The head of US Central Command called for “empathy” in dealing with the large Al Hol refugee camp in north-eastern Syria, while defending the Kurdish-led militia who guard the site, saying the camp contains ISIS sympathisers.
The Al Hol camp, where many, mostly Arab refugees came after the defeat of ISIS in 2019, is one of the unresolved humanitarian issues in the US sphere of influence in Syria.
Most of the camp's 56,000 residents are women and children from Syria and Iraq. They are either banned from leaving the camp, where they live in squalid conditions, or have nowhere else to go.
“The challenge is that 50 per cent of the camp are ISIS adherents,” Gen Michael Kurilla told reporters in Amman.
Gen Kurilla, who visited Al Hol last week, did not say how he had reached that conclusion.
He said that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed force in northern Syria dominated by Kurdish militia, was “doing the world a favour” by guarding the camp.
“We have to look at this with empathy as well because there is no military solution,” said Gen Kurilla, who was visiting Jordan to inspect joint exercises between the US Army, Jordan and allied militaries.
The solution, he said, is to “repatriate, rehabilitate and reintegrate” those refugees at Al Hol that can be weaned off ISIS ideology.
He said the Iraqi government has taken 700 Iraqi families from the camp but that repatriation needs to be accelerated.
The US military announced last week that an SDF sweep of the camp, supported by American forces, resulted in the arrest of dozens of terrorist operatives and the dissolution of “a major ISIS facilitation network”.
Gen Kurilla said two SDF members were killed in the operation.
Most of those living in Al Hol have been de facto prisoners of the camp since 2019, with the SDF suspecting them of being relatives of ISIS members.
Gen Kurilla spoke as he visited Exercise Eager Lion 22 where 1,850 American soldiers are training alongside 2,250 Jordanian forces and around 800 troops from 26 allies including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE.
"We are integrating processes, systems, command and control, and training together in the air, on the ground, and at sea. All these things strengthen relationships and trust. That kind of trust cannot be built in times of crisis,” he said.