U.S. expects Turkey to prevent ISIS fighters from returning to battlefield - counterterror envoy

The United States expects Turkey to abide by the commitments that it made to Washington to ensure that any Islamic State (ISIS) fighters that it encounters are kept in a secure manner and prevented from returning to the battlefield, Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales, said on Friday.

About 100 ISIS fighters have escaped following Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria targeting Kurdish forces, which was launched on Oct. 9, Sales said during a briefing in Washington where he shared the annual Country Reports on Terrorism for 2018. 

The Turkish offensive against the Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria is raising new fears of a resurgence of ISIS as Kurdish forces withdraw from land controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has spearheaded the U.S.-led war on ISIS in the region. 

Tens of thousands of ISIS members and their families remain in detention camps scattered across northern Syria.

Pointing out that Turkey is a key member of the anti- ISIS coalition, Sales said the United States had worked very closely with Turkey to ensure that the border between Syria and Turkey is secure.  

The Turkish offensive ended after nine days after the Ankara secured separate deals with the United States and Russia for the withdrawal of Kurdish militia from regions along its borders.

“We don’t want other fighters flooding into Syria to provide a shot in the arm to an ISIS that’s seeking to reconstitute itself, and we also want to make sure that ISIS fighters who may remain at large in Syria are not able to get out and menace other parts of the world, particularly Europe,’’ Sales said.

Sales also reiterated concerns about Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups, some of whom he said “don’t have the same force discipline that the Turkish military does.’

Footage of alleged atrocities committed by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have circulated online and across Syria’s Kurdish areas, leading to calls for war crimes investigations.

The section of the Country Reports on Terrorism 2018 pertaining to Turkey notes that the country has continued it efforts to defeat terrorist organisations both inside and outside its borders, including the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and ISIS.

The PKK is an armed group that has been at war in Turkey for Kurdish self-rule for over three decades.

Turkey, as an active member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, continued to provide access to its airspace and facilities for operations in Iraq and Syria, the report said.

Looking at Turkey’s domestic battle against terrorism, the report said Turkish forces detained more than 11,421 suspects for allegedly aiding and abetting the PKK for the year up to Dec. 10. 

Another 47,778 individuals were detained over links to the Gülen movement by Dec. 11, it said.

Ankara maintains the Gülen movement, led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, orchestrated the July 2016 coup attempt and has led a world-wide crackdown on the group since the failed putsch. The United States does not designate the group as a terrorist organisation.

“Turkey has a broad definition of terrorism that includes crimes against constitutional order and internal and external security of the state, which the government regularly used to criminalize the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression and assembly,’’ the report said.

Turkish authorities referred more than 7,000 social media accounts to judicial authorities for alleged terrorist-related propaganda, the report said citing the country’s ministry of interior.