than 3 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey — many of whom are not Kurds — inside the zone, which critics say could lead to ethnic cleansing of the local Kurdish population.
President Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the area effectively triggered the Turkish incursion against the SDF, America's main allies in the six-year fight against ISIS in Syria. The Kurds lost about 11,000 of their own forces defending their territory from the ISIS advance, with U.S. help.
The Turkish forces appeared poised on Monday to push into and seize another major Kurdish-held town, with troops surrounding Manbij. Turkish officials said they had received no opposition to their plans to take the town from the U.S.
SDF joins Assad, and Russia
An independent war monitoring group based in Britain said Monday that the Turkish offensive had left at least 60 civilians dead, along with more than 200 fighters; 121 SDF militia members and 86 pro-Turkey militants.
As many opponents of the U.S. withdrawal predicted would happen, the SDF confirmed on Monday that it had struck a deal to join Syrian dictator Bashar Assad's Russian-backed forces to try and defend against the Turkish incursion.
"After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks," senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd told The Associated Press. "This is a preliminary military agreement. The political aspects were not discussed, and these will be discussed at later stages.
The dramatic shift by the Kurds, even if only a practical battlefield agreement for the time being, shows the extent to which the U.S. withdrawal left the Kurds cornered. They have spent more than six years fending off Assad's forces while also leading the U.S.-backed charge against ISIS.
The shifting alliance bolsters Russia's role as a major power broker in the conflict and in the region as one of America's longest-held and most strategically vital alliances, with the Kurds, appeared to be handed over to Vladimir Putin's allies.
U.S. troops out within a month
On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS News' "Face the Nation" that the U.S. was preparing to evacuate the roughly 1,000 American troops still in northern Syria. His remarks came amid increasing incidents of Turkish forces firing on Kurds within close proximity to U.S. troops, who risk quickly becoming trapped between the two opposing sides.
Asked about Esper's announcement on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called it, "a positive approach."
A senior U.S. official told CBS News senior national defense correspondent David Martin that Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces had already begun to move up from southern parts of Syria to take advantage of the vacuum created by the collapse of the anti-ISIS alliance and the withdrawal of American forces in the north.
The official said the intent is to bring all U.S. troops out of Syria within a month, except those based at a garrison in the country's southeast. Initially, however, the American forces were just to "hunker down in a few locations" that are deemed easier to defend.
The speed of the withdrawal from northern Syria will depend in part on how much equipment the American forces decide to leave behind. The Pentagon has plans for both a 15-day and a 30-day withdrawal, Martin said.
U.S. allies voice concerns
America's European allies, along with senior U.S. politicians from both sides of the political spectrum, have condemned President Trump's decision to pull American forces out of northern Syria to make way for the Turkish offensive.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Monday for an "immediate end" to Turkey's incursion. In a telephone call with Turkey's Erdogan, Merkel warned the operation "threatens to displace large parts of the local population, leading to destabilization in the region and to the return of the Islamic State terror militia."
In a separate statement in Paris, Merkel said the German government believed the Turkish offensive "could have grave humanitarian consequences." Her Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Germany had decided to stop approving arms exports to Turkey over fears that German weapons might be deployed in Syria. America's other NATO allies France, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Finland took similar decisions.
Turkey is a NATO member, but it stands isolated within the transatlantic alliance in its push against the Kurds in Syria.