The top US general for the Middle East, Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, has expressed optimism on the transfer from the al-Hol camp of about 100 Iraqi families, and said that the deployment of armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Syria was a message to Russia that "this is not the time to mess around with the Americans."
McKenzie made his remarks on an unannounced visit to Syria where he met with Gen. Mazloun Abdi, the senior commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and visited several US bases in the northeast.
“It would be the first step in many such repatriations, and I think that’s going to be the key to bringing down the population in the al-Hol camp, and indeed in other camps across the region,” The Associated Press quoted McKenzie as saying about next week's planned repatriation of the Iraqi families.
“Nations need to bring back their citizens, repatriate them, reintegrate them, deradicalize them when necessary and make them productive elements of society.”
The al-Hol camp is home to as many as 65,000 people — mostly women and children — who have been displaced by the civil war in Syria and the battle against ISIS. Many in the camp remain die-hard ISIS supporters.
McKenzie said Friday, security has gotten better at the camp. But, he added, security has no real impact on the radicalization of the youth there.
“That’s what concerns me,” he said, as he stood at a base in northeast Syria, not far from the Turkish border. “The ability of ISIS to reach out, touch these young people and turn them — in a way that unless we can find a way to take it back it’s going to make us pay a steep price down the road.”
McKenzie described the targeting of young children at the camp as "a long-term threat."
"They're being radicalized every day by ISIS even as they provide basic services to keep the camp running," he said. "It's very hard to break that cycle" that in a decade could potentially see them become ISIS fighters.
McKenzie sees the repatriation of families to their home countries as a solution to that nightmare scenario, though he feels that process is moving too slowly.
"Bring them home," said McKenzie.
"That's what needs to happen and our State Department's aggressively working to that goal right now. Indeed, the entire international community is, but the pace is too slow right now,” he told ABC News.
On Russian forces’ harassment of American troops, McKenzie, who has ordered the deployment of armored Bradley Fighting Vehicles to Syria, said the move sent the message that "this is not the time to mess around with the Americans in the region."
In a further attempt to de-escalate tensions, the US incorporated Russian linguists to avoid miscommunication "so that nothing gets lost in translation."
On Thursday, McKenzie visited Iraq where he met with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to discuss the future of the 2,500 American troops in that country.
As in Syria, American troops are providing assistance to the Iraqi military as it stamps out ISIS remnants.