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A military official has tried to raise awareness of a growing security threat in Syria at a time when the country has seen increased activity from belligerents.
CENTCOM chief Gen. Erik Kurilla on Friday visited the al-Hol camp in Syria and said ISIS has looked to exploit the conditions in the camp as a means of gaining new recruits to its cause.
“The SDF mission to clear ISIS from the camp continues: This is a critical, wide-ranging operation which will make the camp safer for all residents,” Kurilla said following his visit. “We’ve already seen ISIS members holding women and girls enslaved in chains inside the camp, torturing camp residents, and seeking to spread their vile ideology.”
“Most of the residents seek to escape ISIS, but ISIS sees the camp as a captive audience for its message and recruitment efforts,” he continued. “It is therefore urgent that we repatriate residents back to their countries of origin and rehabilitate them if needed.”
The al-Hol camp is Syria’s largest refugee camp, with children making up more than half the camp’s population, according to The Washington Post. Recent estimates say that around 55,000 residents currently live at the camp.
But conditions at the camp remain grim: Scorching hot weather and a lack of running water result in poor quality of life that may make ISIS seem an attractive alternative, Kurilla warned.
“With approximately 80 births in the camp each month, this place is a literal breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS,” he said, adding that about 70% of the camp population was under the age of 12.
Syria has recently seen an uptick in interest from rival nations: Iran has discussed the possibility of forming a joint oil and gas company with the Syrian government while also increasing activity of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the country.
Iran has operated with a number of proxy groups, using them to strike at U.S. military bases, but causing little damage – so far.
Kurilla stressed that he does not believe a military solution exists to deal with the threat posed by the camp: Instead, he has pushed for the camp to be cleared and for residents to return to their country of origin, with at least half from Iraq.
“Should Iraq repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate its citizens, the problem would immediately become much more manageable,” he said, adding that most residents he spoke to “reject ISIS” and want to “contribute to society.”
Kurilla pressed the need for cooperation between the U.S. and the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) to shore up security for the camp as well as humanitarian conditions.