HASAKA, Syria – U.S. and Kurdish forces fought ISIS fighters in northeastern Syria on Saturday in the most intense urban battle involving U.S. troops in Iraq or Syria since the fall of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate in 2019.
Fighting erupted in the residential areas of Hasaka near where Kurdish forces tried to suppress the last ISIS-armed men barricaded in a jail during a week-long siege.
Several dozen bodies, some dressed in orange prison uniforms, were seen being driven away by Kurdish militiamen near al-Sinaa prison on Saturday, an indication of the scale of the fighting in recent days.
A Syrian Democratic Forces official, a Kurdish militia, said clearing operations continued in the Ghweran district around the prison to find ISIS sleeping cells. Kurdish-led anti-terrorist forces backed by US special forces troops went house-to-house in the narrow alleys of the neighborhood of most of the Arab city.
Kurdish forces threw lightning grenades into homes where they believed ISIS fighters were hiding while residents gathered in the streets.
This round of fighting began eight days ago after an ISIS attack on the prison, which housed more than 3,000 ISIS members and nearly 700 detained minors.
The Syrian Democratic Forces said about 30 ISIS fighters surrendered on Friday, but that the remaining militants in prison are believed to be holding teenage prisoners as human shields.
The aftermath of Syria’s civil war
After a decade of fighting, many Syrians are wondering if the country can regroup.
“We believe there are kids from the caliphate with them,” said Farhad Shami, an SDF spokesman, referring to the children who were forced by ISIS to become warriors.
“They are using these children to prevent our forces from carrying out serious military operations,” he added.
SDF has released conflicting information about the siege. On Wednesday, it declared that it had regained full control of the prison after the United States launched airstrikes and sent in armored combat vehicles in to help recapture the complex. On Thursday, it became clear that fighting with armed men barricaded in prison buildings continued.
On Saturday, there were growing signs that the fight was much tougher than had originally been reported.
On the outskirts of the Ghweran neighborhood where the prison is located, reporters for The New York Times saw what appeared to be at least 80 corpses being transported in a small truck from the direction of the jail and being dumped in a pile on the road. Kurdish fighters lifted them one by one into the shovel on a yellow front loader, which moved them into a 40-foot gravel truck to be taken away for burial.
Some bodies were in orange prison suits, while others were dressed in civilian clothes, which are also worn by prisoners in the jail. Almost all the corpses were intact and bloodless, many of their faces and bodies were black with soot.
A desperate fighter yelled at a Times photographer not to take pictures.
“We know it’s not true, but there are so many of them,” he said.
Hasaka, in the breakaway-Kurdish-led region of Rojava, is surrounded by enemy Syrian forces and Turkish-backed troops occupying northwestern Syria.
The region has struggled with existential security threats, lack of infrastructure and near economic collapse. Foreign countries have refused to repatriate ISIS fighters and their families, leaving Rojava to become a haven for the remnants of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate, including thousands of accused fighters and tens of thousands of their family members.
The local government in Rojava has long warned that it does not have the resources or capabilities to run safe prisons and detention camps.
The United States maintains about 700 troops in Rojava as part of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. But until the prison siege, U.S. forces mostly carried out relatively routine missions that avoided the Russian military presence in the same area.
The SDF said on Saturday that 13 of its fighters had been killed by reclaiming the prison and securing the area, though that number is likely to be higher. It has not released figures for the number of prisoners killed in the fighting.
A U.S.-led coalition official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly said it would take time to determine how many ISIS fighters were killed in recent fighting. .
SDF officials have said prison inmates younger than 18 have been transferred to a new location. The minors were brought to Syria as young children with their parents.
A YPG official, the main Kurdish faction, said most of the ISIS fighters still barricaded in prison surrendered Friday night after Kurdish-led forces stormed the building.
“They told us they were surrendering and then they came out one by one and laid their weapons on the ground,” said Siyamend Ali, YPG’s media director. He said some put on suicide belts.
Hasaka has been detained since the January 20 jail term. Shops are closed and temporary shelters house families displaced by the fighting. In some areas, there has been no electricity or running water for more than a week.
In the Ghweran district on Saturday, a group of men and boys stood in an alley down the street from American and Kurdish armored vehicles.
“It’s an incredibly bad situation,” said a worker who would only be identified by his first name, Mohammad, because he was afraid to talk about ISIS. “The neighborhood has not been properly cleared yet, and ISIS is using the roofs to jump from one house to another.”