On the evening of 20 January, over 200 ISIS fighters with car bombs and heavy weapons attacked Sina’a Prison in Hasakah, where there were around 4000 detained members of ISIS and 700 minors from 54 countries. Simultaneously, the prisoners inside started to riot. Most of the prison guards and other staff were killed, and an unknown number of ISIS prisoners escaped into the surrounding neighbourhood. A large cache of weapons and ammunition was brought up to the prison, but swift intervention by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) prevented the prisoners from reaching this supply of arms and cordoned off the neighbourhood. After a week and a half of harsh clashes, the SDF, with support from the US-led Coalition, regained control over the prison and the surrounding area. After the operation, the SDF stated that 77 guards and other staff, 40 SDF fighters, and 4 civilians had lost their lives, and 374 ISIS militants were killed.
At the time of the assault in Hasakah, we witnessed intense attacks on the Tel Temir region, 20 km away, launched from the areas of Sere Kaniye (Ras-al-Ain) and Gire Sipi (Tell Abyad), which are under the control of the Turkish state. We also witnessed the Syrian regime move from the south of Al Tabqah and Raqqa and try to take some areas that are under the control of the SDF. We saw that the areas of Tel Rifat and Sehba, which are supposedly protected by Russian guarantee and inhabited by the Kurds who escaped from Afrin, were heavily bombed by the Turkish state and its mercenaries. And we remember that, on 21-22 December, at the 17th Astana talks [discussions between Russia, Iran, and Turkey on the future of Syria] the most important issue agreed was that the region under SDF control was not legitimate, and that the current situation could not be accepted. ISIS members captured in the Hasakah attack admitted that while some of the fighters came from Iraq, most were from Turkish occupied Sere Kaniye and Gire Spi, and that the attack was planned from there.
Putting all this together, we can see that the attack in Hasakah was no ordinary attack, but something much more comprehensive, planned, and coordinated. It is not difficult to guess what would have happened if the thousands of ISIS prisoners had managed to get hold of the weapons and get out into the city. Confiscated documents and confessions show there were plans to combine a take-over of Hasakah with attacks on other areas. Attacks and massacres would have taken them again to the top of the world agenda, as they did with the capture of Mosul in 2014.
Together with the Turkish attacks from the north, and the Syrian regime’s attack from the south, this would have brought an end to the autonomous status of North-East Syria, so implementing the Astana plans. However, SDF fighters, keeping alive the spirit of the Kobanê resistance, were able to hold back the danger.
No reaction on ISIS attack from the West despite looming threat
Major international media outlets covered these events, if patchily and with a little interest in the SDF perspective, but they were not on the agenda of the global powers and international institutions.
Apart from a statement by the US foreign ministry, no other statement was made by either global powers or international institutions – not even by Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs commissioner, despite the threat that ISIS poses for Europe. Countries that have suffered ISIS bomb attacks include France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, and England. These attacks killed hundreds of people, yet international representatives did not feel the need to say a word about the Hasakah attack, in which a total of 495 lives were lost, and which could have been the spur for more ISIS attacks everywhere.
Since the liberation of the last piece of ISIS-held territory, almost three years ago, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria [AANES] has been calling on international powers to find a solution for the detained ISIS members and their families in the region’s prisons and camps. They are calling for the foreign nationals and their families to be repatriated and tried in their own countries, but there has been only a limited and uneven response and that often focused only on the children.
Calls for the establishment of a special international court in North-East Syria also remain unanswered. Although the EU has provided 6 Billion Euros for refugees in Turkey, the burden of ISIS members and their families in North-East Syria has been placed on the Autonomous Administration with only minimal help
Hasakah prison was originally built as a school. It is not suitable for housing thousands of dangerous militants. Al Hol camp, which shelters nearly 60,000 people from the families of ISIS militants, is known as the most dangerous camp in the world. Every week there are reports of killings, especially executions of those trying to break with ISIS ideology. The whole world remains blind and deaf to the fact that children here are raised as suicide bombers. If there is no international solution found for the militants held in North-East Syria and their families, this situation will explode like a time bomb. When that happens, it will have dire consequences for the region and for the entire world.
Turkey launches attack upon ISIS’s defeat
On 1 February, while the 121 martyrs killed in Hasakah were still being buried in funeral ceremonies in many North-East Syrian cities, Turkish warplanes heavily bombed the Derik region of North-East Syria, and the Sinjar and Makhmur areas of Iraq, as if in revenge for the defeat of ISIS. In these bombardments, four people lost their lives in Derik, three in Sinjar and two in Makhmur, and many others were injured.
The now thirteen-thousand-strong community living in Makhmur camp came to southern Kurdistan – not Europe – to escape the destruction of their villages in Turkey in the 1990s. In 2014, ISIS attacked here as well. All the civilians in the camp were evacuated, and it was taken back from ISIS by the camp’s self-defence forces after intensive clashes. Masoud Barzani, then head of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, visited the camp and congratulated and thanked them for their resistance.
