Understanding the Hasakah prison siege: how brutal parties use force, violence (Part I)

US soldiers, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters gather in search of ISIS remnants in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah's Ghwayran neighborhood on January 29, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
US soldiers, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters gather in search of ISIS remnants in the northeastern Syrian city of Hasakah's Ghwayran neighborhood on January 29, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – “People do what you want when you hurt them.” So a Kuwaiti professor of political science told this reporter some thirty years ago: in the mid-1990s, during the decade-long stand-off between the US and Iraq that followed the 1991 Gulf War, after US President George H. W. Bush ended that war with Saddam Hussein still in power.

Bush believed that after such a terrible defeat, Saddam would be overthrown in a military coup. That was the view of US intelligence—but it would prove spectacularly wrong.

Violence as Leverage

“You Americans don’t understand Saddam,” this Kuwaiti told me. A most admirable man, he had stayed in Kuwait after Iraq had invaded, and he joined the Kuwaiti resistance.

So I listened to him. “What do you mean?,” I asked.

He recounted a meeting that a group of academics from the Arab Professors of Political Science had with Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s Foreign Minister, in the latter years of its war with Iran (1980-88.)

That was the time of the “Tanker War,” with the two belligerents attacking commercial shipping that benefitted their foe. “Why do you attack French ships,” the professors asked Aziz, “when France is friendly to you?”

“We want more pressure on Iran to end this war,” the Iraqi Foreign Minister replied, “and people do what you want when you hurt them.”

The Hasakah Attack: Well-Practiced, Well-Resourced

The ferocity of ISIS’ assault on the prison in Hasakah surprised almost all concerned, including the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition; and the people of Hasakah themselves.

A general consensus seemed to emerge among local parties: ISIS had help. The attack was so well-executed and the attackers so well-armed that the assault could not have been the work of the terrorist group alone.

Dominant speculation focused on Turkey as the party that had provided the support for ISIS’ assault on the prison.

That is unsurprising, as Turkey has long been the SDF’s main foe, and it has, indeed, supported Islamic extremists to gain and hold territory in Syria and undermine Rojava’s Kurds.

Under such circumstances—the shock of a major surprise attack—people often revert to the familiar. They jump to conclusions and fail to ask a necessary question: does this terrible event suggest that something new may have arrived on the scene?

Yet without asking that question—and giving it very careful consideration—you may only set yourself up for more, because you do not understand the enemy.

Furious at Syria

Deplorable as Turkey’s actions have been, Ankara is unlikely to have played a significant role in the prison assault. It was too much—a major challenge to the US-led Coalition at a time when Ankara’s attention, along with that of much of the world’s, is focused on Russia’s belligerence toward Ukraine, which may lead to a broader European war.

The US Commander of the anti-ISIS Coalition, Maj. Gen. John Brennan, issued a statement on Wednesday, in which he called for a thorough investigation of the attack on Hasakah’s al-Sina’a prison and how it happened.

It is notable that among senior Syrian Kurdish officials, military, as well as political, there was considerable speculation about the involvement of the Syrian regime.

Such speculation is unprecedented. It may seem strange to Americans, who have come to see terrorism in terms of “ideology.” Yet the core of ISIS is Iraq’s former Baathist regime—as the highly-regarded German news magazine, Der Spiegel, has reported.

That is similar to the view of ISIS held by senior Kurdish officials in Iraq.

Read More: Najmaldin Karim: Islamic State is resurgent, dominated by locals

Thus, the notion that the Syrian regime backed ISIS in the prison assault should not be dismissed as far-fetched or implausible.

Siyamand Walat is the most important Rojava figure to point an accusatory finger at Damascus. Commander of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) for the Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), Walat is a tough-minded, blunt-speaking figure.

Siyamand Walat, Commander of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) for the Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) outside al-Sina'a prison on Jan. 30, 2022. (Photo: ANHA)
Siyamand Walat, Commander of the Internal Security Forces (Asayish) for the Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) outside al-Sina’a prison on Jan. 30, 2022. (Photo: ANHA)

Walat led the Asayish forces as they joined with the SDF in driving ISIS from the prison. On Jan. 27, after seven days of hard fighting, he appeared on camera outside the detention facility with Hawar News Agency.

Walat rarely speaks to the media. Indeed, he is not widely known, even among the people of Rojava. So this interview was important. It provided a glimpse of a key figure, at a critical time, under circumstances that seemed to prompt unusual candor.

Walat would have been exhausted, scarcely having slept over the previous week. But he was also satisfied. The fighting was all but over; he and his people had prevailed; and he was furious—at Damascus.

The Asayish chief charged that Syria, along with Turkey, had been behind ISIS’ deadly assault.

“Walat stated that the government of Damascus and the Turkish state were involved in the plan to target the Sina’a prison,” Hawar reported.

“But the plans of the Damascus government and the Turkish regime failed,” he continued, because “the SDF and the Internal Security Forces put up a strong resistance and immediately took control of the situation.”

Turkey and Syria are fierce foes. Turkey hoped Bashar al-Assad would be overthrown in the Arab Spring, and it supported his opposition. There is too much mistrust between them to work together on such a controversial project. Walat certainly knows that. Most likely, he threw in Turkey to blur the truly incendiary nature of his charge against Damascus.

Similarly, Jamal Sheikh Baqi, Secretary-General of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP-S), stated that the al-Sina’a assault was “carried out and planned by the Turkish state and the Syrian government.”

And Baqi added another party: Russia, which has backed the Syrian regime since its military intervention began there in 2015.

