U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres expressed grave concern over the fighting in northeast Syria on Monday and called for "maximum restraint" as Turkey’s military advanced on former U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters newly allied with Syrian forces.
Guterres sounded the alarm over the potential release of more members of the Islamic State militant group, the jihadi movement that still claims tens of thousands of insurgents across Syria and Iraq. Kurdish militia reportedly held more than 12,000 suspected members in prisons in northeast Syria.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's government forces spread to key northern Syrian towns and villages on Monday. They moved to counter Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies filling the void left by U.S. President Donald Trump's abrupt order last week to remove American troops from the region.
The return of Syria's Russian-backed forces loyal to Assad in a region they vacated seven years earlier marked a major shift in the country's eight-year civil war. Syria's Kurdish forces, who died by the thousands to defeat ISIS in coordination with American-led troops, agreed to a last-minute alliance with Assad's government after Trump ordered the U.S. withdrawal.
Turkish-backed proxy forces with ties to extremist groups deliberately released detainees affiliated with ISIS from an unguarded prison, Foreign Policy reported. The Free Syrian Army, a band of Syrian rebels backed by Turkey, advanced on northeastern Syria where it executed Kurdish prisoners and killed scores of unarmed civilians and Kurdish fighters.
ISIS began escaping detention in northern Syria by exploiting security gaps caused by Turkey's invasion, the Institute for the Study of War, or ISW, reported. Almost 800 ISIS "family members" escaped from a displacement camp near Raqqa City after Kurdish forces withdrew. ISIS, formerly known as al-Qaeda in Iraq, pulled off similar prison breaks across Iraq from 2012 to 2013 that allowed it to reconstitute with 600 freed fighters.
"Now, ISIS has an even larger opportunity to free more than 10,000 fighters detained in Northern Syria in addition to thousands more in Iraq," ISW said. "This time, ISIS also seeks to liberate tens of thousands of family members from the guarded annexes of displacement camps."
Guterres, citing estimates from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, warned the fighting has led to many civilian casualties and displaced up to 160,000 civilians in a week.
The U.N. chief "continues to urge for maximum restraint and stresses that any military operation must fully respect international law, including the U.N. Charter and international humanitarian law," according to a statement from his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric.
"The secretary-general calls for immediate de-escalation and urges all parties to resolve their concerns through peaceful means," the statement said, emphasizing that "civilians not taking part in hostilities must be protected at all times. Likewise, civilian infrastructure must be protected in accordance with international humanitarian law."
Trump's order to vacate northern Syria cleared the way for Turkey's attack on Kurds, who it views as terrorists. Kurdish troops, which fought with U.S. forces since 2014 to defeat ISIS in Syria, turned to Assad — and Russia — for protection after being blindsided by Trump's order.
Syrian troops responded by advancing to the northern province of Raqqa, and to within about 20 kilometers of the Turkish border, ahead of a potential showdown between Turkey and Syria. The resurgent ISIS, released by Turkish-backed fighters attacking a prison camp and forcing the gates open, stands to set back years of American efforts to destroy the militant group.
Grave health concerns
The World Health Organization said on Sunday that almost 1.5 million people need health aid in northern Syria. Many of them suffer from "immense physical and mental stress as a result of years of conflict and repeated displacement," the U.N. health agency said in a statement.
It noted the region's health services are severely damaged or no longer functional, including a national hospital in Ras al-Ain and a national hospital and two health centers in Tel Abyad. "All health facilities in camps hosting displaced people in Ain Issa and Ras al-Ain have also been evacuated," it said, "with additional facilities under threat as the conflict rapidly escalates."
WHO said a trauma stabilization point south of Ras al-Ain was evacuated after a reported attack on Saturday that injured two staff members and destroyed two ambulances. On the same day, the hospital in Ras al-Ain was reportedly attacked but there were no casualties.
Across northeast Syria, WHO said, shortages of health workers are "widespread as they too have been among those displaced by the ongoing insecurity, aggravating an already critical situation and further depriving underserved populations of access to medical care."
A pumping station that supplies water for most of Al Hassakeh governorate was damaged, WHO said, increasing the risk of outbreaks of infectious diseases. It said the rising displacements, overcrowded living conditions and limited access to safe water and sanitation services will likely lead to an increase in the number of people affected by water-borne diseases.