After four days of US airstrikes, the fight has become the biggest known US engagement with the Islamic State group since the fall of its so-called caliphate three years ago.
Hundreds of Islamic State group fighters attacked the makeshift prison in Hasaka, Syria, on Friday in an effort to free their detained comrades in one of the boldest attacks by the group in the region in recent years.
The siege of the prison, which houses about 3,000 suspected Islamic State fighters and almost 700 boys, has evolved into a hostage crisis with Islamic State group fighters still holding about one-quarter of the prison and using the boys as human shields.
The overcrowded, makeshift prison has long been an avowed target for a resurgent Islamic State. Housed in a converted technical college, it is the largest of several prisons in the region holding thousands of fighters detained after the territorial defeat of the Islamic State group in 2019.
The US-backed force overseeing the prison, the Syrian Democratic Forces, has complained for years that it lacked the ability to operate it securely.
The SDF said that it had recaptured one of the prison’s three buildings in a dawn raid Monday.
An SDF spokesman said about 300 Islamic State group fighters had surrendered but that the Islamic State had threatened to kill the boys if the coalition continued its assault on the prison.
“We have some reports saying that ISIS is threatening to kill all the minors if we continue attacking them,” the spokesperson, Farhad Shami, said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.
In a voice recording obtained by Human Rights Watch on Sunday, a boy who identified himself as a 17-year-old Australian said he had been wounded in an airstrike but there was no medical care available.
The Pentagon said that the coalition had moved in armoured Bradley Fighting Vehicles to back the SDF forces, indicating for the first time that US ground forces were involved in the fight. A coalition official said the vehicles had been fired at and had returned fire.
“We have provided limited ground support, strategically positioned to assist security in the area,” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters in Washington. “For instance, putting Bradley Fighting Vehicles across access points to help block as obstacles.” US military officials said the Bradleys were being used as barricades while the SDF tightened its cordon around the prison.
The United States has also carried out airstrikes with Apache helicopter gunships over the past four days to try to break the siege, killing an unknown number of prisoners.
The American troops are part of a residual force of the US-led military coalition that was kept in Syria to assist in the fight against the Islamic State group and to protect oil installations. There are about 700 US troops in northeast Syria, operating mostly from a base in Hasaka, and another 200 near Syria’s border with Jordan.
Shami said that 30 SDF fighters had been killed in the operation to take back the prison and that about 200 Islamic State fighters and inmates who joined them in an attempt to escape had been killed since Friday. It was not clear how many prisoners had escaped.
The siege of the Sinaa prison in Hasaka demonstrated that the Islamic State group still had the ability to mount a coordinated military operation, despite its territorial defeat by the US-led coalition and Kurdish-led forces three years ago.
It has also highlighted the plight of thousands of foreign children brought to the Islamic State caliphate in Syria by their parents, who have been detained for three years in camps and prisons in northeastern Syria and abandoned by their own countries.
The inmates in Hasaka include boys as young as 12, including Syrians, Iraqis and about 150 non-Arab foreigners. Some had been transferred to the prison after they were deemed too old to remain in detention camps that held families of Islamic State group suspects.
The Syria director for Save the Children, Sonia Khush, said those holding the children were responsible for their safety. But she also blamed the foreign governments for not repatriating their detained citizens and their children.
“Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria,” Khush said. “Risk of death or injury is directly linked to these governments’ refusal to take them home.”
At its peak, the Islamic State group held territory the size of Britain straddling Iraq and Syria. An estimated 40,000 foreigners, including children, made their way to Syria to fight or work for the caliphate.
Thousands of them brought their young children — too young to understand and much too young to make a choice. Other children were born there.
When the last piece of the Islamic State caliphate in Baghuz, Syria, fell three years ago, surviving women and young children were put in detention camps while suspected fighters and boys as young as 10 were sent to prison.
The main detention camp for Islamic State families, Al Hol, is squalid, overcrowded and dangerous, with not enough food or medical services, not enough guards, and an increasingly radicalised segment of detainees who terrorise other camp residents.
When the boys at the camps become teenagers, they are usually transferred to Sinaa prison in Hasaka.
Detainees there, including minors, are packed into overcrowded cells without access to sunlight. There is insufficient food and little medical care, according to prison guards in the impoverished breakaway region of Syria known as Rojava.
When they reach age 18, the youths are placed with the general prison population, where wounded Islamic State fighters sleep three to a bed. None of the non-Syrian detainees have been charged with a crime or gone to trial.
While Rojava authorities run a rehabilitation centre, it has space for only about 150 detainees. When they finish the course, the Syrians are released, but the non-Syrians are returned to prison.
“We help them to construct their prisons, to train their staff, to run as good a prison system as they can, but they are not getting what they need,” said Anne Speckhard, director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. “Prisoners are lying on top of each other.”
Thousands of Islamic State recruits came from Europe, but most European countries, citing security concerns, have refused to repatriate their citizens, apart from orphans. Some have stripped their nationals detained in Syria of citizenship for joining the Islamic State group.
“As long as it stays over here that’s what everybody wants,” Speckhard said of countries refusing to repatriate their citizens. “‘We don’t want it to come over here.’”
Rights activists have compared the prison to the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a place where suspects can be warehoused and forgotten.
The State Department said Monday that the siege highlighted the need for international financial support to improve security at the prison.
“It also underscores the urgent need for countries of origin to repatriate, rehabilitate, reintegrate and prosecute, where appropriate, their nationals detained in northeast Syria,” the State Department’s statement said.
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