QAMISHLI, Syria: This year the world watched in horror as the Syrian Democratic Forces and the US-led coalition quickly mobilized to prevent what many observers consider Daesh’s boldest attempt to restore its ” short-lived caliphate in northern Syria.
Since its territorial defeat in Iraq in 2017 and Syria in 2019, Daesh had emerged as a depleted force, its leaders hunted and forced into hiding, its supporters detained, dead or disenchanted, and its once sizable war chest depleted or depleted. reach.
That was until January this year, when remnants of the group launched a massive and highly sophisticated attack on a prison in northeast Syria where thousands of its former fighters were being held in SDF custody.
With the West now solely focused on Ukraine and the Syrian regime’s Russian allies preoccupied with activities closer to home, those on the ground in Syria warn that the threat posed by Daesh is far from over. be over and a resurgence could easily occur as the back of the world is turned.
On the evening of January 20, the relative calm in Hasakah, a city of about 400,000 people in the eponymous Syrian governorate, was suddenly shattered by a thunderous explosion when a truck loaded with explosives exploded at the gates of the Al-Sina’a prison.
Moments later, hundreds of gunmen attacked the facility from all sides with the clear intention of freeing around 5,000 Daesh-affiliated prisoners who were being held inside and returning them to the battlefield.
For several days, local forces clashed with militants in the biggest battle the city has seen since Daesh was overthrown six years earlier. The US-led coalition intervened with jets and drones, striking buildings where the militants were entrenched. In response, Daesh fighters seized civilian properties near the prison, using their occupants as human shields.
“It was not the kind of war where you know where the terrorists’ base is and you can go and attack them,” Serhat Himo, a member of the local commando who intervened on the first night of the attack, told Arab News. .
“They took a stand among the civilians and because of that many civilians were killed by Daesh. We had to remove the bodies of the civilians from the houses.
Some reports suggest that 374 militants were killed in the attack, along with 77 prison staff, 40 SDF members and four civilians. Around 400 detainees are still missing, indicating that a significant number have escaped.
In the January 27 edition of An-Naba, Daesh’s online propaganda outlet, the militants claimed that “several groups managed to get out of the area (Hasakah) safely and were transferred to areas sure”.
From the perspective of the SDF, which is tasked with defending the multi-ethnic population of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria, the extremist threat was evident long before Daesh’s highly coordinated prison attack.
More than a decade after the 2011 uprising against the regime of President Bashar Assad plunged Syria into a state of civil war, large swaths of the country have fallen to armed groups.
Northern and northwestern Syria, for example, is controlled by an assortment of factions under the banner of the Syrian National Army, formerly known as the Free Syrian Army, and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, or HTS, linked to Al-Qaeda.
The SNA controls the district of Afrin, having seized the area from the AANES in 2018 with the help of the Turkish Armed Forces. It also controls Ras Al-Ain and Tel Abyad, having taken those cities in 2019, also with Turkish help.
Turkey intervened on both occasions to withdraw the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, from areas straddling its southern border.
Ankara views the YPG, the main contingent force within the SDF, as the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a decades-long guerrilla war against the Turkish state in an effort to gain greater great political and cultural support. rights of the Kurds in Turkey.
The SNA and the HTS are known to have extremist elements in their ranks. According to local sources, Daesh remnants have been using rebel-held areas to regroup and evade detection.
In October last year, a US drone killed Abdul Hamid Al-Matar, a senior al-Qaeda operative, in the SNA-held town of Suluk in Raqqa province. A few days later, a British Royal Air Force drone killed Daesh arms supplier Abu Hamza Al-Shuhail in Ras Al-Ain.
In October 2019, just months after the group’s defeat in Baghouz, former Daesh leader and former caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was found in the village of Barisha in an HTS-controlled area of Idlib. He killed himself and three of his children with a suicide vest rather than surrender to US Special Forces.
Just weeks after the January attack on Al-Sinaa prison, the SDF and US special forces tracked down Al-Baghdadi’s successor, Abu Ibrahim Al-Qurayshi, in the town of Atmah, also in Idlib. During the operation, Al-Qurayshi detonated a bomb, killing himself and his family.
Daesh announced its new leader, Abu Al-Hassan Al-Hashemi Al-Quraishi, in a recorded audio message posted online on March 11. According to Iraqi and Western security sources quoted by Reuters, he is Al-Baghdadi’s brother.
“We defeated Daesh territorially but the mentality remains,” Nouri Mahmoud, official YPG spokesperson, told Arab News.
“Radical terrorists from Daesh, Al-Qaeda, the Levant Front, the Muslim Brotherhood and others have settled in Afrin, Sere Kaniye (Ras Al-Ain) and Gire Spi (Tel Abyad).”
A June 2021 report by Syrians for Truth and Justice, a local human rights monitor, found that there were at least 27 former Daesh militants, including senior operatives, serving in the ranks of the SNA.
“After Daesh’s territorial defeat in Baghouz, many of them fled to Iraq, regime-held areas and areas held by Turkish-backed groups, particularly Ras Al-Ain and Tel Abyad. “, said Kenan Barakat, co-president of the interior AANES. ministry, Arab News told Arab News. “There they just changed their affiliation and joined other radical groups.”
Despite the obvious threat posed by these groups, the SDF and AANES have seen their resources reduced by the closure of UN-recognized border crossing points and the imposition of diplomatic and trade embargoes by Turkey, which have decimated the local economy.
“As long as there is a political and economic embargo on northeast Syria, Daesh will remain,” Mahmoud said.
“As long as these other terrorist factions continue their attacks on our regions and use these occupied areas as a rear base, Daesh will continue to seize opportunities to reorganize.
Recent attempts to resurrect the terrorist group are not limited to the Al-Sina’a prison incident. In the days and weeks following the attack on the prison, residents of Al-Hol detention camp, also in Hasakah, staged repeated escape attempts.
Known as “a ticking time bomb” and “the most dangerous camp in the world”, Al-Hol is home to around 56,000 people. More than half of them are Iraqis and around 8,000 are foreign nationals or the wives and children of militants from Europe and elsewhere.
The camp’s population grew rapidly in early 2019 after Daesh’s territorial defeat in Baghouz. Since then, the residents of Al-Hol have repeatedly tried to create a sort of pseudo-caliphate within the camp.
“Those in the camp, men and women, have repeatedly tried to start a war in the camp,” Barakat said.
“They started uprisings, burned tents and killed members of the Internal Security Forces. They wanted to recreate the scenario at Ghweiran (Al-Sina’a) prison in the camp but our forces intervened and arrested them.
Many children in the camp are now reaching the age of adolescence, having been brought up with Daesh ideology passed down from their mothers. Camp administrators fear they are witnessing the coming of age of a new generation of resentful and highly radicalized activists.
Many in the local administration believe it is only a matter of time before a major escape attempt succeeds, unless the international community acts immediately.
AANES and the SDF have repeatedly called on Western governments to repatriate their citizens from the camp and to establish special tribunals to try foreign members of Daesh so that they can be placed in appropriate detention centers.
“These Daesh members hail from many countries – nearly 50 nationalities can be found among them,” Barakat said. “It’s not just a Syrian problem. It is an international issue. Daesh threatens many states around the world.
He fears there is a high likelihood of a resurgence of Daesh unless the world picks up, takes notice and acts.
“The victory against Daesh is a victory for everyone,” he added.