On January 20th, the al-Sina’a prison camp in Hasakah, northeastern Syria, home to thousands of ISIS detainees, was rocked by explosions and gunfire. Immediately after, over 200 armed fighters began a large-scale assault on the camp while inmates staged a riot inside. Prisoners and attackers overwhelmed the guards and seized control of large portions of the facility and the surrounding area. After days of fighting throughout both the city and camp, the prison break was put down by the efforts of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States Combined Joint Task Force. This event hailed the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s largest attack since the so-called caliphate’s territorial defeat in 2019. Al Sina’a demonstrates what keen observers have been aware of for some time: the fight against ISIS is not over.
Since the collapse of its territory under pressure from the Kurdish-led SDF in Syria, ISIS has shifted its strategy from conventional warfare to underground insurgency. No longer seeking to hold major settlements or field large armies, the group now prefers to operate in fringe areas, launching smaller attacks and targeted killings using cells of fighters. This strategy has allowed ISIS to survive in face of overwhelming odds and technical inferiority. While heads of state and politicians the world around were clamoring to announce the defeat of the Islamic State, they allowed themselves to be blinded to the reality of the matter. The group has not been destroyed, only wounded. ISIS still has a network of supporters, arms and funding which make it a very real threat. The transition to an underground movement is not intended to be permanent, but rather a stopgap until they can recover their strength and footing. In the chaotic environments in which ISIS operates, power vacuums and uncertainty abound. The al-Sina’a attack demonstrates the group may be weakened but still has the capacity to affect large scale operations and activities.
ISIS is in the process of rebuilding and seeking to increase its numbers rather than simply maintain its lower profile. The boldness of the attack, and even the fact that it was possible at all, testifies to the group’s mounting sureness and recovered ability. ISIS appears to be confident its ‘moment’ is coming, in which distractions will draw international attention away from Syria and enable it to reclaim some of its past success.
Extremism profits from instability and destitution, both of which Syria has in excess. The UN estimates that 90% of Syrians live in poverty, and over half of the population risks going hungry. These conditions breed chaos and desperation, both of which are potential fuels for an ISIS resurgence. The longer the group remains underground, the more likely it is that international actors, concerned with new crises both domestic and international waver in their support for the counterinsurgency. The international coalition has been instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS; however, the job is not done.
Currently, the greatest obstacle to an ISIS resurgence is a well-prepared and well-equipped SDF. While there exist political concerns, chiefly the Turkish government’s opposition to the Kurdish-led alliance on their border, there can be no denying that the SDF has been the most effective asset in the fight against ISIS. Turkish military operations in Northeastern Syria have unfortunately undermined the SDF’s ability to contain the ISIS threat. By attacking strategic infrastructure and continuing to draw SDF fighters to the north and east of the country, Ankara has given ISIS a great opportunity to recover strength and rebuild its network. If the international community is serious about ensuring ISIS’ defeat, then it cannot turn a blind eye to Turkish military operations in Syria. The SDF and other allied groups require resources and guarantees of security to ensure the lasting defeat of the terrorist organization and the creation of favorable economic and social conditions which will prevent its reemergence.
The challenge moving forward will be to prepare the SDF and similar groups to continue the work of eliminating the ISIS threat from Syria. Training and equipment to enable the counter-terror operations that will be needed to collapse ISIS’ network of sleeper cells and supporters is critical. It will also require renewed commitment from coalition nations to repatriating the suspected thousands of foreign nationals residing in detention camps such as al-Sina’a. Leaving these fighters, as well as women and children, in these camps is an undue burden on the coalition’s local allies, as well as a potential gift to the terrorist group should they be set free. Putting political pressure on the Turkish government to show restraint in its operations against US allies in Syria would also enable a more effective response to the growing ISIS threat. The US-led coalition strategy against ISIS has been effective in winning the war at a conventional level, but as al-Sina’a proves, lasting victory requires a renewed commitment to empowering the local actors capable of dismembering the group in full.