Amid the unfolding disaster in Syria, Mazloum Abdi offers the slightest sliver of hope: The Kurdish and Arab fighters guarding Islamic State prisoners remain at their posts. For now.
Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces, then offered a warning. “I don’t believe we can still hold the positions for much longer,” he said Thursday in a telephone interview from his headquarters in Qamishli, Syria. “I can’t give you a timeline, but I can tell you it will not be a long time. If we think the Turkish operation will not stop, we cannot fight ISIS anymore.”
Mazloum’s army has more than 11,000 Islamic State fighters in its custody. His forces are also responsible for securing the refugee camps operated by international aid organizations for Islamic State’s women and children —as well as the group’s victims. For now a major refugee camp at al-Houl remains secure, he said.
Since Turkish operations into northern Syria began Wednesday, Abdi said, there have been two major prison riots. One occurred after the Turkish military bombed the Jerkin prison in western Qamishli. In both cases, Abdi said his forces were able to quell the unrest. The Qamishli air strike was particularly dangerous because a prison holds a number of the foreign fighters who once migrated through Turkey to join Islamic State’s so-called caliphate.
Abdi confirmed a report that U.S. special operations forces were taking custody of dozens of high-value Islamic State prisoners. Those operations took place with the knowledge of his officers, he said, but there were still many seasoned fighters who could return to the battlefield if the Turkish operations continue.
If that comes to pass, it would be a tragic end to a once-hopeful partnership. Beginning in 2014, Abdi —a member of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which is considered a terrorist organization in Turkey —began negotiating the formation of the SDF. Over the next five years, it grew to 70,000 troops. Half of them are Kurdish fighters, while the rest are primarily Syrian Arabs. With the aid of the U.S. Air Force and the guidance of U.S. Special Forces, the SDF was able to take back most of the territory of Islamic State’s caliphate. The fact that the caliphate was smashed with such a light U.S. footprint proves that effective counterterrorism does not require tens of thousands of troops. There are currently less than 1,000 U.S. forces on the ground in Syria.
“All the achievements for us that we accomplished with America’s soldiers are now at risk,” he told me. For Abdi, President Donald Trump’s decision to remove the handful of special operators from a safe zone negotiated this summer with Turkey amounts to a betrayal. Abdi repositioned SDF forces per the safe-zone agreement with the expectation that the Turks would not encroach on the territory. “We abided by our agreement,” he said. “America and Turkey have not abided by theirs.”
It’s worse than that, actually. Abdi warned that militias now invading Syria with the Turkish military include former jihadists whom the Kurds had fought before. “They will pose a threat to us and our people,” he said. “They will pose a bigger threat to America’s army and its people and its interests.”
Despite this dire assessment, Abdi still said he thought it was possible for Trump to get Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to back down. “I believe the only person capable of preventing this disaster is President Trump.”
If Trump cannot persuade Erdogan to pull back his army, then Abdi confirmed what most of the U.S. government already knows: He will seek out a partnership with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. “If our allies do not stop this catastrophe to our people, the situation will become worse,” he said. “I think an alliance with Assad could happen. If we get to this point, where we are hopeless.”
Abdi has not yet reached that point. He noted at the end of the interview how sorry U.S. commanders were when they told him they had to withdraw their troops. “We know the American army are our friends,” he said. “We believe they want to defend our people. But this decision was made by politicians, not by the military.”
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.