US-backed forces in Syria are still fighting Islamic State at prison

Syrians wait to return to their homes near a prison, where Islamic State fighters are holed up, in Hasaka, Syria, on Thursday, Jan 27, 2022. Many residents of the neighborhoods near a prison have fled or were forced by security forces to leave after Islamic State fighters attacked the complex last Thursday with suicide bombers and gunmen. (Diego Ibarra Sanchez/The New York Times)
Forces from a Kurdish-led militia on rooftops traded fire with dozens of Islamic State fighters still holed up in an embattled prison in northeastern Syria on Thursday, despite claims by the US-backed militia a day earlier that it had regained full control of the entire complex.

The Syrian Democratic Forces militia announced Wednesday that it had retaken Sinaa prison in the city of al-Hasaka, which held thousands of former Islamic State fighters, nearly a week after their fellow militants attacked the prison to try to free them.

But on Thursday, the fight went on.

The Kurdish-led forces fired rocket-propelled grenades at the partly destroyed prison complex, and the sound of truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns rang out as they confronted up to 90 Islamic State militants still fighting from inside. An official with one of the Syrian-Kurdish paramilitary groups battling the Islamic State said most of the holdouts were among those who stormed the prison, but some were prisoners who had joined forces with them.

The prison attack was the starkest evidence yet of a resurgence of the Islamic State across parts of Syria and Iraq, nearly three years after the group lost control of a vast stretch of territory in both countries. The extremists have also mounted a series of attacks on military forces in neighboring Iraq in recent months.

The prison battle drew the US military into the fray in support of the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, providing airstrikes, intelligence and armored vehicles to cordon off the prison. It was the biggest confrontation between US forces and the Islamic State since the fall of the group's so-called caliphate.

Fighting on Thursday also raged in areas surrounding the prison complex.

At a nearby traffic circle in the center of al-Hasaka, a New York Times team took cover along with local journalists and civilians caught in the middle as Kurdish-led forces traded fire with Islamic State gunmen. The firefight broke out close to a small US Army base housing some of the roughly 700 US troops in northeastern Syria.

The SDF said two Islamic State fighters were killed in the engagement near the traffic circle, but there were no reports of civilians harmed in that clash.

In a neighborhood nearby, hundreds of Kurdish special forces fanned out, going house to house to search for escaped prisoners and Islamic State fighters in hiding.

Down an alley, special forces operators lined up young men from some of the houses near a wall as they examined their documents. They instructed residents to come out of their homes. Leave the doors open, they said over loudspeakers, or they would use force to open them.

The neighborhood was mostly empty, but in one house, a young mother emerged with two boys, wide-eyed and terrified. The woman, Nasreen, who asked to be identified only by her first name out of fear for her security, said she was trying to keep them warm by borrowing fuel from the neighbour. She said the water had been cut off for the past 10 days.

“We have nowhere else to go,” she said when asked why she had stayed when most of her neighbors had left.

A bulldozer emerged from the ruins of a cultural center next to the prison complex carrying the crumpled body of an Islamic State fighter before dumping it in the back of a pickup truck.

At another building behind the cultural center, which had been hit by an airstrike, SDF fighters pulled out the remains of two other Islamic State fighters. A charred oil tanker on its side still burned across the street.

SDF forces said the tanker and three others that were burned beside it had been destroyed in an airstrike by the US-led coalition operating in Syria.

An SDF spokesperson said Wednesday that at least 30 militia fighters and more than 100 militants had been killed.

The fate of some 700 boys, who the SDF said were used as human shields by the Islamic State attackers, was still not completely clear. The boys, ages 10-18, have been held for years in the prison because their parents joined the Islamic State.

Siyamend Ali, the head of media for the People’s Protection Units, one of the Kurdish factions in the SDF, said he was not aware that any of the child hostages had been killed in the fighting but that information about what happened to all of the prisoners was still being assessed.

He said that more than 3,000 detainees had surrendered and that most had been taken to a new detention facility built by the US-led coalition that has fought the Islamic State in Syria. Some of the Islamic State militants still inside the prison were believed to be foreign fighters, he added.

“The prison attack has activated sleeper cells in other places,” Ali said.

Many residents of the neighborhoods near the prison have fled or were forced by security forces to leave after the Islamic State attacked the complex Jan. 20 with suicide bombers and gunmen. A week later, dozens of families gathered at a security checkpoint less than 1 mile from their homes, prevented by security forces from returning because of the continuing danger.

“If you listen to me, you will go back!” a female intelligence officer wearing military fatigues and a pink-flowered headband shouted at a group of women asking to be allowed to go home. Fighter jets flew overhead as the families sat on the concrete curb, hoping the road would open. Some carried plastic bags with flat loaves of bread, a staple that is increasingly hard to come by in those parts, hoping to take them back home.

Fatma Naser, 25, said that she and her three small children had been staying with relatives and that she was desperate to get back to her own home.

Her daughter, Maria, clutched a cheap plastic doll wearing a black dress with rough yellow stitching whose arm was hanging off.

“I’m already dead,” said Ftem Awad al-Jamil, an older woman who said she did not know her age. Al-Jamil, who wore a torn dark purple scarf held together by safety pins, said she had walked from a neighbourhood on the outskirts of town with her daughters and grandsons hoping to get home.