The Syrian Democratic Forces announced on Thursday that they were conducting sweeping operations to root out remaining Islamic State fighters still dug in after a week of fighting at the al-Sina’a prison in Hasakah. The Kurdish-led forces had claimed on Wednesday to have retaken the prison for Islamic State detainees in north-eastern Syria, nearly a week after an IS prison break attempt overwhelmed prison security.
Despite claims by the SDF to have secured the area around the prison and its surroundings, media outlets that visited the prison found themselves coming under fire from IS fighters earlier on Thursday. The SDF has since found what it describes as “camouflaged terrorist enclaves” in the northern dormitories of the prison complex, providing cover for 60 to 90 IS fighters. While a spokesperson said that the fighters are being given a chance to surrender peacefully, they will be dealt with “firmly” if they continue to hold out.
Two vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices had rammed into the prison complex in the evening of January 20 before detonating, starting a prison break at the facility believed to have held at least 3,500 detainees prior to the incident, with almost 850 children among those held there. While the SDF claims that around 1,200 prisoners have since been recaptured and 175 killed in fighting to retake the prison, an accurate count of the dead and escaped remains elusive.
While the US-led coalition against IS that supports the SDF had initially attempted to downplay the prison break as a “desperate attempt to display relevance”, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve commanding officer Major General John W. Brennan, Jr. warned on Wednesday that the prison break and subsequent fighting highlighted the increasingly precarious security situation around detention facilities for IS fighters in north-eastern Syria:
“This is a global problem that requires many nations to come together to develop an enduring long-term solution. The makeshift prisons throughout Syria are a breeding ground for Daesh’s failed ideology. We must thoroughly investigate the circumstances that allowed this attack to happen.”
The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that 45,000 people have been displaced as of 26 January by fighting across Hasakah and surrounding areas. Humanitarian aid distribution has also been halted as a result of the fighting, limiting the assistance accessible to the displaced amidst harsh winter conditions.
With reports that around 300 IS fighters had been involved in the attack on the prison, the prison break also highlights IS’ reorganization since its territorial defeat in 2019, being the largest attack in Syria since then. More disturbingly, the prison break was successfully executed despite the discovery and foiling of a previous IS plot to do so by SDF forces in early November 2021, raising questions about both IS organizational abilities to recover from such a setback, and whether SDF forces had become complacent in the two months since the thwarting of the November plot.