UNITED NATIONS — The attack by Islamic State militants on a Syrian prison holding around 3,000 of its fighters and about 700 children is a predictable tragedy spotlighting the need for urgent international action to deal with those allegedly linked to the extremist group in prisons and camps in the country’s northeast, the U.N. counter-terrorism chief said Thursday.
Undersecretary-General Vladimir Voronkov told the U.N. Security Council that the Islamic State group “has been highlighting and calling for jail breaks,” and “there have been previous instances in Syria and elsewhere in the world.”
Most of the men, women and children with alleged links to ISIS who are held in Syrian prisons and camps “have never been charged with a crime, yet remain in prolonged detention, uncertain of their fate,” the head of the U.N. Office of Counter-Terrorism said.
Using the Arabic acronym for the IS extremist group, he said, “It is a reminder also of why Da’esh continues to embed itself in Syria.”.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that the threat from Da’esh is growing, including in Syria where Voronkov said it is organized in small cells “hiding in desert and rural areas, while they move across the border between Iraq and Syria to avoid capture.”
The latest incident at the Gweiran Prison, also known as al-Sinaa, located in the northeastern city of Hassakeh, is the biggest by ISIS militants since the fall of the group’s “caliphate” that once spanned significant parts of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2019.
Voronkov said the fighting also affected the civilian population and resulted in the escape of an unknown number of fighters for the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
U.S.-backed Kurdish forces said Wednesday they had taken control of the last section of the prison controlled by ISIS militants and freed a number of child detainees they said had been used as human shields, but Voronkov said the fighting was “ongoing.”
The counter-terrorism chief said he was “appalled” by reports that children, who should never have been held in military detention, were used as human shields. “Although the group’s barbarism should come as no surprise, these children have been left prey to be used and abused in this way,” he said.
Voronkov reiterated his call for countries to repatriate alleged ISIS fighters and their families in prisons and camps in northeastern Syria.
“The repatriation of third country nationals from Syria and Iraq remains a major priority for the United Nations and we stand ready as a reliable partner to member states in responding to these challenges,” he said. “Da’esh’s attempts to break its fighters freed from prison underlines the need to bring them to justice as soon as possible, and ensure accountability to break the cycle of violence.”
U.N. special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen told the Security Council on Wednesday that the ISIS prison attack “brings back terrible memories of the prison breaks that fueled the original rise of ISIL in 2014 and 2015.”
“I see this as a clear message to use all of the importance of uniting to combat the threat of internationally-proscribed terrorist groups -- and to resolve the broader conflict in which terrorism inevitably thrives,” Pedersen said.
Russia called for the briefing on the prison attack and its deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyansky, accused the United States of saying it abides by international humanitarian law which calls for protection of civilians in armed conflicts but using its air force and armored vehicles to clear the prison of IS fighters.
He said the United States ignored “measures to protect civilians” at the prison and elsewhere, including U.S. airstrikes in Baghouz, Syria in March 2019 that he said killed at least 80 civilians.
Polyansky also accused the U.S. of illegally occupying Syria’s northeast and “looting oil.”
U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills countered, accusing Russia of turning the council meeting “into a rhetoric-driven mass of disinformation and -- frankly -- lies about the U.S. role in Syria.“ He said American forces are in the northeast as part of a coalition “for the sole purpose of continuing the fight” against ISIS extremists.
He said the Baghouz attacks are under investigation by the U.S. Defense Department in response to media reporting, stressing that if there were a similar Russian airstrike that tragically killed civilians “there would be no independent press to report on it, since there is very little Russian opposition available to raise the issue.”
Mills said the prison attack in Hassakeh underscores the threat IS continues to pose in Syria as well as the risk of holding ISIS detainees “in makeshift facilities in the region indefinitely.”
He called on member states to support efforts by the coalition to ensure that detainees “are safely and humanely housed in accordance with international standards.”