7 min read  | Diaspora & Refugees, Hasakah

In Hasakah city, needs and tensions run high after IS prison attack


January 31, 2022

PARIS — A precarious calm has returned to Hasakah city in northeastern Syria following days of battles between the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Islamic State (IS) fighters for control of the al-Sinaa prison, located west of the city. 

The SDF announced on Sunday that it had eliminated the last pockets of IS fighters remaining inside the prison. Before IS attacked and took control of it on January 20, the prison held more than 3,000 former IS fighters and 700 boys detained for being relatives of IS members. 

Since January 20, thousands of SDF forces had been fighting IS in and around al-Sinaa prison with support from US-led anti-IS coalition aircraft. The US-backed forces announced they regained control of al-Sinaa on January 26, while sporadic fighting continued with some remaining IS forces inside the facility in subsequent days.

According to figures released by the SDF on January 31st, more than 370 IS fighters, 121 SDF troops and prison guards and four civilians were killed during the initial attack on the prison and subsequent battles. With the end of major fighting, some 3,500 prisoners reportedly surrendered and were evacuated by bus to other prisons in northeast Syria, while an undetermined number escaped.

Although the most pressing threats now appear to have been brought under control, normalcy has yet to return to Hasakah city. Essential services and humanitarian aid deliveries impacted by the fighting remain disrupted, amid unusual winter storms. And many residents now fear the longer-term consequences of the attack, which renewed past traumas and reopened long-standing wounds within the local community. 

Under lockdown

IS attacked al-Sinaa on the evening of January 20 by detonating car bombs outside the prison, which lies on the southwestern edge of Hasakah city. An estimated 200 IS fighters then stormed the facility from the outside. Riots immediately erupted within the prison, and some detainees were able to overpower guards and seize their weapons.

In the face of mounting chaos, the SDF imposed a total lockdown on Hasakah city, in addition to partial curfews in other nearby cities. Coalition aircraft also airdropped leaflets, encouraging people to report suspicious activities and runaways.

The scale and suddenness of the attack and subsequent battles shook Hasakah residents, who found themselves trapped in their homes. “I have a small child who can’t sleep at night due to the sound of planes above our heads,” Alia (a pseudonym), a resident of the city center, told Syria Direct on January 25. “I had to tell him it’s the sound of New Year’s fireworks.”

The fighting and reports that armed IS fighters had escaped the prison spread panic. Thousands  of people fled the Gweiran, al-Zohour and al-Nashwa neighborhoods—in the vicinity of the prison—in bitter winter conditions. Humanitarian assessments reported that some 45,000 people have been displaced, including 6,000 from neighborhoods closest to the prison. Most of the displaced found refuge with family and friends in other parts of the city or the nearby cities of Qamishli and Amuda, or in shelters opened in several areas of Hasakah city.

Because of the prison’s close proximity to a key fuel station, and the lockdown that ensued as the SDF battled IS, the attack severely disrupted many essential services in the city and compounded the challenges residents face following recent winter storms. 

“I have a small child who can’t sleep at night due to the sound of planes above our heads. I had to tell him it’s the sound of New Year’s fireworks.”

“In our area, we don’t have reliable, regular electricity for the grid. We rely on generators which run on fuel sourced from this area. At the moment, we don’t have enough fuel to run our heaters, and we don’t have electricity,” said Alia, who also ran out of water shortly after speaking to Syria Direct. She also reported trash piling up on the streets due to the lockdown.

“We live in Syria: humanitarian conditions were already bad, we had a sugar and diesel crisis due to the closure of the crossing [with Iraqi Kurdistan],” Ahmed al-Barro, an activist from al-Hasakah, told Syria Direct. With shops only partially open and movements restricted, many families had to rely on food and fuel reserves. 

Disrupted aid

“The insecurity has also limited humanitarian organizations from being able to respond, and there have been gaps in food assistance, access to clean water, and access to medical care,” Kathryn Achilles, a spokesperson for Save the Children, told Syria Direct

Hasakah city is surrounded by several large camps that host thousands of displaced Syrians and where essential items—water, food and fuel—are delivered by trucks. The closure of roads in and around the city immediately complicated the work of relief organizations, in addition to the fact that many local aid workers were themselves trapped at home. Most humanitarian movements—save for emergency services—were prohibited by local authorities.

With badly needed aid interrupted or delayed, a propaganda turf war soon erupted between the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian regime, which controls neighborhoods in the city’s south. To residents’ confusion, each party accused the other of interfering with aid.

