US-led Coalition backs SDF in Hasakah; Syrian regime backs ISIS?

The SDF, as well as the civilian administration in northeast Syria, have charged that the attack went well beyond ISIS’ own capabilities and the assault is supported by one or more states.
A vehicle belonging to the US-led Coalition parks in a street in the northern Syrian city of Hasakah on January 24, 2022. (Photo: AFP)
A vehicle belonging to the US-led Coalition parks in a street in the northern Syrian city of Hasakah on January 24, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – The Pentagon affirmed on Monday that the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition is providing material support to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), as fighting continues in Hasakah, Syria, where, last Thursday, the terrorist group launched a major assault on the al-Sina’a prison in an attempt to free detainees held there.

That fighting spread on Tuesday “to neighborhoods around” the prison which “is at the center of the biggest confrontation between the American military and ISIS in three years,” The New York Times reported.

ISIS still controls “about a quarter of the prison,” it said, and the terrorist group is using young boys as human shields, complicating efforts to regain control of the facility.

The SDF, as well as the civilian administration in northeast Syria, have charged that the attack went well beyond ISIS’ own capabilities and the assault is supported by one or more states.

Ironically, that is how the US once understood terrorism—before 1993, when Bill Clinton became president. Until then, Americans saw major acts of terrorism as state-sponsored, essentially a form of proxy war. But Clinton changed it to a law enforcement issue, with the emphasis on the criminal prosecution of individual defendants.

As a consequence, terrorism came to be seen as a vaguer, more amorphous phenomenon—such that US officials now regularly claim that its locus is an ideology that resides on the internet.

Growing ISIS Threat?

On Thursday evening, ISIS fighters attacked Hasakah’s al-Sina’a prison, breaching the facility’s perimeter with a car bomb, followed by suicide bombers, who served, essentially, as ordnance, as they ran through the gap.

The stunning attack, which has precipitated six days of fighting, took virtually all concerned—the SDF, the Coalition, as well as the local population—by surprise.

Moreover, before dawn on Friday, ISIS attacked an army camp in Baqubah, Iraq, the capital of Diyala province, killing 12 Iraqi soldiers—the most lethal such assault in several years.

The twin attacks have generated an uneasy consideration that ISIS may be a resurgent danger.

“I’m deeply concerned by the ISIS terrorist attacks in NE Syria and Iraq,” Masrour Barzani, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, tweeted on Sunday.

“I have directed Ministers of Peshmerga and Interior, and security services, to strengthen defensive lines and measures necessary to protect the people of the Kurdistan Region,” he said.

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

“The evidence of a resurgence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is mounting by the day, three years after the militants lost their last territorial foothold in the so-called caliphate,” the Times said on Tuesday in its own report.

Indeed, Tuesday saw further attacks on Iraqi forces, for which ISIS is thought responsible. Four Iraqi federal police officers were wounded, as their vehicle struck an IED, leaving two in serious condition, while four Iraqi soldiers were killed in a nearby area just two days earlier.

Read More: Explosion targets Iraqi forces in disputed Kirkuk

Coalition Support for the SDF in the Prison Break

From the outset of the fighting in Hasakah, the US-led Coalition began providing military support to the SDF. Already on Thursday night, helicopter gunships and F-16s began airstrikes around the prison, as Hisham Arafat, a reporter in northeast Syria, told the BBC.

Nonetheless, the SDF suffered significant casualties. On Saturday, the State Department issued a statement officially expressing US support and condolences for its Kurdish-led partner, while condemning the ISIS assault.

Read More: US condemns ISIS attack in Syria

The US media outlet, Task & Purpose, oriented toward military affairs, reported that Coalition “tanks and other armored vehicles” were deployed in support of the SDF, even as it noted that the Pentagon was unwilling to confirm that report.

“We have conducted a series of strikes through this days-long operation to include the precision targeting of ISIS fighters who were attacking the SDF from buildings in the area,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said on Monday, as he also noted that the Coalition has “provided limited ground support, strategically positioned to assist security in the area.”

The British paper, The Independent, went further, reporting on Tuesday that “Special forces units from the US and UK subsequently joined the fight” following ISIS’ initial assault.

Those forces “deployed snipers and were helping to coordinate air support by the US-led coalition to defeat ISIS,” The Independent said, citing the Rojava Information Center.

Which State might have Supported ISIS in the Prison Break?

Already on Sunday, the SDF charged that Turkey was behind the attack, and on Tuesday, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) followed suit.

That view certainly makes some sense. After all, Turkey has long opposed the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the core of the SDF. It charges that the YPG is a wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Turkey, as well as the US and the European Union, consider a terrorist organization.

But Turkey is not the only suspect. ISIS’ assault on the Hasakah prison has major consequences for the US, as well as European members of the anti-ISIS Coalition. Would Ankara put its ties with those countries at risk, particularly now, as a major crisis with Russia looms over Ukraine, with which Turkey is aligned?

Since 2016, as Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament, advised Kurdistan 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has taken great pride in his ability to play Russia against NATO to extract concessions” from NATO. But “the Ukrainian crisis is putting his strategy at risk, by making the Turkish president’s fence sitting less viable.”

Syrian Support for ISIS?

Elements within the Syrian Kurdish leadership have charged that Damascus is the party that supported ISIS’ assault on the prison. After all, the Syrian regime is quite nearby, as it still controls a small part of Hasakah.

On Monday, Zaydan al-Asi, Co-chair of the AANES Defense Board, hinted at the possibility of Syrian support for ISIS, as North Press Agency reported.

“There are planners and providers of logistical support to ISIS,” Asi said, as he speculated about outside backing for the terrorist group.

“There is clear evidence of international support,” Asi added, “which may either be external or internal from inside Syria.”

“Where did all these weapons come from?,” he asked. “How did these people arrive in the prison?”

“Who are the beneficiaries of the intervention and jailbreak attempt of those terrorists,” he continued.

Indeed, that is a key question—one that Americans used to ask about terrorism: cui bono? At least, that was so before 1993.

That question helped focus attention on the issue of which was the most likely party among a relatively small group of hostile states that might have been behind any given attack. The party then found responsible would be punished—contributing to deterring further assaults.

Following the Dec. 21, 1988, bombing of the US airliner, Pan Am 103, for example, it was determined that Libya was responsible. The US then identified, sanctioned, and isolated it.

No further major attacks against US targets followed, until the Feb. 26, 1993, bombing of New York’s World Trade Center—which the newly-elected president, Bill Clinton, attributed to a “loose network” of Islamic extremists.

Kurdistan 24 spoke with a Syrian journalist who requested anonymity for his own safety. He did not think it likely that there was direct Syrian support for ISIS, but noted that the regime was “turning a blind eye to ISIS fighters who infiltrated into its area.”

Many of those who escaped the Hasaka prison, he said, “fled into the regime area, and it is not searching for them.” Moreover, “even if the regime were to arrest them, it would set them free,” as it did in an earlier incident in late 2013.

He also noted that since this round of fighting began, “The Syrian media is totally against the SDF and US forces.” It now describes what the US and SDF are doing as “criminal acts” that are “against humanity.”

Indeed, some ten days ago, in an annual press conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on Syria’s Kurds to emulate Iraq’s Kurds. This was reported by some Iraqi Kurdish media as a positive statement.

But it was not really. Iraq’s Kurds overwhelmingly want independence from Baghdad. In the 2017 referendum, 93% of the residents of the Kurdistan Region voted precisely for that.

Russia supports the Syrian regime, and what Lavrov meant is that Syria’s Kurds should have relations with Damascus in the same way that the KRG has ties with Baghdad.

If Damascus was behind ISIS’ assault, it would be consistent with the very belligerent posture that Moscow has adopted over Ukraine—as the prospect looms of armed conflict with the US and Europe.

What is ISIS? Explaining its Structure

The highly-regarded German news magazine, Der Spiegel, has provided the best analysis of ISIS and its structure. A leak from German intelligence, the Der Spiegel report is based on captured ISIS documents. It explains that the core of ISIS consists of members of the old regime of Saddam Hussein, who had taken refuge in Syria and then re-emerged in the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

During Operation Iraqi Freedom, the US-led war that overthrew Saddam’s Baathist regime, the Baathist regime in Syria supported Baghdad. Thus, Damascus would have little problem supporting ISIS now.

This is not far from the KRG’s understanding of ISIS. In 2018, Kurdistan 24 interviewed the late Najmaldin Karim, who was long governor of Kirkuk province, including through the fight against ISIS.

Karim was clear and unambiguous: the predominant element within ISIS was local people: Sunni Arabs who sought to regain the power and status they had lost after the US-led war that overthrew Saddam.

“99 percent [of ISIS] in Kirkuk are local people from Kirkuk,” Karim said. “Peshmerga fought [ISIS] bravely, and hundreds of them were killed,” he continued. “We have their pictures, their DNA. They’re all from the area.”

“What was called the liberation of Hawija,” he continued, “was basically these people shaved, threw the dishdasha, threw their things, [and] went to their homes.”

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

Indeed, earlier, this reporter was a cultural advisor to the US military in Afghanistan. As I arrived there in 2011, a team of two people who had worked together over the previous year—a US Marine and a British intelligence officer—provided me an extremely useful briefing.

They pointedly and succinctly described the nature of the enemy: “the losers in post 9/11 Afghanistan.”

Since the 1990s, the US has propounded a misleading understanding of terrorism, which has stripped it of political significance, attributing it, instead, to an extremist ideology, with faint chance of success.

“Know the enemy,” the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Tzu, famously prescribed. Could the US failure to do so help explain why the “long war” has become the “forever war” and gravely unpopular with the US public?

Indeed, Col. Norvell De Atkine (US Army, Retired), who long taught Middle Eastern political-military affairs at Fort Bragg, where he instructed Special Operations Forces, attributed this misunderstanding to the Clinton administration.

“Clinton did not want to deal with state-sponsored terrorism, particularly if Iraq was suspected,” De Atkine told Kurdistan 24. “So he focused on ideology, instead, drawing a sharp line between Baathist and jihadi ideology.”

“But who put ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is greatest] on the Iraqi flag?” De Atkine asked.

Saddam Hussein, of course.