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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 
about that."

   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.

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