U.S. Syria Envoy Admits 'Dozens' of ISIS Fighters Have Escaped Detention, Government Has No Idea How to Track or Recapture Them

The U.S. special representative for Syria has admitted that dozens of hardened Islamic State militants have escaped detention amid the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the northeast of the country.

James Franklin Jeffrey also told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. had no plan to track, recapture or account for those who have been able to flee detention centers in the region.

Northeastern Syria was plunged into chaos earlier this month, as Turkish forces and their proxies crossed the northern border and engaged Syrian Democratic Forces. The SDF is led by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers an extension of the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK).

The PKK has been fighting an intermittent guerilla war in Turkey since the 1980s, and is a proscribed terrorist organization in the U.S. and the European Union.

President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew U.S. forces from northeastern Syria just days before the offensive, abandoning the SDF fighters who bore the brunt of the Western-backed campaign against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS).

The Turkish offensive forced the SDF to prioritize territorial defense, redeploying forces that had been guarding prisons and camps holding some 12,000 captured ISIS fighters and as many as 70,000 civilians who had been living in ISIS-occupied areas.

Since the Turkish invasion began, hundreds of prisoners and civilians are believed to have escaped from the Kurdish camps and prisons, raising fears they could rejoin surviving ISIS cells in Syria and Iraq now waging a guerrilla campaign.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons asked Jeffrey if the government had accurate figures on how many "hardened ISIS fighters" had so far escaped Kurdish custody. Jeffrey replied that while he does not have "hard numbers," he believes "very few so far" have been able to flee. "That could change, but for the moment very few," he added.

But when pressed as to what "very few" meant, Jeffrey admitted that "dozens" of militants are believed to have escaped.

The Turkish operation has been a strategic disaster for the U.S. Its Kurdish allies have been bombarded and invaded by a NATO nation, forced to turn to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian supporters for protection. Assad has been handed swathes of territory without a shot being fired, while Russia has emerged as the prime power in the country.

As the last American soldiers in Syria rushed towards the Iraqi border on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to hammer out the endgame of the Syrian war. Washington has abdicated its seat at the table, with Trump dismissing the region as "lots of sand."

In Washington, Jeffrey told Coons the U.S. currently has no idea as to how the escaped ISIS fighters would be tracked, accounted for and/or recaptured.

He added that 10,000 more militants are believed to remain in detention and that the government was "pretty confident" they would remain so while the U.S.-brokered ceasefire between Turkey and the SDF held.

Trump—who has regularly bragged about his uncompromising approach to ISIS—earlier this month dismissed concerns that escaped ISIS fighters would continue to wage war and plan attacks in the West.

The president has consistently demanded that European countries take back their citizens who traveled to fight for ISIS' so-called caliphate. Asked whether he was concerned about fleeing fighters, Trump told reporters: "Well they're going to be escaping to Europe. That's where they want to go, they want to go back to their homes."

SDF, Kurds, US, admits ISIS, fighters, escaped
This file photo shows a Syrian Democratic Forces fighter holding a discarded Islamic State group flag in the village of Baghouz, Syria on March 24, 2019. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images/Getty