How Erdogan’s offensive plays into the hands of Islamic State

Turkey is attacking the Kurds in North Syria and President Erdogan has announced a ground offensive. One group in particular benefits from the attacks: The imprisoned members of the radical Islamic organization Islamic State could be freed – including German Islamists.

This article was originally published in German by WELT on December 3, 2022. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger WELT correspondent for war and crisis areas

“I’d rather you take a gun and put a bullet through my head.” Emre S. paused for a moment. His dark eyes petrified. “Believe me, I am dead serious,” he added in the tiny visitor’s room at a military base in northern Syria. That was over a year ago.

The Islamist from Cologne never got the bullet he longed-for. The 31-year-old, who was an important supplier to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist militia, is still in custody. He is one of 74 Germans in North Syria who have been behind bars for more than three years. Their situation would normally not change in the near future because the federal government of Germany has no interest in bringing back their criminal citizens.

However, a few days ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a ground offensive. This gives the German IS fighters new hope of finding freedom – and with them the other 10,000 supporters of the terrorist militia who are imprisoned in prisons and camps in northern Syria.

According to the Turkish propaganda, “Operation Claw-Sword” intends to deal a blow to the “terrorist gang” of the Kurdish YPG militia. Ankara believes that the organization active in northern Syria together with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) is behind the recent Istanbul attack where a bomb exploded on November 13 in the busy Istiklal shopping street. Six people were killed and 81 injured.

However, the biggest beneficiary of the Turkish offensive could be Islamic State. The fear is that the Islamists want to free co-extremists during the attack. IS fighters tried this before in January 2021 when they stormed a detention center holding 3,000 prisoners in Hasakah. The fighting lasted for more than a week. 140 North Syrian soldiers and 200 Islamists were killed.

It would be the fourth Turkish invasion. Six years ago, Ankara’s troops marched into North Syria for the first time. New operations followed in 2018 and 2019. The aim of this latest invasion is to complete the 30-kilometer safe zone along the Turkish border, along an area of 120 km from Tell Abyad through Kobane to Jarablus. Turkey justifies its assault with the “right to self-defense.”

Source: Infografik WELT

But the evidence for who is behind the attack in Istanbul is questionable. The Syrian YPG and the Turkish PKK have denied any involvement in the crime. Nevertheless, Erdogan wants war. Turkish fighter jets and drones have been bombing North Syria for over a week and 75 people, including civilians, have been killed so far. It is a war intended to fight “Kurdish terrorism”. But there is a danger that the Islamists will be able to reorganize themselves.

The Turkish invasion is a good opportunity for the IS terrorist militia to get their “brothers” out of jail. The IS internment camps in North Syria would be given priority. Some 2,500 IS women from Europe and their children are held in the Al-Roj camp. There are still several dozens of German citizens among them, even though the German government has brought back 26 women and 76 children in six repatriation campaigns.

The greater danger, however, is posed by the huge Al-Hol tent camp where around 60,000 women, men, and children live in terrible conditions. The prisoners mainly originate from Syria and Iraq. The camp is firmly in the hands of Islamic State. There are brutal beatings for perceived anti-Islamic behavior and apostates are summarily executed. On Wednesday, a week ago, there was a Turkish air strike in the immediate vicinity of the camp. Some families managed to escape. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) confirmed the incident and spoke of “indescribable chaos” in al-Hol. IS families would use every conceivable opportunity to escape, the SOHR warned. The Syrian prisoners belong to Arab tribes that would take in their members at any time and protect them from prosecution by the authorities.

Fight against IS cells ceased

The military and security forces of North and East Syria have announced they will reduce surveillance of the camps in the event of a Turkish ground offensive as every soldier will then be called on to defend the area at the front. The lack of surveillance would pose an elevated risk because weapons are available in the internment camps and there is contact with IS members outside the camp’s wire fences. A large-scale attack by the extremists can hardly be repulsed in this way and each new Turkish air raid would unleash chaos.

The fight against IS cells in North and East Syria has already ceased. The North Syrian Commander-in-Chief Mazlum Abdi has stated that it is no longer possible to execute operations under Turkey’s constant airstrikes.

The United States is concerned: “A ground offensive seriously jeopardizes the hard-won successes against IS and destabilizes the region,” the Pentagon said on Wednesday. America and the Kurdish militia YPG have been partners in the fight against IS for many years. They have been fighting the terrorist organization together for eight years. In 2019, they finally destroyed the IS “caliphate” by capturing the last stronghold on the Euphrates.

But the jihadists subsequently regrouped underground and repeatedly conducted attacks. With the help of the US army, the Kurdish special forces were able to dig up new weapons storages and arrest Islamic State members in several operations. But the terror group was never completely eradicated. A Turkish invasion could now give the radical Islamic organization a new boost in Syria.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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