US warns issue of displaced is key to ISIS’s long-term defeat

US general says Baghdad wants a continued US presence to fight ISIS.
Friday 20/11/2020
A camp for the internally displaced in the town of Kafr Uruq, southwest of the town of Sarmada in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.(AFP)
A camp for the internally displaced in the town of Kafr Uruq, southwest of the town of Sarmada in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.(AFP)

WASHINGTON - Although ISIS is battered and scattered, it cannot be fully defeated until the world finds a way to reconcile and resettle the thousands of people displaced by years of war in Iraq and Syria, the general overseeing American military operations in the Mideast warned.

Marine General Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, said there is no military means of solving the problem of Mideast refugees and internally displaced persons, or IDPs, who await repatriation or resettlement and represent what he called an unfortunate byproduct of armed conflicts.

“Today, across vast swaths of Syria and Iraq, the systemic indoctrination of IDP and refugee camp populations who are hostage to the receipt of ISIS ideology is an alarming development with potentially generational implications,” McKenzie said in remarks to the National Council on US-Arab Relations in Washington.

Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie speaks during a media event  at the Pentagon in Washington. (AP)
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie speaks during a media event  at the Pentagon in Washington. (AP)

He said a solution must come from a joint effort by diplomatic, security and humanitarian organisations.

“Unless the international community finds a way to repatriate, reintegrate into home communities, and support locally grown reconciliation programming of these people, … we are buying ourselves a strategic problem 10 years down the road when these children grow up radicalised. If we don’t address this now, we’re never really going to defeat ISIS,” he added.

Over the past six years, starting with former US President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to return US troops to Iraq to halt an advance of ISIS forces into Iraq from Syria, the US has led an effort to militarily defeat the extremist group in both countries. But the group has not been extinguished, and McKenzie said it has not abandoned its aspiration to recreate a caliphate and attack the West.

— Iraqi request —

US President Donald Trump has pushed for a full US withdrawal from Syria, saying the conflict there was not worth US sacrifices, although there currently are at least several hundred US troops there working with local forces to solidify gains against ISIS. The US also has about 3,000 troops still in Iraq; on Tuesday the Pentagon announced that Trump had ordered a drawdown to 2,500 in Iraq with no change for Syria.

The general said that Baghdad wants a continued US presence to fight ISIS.

“The government of Iraq has clearly indicated it wants to maintain its partnership with the United States and coalition forces as we continue to finish the fight against ISIS,” McKenzie said.

Speaking to an online conference held by the National Council on US-Arab Relations, McKenzie cited estimates that ISIS still has a body of 10,000 supporters in the Iraq-Syria region and remains a real threat.

“The progress of the Iraqi Security Forces has allowed has allowed the United States to reduce force posture in Iraq,” he said.

But US and coalition forces have to be there to help prevent Islamic State from reconstituting as a cohesive group able to plot major attacks, he said.

US President-elect Joe Biden has long argued for bringing most US troops home from the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan while narrowly focusing the US military on defeating ISIS and al-Qaeda.

Trump has pushed for the repatriation of foreign fighters in Syria, but their home countries have largely refused to take them back. He has shown little interest in leading a diplomatic or humanitarian effort to resettle refugees and internally displaced people and to improve their economic prospects.

Displaced Syrians in makeshift camp amid Roman ruins in the area of Baqirha in northwest Syria not far from the Turkish border. (AFP)
Displaced Syrians in makeshift camp amid Roman ruins in the area of Baqirha in northwest Syria not far from the Turkish border.(AFP)

In the short run, McKenzie said, ISIS is in no position to pose a major security threat to the United States. The al-Qaeda extremist group and like-minded militants also are severely hobbled but not eliminated, he said.

Pressure put on these groups by the US military and other organisations has made it difficult for them to transfer the funds, organise the plans and move the people needed to conduct external attacks from Iraq or Syria, he said.

“Because when you are running for your life up and down the Euphrates River Valley, listening to the noise of an armed MQ-9 drone overhead, it’s hard to think about conducting attack planning against Detroit,” he said.