On January 25, the AANES accused the regime-appointed governor of Hasakah province of obstructing the delivery of humanitarian aid to its areas, denouncing what it called the “politicization” of assistance by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This came in response to an ICRC press release calling for unimpeded access to civilians and wounded fighters for its partner, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), a charity widely considered to be affiliated with the regime. The ICRC did not respond to Syria Direct’s request for comment by the time of publication.

There have been gaps in food assistance, access to clean water, and access to medical care.

The regime-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) also reported on January 25 that 3,900 families displaced by the fighting had arrived in Damascus-held parts of the city. The agency highlighted humanitarian relief provided by SARC and criticized “the complete absence of any role of the international organizations” in the rest of the province. Local media has since then reported that the AANES secured the arrival of 28 trucks carrying UN aid shipments to the region.

The feud between the AANES and Damascus over the delivery of aid is only one manifestation of deep-running divisions within the community. On January 26, SANA accused the SDF of intentionally destroying 10 houses belonging to Arab residents of Hasakah during anti-IS operations, an allegation that adds fuel to anti-Kurdish sentiments in a city demographically split between Arab and Kurds but effectively dominated by a Kurdish-led administration.

“Our first demand is that people must be able to return to their original place of residence as soon as possible.”

One activist from Hasakah who spoke to Syria Direct voiced concerns that the IS prison attack would be used to justify abuses and evictions targeting Arab residents in certain parts of the city. These fears have not yet materialized, but they reveal widespread underlying tensions that  could easily further destabilize the area.

“Nothing happens in Syria without a sectarian, regional or ethnic dimension,” Bassam al-Ahmad, Director of the Syrians Center for Truth and Justice (STJ), told Syria Direct. “Our first demand is that people must be able to return to their original place of residence as soon as possible,” he said. “It is true that the security sweeps can take days, but every person who left their home must be able to return as soon as possible.”

International efforts

Meanwhile, more than 100 Syrian organizations—including STJ—have called on the international community to find a solution to the problem of hundreds of foreign IS fighters still held in Syrian prisons. 

Many countries continue to refuse to take back their ISIS-affiliated citizens, meaning that detention centers in northeast Syria are full of more than 10,000 fighters,” the organizations wrote in a statement on January 26. “These detention centers are a ticking bomb, threatening the stability of Syria, the region, and the entire world.”

This long-standing crisis was highlighted by the plight of around 700 minors who had been detained in al-Sinaa—without having committed any crime—as relatives of alleged IS fighters. Caught in the fighting, they effectively became human shields. Many of the boys are foreign nationals, who human rights and humanitarian organizations have  argued should have been repatriated by their countries of origin years ago. 

  Is 2021 the year for decisive steps towards repatriating the foreign children held in northeast Syria camps?

The al-Sinaa prison, the largest for IS fighters in Syria, had long become a growing source of concern due to frequent riots. The SDF had repeatedly warned that it lacked means to police the overcrowded jail, where prisoners were effectively allowed to self-organize. The facility saw multiple attempted prison breaks over the past months, including a major attack reportedly thwarted by the SDF on November 8.

Now, many residents fear the longer-term consequences of the attack, which has been described as the “most serious” attack carried out by IS since it was territorially defeated in 2019.

“The terrorists have infiltrated us, the civilians. Can you imagine our fear? Can you imagine how we feel?”

“The attack sparked widespread fear of IS among people in the city,” Nurhat Hesen, a local journalist, told Syria Direct. “People say that the security forces managed to keep the situation under control this time, but this may not always be the case. They feel that they are at the mercy of terrorists.”

“We don’t dare open the door because they told us some prisoners escaped and are armed,” Alia said. “The terrorists have infiltrated us, the civilians. Can you imagine our fear? Can you imagine how we feel?” But beyond the fear of lone IS fighters, “what scares us is the thought that Daesh as an organization might be returning,” Alia stressed.

These fears run exceptionally  high among survivors of IS crimes, such as Khader (who asked that his last name be withheld), a Yazidi refugee living in a large IDP camp located east of al-Hasakah city. “We are afraid that IS elements will escape and destabilize this area again,” he told Syria Direct, citing concerns that IS fighters would use the civilian population as ‘shields’ in their fight against the SDF. “We don’t want our tragedy to repeat itself.”

This article was edited on 1/2/2022 at 12:41 pm to reflect the updated death toll of the attack.

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