Turkey smuggled family from ISIS detainee camp, say Syrian Kurds

Turkish intelligence agents infiltrated a Syrian displaced persons camp housing tens of thousands of women and children connected to Islamic State (ISIS) to smuggle out a Moldovan woman and her four children.

Officials with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) confirmed the Turkish-engineered escape from the al-Hol camp on Friday, Voice of America reported. 

The SDF runs security for the camp, as well as a series of prisons across northeastern Syria that hold an estimated 10,000 ISIS fighters. 

According to Turkish media reports, Turkey’s intelligence service carried out the operation at the request of Moldovan officials, and Moldovan security forces assisted in the effort. 

Moldovan President Igor Dodon tweeted about Barkal’s repatriation on Thursday, showing the family’s arrival at Chisinau International Airport. 

Anadolu news agency reported Dodon as saying: "I thank (Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) for his extensive efforts to bring back our citizens and for his support,"

The woman, Natalia Barkal, had been living with her children at the al-Hol camp since January 2019, VOA reported.

Anadolu cited Barkal as saying that the family had gone through a very hard time during their captivity.

"At first I thought it would be fine and we would return to our country soon. But then we experienced every kind of human emotion there is," she said.

She also expressed gratitude to Turkey for its help in getting them out of the camp.

“I am grateful to the Turkish government. Turkey is a great country,” she said.

Turkish media, quoting unnamed security sources, said Barkal and her husband had been living in Moldova’s capital but travelled to Syria in 2013, settling in the city of Manbij in the country’s Aleppo province. Barkal’s husband, who was of Syrian descent, was reportedly killed during fighting in 2017. 

VOA said an initial investigation appeared to show that the family managed to sneak out of al-Hol camp by hiding in a modified water truck.

The SDF said it was not clear why such an operation was necessary, since it has been asking countries to repatriate their citizens with little success.

“The global coalition asked the countries to get their citizens back [with] no response. Moldova did not ask for this woman,” Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF’s political wing, told VOA. 

“I don’t know why Moldova did not ask to repatriate,” she added.

Syrian Kurdish officials Friday said the Turkish-Moldovan operation was not only unnecessary but also dangerous as it could embolden other ISIS-linked detainees.

Seth J. Frantzman, writing in the Jerusalem Post on Friday, said that, because the SDF is not a state, but a non-state actor, most foreign ministries of countries prefer not to negotiate directly with it regarding foreign ISIS detainees and many are reluctant to take them anyway. 

The SDF cannot hand them over to the Syrian government because most governments view it as a criminal regime, and it cannot hand them to Turkey because Ankara regards the SDF as a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish self-rule on Turkish soil since 1984.

This leaves many of the detainees in limbo, and apparently necessitated Turkey’s operation to remove the Moldovan family.

“Bizarrely this has enabled Turkey to step in to claim it is ‘helping’ these camp residents, portraying them as innocent,” in a propaganda victory for Turkey, Frantzman said.  

But the larger question is whether the same networks that smuggle women and children out of al-Hol also may work to bring out male ISIS members, Frantzman said. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.