More than 700 people with links to Islamic State have escaped from a detention camp in north-east Syria, as the Kurdish-led forces in control of the area reached a deal with the Assad regime to stave off a bloody five-day-old Turkish assault.
Kurdish fighters controlling the region would surrender the border towns of Manbij and Kobane to Damascus in a deal brokered by Russia, several officials said on Sunday night.
Syrian state media said units from President Bashar al-Assad’s army were moving north to “confront Turkish aggression on Syrian territory”. Unconfirmed reports said the deal between the Kurds and the regime would be extended to apply to the entirety of north-east Syria.
“Before everything, it seems that the fate of the Kurdish people [is to be abandoned]. We did everything that we could, we called upon the international community … but it did not result in a solution. We urged all Kurdish [groups] to show solidarity, but no one listened,” Ismat Sheikh Hassan, the leader of the military council in Kobane, told local television.
The deal is likely to be a bitter end to five years of semi-autonomy for Kurdish groups in north-east Syria, and has been forced by Turkey’s attack on the area. The Turkish offensive started on Wednesday after Donald Trump’s announcement that US forces would withdraw from the region.
The area’s Kurdish-led fighters, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), have been funded and trained by the US to combat Isis since 2015, finally defeating the militant group in March after losing 11,000 troops in the battle.
Turkey, however, says the largest unit of of the SDF, the Kurdish YPG, is a terrorist group indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.
Trump’s decision to abandon the SDF to a high probable Turkish assault has been widely criticised even by his staunchest allies as a betrayal of a US military partner which has unleashed to a humanitarian disaster and threatens to sow the seeds of Isis’ resurgence amid the chaos.
On Sunday, at least 750 people with suspected links to Isis reportedly fled a displacement camp in north-east Syria.
The women and children formerly part of the “caliphate” were held in a secure annexe at the Ain Issa camp. They began to riot and scared away the guards after Turkish shelling struck close to the area on Sunday, said Abdulkader Mwahed, the joint president for humanitarian affairs in the Kurdish-held part of Syria.
The UK-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the number to have escaped at 100, publishing pictures of men, women in black niqabs and small children running through yellow scrubland.
The camp was home to a total of about 13,000 people, including three suspected British orphans and a British recruiter for Isis, Tooba Gondal.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s stated goal is to create a 20-mile-deep “safe zone” on its border with the SDF, deep enough to keep Turkish border towns out of the range of shelling and rocket fire.
However, Ain Issa and other Kurdish-held roads and towns south of the proposed safe zone have been hit by airstrikes and shelling. Syrian rebel proxies fighting on behalf of Turkey were pushing south and refused to allow the town of Manbij to fall into regime hands, a fighter said.
A convoy of 40 armoured Turkish trucks travelled into Syria from the Jarablus border crossing to reinforce the Turkish offensive, another military source said.
Speaking on Sunday, Erdoğan rejected offers for mediation with the SDF and criticised his western Nato allies for standing by what Turkey considers to be a terrorist organisation.
He also dismissed the reports of escaped Isis prisoners as “disinformation” aimed at provoking the US and other western countries.
About 130,000 people have been displaced in Syria in the five-day-old operation so far, with at least 14 dead in Syria and nine dead in Turkey after counterattack SDF shelling of Turkish border towns.
Additional reporting by Hussein Akkosh