WASHINGTON - The top U.S. general for military operations in the Middle East is warning of a potential Islamic State resurgence should the international community not act quickly to repatriate and deradicalize former members and supporters of the terror group who are in Syrian camps.
“We’re buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road, 15 years down the road, and we’re going to do this all over again. I would prefer to avoid that,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said during an online forum Wednesday hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP).
The U.S.-led international coalition against Islamic State declared victory over the terror group last year, but an “interconnected ecosystem of problems” that requires an international agreement remains, McKenzie said.
Nations have tried to reach a global consensus on what to do with captured IS fighters and their families, with many countries refusing to take back citizens who left their country to fight in Iraq and Syria. Travel concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic have halted repatriation discussions.
Officials say horrible conditions at Syria’s al-Hol camp, which houses captured Islamic State fighters along with tens of thousands of displaced men, women and children, have fueled radicalization. The facility has also recently confirmed its first COVID-19 cases, raising fears that the deadly virus may spread.
“If we stay where we are, we're going to have huge problems: huge problems in the near term with lots of people potentially dying, and then huge problems in the long-term because I have yet to see a scheme that can talk about deradicalization at scale,” McKenzie said.
“I don’t have an answer besides repatriation ... We either deal with this problem now or deal with it exponentially worse a few years down the road,” the CENTCOM commander added.
Concerns of a resurgent Islamic State come as the United States wants to pull more American forces from Iraq and Syria. The U.S. pulled some of its forces from Syria in 2018 and began exiting bases in Iraq in March of this year.
Last month, McKenzie confirmed in a VOA interview that U.S. forces could continue to fight IS and support Iraqi forces with fewer troops, adding that the reduction will be done in close consultation with Iraq and international allies.
Speaking to USIP on Wednesday, McKenzie stressed that the U.S. was also not going to be in Syria “forever,” while hinting the solution would require a gradual exit on an unclear timeline.
“There's not going to be a significant victory celebration. There's not going to be a clear-cut military victory [against IS],” McKenzie said.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s unilateral moves against the terror group in northern Syria have complicated the situation, with the U.S. general acknowledging he does not have a clear idea of what is taking place inside Turkish-controlled areas of the country.
“I just don't know, I've got no visibility,” he said.
U.S. military leaders have criticized Turkey’s offensive into northern Syria, which pushed out members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a largely Kurdish group allied with the United States who had successfully expelled IS from the area. Turkey sees the group as a threat linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has carried out several attacks in Turkey.
Tensions further escalated last month as SDF officials expressed dismay after Turkish intelligence agents infiltrated al-Hol to smuggle out a Moldovan woman and her four children. It is unclear why such an operation was necessary, according to the SDF, claiming all that Moldova had to do was ask to repatriate the woman.
“The global coalition asked the countries to get their citizens back [with] no response. Moldova did not ask for this woman,” Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the SDF’s political wing, told VOA.
McKenzie on Wednesday said he had “no evidence” that anybody was smuggled out of al-Hol.
National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed reporting.