Kurdish-led forces end prison siege, defeating Islamic State group fighters

An armoured vehicle rides next to a smoke as Syrian Democratic Forces affiliates clash with the Islamic State militants outside a prison in Hasaka, Syria Jan 22, 2022, in this screen grab taken from a video. North Press Agency Digital/REUTERS
After six days of deadly battles, the Kurdish-led militia that had been battling Islamic State group fighters for control of a prison in northeastern Syria retook the facility Wednesday, ending one of the most audacious attacks by the jihadi group since the collapse of its so-called caliphate nearly three years ago.

Dozens of militiamen and hundreds of Islamic State group fighters have been killed since the jihadis blasted their way into the prison in the city of al-Hasaka this past week and joined rioting prisoners inside to seize control, taking the prison staff and about 700 boys detained in the facility hostage, militia officials said.

The militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, battled Islamic State group sleeper cells in surrounding neighbourhoods and then laid siege to the remaining militants, who gave up Wednesday after running low on food and water.

“The future was clear to them if they didn’t surrender,” said Aram Hanna, an SDF spokesperson. “The area was completely besieged and completely under the control of our forces. They had no other option.”

SDF officials said they were still trying to determine how many of their fighters and how many Islamic State group attackers and prisoners had been killed. An SDF spokesperson said at least 30 militia fighters and more than 100 militants had been killed.

Whether any of the 700 boys — held by Islamic State group fighters as human shields during the siege — were among the casualties was also unclear Wednesday, as well as how many prisoners may have escaped during the fray.

The battle for the prison dragged to the fore the unresolved humanitarian and security problems that the West has largely ignored since the SDF, backed by a US-led military coalition, drove the Islamic State group from its last patch of territory in early 2019.

The militia captured the men, women and children who survived the collapse of the caliphate and locked them in prisons and detention camps that were meant to last only until other countries repatriated their citizens or helped find lasting solutions for the rest.

But most countries refused to bring their citizens home, so the detentions continued in what rights activists have described as a sprawling Syrian Guantánamo: tens of thousands of people, mostly women and children, warehoused in squalid, dangerous camps, and thousands of men and boys in makeshift prisons, all without any legal recourse.

Terrorism experts and US officials have long warned that the lockups could pave the way for a renewed insurgency.

“The makeshift prisons throughout Syria are a breeding ground for Daesh’s failed ideology,” Maj. Gen. John Brennan Jr, the coalition commander, said in a statement Wednesday, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

“This is not a problem solely within this city,” he said. “This is a global problem that requires many nations to come together to develop an enduring long-term solution.”

The al-Hasaka prison, a converted training institute, was the largest of those run by the SDF and held thousands of men who had been captured as the caliphate fell. Reflecting the Islamic State group’s international draw, they came from countries across the globe and were packed into crowded cells.

None have been officially charged with crimes or have appeared before a judge.

The prison also held about 700 boys whose families had joined the Islamic State group. SDF officials deemed them dangerous, but human rights activists say their detention may violate international law and may also serve to radicalise them — creating a new generation of jihadis.

During the prison siege, they became hostages, raising concerns that they could be harmed and complicating efforts by the SDF to retake the prison.

On Wednesday, Hanna said none of the children had been hurt. Other officials were less sure, saying they needed time to figure out what exactly had happened to the boys.

During the fighting, there were indications that they were not all fine, including voice messages obtained by Human Rights Watch from an Australian teenager saying that his head was bleeding and that he had seen the bodies of children who had been killed.

SDF officials interviewed Wednesday acknowledged that the Islamic State group had not just taken over part of the prison, as they said during the siege, but had taken over the entire prison complex.

The militants launched their attack Thursday with two suicide car bombs that blew open the entrance, SDF officials said. Scores of armed fighters rushed in, barricading themselves inside the wards with rioting prisoners, clashing with guards and taking prison workers hostage, said Nuri Mahmud, a spokesperson for Kurdish fighters in the SDF.

Islamic State group sleeper cells in surrounding neighbourhoods seized buildings and grain silos from which they attacked militia forces heading toward the prison.

As the SDF fought its way toward the prison, the United States joined the fight, using armoured vehicles, attack helicopters and airstrikes.

For the past two days, SDF forces imposed a siege on four or five buildings where the prisoners and attackers had refused to surrender and were holding prison workers and the boys hostage. The forces knew which building the boys were in and did not use heavy weapons near it, Mahmud said.

“ISIS tried to take advantage of the youths in the prison to a certain extent,” he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. “The forces were careful about that.”

By Wednesday, the besieged militants were running low on food and water and had no way to treat those who were sick or had been wounded in the fighting, said Siyamend Ali, who heads the media office of a Kurdish fighting group.

“We told them they could go back as they were, as prisoners,” he said. “In the end, they had no choice but to surrender or they would all die, so they decided to surrender.”

Soon, SDF officials were posting images of long lines of tired-looking prisoners in sandals and tattered clothes lining up in the prison yard after surrendering.

SDF officials said it would take time to ascertain the final death toll, assess all the prisoners and treat the wounded. Some of the wards were so damaged that the prisoners will have to be moved elsewhere, they said.

The prison lies in a predominantly Kurdish region of northeastern Syria outside the control of Syrian authorities in Damascus. Since the US-backed coalition and the SDF repelled the Islamic State group from the area, it has been run by an ad hoc administration affiliated with the militia that operates with wide autonomy but has not been recognised as an official government by any other nation.

The United States keeps about 700 troops in northeast Syria to work with the SDF against the Islamic State group, in addition to a smaller base near the Jordanian border in the south.

The prison attack was the clearest indication, SDF officials said, that the Islamic State group did not end when it lost its last patch of territory, the village of Baghuz to the south of Hasaka.

“We can’t say that ISIS is over,” Ali said. “It is true that we got rid of them geographically, but the presence of ISIS continues.”

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