Repatriation is a move that US officials see as a sign of hope in a long-frustrated effort to return thousands of Iraqis from the camp, known as fertile ground for young ISIS fighters.
During an unannounced visit to Syria on Friday, the high-level US general for the Middle East, Marine General Frank McKenzie, expressed optimism about the relocation of the al-Hol camp. He repeatedly warned that the youth in the camps were “radicalized” and would become the next generation of dangerous fighters.
“It would be the first step in many repatriations of this type, and I think it will be the key to bringing down the population in the al-Hol camp, and indeed in other camps in the region,” he said. McKenzie told reporters traveling with him in Syria.
“Nations must bring back their citizens, repatriate them, reintegrate them, de-radicalize them if necessary and make them productive elements of society.”
A little skepticism
A senior US official said the transfer of people from the camp to northeastern Syria is one of many issues the US and Iraqi governments are discussing as they develop a roadmap for future diplomatic relations and military. It was raised in meetings on Thursday when McKenzie made an unexpected stop in the capital Baghdad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Iraqi leaders spoke earlier this year about the repatriation of some of their citizens, but did not follow up. So plans for next week were met with a bit of skepticism, and it didn’t seem clear whether this would be a game-changing first step or a one-time deal.
Al-Hol camp is home to up to 70,000 people – mostly women and children – displaced by the civil war in Syria and the battle against the armed group ISIS. Half are Iraqis. Around 10,000 foreigners are housed in a secure annex, and many in the camp remain staunch supporters of ISIL.
Many countries have refused to repatriate their citizens who were among those from around the world who came to join ISIS after declaring a “caliphate” in 2014. The group’s physical hold on the territory ended in 2017, but many countries are reluctant to repatriate their citizens, fearing their ties to ISIL.
‘Pay a high price’
In late March, the main US-backed Kurdish force in northeastern Syria conducted a five-day sweep inside al-Hol with the help of US forces. At least 125 suspects have been arrested.
Since then, McKenzie said on Friday, security has improved at the camp. But, he added, security has no real effect on radicalizing the youth there.
“That’s what concerns me,” he said, as he stood at a base in northeastern Syria, not far from the Turkish border. “ISIL’s ability to reach out, reach out to these young people and transform them – in a way that, unless we can find a way to take it back, will pay a heavy price down the road.
As McKenzie crisscrossed eastern Syria, stopping at four US outposts, his message was short and to the point: US forces remain in Syria to fight the remnants of ISIS, so fighters cannot not regroup. Pockets of ISIS are still active, particularly west of the Euphrates in large swathes of ungoverned territory controlled by the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad.
“There and in the camps, the underlying conditions of poverty and sectarianism that gave rise to ISIS still exist,” said British Brigadier-General Richard Bell, Deputy Commander-General of the Coalition Struggle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which traveled with McKenzie. .
McKenzie said it was important to keep up the pressure against the armed group “because ISIS still has an ambitious goal of attacking the homeland of the United States.”
“We want to prevent that from happening.”