Brazen Islamic State prison attack exposes Syria's unsustainable status quo
On the night of 20 January, smoke began to emerge from the prison cells of Ghwayran prison, the largest detention centre of Islamic State (IS) fighters in northeast Syria. As prisoners burned blankets and clothes, bombs went off outside the prison walls and IS fighters shot at the building from all directions.
Seven days later, the attack seemed to be quelled. About 1,000 IS fighters had surrendered and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were once again in control of the prison. The week-long battle left at least 374 dead and allowed an unknown amount of prisoners to escape.
Most of all, the incident exposed a problem the international community can no longer afford to ignore: the Islamic State is regaining strength.
The IS attack on Ghwayran prison is the largest and most ambitious the group has carried out since the defeat of its self-declared ‘caliphate’ in March 2019. The attack was complex and obviously pre-planned, with the SDF claiming that they had foiled a similar plot in November 2021 that involved an attack on Ghwayran prison using car bombs.
"The IS attack on Ghwayran prison is the largest and most ambitious the group has carried out since the defeat of its self-declared 'caliphate' in March 2019"
As soon as the prison walls were breached by the IS suicide bomber, a truck full of weapons pulled up to the prison to supply fighters inside with weapons.
A network of tunnels was built leading into houses in the residential areas around the prison, allowing IS fighters who attacked the prison to quickly fan out throughout the surrounding city and disappear. At the time of publication, Kurdish-led forces are still engaged in sporadic firefights as they hunt down members of the sleeper cells involved in the attack.
The IS prison attack was a part of a plan to launch the “Second Islamic State,” SDF General Command said on Monday. Had their operation to free the 5,000 detainees in the prison succeeded, the radical group would have gone on to launch attacks throughout northeast Syria, specifically in Deir az-Zour province and al-Hol camp.
According to Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher with the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM), the prison attack is part of a trend and is a sign of IS’s growing strength in Iraq and Syria. He said that increasingly, IS attacks involve a larger number of fighters and now include city centres and military outposts where they were previously isolated to rural areas.
Part of the reason for the rising ability of the group to conduct attacks is faulty intel and political conditions which undermine the effectiveness of anti-terror operations.
“[These attacks] are mainly caused by failures of intelligence when it comes to counter-attacks. Coalition, AKA US forces, are busy thwarting Iranian Guard Corps-backed forces and the SDF is engaged in daily clashes against the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army,” al-Ghazi told The New Arab.
He added that political dissatisfaction with SDF rule and worsening economic conditions, especially in Arab-majority areas like Deir az-Zour and Raqqa, could have bolstered IS's presence in the region. Economic conditions have long been cited as a key driver of the area’s IS activity, with arrested members of the group confessing that they agreed to carry out attacks for a few hundred US dollars.
Indefinite detention and a lack of international support
Rights groups sounded the alarm early on in the prison siege, revealing that nearly 850 minors were living in the same prison occupied by IS fighters. Audio sent by some of the children to rights groups and families outside of the prison detailed a harrowing experience as the battle raged outside the prison walls.
Children complained that they had not had access to food and water in days, and that some were injured from the airstrikes carried out by the US-led International Coalition to Defeat Daesh.
Though the situation had turned into an emergency once IS took control of the prison, rights advocates argued it mainly shined a light on an already existing problem.
“Hundreds of children are detained in prisons: Children must be considered as victims,” Beatrice Eriksson, spokesperson of the children's rights organisation Repatriate the Children-Sweden, told The New Arab.
After the so-called caliphate was defeated, men with real or suspected links to IS were put in prison, while the women and children were put in detention camps. The SDF has been unable to judge the innocence of the tens of thousands of individuals forced to live in detention centres and camps. And despite initiatives to release minor and non-violent offenders, huge numbers of detainees still remain.
"The incident exposed a problem the international community can no longer afford to ignore: the Islamic State is regaining strength"
According to Eriksson, the majority of these detainees are children, most of them “so young that they have no memories of the war.”
With no real plan in place to deal with these detainees, many of the male children are separated from their families in the camp and placed in IS prisons once they turn 12. There, they face a variety of dangers to their psychological and physical health.
“When children are put in prisons along with adult alleged ISIS fighters, they are facing huge risks. Some children in the prisons have been used as child soldiers by IS and are now being held under torture-like conditions in prisons along with the adults who brought them to the war zone and exploited them,” explained Eriksson.
The SDF has called on the international community to ask them to help them shoulder the burden of the tens of thousands of suspected IS fighters and their families. Proposals by the SDF include asking for an international tribunal to be set up to gather evidence and help try individuals. However, an international tribunal cannot be held in northeast Syria, because the Kurdish-led authority that controls the area, is not a recognised political entity.
In July, the fledgling political authority launched a campaign to gain international recognition – with the exception of the Basque region of Spain, no country has made moves to do so.
The SDF has also asked foreign countries to repatriate their citizens who are currently detained in northeast Syria for suspected links to IS.
Up to 3,000 of the suspected IS fighters, a figure which includes minors, are foreign nationals. In addition to the suspected IS fighters, about 27,000 foreign children from 60 countries are stranded in northeast Syria, Eriksson said.
Foreign countries, with a few exceptions, have mostly declined to do so. Most foreign countries cite a lack of diplomatic relations with the Kurdish-led authority or the lack of a consulate in the area as the main reason they will not repatriate their citizens.
"The SDF has called on the international community to ask them to help them shoulder the burden of the tens of thousands of suspected IS fighters and their families"
Elected governments have faced popular backlash in the past for bringing back their citizens from Syria. In 2020, the Norwegian government collapsed after repatriating a woman from Syria who was suspected of having links to IS.
Rights groups say that foreign countries have a moral obligation to repatriate their citizens, especially the children, who did not choose to come to Syria in the first place. Others warn that if these children grow up in IS prisons and detainment camps, they will internalise the ideas of the radical groups and become the ‘next generation of extremism.’
In Erikkson’s eyes, the attack on Ghwayran prison should be a wake-up call.
“Indefinite and unlawful detention of children and their parents is not a realistic way of dealing with the situation. Children and adults – in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere – must be protected from becoming new victims of terrorism and armed conflict,” she said.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou