Fighting raged for a third day in between on Saturday ISIL (ISIS) and Kurdish forces in Syria after attackers stormed a jail that houses members of the armed group in violence that has so far claimed more than 70 lives.
The attack on the Ghwayran prison in the northern city of Hasakeh is one of ISIL’s most important since its “caliphate” was declared defeated in Syria almost three years ago.
“At least 28 members of the Kurdish security forces, five civilians and 45 members of IS have been killed,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the British war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
ISIL on Thursday launched the attack on the prison, which houses some 3,500 suspected members of the armed group, including some of its leaders, the Sirian Observatory said.
The attackers “confiscated weapons they found” in the detention center and freed several fellow fighters, the monitor said, relying on sources in war-torn Syria for its information.
Hundreds of prisoners have since been recaptured, but dozens are still at large.
With the support of US-led coalition aircraft, Kurdish security forces surrounded the prison and fought to regain full control of surrounding neighborhoods, which the armed group used as a launching pad for their attacks.
The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said on Saturday it was continuing “operations to maintain security in the city of Hasakeh and the perimeter of the Ghwayran prison” with the help of coalition allies and Kurdish internal security forces.
Clashes centered mainly on neighborhoods north of Ghwayran, where it carried out raids and “killed a number of IS fighters who attacked the jail”.
The armed group said in a statement on its Amaq website on Friday that its attack on the jail was aimed at “liberating the prisoners”.
ISIL has carried out regular attacks against Kurdish and government targets in Syria since its once protracted proto-state was invaded in March 2019.
Most guerrilla attacks were against military targets and oil installations in remote areas, but the Hasakeh jailbreak could be a new phase in the group’s revival.
It was not immediately clear whether the jail assault was part of a coordinated operation that coincided with an attack on a military base in neighboring Iraq – or the action of a local ISIL cell.
Analyst Nicholas Heras of the Newlines Institute in Washington said the armed group targeted the jail to bolster its numbers.
“[ISIL] wants to move beyond the terrorist and criminal network to which it has switched, and to do so it needs more fighters, ”he told the AFP news agency.
“Prison breaks represent the best opportunity for ISIS to regain its power in weapons, and the Ghwayran prison is a nice fat target for ISIS because it is overcrowded.”
The prospect of a repeat of the attack remains real, said Colin Clarke, research director at the New York-based Soufan Center Brainstorm.
“The SDF needs a comprehensive strategy to deal with this threat,” he said.
12,000 ISIL suspects
The Kurdish authorities have long warned that they do not have the capacity to detain the thousands of ISIL fighters captured in years of operations, who are yet to be tried.
According to Kurdish authorities, more than 50 nationalities have been represented in a number of Kurdish prisons, where more than 12,000 ISIL suspects are now being held.
Many of the ISIL prisoners’ countries of origin were reluctant to repatriate them, for fear of a public setback at home.
Abdulkarim Omar, the semi-autonomous administration’s top official for foreign policy, blamed the ISIL prison strike for the “international community’s failure to fulfill its responsibilities”.
The war in Syria broke out in 2011 and has since killed nearly half a million people with ten million displaced people.
Local elders say support for ISIL has grown with increasing local resentment against the Kurdish-led administration, which accuses them of discriminating against the majority of the Arab population that governs it, many of whom reject its policy of conscription.
The Kurdish-led group denies any allegations of ill-treatment of local Arabs and says it seeks to rectify old grievances against them as a minority during decades of Arab nationalist rule.
ISIL controlled parts of Syria and Iraq until it was driven out of the area in 2017-19 by opponents, including a US-led coalition, the SDF and Iraqi security forces. ISIL cells continue to carry out attacks in both countries.