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Camp holding IS suspects under threat if Turkey begins Syria offensive: Kurdish official

Turkish spokesman blasts YPG for warning militia could be forced to abandon al-Hol, which holds thousands of suspected Islamic State members
An internal security patrol escorts women, reportedly wives of Islamic State (IS) group fighters, in the al-Hol camp in al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria
By in
Rmelan, Syria

A Turkish offensive in northeastern Syria could force a Syrian Kurdish militia to abandon a camp holding tens of thousands of suspected Islamic State group (IS) members, an official responsible for al-Hol has warned.

Turkey is on the brink of launching a military offensive east of the Euphrates, in an attempt to rid the area along its eastern border with Syria of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which it deems a terrorist group.

The YPG is a leading component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia, which with US backing expunged IS from broad swathes of Syria’s northeast, rounding up many of the militant group’s suspected members and their families into the heaving al-Hol camp in the process.

“If Turkey attacks, we will lose control of the camp,” Tol Hldan, a media coordinator for the YPG militia, told Middle East Eye.

'When Turkey attacks, we’ll need to cover a long border. We’d need to abandon Raqqa and the camp'

- Tol Hldan, YPG official

Al-Hol holds around 70,000 people, the majority of them women and children. Most are Syrians and Iraqis, but there are thousands from across the region and the West as well. The inhabitants were living in IS-held areas, and many continue to profess support for the group.

The camp is in territory controlled by the SDF, a US-backed militia dominated by the YPG, which Turkey considers a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that it has been at war with for decades.

Turkey has long threatened to invade Syrian territory controlled by the SDF east of the Euphrates River, but in the past weeks, the threats have increased.

Turkish and US officials are locked in talks over the possibility of setting up a “safe zone” along Turkey’s border with Syria in an effort to stave off any attack, with negotiations entering their third day on Wednesday.

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country had run out of patience, accusing the YPG of “harassment fire”. "As long as harassment fire continues, we cannot remain silent," he said.

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Erdogan noted that Turkey had already moved against opponents in north Syria, first with its Euphrates Shield operation, primarily targeting IS in Jarablus and al-Bab, then with Olive Branch, taking the city of Afrin from the YPG.

"We entered Afrin, Jarablus, al-Bab. Now we will enter the east of the Euphrates. We shared this with Russia and the US,” Erdogan said on Sunday.

Speaking ahead of Erdogan’s announcement, Hldan said the SDF would not be able to retain control of the camp for strategic reasons should Turkey invade. 

“When Turkey attacks, we’ll need to cover a long border,” he said. “We’d need to abandon Raqqa and the camp.” Raqqa is the former IS capital.

The Kurdish official did not intimate that such abandonment would be immediate, or give an indication of speed or timeframe of a pull-out.

Hldan appealed, however, for international support to help hold the detainees and options such as a tribunal in Kurdish-held north Syria, known as Rojava, to help process them.

"An international court would be better in Rojava. If it's in a European country, some will say they didn't fight and after one to three months they'll release them. They fought here. We have proof and can judge them," Hldan said. 

He added that turning the prisoners over to the Syrian government is not viable.

'They fought here. We have proof and can judge them'

- Tol Hldan, YPG official

"If we give them to the regime they'll kill them immediately... They'll reuse them for their own benefit."

The withdrawal would increase the IS sleeper cell threat in Syria, and also threaten Europe, according to Hldan. 

“If Turkey attacks, Europe will pay the most,” he said. “The sleeper cells will grow bigger.”

IS lost its final Syrian stronghold in March, as the SDF alongside US air power expunged the group from Baghouz. Since then attacks in and around northeastern al-Hasakeh have been attributed to IS sleeper cells.

On Wednesday, a car bomb attack killed five people, including three children, in the al-Hasakeh province town of al-Qahtaniyah.

Turkish dismissal

Responding to Hldan’s warning, a senior Turkish official, speaking anonymously due to government protocol, blasted the YPG’s warning.

“A terrorist organisation cannot be destroyed by another terrorist organisation. Even this blackmail reveals the true face of the YPG and demonstrates how it has no intent of fighting against IS,” the official told MEE.

According to the official, Turkey’s military operations in north Syria have made no distinction in fighting the YPG and IS.

'This blackmail reveals the true face of the YPG and demonstrates how it has no intent of fighting against IS'

- Turkish official

“What is important for Turkey is to build a peace corridor by securing the border line. For this purpose, Turkey will ensure stability in possible areas of operation, such as the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations, and will bring peace to the people of the region,” the official said.

Hldan is not the only SDF official to comment on the effects a war with Turkey would have on the continued fight against IS. Last month, SDF commander Mazlum Kobane told the Turkish news site Ahval that a Turkish attack would stop the group’s anti-IS operations.

“The fight against Daesh is mainly going on in Deir al-Zor and Raqqa. If Turkey invades, the fight will halt and Daesh will get stronger,” Kobane said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.

In al-Hol, those running the camp are fearful of what would happen if Turkey invades. 

“If they attack, it will be disorder here,” Hamrin al-Hassan, an official who helps administer the camp, told MEE in al-Hol. “It will be a mess.”

An SDF spokesman refused to respond to further comment on the prospect of the camp’s abandonment.

A US military spokesperson for the international anti-IS coalition said the SDF abandoning al-Hol is “hypothetical”, and that the coalition supports the SDF’s detention of IS prisoners.

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“It would be inappropriate to discuss hypothetical questions,” the spokesperson told MEE. “The coalition remains focused on the enduring defeat of Daesh, to include SDF’s ability to securely detain more than 11,000 Daesh fighters.”

The spokesperson said the SDF’s control over the IS prisoners is not optimal in the long term, however.

“While the SDF have been doing a commendable job of securing detainees, it is not a long-term solution,” the spokesperson said. 

The spokesperson referred a request for further information about whether the coalition would protect the SDF from a Turkish offensive to the US Department of Defence.

On Tuesday, US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper called a unilateral action by Turkey in Syria “unacceptable”.

"What we're going to do is prevent unilateral incursions that would upset, again, these mutual interests...the United States, Turkey and the SDF share with regard to northern Syria," Esper said.

Perwer Muhammad Ali contributed to this report.