The State Department confirmed Wednesday that more than 100 ISIS prisoners have escaped since Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria following the Trump administration’s withdrawal of about 1,000 U.S. troops from the region.
Ambassador James Jeffrey, the chief diplomat in charge of combating the Islamic State, said in testimony to Congress that the U.S. currently does not know the whereabouts of the escaped terrorists, who had been held in prisons run by the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces.
“We would say that the number is now over 100,” Jeffrey said in response to a question from House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Eliot Engel. “We do not know where they are.”
“Almost all of the prisons that the SDF were guarding are still secured,” Jeffrey added. “The SDF still has people there. We are monitoring that as best we can. We still have forces in Syria working with the SDF, and one of the top priorities is these prisons.”
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper gave a similar estimate of the number of escaped ISIS prisoners on Tuesday, but said the “big prison break” officials expected has not occurred.
“Of the 11,000 or so detainees that were in prisons in northeast Syria, we’ve only had reports of a little bit more than a hundred that have escaped,” Esper told CNN.
President Trump earlier this month ordered the withdrawal of about 1,000 U.S. troops stationed in northern Syria, saying he does not want the U.S. to “police” the area any longer. Republican and Democratic critics of the move warned that a U.S. troop withdrawal would make room for the Turkish invasion of the region, which proved true, and would leave Kurdish forces, who have been supported by U.S troops in fighting the Islamic State, open to attack.
Trump announced earlier Wednesday that a “permanent ceasefire” has been agreed to between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria and that Turkey’s military operations in northern Syria have ceased. He added that the captured Islamic State prisoners are “secured.”
“There were a few that got out, a small number, relatively speaking, and they’ve been largely recaptured,” Trump said of the escaped Islamic State prisoners.