Commander: IS Threat to Syria Growing 08/13 06:18
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Elements of the Islamic State group are working to
rebuild in western Syria, where the U.S. has little visibility or presence, the
top U.S. commander for the Middle East warned on Wednesday.
In the region west of the Euphrates River where the Syrian regime is in
control "conditions are as bad or worse" than they were leading up to the rise
of the Islamic State, said Gen. Frank McKenzie. "We should all be concerned
McKenzie said insurgents are operating with some degree of freedom, and he
said the U.S. and its allies have little hope the Syrian regime will do
anything to tamp down the group there. The western part of the country has
historically been controlled by Russian-backed Syrian government troops, while
the U.S. and its allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, have largely been in the
north and eastern part of the country.
President Donald Trump has touted the defeat of IS as one of his key
national security achievements. He ordered the removal of U.S. forces from the
northern border near Turkey, as part of a planned move to pull all American
troops out of the country. But he was eventually convinced by U.S. military
leaders to leave U.S. forces in the east to continue working with the SDF and
help protect oil fields from IS.
Speaking online to a United States Institute of Peace forum from his U.S.
Central Command office in Tampa, McKenzie said that the slow-moving effort to
transfer people out of Syrian refugee camps has been further complicated and
delayed by the coronavirus pandemic. And that, he said, fuels concerns about
the radicalization of people --- particularly the youth --- in the camps, which
officials worry are breeding grounds for IS insurgents.
The al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria is home to as many as 70,000 people
--- mostly women and children --- who were displaced by the ongoing civil war
in Syria and the battle against IS. Many fled as the U.S.-backed SDF cleared
out the last pockets of land held by IS last year.
Leanne Erdberg Steadman, the USIP director for countering violent extremism,
said getting people out of the camps is key to having them abandon violence and
secure a new future. Officials said that there have now been the first few
reported cases of COVID-19 at al-Hol.
McKenzie said concerns about blocking the spread of the virus among European
allies and other nations in the region has complicated efforts to repatriate
camp residents to their home nations.
Repatriation is the key to clearing out the refugee camps, and the U.S. has
aggressively pushed to get allies to take their own citizens back. Most
nations, however, are reluctant to take in potential IS insurgents. And the
potential spread of COVID-19 is now an added fear.
Humanitarian groups say many of the women and children are not risks, but
officials also note that there are a lot of women who were radicalized and
active in the insurgency.
McKenzie said that unless political leaders find a way to deradicalize and
repatriate the displaced people in the camps, there will be another IS
resurgence in the future.
"As young people grow up, we're going to see them again unless we can turn
them in a way to make them productive members of society," he said. "We can
either deal with this problem now or deal with it exponentially worse a few
years down the road.