Baqi noted that after ISIS’ 2019 territorial defeat, “Russia sought to deploy Syrian forces to the area, and Syrian intelligence called for people to create disorder” in Deir al-Zor, Shaddadi, and Raqqa, although the effort failed, because of our “strong relations with the people.”

Zaydan al-Asi, Co-chair of AANES’ Defense Board, also hinted at Syrian support for the prison assault.

“There are planners and providers of logistical support to ISIS,” Asi said. “There is clear evidence of international support,” which “may either be external or internal from inside Syria.”

Riyad Darar, Co-Leader of the Syrian Democratic Council, told Hawar that the attack required “prior coordination and sustained preparation,” while it needed “broad support from more than one party.”

Unlike those figures cited above, Darar pointed to the Hashd al-Shaabi, the Iraqi militias raised to fight ISIS, the strongest of which are backed by Iran, Syria’s ally.

ISIS is resurgent in both Iraq and Syria, Darar noted. Indeed, that view is shared by the Kurdistan Regional Government, including its Prime Minister, Masrour Barzani.

Read More: PM Barzani emphasizes importance of strong security amidst growing ISIS threat

There must be “compelling reasons” for ISIS’ revival, Darar said. He attributed it to the fact that the status enjoyed by the Hashd al-Shaabi came from its role in fighting ISIS. So they are “awakening the beast in order to kill it,” he said, after their big losses in the Iraqi elections.

Darar also noted that it was “remarkable” how many weapons “are constantly available to ISIS,” noting that “no matter how strong the elements of smuggling,” they could not produce weapons in such quantities. “This draws attention to a party that also benefits from what is happening, which is the regime” (this reporter understood him to mean the Syrian regime.)

Indeed, that is how Americans used to understand major acts of terrorism: basically state-sponsored, a form of proxy war. After each attack, they would ask: Cui bono?

That is how Fouad Aliko, a member of the Yekiti Kurdistan Party and the Syrian National Coalition, approached the issue.

Aliko told the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights that Syria and Iran may well have been behind the assault, as they “are the ultimate beneficiaries.”

These figures do not necessarily agree on which party was most responsible for supporting ISIS in its attack on the al-Sina’a prison. It is something that reasonable, informed people might disagree about, particularly pending the results of a full-fledged investigation.

But they do agree on one key point: the fight in Syria is basically about power—not religious belief, which is secondary, used as a cover and as a recruiting tool for “useful idiots,” a term regularly attributed to the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin.

It means dupes: confused individuals, perhaps youth, seeking meaning in their lives, who give themselves over to a cause, while they are, in fact, manipulated by cruel and violent men, who seek power for themselves.

Events Preceding the Hasakah Prison Assault: Do They Point to a Motive? Responsible Party?

  1. Starting on Jan. 12, the Damascus regime began promoting reconciliation with Syrians from areas of the country who are living in SDF-controlled territory.

Read More: Syrian government pushing for reconciliation deals with SDF-held regions

  1. On Jan. 14, speaking at an annual press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged Syria’s Kurds to follow the example of Iraq’s Kurds and recognize and deal with their central government.

The SDF has a long record of rejecting that, however. Indeed, as recently as early this month, the SDF’s Commander Mazloum Abdi rebuffed the notion.

“The regime speaks from the position of the victor, and, from its point of view, it has the right to impose its decisions and return to the status quo of 2011,” Abdi told a Washington think tank.

Thus, it could well be expected that the SDF would reject further overtures from the Syrian regime, despite Lavrov’s counsel.

  1. Days later, on Jan. 20, ISIS’ massive, unprecedented assault on the al-Sina’a prison began. The fighting lasted until Jan. 27, when the SDF and Asayish finally regained control.

  2. In Moscow, on Jan. 27, a senior official in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s press office told journalists,” Neither the US nor the local Kurdish authorities have managed to ensure security in the northeastern Syrian territories they control.”

“We reaffirm our stand,” he continued, stressing “the need for unconditional respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” while “restoring the control of the legitimate authorities over all of the country, after the withdrawal of foreign military contingents illegally deployed there.”

At the same time, in New York on Jan. 26 and 27, the UN Security Council (UNSC) met at Moscow’s request to discuss the situation in Syria.

“All foreign forces illegally present in Syria withdraw immediately,” the deputy head of Russia’s UN mission, representing his country at that session, told the UNSC.

  1. On Jan. 22, Russian military jets joined Syrian planes in a joint patrol along Syria’s borders. Their route, as described by Russia’s Defense Ministry and reported by the Russian media outlet, Interfax, included the Golan Heights, Syria’s frontier with Israel, and extended all the way to Syria’s border with Iraq.

Moreover, the flights “would continue to operate on a regular basis,” the Ministry said.

Israelis divided on the significance of the new measures. Some saw them as a reversal of Moscow’s earlier policy, which had allowed Israel freedom in Syrian airspace to attack Iranian targets there.

However, others, like Brig. Gen. (Reserve) Yossi Kuperwasser, former head of the Research Division of Israeli military intelligence, understood it differently.

Kuperwasser saw it as part of a broader “message that sharpens the Assad regime’s sovereignty over the area once called Syria,” as he told the Jewish News Syndicate.

Wouldn’t Russian backing for the Syrian regime—as Damascus provided support to a terrorist group to carry out a major assault on a party that controlled significant Syrian territory, but refused to talk to Damascus—serve a similar purpose?

Would that explain how ISIS was able to conduct such a large, lethal assault on the al-Sina’a prison? And did Russia support Damascus in that effort? Not only for purposes directly involving the situation in Syria, but which also relate to Moscow’s broader challenge to the US, Europe, and NATO, which is being played out now in Europe, as Moscow threatens Ukraine, amid a seemingly unending series of demands?