The attack on the Syrian Democratic Forces-run prison in northeastern Syria is a reminder that the threat from Islamic State was not eradicated after its defeat at Baghouz in early 2019.
Exploiting weaknesses in Syrian and Iraqi governance, the group has been quietly and slowly rebuilding itself in the deserts of central Syria and Iraq. Small-scale attacks have gone largely unreported in the media. These operations have allowed the group to gain experience, new recruits, resources and to establish a degree of freedom of action.
Sabr, or patience, is lauded by jihadists as a virtue – be that while sitting in prison or in continuing the fight after defeats on the battlefield. That patience though must have a temporal as well as a spiritual purpose. Jihadist groups have sought to facilitate prison escapes as a show of faith to their members and to demonstrate to potential recruits how committed they are to recovering imprisoned members, as well as to bolster their ranks of experienced fighters, planners and logisticians.
Key to the regrowth of al-Qa’ida in Iraq was the year-long Breaking the Walls campaign that culminated in an attack on Abu Ghraib Prison in July 2014 that freed 500 prisoners.
In Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s final audio message before he was killed in October 2019 he mentioned the group’s imprisoned fighters and called on ISIS members to “do your utmost to rescue your brothers and sisters and break down the walls that imprison them”. Exactly how many, and the seniority of those prisoners who escaped from the prison in Hasakeh, is not yet known, although we do know that dozens of ISIS members were killed in the attack. This is undoubtedly a heavy price to pay for the group for limited practical outcomes. However, as a sign of its commitment to its jailed fighters and as a strong propaganda tool the benefits were undoubtedly judged to be worth the cost.
The attacks also raised two broader questions for the West. The first involves the fate of Western prisoners, highlighted by reports of a 17-year-old Australian boy held in the children’s section of the prison sending voice messages to his extended family in Australia during the attack.
Most Western countries have been slow to repatriate their citizens, while in several cases individuals have had their citizenship stripped and are no longer the responsibility of those countries, even if their children may still be.
It is a very complex public policy issue. But in the scheme of things the proportion of Westerners detained by the SDF is a small fraction of the total. Although it doesn’t abrogate Australia’s responsibility to repatriate its own citizens from Syria, future security concerns are likely to be more pronounced from the thousands of Syrians and Iraqis being detained than they are from the small number of Westerners.
The attacks also pose some difficult questions for the US. Its relatively low-level and low-profile support mission for the SDF has been justified as ensuring the “enduring defeat” of ISIS. But the fact their presence also denies the Assad regime access to oil revenues and gives Washington leverage in discussions designed to shape any future political solution to the decade-long Syrian crisis has long been a key policy driver, as well as a belief that it makes it more difficult for Bashar al-Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers to exercise influence within the country. The limits on the ability of a small and geographically limited US force to guarantee the enduring defeat of ISIS have been clearly demonstrated this past week, and the inability of the international community to broker any meaningful progress on the drafting of a new constitution after six rounds of talks shows how limited Washington’s political leverage may actually be.
The other question of course is the future of the SDF. They are responsible for the detention of thousands of ISIS members, and required the support of US air and ground forces to re-take the prison. But this support will not be there forever, and the SDF and the Kurds in general will need to reach an understanding with Damascus as to what their relationship with the Syrian national government will be once American forces are withdrawn.
Hopefully the long-term future of the detainees will have been decided well before this occurs. Whatever happens, this week’s events indicate that the final chapter of the ISIS story is still some way off from being written.