America’s Kurdish allies have warned that thousands of Islamic State group jihadist prisoners – including the surviving Britons known as “The Beatles” – may escape custody once US forces leave Syria.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they could be unable to secure 2,000 suspects they are holding if they have to divert forces to fight a Turkish offensive, after Donald Trump’s decision to pull US forces from Syria.
The suspected jihadist prisoners include six British men, four British women and several of their children. Among them are Alexanda Kotey and Shafee El-Sheikh, who allegedly behead Western hostages.
The warning came as America’s allies reeled from Mr Trump’s twin unexpected decisions to pull out from Syria and significantly scale back the US military campaign in Afghanistan.
Taliban officials said they welcomed Mr Trump’s orders to begin withdrawing up to 7,000 of America’s 14,000 troops based in Afghanistan fighting the insurgent movement.
The decision to dramatically scale back the war effort in Afghanistan blind-sided Nato-allies including Britain. It also caused dismay among diplomats in Kabul and Afghan officials who fear abandonment by the West will cause a repeat of the 1990s civil war.
Only last year, Mr Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan had pledged troop increases and promised not to pull back until security conditions had improved.
Ashraf Ghani’s government put a brave face on the announcement saying “If the few thousand foreign troops that advise, train and assist leave, it will not affect our security.”
American envoys earlier this week spent three days in discussion with Taliban negotiators trying to forge a tentative peace process. The Taliban have long demanded a US withdrawal as a precondition for talks with Kabul.
Graeme Smith, a consultant for International Crisis Group, said: “It’s clear that a rapid pullout of all international forces could spark the collapse of the Afghan government and start a new civil war. Still, this partial withdrawal could send a useful message to all sides. This signals to the Taliban that the US is serious about negotiating an exit. Taliban have been asking each other in recent weeks whether American diplomats were honest when they claimed to be ready for a responsible withdrawal.”
Mr Trump’s decision to overrule military advice and embark on a pullout is understood to have contributed to the decision by his defence secretary, Gen Jim Mattis to resign.
Gen Mattis had long been seen in Kabul as an advocate of supporting the Afghan government and a guarantor of American support.
Diplomats said other members of the Nato coalition would now have to decide if they were able to stay with a greatly reduced US force. America’s allies are largely reliant on US military might for logistics such as air transport and medical treatment.
European allies also disputed Mr Trump’s claim that a withdrawal for Syria was justified because America had defeated Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isil).
"We do not share the analyses that the territorial caliphate has been annihilated," said French defence minister Florence Parly. "It’s an extremely grave decision and we think … the job must be finished.”
Yet Mr Trump insisted he had "done more damage to ISIS than all recent presidents….not even close!”
The SDF warned the West that it could “lose control” of the jihadists if American troops left Syria.
“ We will continue our mission but confronting this terrorism will be difficult because our forces will be forced to withdraw from the frontlines in Deir Ezzor to take up positions on the border with Turkey to counter any attack we may face,” said Ilham Ahmed, a senior official from the SDF’s political council.
The warning appeared intended to galvanise Western countries, who are deeply concerned about the return of foreign fighters from Syria, into maintaining support for the Kurds even after US forces withdraw.