British Isil 'matchmaker' feared to have escaped after mass prisoner breakout

Raf Sanchez
Tooba Gondal in the Ain Issa camp last month - Universal News And Sport (Europe)

Northern Syria was collapsing into chaos last night as hundreds of Islamic State (Isil) family members escaped from prison and Kurdish forces prepared to surrender key cities to the Assad regime after the US announced it was evacuating all troops from the area. 

A notorious British Isil female recruiter was feared to be among nearly 800 wives and children of jihadist fighters who burst out of a Kurdish camp in the biggest prison break since Turkey launched its offensive last week

The US also said it was pulling out all 1,000 of its soldiers in northern Syria, an abrupt reversal of policy that came just days after the Trump administration insisted it was only moving a few dozen commandos. 

In a stark sign of how quickly US influence in Syria has collapsed, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) last night appeared to have brokered a deal with Russia and the Assad regime to hand over control of two key cities. 

Smoke rises from a Turkish bombardment in northeast Syria on Sunday, seen from the Turkish side of the border Credit: ERDEM SAHIN/EPA-EFE/REX

The SDF agreed to surrender Kobani and Manbij to Syrian government forces in a bid to shield them from Turkish attack, according to Kurdish and Syrian media.

Both areas have immense symbolism for the Kurds, who lost hundreds of men while fighting Isil for control of them. "The betrayal process is officially completed," an SDF official said of the US withdrawal.  

News of the US retreat sparked panic across northern Syria as civilians, who believed their towns might be spared from Turkish onslaught by the presence of American forces, started fleeing their homes.

At least 200,000 people have been displaced so far, aid groups said, and the number is likely to rise.   

At least 26 civilians were reportedly killed on Sunday as a Turkish airstrike hit a convoy and Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were accused of killing a prominent female Kurdish politician and several other unarmed people. The rebels denied the allegations.  

Kurdish authorities said early on Sunday around 785 women and children escaped from a camp in Ain Issa when it came under attack from Turkish shelling.

Isil inmates “attacked the camp guard and opened the gates” while Kurdish forces were under fire, authorities said. 

Tooba Gondal, 25, and her two children, may have been among those who fled and her whereabouts were unknown last night.

Ms Gondal traveled to Syria to join Isil in 2015 and has been accused of grooming other young British women, including Shamima Begum, to follow her.

The Telegraph understands at least three other British women, and reportedly three British orphans, were held in Ain Issa camp before the break-out.

The SDF warned the West the breakout may be the first of many and that the resurgent jihadists “will come knocking on your doors” if the Turkish offensive is not stopped.

Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, said he and Donald Trump had decided to withdraw all 1,000 US troops from northern Syria because the Turks “likely intend to expand their attack further south than originally planned”. 

“We have American forces likely caught between two opposing advancing armies and it's a very untenable situation,” he said. 

 Tooba Gondal is pictured before leaving for Syria

While Mr Trump said last week he was removing around 50 US commandos from a 120km section of the Turkey-Syria border, hundreds of others American soldiers remained near Kurdish key cities like Kobani and Qamishli. 

The complete US retreat is likely to remove any remaining obstacles to Turkey mounting a full-scale assault on those cities, prompting civilians to start packing their belongings into cars and trucks and flee south.   

While US officials insisted America was opposed to the Turkish invasion, Mr Trump struck a laissez-faire note in a series of Sunday morning tweets.

“The Kurds and Turkey have been fighting for many years,” he noted. “Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!”

The US has yet to slap any sanctions on Turkey for the assault, despite White House warnings that it would target the Turkish economy if the offensive led to a humanitarian crisis or disrupted anti-Isil operations.

Both outcomes have already happened. Operations against Isil appeared to have come to a complete halt last night as US forces prepared to evacuate and all available Kurdish forces were directed to the fight against Turkey. 

Mr Esper said the US understood that the SDF was “looking to cut a deal if you will with the Syrians and the Russians”.

Sources said Mazloum Kobani, the top SDF commander, met with Russian officers to broker the agreement. 

Turkey would likely welcome a deal that reasserts Damascus’ authority over northeast Syria, as that would fatally undermine Kurdish aspirations for an independent political region of their own.  

As the area plunged into chaos civilian casualties mounted during the bloodiest day of the offensive so far. Several civilians were killed by a Turkish airstrike on a convoy, including at least one unidentified journalist. 

The SDF said Turkish-backed rebel fighters intercepted a car carrying Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish political leader with the Future Syria Party, and shot her to death along with her driver and an aide on Saturday.

Video footage showed her black SUV riddled with bullet holes while Arabic-speaking Syrian fighters cheered. Turkey has said such fighters, known as the National Army, would be at the forefront of anti-Isil operations once the Kurds were defeated. 

But analysts said the group, which includes some jihadist sympathisers, was unlikely to be an effective counter-terrorism force.

“They do what they are told to by Turkey but they do it very poorly,” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

At least 60 civilians have been killed in northern Syria and 18 civilians have died from Kurdish shelling in southern Turkey since last Wednesday, according to the Syrian Observatory. 

France and Germany both announced they were halting arms sales to Turkey but the UK did not match their announcements.

Britain approved military export licenses worth £583m to Turkey in 2017, including licenses for attack aircraft and helicopters.

France is expected to propose an EU-wide arms embargo against Turkey on Monday, a Western diplomat said.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s president, has signalled he plans to press ahead with the attack despite widespread Western criticism.