Donald Trump's Syria Withdrawal Could Help ISIS Stage Mass Prison Breaks, Experts Say

President Donald Trump's abandonment of Kurdish forces in northern Syria offers the beleaguered Islamic State militant group (ISIS) a golden chance to regroup, experts have warned, and even to bolster its ranks with fighters currently held in Kurdish jails.

Trump announced Sunday that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from the Syrian-Turkish border region, currently held by Kurdish authorities who liberated the area from ISIS. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been itching to invade the area and clear out Kurdish militias he considers terrorist groups and enemies of Ankara.

The presence of U.S. troops has prevented a Turkish assault. But following a phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan, it was announced that American soldiers would leave the area, green-lighting a new Turkish operation.

A White House statement also explained that Turkey would now take responsibility for some 12,000 ISIS prisoners currently held in Kurdish prisons in Turkey's proposed area of operations and further afield.

"The United States Government has pressed France, Germany, and other European nations, from which many captured ISIS fighters came, to take them back, but they did not want them and refused," the statement read. "The United States will not hold them for what could be many years and great cost to the United States taxpayer.

"Turkey will now be responsible for all ISIS fighters in the area captured over the past two years," the statement added.

Turkey has proposed a 19-mile "safe zone" buffer from its border, stretching south into Kurdish-held territory. There are several detention centers in this area, as well as larger ones beyond.

Kurdish officials have regularly warned that ISIS fighters are planning prison break operations, while the group's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has urged followers to target jails and detention centers in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS has not been defeated, despite Trump's repeated erroneous statements claiming otherwise. Though weak, scattered and deprived of any contiguous "caliphate," thousands of fighters remain active in Iraq, Syria and further afield. A new Turkish front against the Kurds will ease the pressure on ISIS and could see the group recover its potency.

The looming Turkish offensive will weaken Kurdish forces and sow chaos that could be exploited by the prisoners and local ISIS cells, both in the immediate area of operations and other Kurdish-held territory.

As historian and academic Shiraz Maher explained on Twitter, "Trump may actually be on the cusp of creating on the worst national security crises of our time by—albeit inadvertently—fuelling the very circumstances in which all these ISIS prisoners escape. It's absolutely astonishing."

Brett McGurk, who served as the special presidential envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition until he resigned over Trump's Syria strategy in December 2018, warned that Turkey is unable and unwilling to take on responsibility for the largest detention centers in the area.

"Turkey has neither the intent, desire, nor capacity to manage 60k detainees in al Hol camp, which State and DoD IGs warn is the nucleus for a resurgent ISIS," McGurk said. "Believing otherwise is a reckless gamble with our national security."

Kurdish authorities are already struggling to control the camp, and a Turkish invasion to the north would only further deplete Kurdish resources and exacerbate bad conditions within al-Hol.

Abdullah Bozkurt, the director of the Nordic Research and Monitoring Network and author of "Turkey Interrupted: Derailing Democracy," told Newsweek that ISIS prison breaks are "a real possibility."

He noted there is a lot of uncertainty about Turkey's assumption of responsibility for ISIS detainees still held by the Kurds. "We don't know how the process is going to work," he explained, noting that "a lot of jurisdictional issues are going to come up."

Bozkurt also warned that Erdogan's track record on battling militant Islamism in Turkey suggests he might go easy on the ISIS detainees, and possibly even try to use them for his own ends.

Bozkurt said this possibility "terrifies me." He described Turkey's counter-extremism strategy as a "revolving door policy" in which ISIS and other jihadist groups were tolerated and even encouraged by the Turkish government, courts and intelligence services.

"If they need it, for example, they move them back to Turkey to get treatment, sometimes to get supplies as well," Bozkurt explained. "Now [Erdogan] wants to take over their control." For this reason, Bozkurt added he had little trust that Erdogan would hold ISIS fighters to account.

Indeed, the president might even see these ISIS fighters and other jihadists as resources, using them to "hammer down any opposition in the region," Bozkurt suggested.

Erdogan has already used the threat of millions of Syrian refugees on the edges of Europe to secure huge sums of cash from the European Union. Bozkurt said he might use the same play book but with thousands of ISIS fighters.

"Erdogan is very clever animal," he said. "He's exploiting the situation."

While Trump might think he has dealt with the ISIS prisoner issue, Bozkurt warned that this is only a short-term fix. He noted that several of those who launched jihadist attacks in Europe had links to Turkey, asking, "Who's going to guarantee that that's not going to happen in the future?"

"It may—in the short run—seem to be working for the advantage of the Americans and the Europeans," he warned. "But in the long run, I think the price is going to be higher."

But Trump appears unmoved by the warnings from both his critics and his allies. He launched a Twitter tirade defending his actions on Monday, declaring, "The Kurds fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so."

He continued, "Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out, and what they want to do with the captured ISIS fighters in their 'neighborhood.' They all hate ISIS, have been enemies for years. We are 7,000 miles away and will crush ISIS again if they come anywhere near us!"

Syria, Turkey, US, Donald Trump, ISIS, prisons
Syrian Kurds gather around a U.S. armoured vehicle during a demonstration against Turkish threats next to a base for the U.S.-led international coalition on the outskirts of Ras al-Ain town in Syria's Hasakeh province near the Turkish border on October 6, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images/Getty