Conflict Alerts # 477, 26 January 2022
In the news
On 20 January, multiple explosives were triggered outside the Kurdish-run Ghwayran prison in Hasakeh, Syria. Immediately after the explosions, nearly 100 Daesh (Islamic State) fighters stormed the prison in an attempt to jailbreak the IS operatives. Simultaneously, a massive riot broke within the prison, dividing the prison guards. The prison houses more than 3,000 IS members, along with a few top commanders and leaders. Around 300-400 inmates were set free from the prison, and a gunfight ensued between IS militants and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
On 21 January, the SDF tried to gain control over the northern part of the prison to stop prisoners from escaping a second time. The SDF also engaged with the IS militants taking cover in the nearby Zuhour neighbourhood. The people in the neighbourhood were forced to leave, fearing the loss of their lives. IS militants also began to boobytrap houses and use the public as human shields to protect themselves.
During 22-23 January, the fighting between the SDF and IS militants intensified with multiple casualties inside the prison and in the Zuhour neighbourhood. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, nearly 123 people were killed with 85 IS militants, 45 SDF personnel and Seven civilians. The SDF also captured 136 inmates who had escaped initially. The Pentagon announced that the US supported the SDF ground forces with airstrikes on IS targets.
On 24 January, the IS militants were outflanked by the SDF, who surrounded the entire prison. The IS militants also took control over a few cells and dormitories within the prison that detained children who had been suspected of having IS links. The prison has nearly 850 child inmates, with a few as young as 12. The SDF released a statement stating that the lives of the children were solely in the hands of the IS militants.
Issues at large
First, the resurgence of the Islamic State. Since 2021, IS attacks have become frequent and potent. The recent attack in Syria has been the most significant one since it was declared defeated in 2019 by the US, Iraqi and Syrian forces. A few hours after the prison attack in Syria, in northern Iraq, 11 military personnel were killed within an army barracks in the Diyala province
Second, the targeted attacks on prisons and camps. The recent attack is not the first time the IS has tried to break its members from prison. The idea can be traced back to the "Breaking the Walls" campaign during 2012-13, which primarily targeted prisons in Iraq that held a large number of IS operatives. Even after the fall of the IS in 2019, the group began targeting prisons to increase their recruitment rapidly. The prisons run by the Kurdish forces, on the other hand, were make-shift prisons created to detain suspected IS militants. At present, the Kurdish-led forces have nearly 12,000 IS fighters jailed in their prisons and about 1,00,000 family members of IS fighters in under-resourced camps. The Kurdish forces have been unable to facilitate and control the vast numbers due to a shortage of resources. These prisons and camps have also become breeding grounds for extremism making groups like the IS hard to eradicate.
Third, the civilians and children in the crossfire. With IS militants entering their homes and using them as human shields, nearly 45,000 people have been forced to evacuate the area for their safety. The explosives planted by the IS in civilian buildings to target the SDF increase civilians' risk when they decide to return. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), there have already been reports of children being killed or injured in the attack. With the IS militants using the children in prison as a bargaining chip, the state of the Syrian justice and the prison system has been brought to the forefront.
The Islamic State is not dead in Syria and Iraq. The attacks on Ghwayran and Diyala show that the group has managed to reorganize and strengthen its operational space in both countries. Though the success of the attack is not known since the total number of prisoners on the run is yet to be disclosed, one can safely assume that the Islamic State would continue to target more Syrian and Iraqi prisons in the future.
With the magnitude of the recent attacks, the SDF and Iraqi forces would also be better prepared to handle a large-scale attack on their prisons. Though the IS may have a few hundred recruits now, a few wrong decisions, such as selecting the wrong target, might crush this resurgence in its infancy.