U.S. cannot confirm people Turkey captured are genuine Baghdadi family members

The United States cannot confirm whether the people Turkey announced they had captured are genuine family members of the former leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters on Wednesday.

Baghdadi was killed on Oct. 26 when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, just 5 km from the Turkish border. Trump said two women believed to be Baghdadi’s wives were also killed during the operation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Wednesday that Turkey had captured a wife of Baghdadi, without giving further details about the identity of the women or when and where she was captured. Turkish authorities also announced that Baghdadi’s sister and her husband had been arrested in the northwest Syrian town of Azzaz.

“We can’t confirm anything on the latter,” the State Department official told reporters during a press briefing when asked if the United States could confirm that the people captured were genuine family members of the slain jihadi leader. 

The State Department’s briefing came after the United States announced that U.S. Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, would be visiting Ankara this week.

The ambassador and Turkish officials will hold talks over the ongoing situation in Syria. Turkey and the United States agreed on a ceasefire on Oct. 17 that halted Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria.

In accordance with the deal, the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) withdrew 32 km south from a region between northeast Syrian towns of Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn, an area Turkey declared as a safe zone.

Turkey sees the Kurdish People’s Protection Unites (YPG), which leads the SDF, as an offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), while the SDF forms the backbone of U.S.-led coalition forces fighting against ISIS in Syria. 

Turkey made a separate deal with Russia for the establishment of a buffer zone along a 444 km stretch of the border between Turkey and Syria. According to the deal, the SDF withdrew 30 km south of territories along the Turkish border, handing over control to Russian and Syrian government forces. Turkish and Russian forces started joint patrols in a 10 km deep area along the border last week.

“So we’re seeing some shelling and shooting in that area,” the U.S. official said, referring to a part of northeast Syria near Ras al Ayn that lies outside the safe zone. “It doesn’t involve Turkish army forces themselves. It’s basically these Turkish-supported Syrian Arab militias that are in there,” he said. 

“And we were very concerned because they were seemingly heading towards the city of Tell Tamer (Tal Tamr), which is a relatively large Christian area, which everybody acknowledges is outside of wherever the area is,” the official said. 

The U.S. official also said that Washington had been following reports on ethnic cleansing and war crimes attributed to Turkey-backed rebels fighting alongside Turkish forces. 

“We know from our contacts with the Turkish military that they’re taking this very seriously,” the official said. “The problem is that the people doing the fighting are these ill-disciplined Arab militias, some of whom we’ve worked with in the past when we were arming the opposition, but many of whom are (a) ill-disciplined, and (b) relatively radical, and their ideology is essentially Islamic ideology.”