Between January 20th and January 26th 2022, Islamic State militants (ISIS) attempted to take control of Al-Sina’a prison in Gweran neighbourhood in Al-Hasakah, Syria. The prison, managed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), by some reports held between 3000 to 5000 individuals associated with ISIS, including “hundreds” of so-called ‘Cubs of the Caliphate’ – the term for ISIS child soldiers. The prison came back under SDF control on January 26th after Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with air and ground support from the US-led Coalition launched a counter-attack on the prison and surrounding area.
Initial reports indicate that between 6 and 7 civilians were killed as a result of SDF and the US-led Coalition actions during the counter-attack, who were likely residents living in the area surrounding the prison. However there were very few reports that were able to clearly identify the number of fatalities. Local reporting on civilian casualty estimates were challenged by the high intensity of the operation – while most sources were in agreement that seven civilians had been killed in the surrounding area, there was lack of consensus on whether or not one of the individuals included in that count had in fact been killed by ISIS.
Estimates of the number of injured also varied – one source reported that a journalist with Hawar news station was injured by SDF and US-led Coalition actions in the surrounding area, while one other source mentioned witnessing ‘lots’ of injured bodies.
The majority of reports characterised the US-led Coalition action in the surrounding areas as using heavy machine guns from helicopters to target ISIS militants in nearby residential areas. The Pentagon confirmed that they were also providing ground support using Bradley fighting vehicles; armoured vehicles capable of firing heavy weapons.
Inside the prison, as the events unfolded local sources were unable to distinguish between those individuals killed ‘hors de combat’ – i.e. protected under international humanitarian law given that they are detainees, and as such ‘in the power of an adverse party’; those killed as a result of directly participating in hostilities with SDF and US-led Coalition forces who were not imprisoned in the first place; and those who took up arms during the fight to gain control of the prison.
This is reflected in reporting on the large number of children reported to be detained in the prison. According to local reports, between 15 and 22 formerly detained children were killed inside or in the vicinity of the prison. The New York Times reported that the leader of the SDF said that “a very small number” of children had been killed. Apparently “some escaped with the adults” who were “either rearrested or killed.” John Kirby, the chief Pentagn press spokesperson confirmed on February 1st that ISIS did “have a population of children there. Many of them teenage boys, which they were either and or using as human shields.”
In a voice recording obtained by Human Rights Watch, a boy who identified himself as a 17 year old Australian said he had been wounded in an airstrike, and witnessed at least two others, aged 14 and 15, killed in front of him. According to the Associated Press, the boy said that he saw other children killed in shooting he described as “non-stop” and that he was reported to have said, “they are not stopping shooting. Every little bit they shoot. Every little bit they hit a missile.” This indicates that children inside the prison may have been killed from both ground operations and airstrikes overhead conducted by the US-led Coalition.
Another young prisoner told Human Rights Watch that “children as well as adults had been killed though they weren’t certain of numbers. One said perhaps 15 to 20 boys were killed.” Another prisoner said “It’s hard to guess, honestly it’s very chaotic… One kid I evacuated as we were trying to stop his bleeding, he died in front of me. His leg was busted open… We tried to stop the bleeding with a shirt. He looked very young.”
Two boys were reported by the New York Times to have been found on January 30th on the northeastern side of the prison, on the road. Four other adult corpses were found with them, presumed to be ISIS members. According to the Times, “neighbourhood residents said the boys were among a group of escaped inmates, most of them Iraqi, who were killed on Friday by the SDF as its troops went door to door to hunt down ISIS fighters.” Apparently it was not clear whether the boys were being held hostage by the ISIS fighters or were trying to escape with them. The witnesses did not know whether they had been armed.
Human Rights Watch also noted reports that a makeshift hospital in the prison had come under anti-aircraft and heavy machine gun fire on Tuesday 25th January around sunset.
John Kirby confirmed that the US was providing support to the SDF on January 24th during a Pentagon Press Briefing, “we have helped provide real-time surveillance during the event. We have conducted a series of strikes through this days long operation to include the procession targeting of ISIS fighters who were attacking the SDF from buildings in the area and we have provided limited ground support strategically positioned to assist security in the area.” Clashes between SDF and the US-led Coalition and ISIS militants continue in the surrounding area, particularly in response to concerns around escaped detainees who are now unaccounted for.
SDF released a statement on January 26th which said “The Peoples’ Hammer Operation has culminated with our entire control of the al-Sina’a prison in al-Hasakah and the surrender of all Daesh terrorists.”
