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American troops battle ISIS for control of Syrian prison

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

U.S. ground troops have joined a fight in northeast Syria to retake control of a prison that's been seized by fighters from the Islamic State. The prison houses thousands of suspected ISIS members. The attack from the Islamic State is one of the boldest and most sophisticated we've seen in recent years and a sign of the Islamic State's resilience.

We're joined now by Jane Arraf, The New York Times Baghdad bureau chief. Hi, Jane.

JANE ARRAF: Hi, there.

KHALID: So, Jane, this is an extremely fluid situation with the prison. What is the latest you've heard on the status?

ARRAF: Well, it's been several days now since ISIS attacked this prison with suicide bombs and gunmen and actually seized part of the prison. So there's been a siege, a hold-off since then. The Kurdish Syrian forces have been trying to break this siege. And the U.S. has launched airstrikes, and it's also sent in ground troops. But still, ISIS is holding part of that prison.

And part of the huge problem here is that some of the prisoners that they're holding are actually children - they're boys. There are about 700 boys who are held in this detention facility.

KHALID: And, Jane, I wanted to ask you about that. You know, in your reporting, you said that ISIS is using those children, those boys, as human shields. I mean, this sounds like, essentially, a hostage situation. So why are these boys at the prison in the first place?

ARRAF: For a number of reasons. But essentially, the main reason they're in this prison in the first place while being children is that after the fall of ISIS three years ago, after it was defeated in the town of - in Syria called Baghuz, thousands of people streamed out of there - survivors of the air attacks and the fighting. And the U.S.-led coalition and its Syrian Kurdish partners didn't know what to do with them.

These were people who had been living in the ISIS caliphate. They were people who some of whom were fighters. Some just got swept up in it. And a lot were children. So they took the older children - the boys - and they took them away from their mothers. And when we're saying older children, we're talking about children as young as 10, some even younger.

KHALID: Oh, wow.

ARRAF: They took them away from their mothers, and they put them in this prison, essentially because they thought that they could be a danger.

KHALID: Jane, I want to step back because a lot of listeners may be surprised that here we are in 2022, talking about ISIS again. You know, back in 2018, former President Donald Trump declared that ISIS was defeated. By 2019, the group no longer had control of any physical territory. The so-called caliphate was dead. But what does this attack say about ISIS and its current capabilities?

ARRAF: Well, it certainly says that ISIS isn't dead. Now, it was indeed, as he mentioned, territorially defeated, meaning they don't hold those huge parts of Iraq and Syria that they did. At one point, they controlled one-third of Iraq. Now they've retreated to the mountains, to the deserts, to sleeper cells.

But I think what this attack has proved - and what recent attacks in Iraq have proved - is that you can't count ISIS out. This attack, for instance, on the prison in Syria - it has brought in American ground troops, and it is the biggest battle that the U.S. military has waged against ISIS since the group was defeated three years ago.

KHALID: Do you think that suggests that the U.S. could become further entangled in Syria in a more serious way - say, additional troops down the road?

ARRAF: Well, it really depends what U.S. policy goals are. And I think right now the U.S. mission and the U.S. aims are not entirely clear to anyone, even people charged with implementing them. So if we're talking about U.S. forces becoming entangled, I think it's been made clear that the United States does really - really does not want to have a lot of troops in Iraq, in Syria, in places like that. But at the same time, this illustrates the risk if there are no troops.

KHALID: That's Jane Arraf, Baghdad bureau chief for The New York Times. Thanks, as always.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.