To many counterterrorism experts, it has often seemed that President Donald Trump had an unerring instinct for bad policy. Blanket support for repressive dictators, Islamophobic language and the Muslim immigration ban, which alienated the Muslim Americans law enforcement depends on and encouraged white supremacists, a refusal to invest in programs to blunt extremism—what more damage could he do?
Few, however, imagined that he might just give ISIS the enormous boost of the Syria debacle.
Just months after the last scraps of ISIS’ Caliphate were wrested from the organization, northern Syria has been plunged into chaos thanks to Trump’s abrupt removal of U.S. troops from the region. Trump, a man addicted to superlatives, can now safely boast of having squandered a hard-fought military victory faster than anyone in history. And with the Turkish military and its proxies, Syrian forces, Kurdish fighters and Russian troops converging, there is real danger that prisons holding 11,000 ISIS fighters will be breached.
According to U.S. officials, many of the Syrian Kurdish soldiers guarding the prisons have been departing either to fight the Turks or simply escape the onslaught, leaving minimal or no security. At some facilities detainees are rioting. Scattered reports have been received of escapes, with official estimates of those who’ve gotten out rising to more than 100. (Accounts of larger numbers of escapees have come from camps where families of fighters are being held.) Officials also worry that their ability to get news from the Kurdish SDF or Syrian Democratic Forces, fighters guarding the prisons is diminishing fast. As has been widely reported, the U.S. military was unable to relocate 50 “HVIs” (High Value Individuals), the most dangerous of the terrorists, in the chaos.