Could disaster loom in Syria ISIS prison battle? - analysis

ISIS was not solely a local terror organization. It had pretense at a “caliphate” – and its promise of religious supremacism based on slavery and genocide.

 A SUSPECTED ISIS member sits blindfolded in a Taliban Special Forces car in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 5. (photo credit: WANA VIA REUTERS)
A SUSPECTED ISIS member sits blindfolded in a Taliban Special Forces car in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 5.
(photo credit: WANA VIA REUTERS)

News of an attempted prison break by ISIS members last week was initially downplayed. Lack of information made it seem that some ISIS members had launched attacks in eastern Syria, but it was not a major incident. Now we know, however, that the large-scale ISIS uprising and attacks could be the largest battle against the extremist group since its major defeat in 2017-2019.

ISIS once ran a swath of Iraq and Syria and spread terror all over the world. It committed genocide and attracted some 50,000-100,000 volunteers. After its defeat at the hands of Iraqis and Syrians, backed by the US-led coalition, many of its defeated members were detained. 

ISIS was not solely a local terror organization. It had pretense at a “caliphate” – and its promise of religious supremacism based on slavery and genocide attracted converts and followers from around the world. Some 5,000 of those followers came from Europe. After its defeat along the Euphrates river in 2019, tens of thousands of former ISIS members and their families were detained. These included some 50,000 Iraqis who had joined the movement and moved to Syria. It also included some 2,000 foreigners, some of whom were children.  

Because the international community never sought to defeat ISIS like the Nazis were defeated – by bringing their leaders to war crimes trials and putting massive finances into reconstruction – the ISIS detainees were left to be “someone else’s problem.” The “someone else” in this story became the Syrian Democratic Forces, the group the US helped create in 2015 to fight the jihadist.

The SDF grew out of the YPG, a mostly Kurdish force that had been fighting ISIS. The SDF was supposed to be an umbrella organization including all the people of eastern Syria. It worked well and it sacrificed thousands of lives to defeat ISIS. The US-led coalition was able to rely on the defense force and was able to send just a small footprint of special forces to Syria to aid it in defeating the extremists. Raqqa was retaken in 2017 and ISIS was pushed into a small corner in Syria’s Euphrates River valley. 

A Kurdistan Region Peshmerga looks out at ISIS positions from his frontline near Kirkuk in 2015 (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)A Kurdistan Region Peshmerga looks out at ISIS positions from his frontline near Kirkuk in 2015 (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

UNLIKE THE Nazis in Berlin, however, the ISIS members were never fully defeated. They went willingly to detainee camps and plotted their return. ISIS leaders had done this before when they were members of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups in the period after 2003. They knew how to use prisons as a kind of “caliphate in waiting.” They would wait a few years and then return when the time was right. It appears that some felt that January 2022 was the right time; some three years after defeat, they have tried to make a comeback. 

The recent events began last Thursday when ISIS fighters broke into a prison called Al-Sina’a in Syria's Ghweran province. Reports say that several hundred ISIS fighters on the inside and outside of the prison were involved in the battles over the previous week.  

Iraq’s prime minister visited the Iraq-Syrian border on Wednesday due to the ongoing clashes. This appears to show how important the recent crisis is.

“Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, accompanied by the ministers of defense and interior, arrived at the border between Iraq and Syria in Ninevah province on Wednesday according to a tweet from the premier’s office, having landed in Mosul earlier that morning,” Rudaw reported.

A security training was also carried out in Mosul to check the readiness of the city. This is important because in June 2014 when ISIS invaded Iraq, it was able to easily capture the province's capital. Iraq’s army at the time abandoned the city. This led to ISIS atrocities against Christians and then against Shi’ites, eventually spreading to genocide against Yazidis in August 2014.

The ramifications are important because ISIS attacks on Iraq led to the Iranians backing the creation of the Hashd al-Shaabi popular mobilization units, which have become a key paramilitary force. Those groups are also now tied to Hezbollah and threaten Iraq and Syria, as well as Israel, due to their continued and expanded presence. What this means is that the prison break in Syria and the subsequent fighting is an alarm bell for the region. 

THE SDF has been hard pressed to contain the violence but they have been able to check the ISIS attacks and put down the resurgence, according to reports. This has resulted in numerous casualties: hundreds among the ISIS members and reports of dozens of SDF members killed and wounded. Some SDF operatives were also captured by the jihadist group. In other cases, the siege of ISIS members in the prison has resulted in other detainees claiming they are starving and stuck with them. This apparently includes children and minors.  

The US-led coalition – which had sought to draw down from Syria in 2018 and 2019 on orders from then-US President Donald Trump – has had to help the SDF. This is important because America has generally recently ought not to mention the war in Syria. Trump portrayed the successful war on ISIS in Syria as another endless war where the US was wasting time for a place that he claimed many can’t find on a map.

Working with Turkey, the US also abandoned its SDF allies in some areas and empowered a Turkish invasion in 2019. Turkey opposes the SDF and has called them terrorists. Meanwhile, it has backed extremist groups, given shelter to ISIS members who fled to Turkey and likely enabled ISIS members to move to Idlib in Syria. The leader of ISIS was found by US special forces in Idlib in 2019, hiding near the Turkish border.  

This complex situation is now a boiling kettle. Turkey has fueled extremism in the parts of Syria it occupied. It often shells the SDF and uses drones to attack Kurds and Yazidis. Some accuse Ankara of coordinating the recent attack with ISIS, although it may well be that this is merely a convenience for Turkey, which has wanted the US to leave Syria so it can attack the SDF.

 ANKARA WANTS the US to examine its role in Syria and leave the country so that it can be divided between Turkey, Iran, Russia and the Syrian regime. Iran and Russia back the Syrian regime but they have different agendas there.  

“The continuous threats of Turkey against our regions is becoming obvious to the public," The SDF said in a statement over the weekend. "As we know, the Turkish drones killed six young people in Kobane earlier this month. Subsequently, the Turkish state has increased the attacks and targeting civilians in Ain Issa, Zarkan and Tal Tamir. Our forces have resisted fiercely, defending our region’s people against the occupation attacks.

"Despite that, Daesh [ISIS] mercenaries have launched a massive attack on the world’s most dangerous prison of al-Sina’a, which holds Daesh terrorist detainees who pose a threat not only to the region but also to the world at large.” 

The US-led coalition has said that “the SDF, with coalition support, is valiantly leading ops [operations] securing the Hasakah Detention Facility. We applaud them for their efforts. The desperate attack has made Daesh weaker…. As our SDF partners are fighting valiantly to deny Daesh any chance of resurgence across NE Syria, we continue to provide them with mission-enabling resources including surveillance, intelligence & strike capability. The anti-Daesh fight continues and we are stronger together.” 

It remains to be seen if ISIS has again been defeated or if its and Turkey’s backing for extremists in nearby areas will destabilize the SDF-held areas of Syria.