Operation timeline as reported by local sources:
January 20th 2022
In a video by North Press Agency, witnesses described explosions around 9-10pm on the night of January 20th. One witness identified the body of a young man who lived in the surrounding area named Ghassan Awaf al-Anezi, aged 20, who was killed by ISIS. She also added: “there were a lot of victims in our neighborhood. We saw many martyrs, the dead and the wounded were on the ground.” It was unclear from local reporting if the civilian casualties mentioned resulted from ISIS actions or from actions by SDF and the US-led Coalition. According to the New York Times, ISIS found a photo of him in an SDF uniform during compulsory military service, before they shot him.
January 21st 2022
An ISIS car bomb exploded outside the prison walls, with local sources stating that a riot was taking place as a result inside the prison. Fighting continued between SDF with US-led Coalition forces and ISIS in the surrounding area and on the prison facility.
US-led Coalition helicopters targeted ISIS militants with heavy machine guns in the vicinity of the Municipal Departments College in the Gheweran neighbourhood, south of Al-Hasakah. Al-Zohour neighbourhood was also targeted by the US-led Coalition. A Facebook post by ِAl Khabour reported that the Faculty of Economics in Al-Hasakah was destroyed by Coalition airstrikes without mentioning any casualties.
Euphrates Post put the number of civilians killed at four, while Sky News reported that five civilians had been killed. Neither source specified if the civilians were killed by SDF and US-led Coalition forces, or by ISIS attacks. It is also unclear whether this number was a cumulative toll of civilian harm, or from this specific day.
Euphrates Post additionally reported that at least 10 members of ISIS and 13 members of the SDF had been killed “in the vicinity of Al-Sina’a Prison in Ghweran neighborhood”.
January 22nd 2022
According to Euphrates Post, an airstrike by the US-led Coalition targeted the Al-Sana’a prison, the first locally reported incident of a US-led Coalition air attack on the prison itself. One building was reported to have been hit.
In addition, US-led Coalition F16 planes reportedly carried out airstrikes in the Ghweran neighbourhood targeting alleged ISIS cells. Euphrates Post also reported that the US-led Coalition also dropped flyers in the city of Al-Hasakah, calling on people to report any “terrorist or suspicious activities.”
Local reports also indicated direct clashes between Syrian Democratic forces and ISIS militants inside the prison.
January 23rd 2022
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the total death toll since the start of the prison fighting had reached “123: 77 ISIS fighters, seven civilians and 39 members of Asayish Forces, prison guards and counter-terrorism forces.” Save the Children reported that audio testimony indicated that multiple children were likely among those killed.
January 24th 2022
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that there were “renewed clashes inside Ghuwayran prison… after airstrikes by International Coalition aircraft on positions where ISIS members holed up.” Outside the prison, the SDF, Asayish forces and US-led Coalition reportedly continued to search for ISIS members and escaped prisoners in local neighbourhoods.
The New York Times reported that as of January 24th, ISIS fighters were in control of a quarter of the prison and were “using the boys as human shields”, in addition to threatening to kill the boys if the Coalition continued its assault. According to the Times, among the inmates at the prison were boys as young as 12 – including Syrians, Iraqis, and about 150 non-Arab foreigners.
The Morning Star News put the death toll as of January 24th at five civilians, with one rumored to have been beheaded by ISIS. A journalist working for the SDF was reportedly killed and a reporter from the Hawar news station was reportedly injured.
January 25th 2022
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that a group of children were evacuated from the prison in buses, but the final destination of these buses remain unknown. They also mentioned that the day before other prisoners had been transferred to Al-Shaddadi. According to the Washington Post, this number could be around 400. SOHR also provided an updated death toll: “114 ISIS fighters, seven civilians and 45 members of Asayish Forces, prison guards and counter-terrorism forces” killed since January 20th.
Local sources reported that US-led Coalition airstrikes continued with “five raids a while ago.” Al Araby reported that this happened “at dawn.”
@DeirEzzore reported that paramedics were brought in to treat wounded ISIS fighters and prisoners. According to a video posted by Euphrates, a witness reported that there are unarmed civilians who were killed by the SDF and that “children were among [the] killed” and “many children [were] injured inside.” A Hawar News Agency report also identified nine hostages as being liberated by SDF from the prison the night before.
Two US-led Coalition airstrikes were reported on Sadkob Gas Station, Al Hasakah. The building was reportedly severely damaged, but there were no reports of civilian casualties in the area.
January 26th 2022
On January 26th there were no reports of US-led Coalition action inside the prison or its vicinity. The SDF announced the defeat of ISIS and that it had regained control of the prison.
Any on-going reporting of civilian casualties relating to the SDF and US-led Coalition actions will be treated as separate incidents in the Airwars archive.
As more information comes available, Airwars will attempt to disambiguate the civilian casualty incidents over the course of the six days into separate civilian harm events.