Turkish artillery reportedly struck the northern Syrian prison holding the British-Canadian Jack Letts — who is accused of being a supporter of the Islamic State — on Thursday, as Turkish forces pushed their military offensive deeper into the contested town of Qamishli.
The CBC has not been able to verify independently whether Letts was in the prison at the time of the attack. Kurdish officials responsible for holding captured ISIS fighters do not confirm the whereabouts of detainees.
The situation on the ground is chaotic and there are reports from the region that a handful of extremists broke out of a high-security prison in the same border community.
The Independent, a British publication, quoted a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) saying five prisoners got away.
It also reported a disturbance at the al-Hawl displacement centre along the border with Iraq, where many women and children associated with ISIS fighters are housed.
There are as many as 70,000 women and children in the camp.
Alexandra Bain, director of Families Against Violent Extremism (FAVE), has been in touch with some of the Canadian detainees in al-Hawl.
‘Waiting for a horrible thing to happen’
She said the women she spoke with did not witness the incident or see anything “untoward,” but claimed the SDF has stopped delivering food to the camp and has shut down a medical clinic and garbage collection.
“They have seen aircraft go over and heard rumbles, but nothing too terrifying,” said Bain. “It’s like waiting for a horrible thing to happen.”
The contact in the displacement camps between the women and male ISIS prisoners, who are housed separately in more secure facilities, has been increasing.
“That’s the thing I’m most worried about, that ISIS is going to come in and ‘save’ them and most of them don’t want to be saved. They want to come home,” said Bain.
Up to 39 Canadians still in the region
The best outcome under the current circumstances, she said, would be for the Turkish military to take over the prisons before ISIS can organize a wider prison break.
There as many as 39 Canadians detained in Syria: five men, 10 women and 24 children. Bain said she has been dealing with families of Canadians who left to join the caliphate.
There could be as many as five other Canadians in the region, but their families have not reached out to FAVE, said Bain.
“The news suggests the most likely thing to happen is that ISIS enters the (al-Hawl) camp and takes these families back,” she said.
Many of them got away before ISIS made its last stand at Baghuz Fawqani, Syria in March of this year, she said, “and the penalty for trying to escape is death.”
‘All of those people will be executed’
Bain said some of the detainees already had spent time in ISIS jails.
“When ISIS comes and takes them back, all of the women who spoke out against ISIS, all of those people will be executed,” she said.
Canada has denounced the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, but it also has steadfastly refused to repatriate and prosecute its citizens who left to join ISIS.
Global Affairs Canada released a statement Friday saying the government is aware of the detainees “and is particularly concerned with cases of Canadian children in Syria.”
Asked today what his government would do to prevent Canadian-linked ISIS fighters from escaping Syria and returning home, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau was vague, saying that “we’re going to continue to monitor the situation in the region very closely.
“We will continue to focus our efforts on stability and reconstruction in the region, even as we continue to hold strong against (ISIS),” he said.
The federal government is sticking to its assertion that the region is too dangerous to provide full consular assistance.
“We have reached out to Syrian Kurdish officials to seek information on Canadians in their custody and have sought assurances from Turkey that any Canadians detained in the region would be handled in accordance with international law,” said Barbara Harvey, a spokeswoman for Global Affairs, who declined to discuss specifics cases because of privacy restrictions.
Turkey’s ambassador to Canada, Kerim Uras, said Turkey would have expected more encouragement from a NATO ally and that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland does not understand the challenges his country faces.
“I think it’s due to a lack of a complete grasp of the situation,” Uras told CBC’s Power & Politics on Friday. “But I am confident that her concerns will be alleviated after the operation is over.”
He said he does not believe the invasion, and Turkey’s attempt to create a buffer zone on its southern border, will destabilize the region further or lead to a resurgence of ISIS, as some international experts fear.