More than 100 Islamic State militants stormed the main prison housing suspected extremists, sparking a battle with US-backed Kurdish fighters that continued 24 hours later and left dozens dead on Friday as the group unleashed its biggest attack in Syria since the fall of its “caliphate”. ” three years ago.
Across the border in Iraq, gunmen stormed an army barracks north of Baghdad before dawn the same day while soldiers slept inside, killing 11 before escaping, the deadliest attack in months on the Iraq Army.
The bold attacks suggest the militants have been reinvigorated after sustaining a low-level insurgency in Iraq and Syria in recent years.
The group’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria was crushed by a years-long US-backed campaign, but its fighters remained sleeper cells that have increasingly killed dozens of Iraqis and Syrians in recent months.
The attack in Syria targeted Gweiran prison in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, the largest of a dozen facilities run by US-backed Syrian Kurdish forces that house suspected Islamic State fighters.
Gweiran has some 5,000, including IS commanders and figures considered among the most dangerous, according to Farhad Shami, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Forces commander Mazloum Abadi said IS mobilized “most of its sleeper cells” to organize the breakout.
The militants, armed with heavy machine guns and vehicles equipped with explosives, attacked Thursday night with the aim of freeing their comrades, Shami said.
The fighting started with a huge explosion around 7 pm, followed by two more explosions later, said a resident whose home overlooks the area.
Prisoners inside the facility simultaneously rioted and attempted to escape when a car bomb exploded outside and gunmen clashed with security forces, Shami said.
A car bomb hit a nearby oil depot, sparking a fire that was still burning on Friday.
Islamic State threat ‘has not gone away’, US officials say
On Friday, Kurdish forces were attempting to retake the northern part of the prison, where inmates held control and attempted a second breakout.
The SDF were also attacking in the nearby neighborhood of Zuhour, where IS fighters took refuge.
Fighting there was intense and movement slow because the militants had booby-trapped houses with explosives and used civilians as human shields, Shami said.
Coalition helicopters and other aircraft carried out strikes during the battle, including at Zuhour and the prison, he said.
“Since yesterday, helicopters are always in the sky,” said the resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for his safety.
Civilians were fleeing Zuhour and shops were closed in Hassakeh as security forces dispersed, he said.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said on Friday that the United States used airstrikes to support the SDF in the prison breakout attack.
“We have provided some airstrikes to support them as they deal with this particular prison break,” Kirby said, adding that the United States recognizes that the Islamic State threat has not gone away and “we remain focused on that.”
Shami said that the SDF had cordoned off the area and had so far recaptured 104 militants who escaped from the prison. But he said the total number that had escaped was not determined.
He said seven Kurdish fighters and at least 28 IS attackers were killed in the battle.
A Syrian opposition war monitor reported a higher death toll, 67. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 23 members of Kurdish security forces and prison guards were killed, along with 39 militants. and five civilians.
Shami said the attack was Islamic State’s biggest since it lost its last bit of territory in Syria in 2019.
The fighters were led by foreign, non-Syrian militants, many of whom spoke the Iraqi dialect. “This is not a local operation,” he said.
On Friday night, Abadi, the SDF commander, said his forces managed to repel the attack with the help of the US-led coalition. He tweeted that all the fugitives have been arrested. Shami, the spokesman, said a clash was still taking place in Zuhour.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack on its Aamaq news service on Friday, saying it was aimed at freeing prisoners and describing it as ongoing. Prison break attempts have been a main tactic of the group.
During their 2014 wave of invading territory in Iraq and Syria, they carried out multiple prison breaks.
Iraq ‘hunting terrorists’
Friday’s attack in Iraq was a brazen hit on a barracks in the mountainous district of al-Azim, outside the city of Baqouba.
Two security officials told the AP that Islamic State militants stormed the barracks at 3 a.m. after killing a guard, shot the soldiers dead and successfully fled. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release official statements.
The Iraqi army said in a statement that a lieutenant and 10 soldiers were killed. Officials said reinforcements and security forces were deployed to the area.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi vowed that the attack on the barracks “will not go undecided,” saying the Iraqi army had a duty to “prevent a recurrence of these violations and hunt down the terrorists.”
The Islamic State was largely defeated in Iraq in 2017, but its militants have continued to launch attacks, frequently targeting security forces and the military with roadside bombs and shooting at military convoys or checkpoints.
On occasion they have also attacked civilians. In October, Islamic State militants armed with machine guns stormed a predominantly Shiite village in Iraq’s Diyala province, killing 11 civilians and wounding several more.
Authorities at the time said the attack occurred after the militants kidnapped the villagers and their ransom demands were not met.
The Islamic State group’s self-styled “caliphate” at its height covered a third of Iraq and Syria.
The ensuing war against them lasted for several years, killing thousands and leaving much of the two neighboring countries in ruins.
It also left US-allied Kurdish authorities in control of eastern and northeastern Syria, with a small presence of several hundred US forces still deployed there.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism