At least 200 people are reported to have been killed in clashes between the YPG and Daesh militants after an attack – the biggest since the fall of the “caliphate” three years ago – on the notorious Gweiran Prison in Syria’s Hasakah. YPG sources have announced that they have secured the prison, which they were able to do thanks to US support. However, unless the US addresses the root causes of the problem, the Daesh threat will continue to grow.
For three years, Daesh militants conducted attacks against the Assad regime in the Syrian desert using guerrilla tactics, targeted Iraqi security forces, and engaged in sabotage acts against the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist organisation.
But the latest attack is a new strategy. Daesh cells conducted a car bomb attack close to Gweiran Prison where approximately 5,000 Daesh militants, including high-ranking members, are imprisoned. Inmates started to riot as the car bomb went off, indicating the operation of a working communication channel. More than 100 Daesh militants launched an attack against YPG militants outside of the prison, while imprisoned Daesh members took control of the prison’s northern sector.
After its initial success, Daesh published videos from inside the prison showing that they had captured some prison guards. Moreover, Daesh militants gained control of the section where around 700 hundred children and teenagers were imprisoned by the YPG. Why these children are kept inside this prison compound in the first place remains a mystery. The public did not know about these children imprisoned by the YPG until Daesh started using them as human shields.
With these developments, civilians in the neighbourhood fled their homes. The YPG deployed reinforcements to the area, the US conducted airstrikes against Daesh militants and provided ground troops. Thanks to this aid, the YPG said it was able to catch hundreds of members that tried to flee from the prison, and moved them to another prison next to the Turkish border in Qamishli.
Before Daesh proclaimed its alleged caliphate, it had organised several prison breaks in Iraq, and in all of them Daesh bribed some people on the inside to aid in the attack. After relative calm is established, an investigation should be launched into if anyone inside the YPG cooperated with Daesh.
This incident was brought under control with US aid, including helicopters, fighter jets, and US Special Forces. Yet several questions still need to be answered.
How is it that so many Daesh cells have infiltrated Hasakah without anyone noticing? How did imprisoned Daesh members communicate with the cells? Why are children imprisoned next to the biggest Daesh prison in Syria? How has Daesh become emboldened to conduct such a major attack?
The same questions will probably be asked by the operatives of the international coalition to fight against Daesh, but previous experience shows that they may focus on the symptoms rather than the root causes.
The answer to these questions lies in the local dynamics of northeastern Syria that contribute to the rise of Daesh. The US-led coalition partnered with the YPG against Daesh and managed to strip Daesh of its territory. However, it did not adjust its strategy to the new situation. While the YPG might have a genuine interest in fighting Daesh, it also has a strong motivation to keep Daesh – its sole source of legitimacy – alive.
Moreover, the YPG might have proved a certain capacity to fight against Daesh, but the militants of the YPG neither have the know-how nor the willingness or capacity to tackle the reasons for Daesh’s existence in the first place. On the contrary, the YPG is a totalitarian Marxist and Kurdish force, and is the ultimate gift for Daesh to generate popular support among tribal Sunni Arabs of Syria’s northeast. As the experience in Iraq under Nuri al Maliki has shown, Daesh relies on bad governance and a lack of representation of Sunni Arabs.
It is likely that the alienation of local tribal Sunni Arabs is the main dynamic that helped facilitate the recent prison break attempt. It showed that Daesh has gained enough recruits and local popular support that it was ready to risk many of its cells in a major attack. Knowing Daesh’s operational strategy; if 200 militants attack the prison, a thousand others are probably waiting to be called into action.
When Daesh emerged in 2014, the US was not preoccupied with China or Russia, as great power competition was not yet in full swing. If Daesh reemerges, will the US be ready to fight it, or will systemic pressures force the US to ignore the terror group and focus on its rivals?
It’s still not too late. The reemergence of Daesh can be prevented. Instead of providing new forms of aid to the YPG, which would mean using old tools to solve new problems, the US has to change its local partner in Syria’s tribal Sunni Arab regions.
If the US limits the YPG’s territorial control to the northern parts, and guarantees full independence to the Deir Ezzor Military Council, the Arab-majority faction of the YPG-dominated SDF, the US can negotiate a settlement with Turkiye.
With this strategy, the Syrian National Army would send – with tribal mediation – about 3,000 fighters of Deir Ezzor origin back to the province, who would join the Deir Ezzor Military Council under a new military umbrella, raising the Syrian revolutionary flag. In other words, Washington and Ankara would agree on working with an independent Arab entity.
With this, the US will gain Turkiye as a partner for the tribal Sunni Arab regions that will be administered by its locals. As next steps, thousands of tribal Sunni Arabs that fled YPG governance to the areas of the Syrian Interim Government and Turkiye will be able to return home. Local governance, local armed structure, return of the population to their homes, and the joint approach by the US with its regional ally that enjoys major sympathy among tribal Sunni Arabs is a receipt Daesh would be furious about.
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