US-backed forces retake Syrian prison from Islamic State

US-backed Syrian forces said they had regained full control of a prison on Wednesday after a week-long battle with Islamic State fighters who hit the facility in their worst attack in the country in nearly three years.

Up to 200 US troops are fighting alongside Kurdish-led forces at a prison in the city of Hasakah, US defense officials say, in the most severe test in years for the force. America’s tiny US army. More than 100 people have been killed in the fighting, most of them Islamic State members, according to the Syrian Democratic Forces, which monitor northeastern Syria with US backing.

An SDF spokesman said on Wednesday that al-Sina’a prison was under their control, with all Islamic State members surrendering.

As for the Islamic State, prison attack was a reassertion of the group’s ability to commit large-scale violence and threaten a high-value facility held by US-backed forces. The complex attack, which involved sleeping rooms and an uprising among prisoners inside the facility, is more ambitious than any attempt in Syria since 2019.

The prison break highlights the challenges of defeating the Islamic State, an organization that has shown its ability to constantly transform to adapt to changing political trends and security conditions in Iraq and Syria. .

This group has its roots in the homegrown uprising against the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and later became a transnational extremist group and eventually a self-proclaimed state that rules over millions. in Iraq and Syria.

Although it was eventually destroyed, the escape could have been a significant propaganda victory in Islamic State’s efforts to continue to inspire its followers, analysts say. all around the world.

“The symbolic impact of this in the grand scheme of what ISIS is trying to accomplish means this will come down as a pivotal moment,” said Charlie Winter, research director at ExTrac. in its history in Syria and globally. , a conflict analysis firm.

The attack began nearly a week ago with suicide bombings and an uprising among Islamic State members inside the prison. That sparked days of fighting that spread to neighborhoods around the facility.

As the operation to retake the facility culminated on Wednesday, the SDF said it conducted a building-by-building sweep of the prison grounds in an effort to regain full control of the facility.

The SDF earlier on Wednesday said 1,000 Islamic State fighters had surrendered in the fighting. Islamic State claims to have freed 800 people from prison, but the SDF denies that claim. About 200 people took part in the initial attack on the prison, which involved an uprising inside the facility, the SDF also said.

The intense fighting resulted in the largest US combat deployment in Syria in years. US officials said 100 to 200 US troops were part of a response that included airstrikes, surveillance and the Bradley Combat Vehicle, the heaviest vehicle US forces have handled in Syria.

Defense officials said American soldiers used Bradleys to create specific roads in Hasakah and fire on those roads. The force deployed is a significant part of the approximately 900 US troops currently stationed in Syria support the Kurdish-led Syrian militia in their fight to destroy the Islamic State.

U.S. officials said the United States is not engaged in negotiations with Islamic State members inside the prison, but has advisers from the SDF leading those negotiations.

“The war against Daesh continues and we are #StrongerTogether,” the US-led military coalition in Iraq and Syria, tweeted Wednesday.

The SDF said just after midnight Wednesday that in the past two days it had freed 23 people held hostage by Islamic State, including prison staff and others.

The Islamic State has seen major setbacks in 2019, first the failure of the physical caliphate and then the death of its founder and leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But experts warn that ISIS ideology remains strong and a global resurgence is already happening. Photo: Reuters

As the battle continues, concern grows about the fate of 850 12-year-olds held in prison and trapped with Islamic State fighters, who still control parts of the country. basis. According to the charity Save the Children, many of the children, who were boys, were detained in 2019 after the fall of the last swathe of Islamic State in Syria.

On Wednesday, the SDF accused the Islamic State of using boys and teenagers as human shields. It was not immediately clear what happened to the children.

The United Nations children’s agency Unicef ​​said late on Tuesday that it was concerned about reports that children trapped in prison may have been forced to take part in fighting between prisoners. and security forces and reported that several were killed.

“These children were never held in the military in the first place. The violence they suffer can turn into a war crime,” said Unicef ​​CEO Henrietta Fore.

About 45,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the vicinity of the prison, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The attack came after Islamic State violence had subsided in Syria. According to Gregory Waters, in the vast desert in the heart of the country, which has been the focus of an insurgency in recent years, the group carried out just 11 attacks and killed fewer government troops than at any other time. any point since 2019, an analyst with the Countering Extremism Project, who tracks Islamic State activity in the region.

Immediately after the prison break, the Islamic State launched a series of other attacks in SDF-held areas of northeastern Syria, analysts said, suggesting a coordinated operation. The January 20 prison break coincided with another attack in which Islamic State fighters kill 11 Iraqi soldiers when they slept in their camp.

“ISIS has shifted the focus of its operations from quantity to quality,” said Winter, a conflict analyst.

Write letter for Jared Malsin at and Nancy A. Youssef at

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