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A military official sought to raise awareness of a growing security threat in Syria at a time when the country has seen belligerent activity increase.
On Friday, the head of CENTCOM, General Erik Kurilla, visited al-Hol camp in Syria and said that ISIS sought to exploit conditions in the camp as a means of getting new recruits for its cause.
“The SDF mission to clear ISIS from the camp continues: this is a critical and wide-ranging operation that will make the camp safer for all residents,” Kurilla said after his visit. “We have already seen ISIS members holding shackled women and girls inside the camp, torturing camp residents and trying to spread their vile ideology.”
“Most of the residents try to escape ISIS, but ISIS sees the camp as a captive audience for its message and recruiting efforts,” he continued. “It is therefore urgent to repatriate residents to their countries of origin and rehabilitate them if necessary.”
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The al-Hol camp is Syria’s largest refugee camp, with children making up more than half of the camp’s population, according to the Washington Post. Recent estimates say that around 55,000 residents currently live in the camp.
But conditions at the camp remain dire: the scorching heat and lack of running water result in a poor quality of life that could make ISIS seem like an attractive alternative, Kurilla warned.
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“With around 80 births in the camp each month, this place is literally a breeding ground for the next generation of ISIS,” he said, adding that about 70 percent of the camp’s population was under the age of 12.
Syria has recently seen a surge of interest from rival nations: Iran has discussed the possibility of forming a joint oil and gas company with the Syrian government, while also increasing the activity of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the country.
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Iran has operated with a number of proxy groups, using them to target US military bases, but so far causing little damage.
Kurilla stressed that he did not believe that there was a military solution to deal with the threat posed by the camp: instead he pushed for the eviction of the camp and for the return of the residents to their country of origin, with at least half from Iraq.
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“If Iraq were to repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate its citizens, the problem would immediately become much more manageable,” he said, adding that most of the residents he spoke to “reject Isis” and want to “contribute to society” .
Kurilla insisted on the need for cooperation between the United States and the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) to strengthen the security of the camp and humanitarian conditions.