Speaking at a meeting of leaders of ex-Soviet states in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, Putin said he was not sure that Turkey could prevent the escape of prisoners as it presses ahead with an offensive against Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Vladimir Putin has said the Turkish invasion into northern Syria could set free thousands of Isis fighters currently under Kurdish control and their potential escape is “a real threat for us”.
“It’s a zone where Isis fighters are concentrated, they are still being held by Kurdish military groups,” said Putin. “Now the Turkish army is going in, the Kurds are leaving these camps, and the Isis fighters inside can just escape. I’m not sure if the Turkish army can take the fighters under their control.”
What is happening in north-eastern Syria?
The region makes up more than a quarter of the country and is the largest area outside the control of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. It is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprises militia groups representing a range of ethnicities, though its backbone is Kurdish. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has announced an invasion of territory with the intention of forcing the SDF out of at least a 20-mile “safe zone” below its border.
Before the SDF was formed in 2015, the Kurds had created their own militias who mobilised during the Syrian civil war to defend Kurdish cities and villages and carve out what they hoped would eventually at least become a semi-autonomous province.
In late 2014, the Kurds were struggling to fend off an Islamic State siege of Kobani, a major city under their control. With US support, including arms and airstrikes, the Kurds managed to beat back Isis and went on to win a string of victories against the radical militant group. Along the way the fighters absorbed non-Kurdish groups, changed their name to the SDF and grew to include 60,000 soldiers.
For years, Turkey has watched the growing ties between the US and SDF with alarm. Significant numbers of the Kurds in the SDF were also members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) that has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state for more than 35 years in which as many as 40,000 people have died. The PKK initially called for independence and now demands greater autonomy for Kurds inside Turkey.
Turkey claims the PKK has continued to wage war on the Turkish state, even as it has assisted in the fight against Isis. The PKK is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US, the UK, Nato and others and this has proved awkward for the US and its allies, who have chosen to downplay the SDF’s links to the PKK, preferring to focus on their shared objective of defeating Isis.
Turkey aims firstly to push the SDF away from its border, creating a 20-mile (32km) buffer zone that would have been jointly patrolled by Turkish and US troops until Trump’s recent announcement that American soldiers would withdraw from the region.
Erdoğan has also said he would seek to relocate more than 1 million Syrian refugees in this “safe zone”, both removing them from his country (where their presence has started to create a backlash) and complicating the demographic mix in what he fears could become an autonomous Kurdish state on his border.
Nearly 11,000 Isis fighters, including almost 2,000 foreigners, and tens of thousands of their wives and children, are being held in detention camps and hastily fortified prisons across north-eastern Syria.
The SDF has been pleading for international assistance in dealing with these prisoners, who countries including the US, UK and Australia have been reluctant to take back – in some cases cancelling the citizenship of prisoners.
SDF leaders have warned they cannot guarantee the security of these prisoners if they are forced to redeploy their forces to the frontlines of a war against Turkey. They also fear Isis could use the chaos of war to mount attacks to free their fighters or reclaim territory.
Kurdish forces continue to guard large detention camps in northern Syria where thousands of suspected Isis fighters and other prisoners are held. Putin’s remarks are a measured criticism of the Turkish offensive, adding to the diplomatic pressure on Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to halt the attack.
“This is a real threat for all of us,” Putin said. “How and where will they travel? Through Turkish territory, through other territories, further into Syria in uncontrolled territory, then through Iraq, other countries. We should understand this, know this, and mobilise the resources of our intelligence services to deal with this new threat.”
The invasion began after Donald Trump announced a sudden withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria following a telephone call with Erdoğan, giving what some saw as a green light for Turkey to attack Kurdish forces across the border. The US has since criticised the Turkish offensive, saying ethnic cleansing or firing on civilian populations could trigger sanctions.
What does Turkey’s military action in northern Syria mean? – video explainer
Putin has become a power player in the region since Russia intervened in Syria’s civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad in 2015, providing a vital lifeline that allowed the Syrian leader to beat back an insurgency that had nearly toppled his government.
Russia has estimated that there are thousands of Islamist fighters from the former Soviet Union in Syria and has said that threat is one of the reasons for its intervention in the civil war.
In a sign of the shifting geopolitical alliances, the US and Russia opposed a draft statement by European members of the United Nations security council on Thursday to condemn the Turkish invasion.