The Iraqi government for the first time is expected to bring home about 100 Iraqi families from a sprawling camp in Syria next week.
The repatriation is a move American officials see as a hopeful sign in a long-frustrated effort to return thousands of Iraqis from the camp, known as a breeding ground for young ISIL (ISIS) fighters.
On an unannounced visit to Syria on Friday, the top US general for the Middle East, Marine General Frank McKenzie, expressed optimism the transfer from the al-Hol camp will happen. He has repeatedly warned youth in the camps are being “radicalised” and will become the next generation of dangerous fighters.
“It would be the first step in many such repatriations, and I think that’s going to be the key to bringing down the population in the al-Hol camp, and indeed in other camps across the region,” McKenzie told reporters traveling with him into Syria.
“Nations need to bring back their citizens, repatriate them, reintegrate them, deradicalise them when necessary, and make them productive elements of society.”
Bit of scepticism
A senior US official said the transfer of people from the camp in northeast Syria is one of a number of issues the United States and Iraqi governments are discussing as they work out a road map for future diplomatic and military relations. It came up during meetings on Thursday when McKenzie made an unannounced stop to the capital Baghdad. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Iraqi leaders earlier this year talked about repatriating some of their citizens, but did not follow through. So the plans for next week have been met with a bit of scepticism, and it appeared unclear if it would be a game-changing first step or a one-time deal.
The al-Hol camp is home to as many as 70,000 people – mostly women and children – displaced by the civil war in Syria and the battle against the ISIL armed group. As many as half are Iraqis. About 10,000 foreigners are housed in a secure annex, and many in the camp remain die-hard ISIL supporters.
Many countries have refused to repatriate their citizens who were among those from around the world who came to join ISIL after it declared a “caliphate” in 2014. The group’s physical hold on territory was ended in 2017, but many countries baulk at repatriating their citizens, fearing their links to ISIL.
‘Pay a steep price’
In late March, the main US-backed Kurdish-led force in northeast Syria conducted a five-day sweep inside al-Hol that was assisted by US forces. At least 125 suspects were arrested.
Since then, McKenzie said on Friday, security has gotten better at the camp. But, he added, security has no real effect on the radicalisation of the youth there.
“That’s what concerns me,” he said, as he stood at a base in northeast Syria not far from the Turkish border. “The ability of ISIL to reach out, touch these young people and turn them – in a way that unless we can find a way to take it back – it’s going to make us pay a steep price down the road.”
As McKenzie crisscrossed eastern Syria, stopping at four US outposts, his message was short and direct – US forces remain in Syria to fight the remnants of ISIL, so the fighters cannot regroup. Pockets of ISIL are still active, particularly west of the Euphrates River in vast stretches of ungoverned territory controlled by the Syrian government led by President Bashar al-Assad.
“Out there and in the camps, the underlying conditions of poverty and sectarianism that gave rise to IS still exist,” said British Brigadier-General Richard Bell, deputy commanding general for the coalition fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, who travelled with McKenzie.
McKenzie said it was important to keep up the pressure against the armed group “because ISIS still has an aspirational goal to attack the United States’ homeland”.
“We want to prevent that from happening.”