Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1241, (9-15 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The battle for Yarmouk

The recent Islamic State offensive against the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus has opened the door to speculation about the country’s shifting alliances, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Did they do it to hide among the population or to have access to relief supplies? It is still unclear why nearly 1,000 fighters from the Islamic State (IS) group fought their way into the most-populated and best-guarded Palestinian refugee camp in Syria recently, coming within firing range of regime forces and into close proximity with the 20,000 or so people still living in the camp.

The Yarmouk Camp used to be home to 200,000 inhabitants, but over the past few years most of inhabitants have fled as the facility has fallen into disrepair and amenities such as water and electricity have been in short supply.

Some say that IS could not have succeeded in its manoeuvres without help from the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Others say it acted in cahoots with the Al-Nusrah Front already stationed inside the camp. Others again cite inter-Palestinian disputes as a possible cause for the offensive.

Whatever the reason behind the attack may have been, the battle for control of the Yarmouk Camp has started, leading to immeasurable human suffering in the camp and political implications for the regime and its opponents.

For the past two years, Yarmouk has been under siege on all sides, and few expected the IS fighters stationed in the nearby neighbourhood of Al-Hagar Al-Aswad to attempt to take it.

The camp is desolate, with almost 50 per cent of its houses destroyed in recent fighting, and some may have thought it was not worth the trouble.

However, IS is a group whose sense of strategic advantage runs the spectrum from the predictable to the unforeseen. Within two days of the fighting starting, IS combatants were in control of 80 per cent of the camp and local relief organisations were in shock.

As Syrian opposition groups scrambled to send in fighters to fight off the IS forces, UN officials denounced the attack, voicing concerns over the fate of Syrian and Palestinian residents.

The opposition also pleaded with the UN and the Arab League to open safe corridors for the residents to get out of the camp while they could.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime is said to be randomly shelling the camp, adding to the humanitarian crisis. No figures are available on the casualties during the recent bout of fighting, but few if any hospitals are operating within the camp’s parameters.

The Yarmouk Camp is relatively far from the city centre. When the civil war started, the inhabitants split between pro-regime and pro-opposition, and two years ago the regime slammed a full siege on the camp, cutting off its electricity and water and blocking any food or medical supplies, practically turning it into an open-air prison for its inhabitants.

As the months went by, armed opposition groups barricaded themselves in the southern areas of the camp, among them the moderate Ababil Huran group and the hardline Al-Nusrah Front. The rest of the camp was left to Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis, a Palestinian group associated with Hamas that controls the central and northern parts.

For months, the regime has been shelling the camp on a daily basis with artillery and barrel bombs. Regime snipers perched atop high-rises nearby have rendered pedestrian traffic hazardous in or out of the camp.

Damascus-based Palestinian groups allied with the regime, including the PFLP-GC of Ahmed Jibril, are said to be helping the regime encircle the camp. It therefore came as a surprise when hundreds of lightly-armed IS fighters broke into the camp since all routes are under regime surveillance and it should have been able to stop them had it wanted.

Within 72 hours, IS fighters had gained control of nearly 80 per cent of the camp, according to some reports.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Palestinian activist Ali Al-Wali said that there were fighters loyal to IS inside the camp but only in small numbers and rejected by all the armed opposition factions. These fighters “were besieged in the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad neighbourhood bordering the camp,” he said. “They were about to surrender, but suddenly they went on the offensive and managed to occupy the camp.”

According to Wali, IS fighters could not have made their move undetected by regime forces. “Knowing the geography of the area, one has to conclude that the IS fighters passed through areas within range of regime forces and of Palestinian factions allied with the regime in broad daylight,” he said.

The Syrian regime has thus far refused to open corridors for civilians to exit the camp. Instead, it started shelling all the areas in which Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis was stationed, a move which helped facilitate the IS mission.

Some Syrian opposition forces refused to take part in the battles pitting IS against Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis, which they accuse of stealing relief supplies destined for the refugees. The Al-Nusrah Front said it was taking up a position of neutrality on the battles, being loath to be associated with IS in the public eye and accusing it of doing the regime’s bidding.

The Al-Nusrah Front is also suspicious of Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis, a force of about 250 fighters which has made ceasefire agreements with the regime in the past.

The camp, now under siege for 600 days or so, has run out of medicine, food and water, and it has no power supply. Dozens of people are said to have died of the shelling, a lack of medical care, or hunger.

Over the past week, the Syrian regime has reportedly dropped more than 30 barrel bombs on the camp, targeting not IS-held areas but positions occupied by Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis. Some say the regime is punishing Aknaf Bait Al-Maqdis because its main sponsor, Hamas, has voiced support for the 10-nation aerial campaign in Yemen that aims to undermine Iran’s allies in that country.

Louay Safi, former spokesman of the National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NCSROF), said that the situation in the camp was still in a state of flux. “Reports are conflicting and the picture is unclear,” he said.

What is underway in Yarmouk, Safi stated, is a conflict between the revolutionaries and groups that were “selling relief supplies” in order to enrich themselves. The latter, he said, “were helping military forces affiliated with PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril, who is an ally of Al-Assad.”

“The regime alone is responsible for what happens in the Yarmouk Camp and its vicinity,” Safi added.

The recent clashes in Yarmouk may spark off conflict closer to Damascus. Should IS forces bomb Damascus from the camp, situated halfway between the city centre and Damascus Airport, the regime might respond in force, levelling what is left of the camp and adding to the human cost of the conflict.

Whatever happens, IS at the gates of Damascus is not good news.

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