In Sinjar, when ISIS attacked and carried out a genocide of the Yazidis in 2014, an even larger genocide was averted by fighters from the HPG [People’s Defence Forces], the armed wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), and from the Syrian Kurdish YPG [People’s Defence Units] and YPJ [Women’s Defence Units], who opened a corridor from Rojava and evacuated around 300,000 people. Before leaving the area. these same groups proceeded to recapture Sinjar from ISIS, and to help the people of Sinjar form their own self-defence forces.
In both Makhmur and Sinjar, these self-defence forces, which protect the people against ISIS attacks, are frequently exposed to air strikes by Turkey, and many lives have been lost of both self-defence fighters – who are also community leaders – and of civilians.
Turkey’s attacks, with NATO weapons, were silently glossed over by international powers, and went almost unreported in the international media. The airspace of all Iraq and North-East Syria is under American control.
ISIS leader killed in area under Turkish protection
On 3 February, President Biden announced that ISIS leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Kurayshi, had been killed by a US raid in the town of Atmah, close to the Turkish border. He said that the assassinated ISIS leader had planned the latest Hasakah prison attack and was also actively involved in the Sinjar genocide in 2014. In October 2019, al-Kurayshi’s predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was also killed in an area close to the Turkish border. But, not only close to the Turkish border. In both cases, we are talking about a region, Idlib, that is effectively under the occupation and protection of Turkey, in cooperation with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other militant jihadi groups.
Idlib is administratively, militarily, politically, and economically dependent on Turkey. The Turkish Lira is used as currency, Turkish education is given in schools, and the Turkish army provides protection against Russia and the Syrian Regime. We can easily think that both ISIS leaders were under the protection of Turkey. The US carried out both operations without informing Turkey, though they announced that the SDF was involved in the assassination of al-Baghdadi, and thanked them generally after the assassination of al-Kurayshi. Russia was informed that an operation was taking place so that they would not misinterpret what was happening.
The Kurdish movement has consistently argued that ISIS has been guided by Turkey, even at the peak of its strength in 2014. There is no shortage of evidence and of examples of their collaboration. While ISIS was trying to advance towards Damascus, it was admitted by captured senior ISIS members that they were directed to attack Kobanê by Erdoğan himself. And ISIS prisoners have also confessed to have carried their organising activities to Turkey.
The Russian defence ministry explained the relations between Turkey and ISIS in great detail, after one of their planes was shot down by Turkey in 2016.
ISIS bombings in Turkey had helped Erdoğan regain power
In 2015, after Erdogan lost his majority in the general election in June, ISIS bomb attacks all over Turkey, especially directed against the Kurds and democratic left forces, helped him regain control when the elections were repeated in November.
It is common knowledge that people from all over the world who went to Syria to join ISIS, passed through Turkey without difficulty. ISIS members who have been caught and put on public trial in Turkey have either been released immediately or given very short sentences.
The recently assassinated ISIS leader, al-Kurayshi, was originally Turkmen, and his brother is the representative of the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Turkey. It has been commonly alleged, that when al-Baghdadi was killed, Erdoğan himself ensured that a Turkmen was elected to replace him.
The parts of the world that provide the greatest shelter to militant jihadis and give them the greatest freedom to organise are the lands of northern Syria occupied by Turkey, and Turkish territory itself.
The USA and EU well know the relationship between Turkey and ISIS, but they prefer to remain silent on this issue, since Turkey, a NATO member, plays an important role in their geopolitical plans.
Even if we look at Ukraine and the current crisis between the USA and Russia, we find that Erdoğan has clearly demonstrated that he stands by Ukraine, reinforcing Turkey’s acceptance to the US as a valuable NATO member.
The selective silences and actions of the western powers have dire consequences. When, in 2018, Turkey invaded Afrin with the approval of Russia, the USA stated that this region was in Russian control and remained silent. However, when Russia and the Syrian regime launched an operation against Idlib which had become a paradise for militant jihadists, the United States supported Turkey and put NATO forces into action. Again, Turkey’s occupation of Gire Sipi and Sere Kaniye in 2019 was only possible thanks to the military withdrawal of the USA.
While Turkey, a member of NATO and of the Council of Europe, and a candidate for the European Union, works hand in glove with ISIS, how can the Western World, led by the EU and the USA, remain silent, and sometimes even tacitly support them? The fact that Turkey can carry out such policies and still be considered a valuable ally of the West, reveals the depth of Western hypocrisy. It shows in brutal clarity how values are trampled for the sake of interests.
Fayik Yağızay is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Representative with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. He can be reached on Twitter @fyagizay.