The COVID-19 pandemic has reached into the sprawling and overcrowded Al Hol prison camp in northeastern Syria, further complicating the continuing U.S. campaign to eliminate the Islamic State, the head of U.S. Central Command said Wednesday.
"Al Hol, arguably, is one of the worst places in the world," said Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the CENTCOM commander.
It just became worse this week, he added, with reports of the first infections among the estimated 65,000 ISIS fighters and sympathizers, mostly women and children, who are held there with little prospect of repatriation to their home countries.
The U.S. has pressed for repatriation of the Al Hol inmates to their home countries to face justice, but Iraq, the European countries and other nations have thus far refused.
In a virtual forum at the nonprofit U.S. Institute of Peace, McKenzie said that if the U.S. does not act on repatriation to reduce the number of prisoners at Al Hol, "we're going to have huge problems."
"It's not a good place to live, [but] bad things are going to happen if you keep a lot of people there," he continued.. "Bad things are going to happen in terms of radicalization, [and] bad things are going to happen in terms of COVID."
The general, who became the 14th commander of CENTCOM in 2019, said a coronavirus outbreak in those ISIS camps had long been a fear of his, and he expressed surprise that the disease had taken this long to surface.
"I don't have an answer besides repatriation," McKenzie said. "We think it's absolutely critical -- other nations have got to take them."
In a statement Monday, the Save the Children aid group said that several health care workers at Al Hol had previously tested positive for COVID-10 and the first cases among detainees were reported Monday.
"One of our worst fears has come to pass," said Sonia Khush, Syria Response Director for Save the Children. "An outbreak of COVID-19 in Al Hol camp is going to be challenging to control, considering how overcrowded the camp is and how little access families have to water, personal hygiene items, tests and protective equipment, with more than 65,000 people living in the camp at the moment."
McKenzie said U.S. troops "were involved purely in a supporting role" at Al Hol for the mostly-Kurdish and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in charge of security at the camp.
However, the conditions at Al Hol are likely to complicate the continuing campaign against the remnants of the Islamic state, he said.
ISIS remains a diminished but persistent hit-and-run threat in Iraq and Syria that can be fully eliminated only by a long-term resolution of the region's sectarian divides and a major influx of development aid, McKenzie said.
"There are going to be eruptions, there are going to be problems" in containing ISIS, he said, despite repeated statements from President Donald Trump that the so-called caliphate has been "100%" destroyed.
"This problem is going to be with us for a while" until local authorities in Iraq and Syria are capable of dealing with it on their own, McKenzie said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.