The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the backing of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, has been engaged in a nearly week-long battle with ISIS. The assault is the most complex and deadly attack by the terrorist group since their territorial defeat in March 2019, when thousands of ISIS-affiliated individuals were detained and brought to makeshift camps and prisons, including many foreigners. 

The attack began on January 20, 2022, when dozens of ISIS fighters used car bombs to launch an attack on the al Sina’a Prison, where thousands of ISIS members are held. The attack managed to breach the prison and allowed fighters to escape into surrounding neighborhoods and buildings, as well as take prison staff hostage. According to the UN, about 6,000 people in Hasakah have been displaced from their homes due to the ISIS attacks.

SDF fighters engaged with ISIS in Hasakah, January 2022

Since then, about 10,000 SDF and Internal Security Forces members have been deployed to the city to retake the prison and its surroundings, while also ensuring that ISIS fighters do not escape the area.  So far, the SDF has stated that 27 of its fighters have fallen in the fighting, while they claim that more than 175 ISIS members have been killed. 

Further complicating the operations is the presence of hundreds of minors in the facility, who are reportedly being used by ISIS as human shields. These children were part of the so-called “Cubs of the Caliphate” that ISIS recruited as child soldiers. Many of them are from outside of Syria as well, and the SDF has said that their use by ISIS as hostages has greatly complicated and slowed their military operations.

Coalition forces, especially the United States, have been providing support to the SDF’s operations to retake the prison and the surrounding area. This support has come in the form of multiple airstrikes, as well as ground support from Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles. In a statement released on January 22, the United States Department of State said “It is a credit to the diligent, capable efforts of the SDF and Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS forces that they were able to thwart numerous attacks during that period and limit the severity of this one.” The State Department further said that the attack “highlights the importance of, and the need to fully fund, the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS’s initiatives to improve the secure and humane detention of ISIS fighters, including by strengthening detention facility security.” 

United States Bradley IFVs provide support to SDF units in Hasakah, January 2022

The AANES and United States have consistently spoken out about the enduring threat of ISIS detainees and sleeper cells. A previous prison attack was thwarted by the SDF in November, 2021, and the AANES has warned the international community that the threat of ISIS still exists, and the problem cannot be ignored. Officials from the region have asked countries to provide more military and economic support, and also to repatriate fighters to their countries of origin, of which there are dozens.