In Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp this past week, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis (a Hamas-affiliated armed group defending the local population) put up a good fight against the Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra raids into the camp. Amid these raids, the Syrian regime has bombarded the densely populated residential neighborhood with over 40 indiscriminate barrel bombs, under the pretext of targeting IS.1
The Islamic State’s recent withdrawal, only the most recent development in Yarmouk’s struggles, may change little on the ground for the camp’s residents, who have already been under siege for two years before these clashes. In July 2013 the Syrian government began to besiege the camp, which lies less than four miles from the heart of Damascus and was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees. The siege has resulted in over 200 human deaths from malnutrition, dehydration, and a lack of medicine for otherwise-treatable illnesses and injuries. Since December 2012, the regime has captured hundreds of civil society activists who were attempting to leave Yarmouk and were seen as challenging the regime’s policies or rhetoric. Some were tortured and killed in detention while others were killed in airstrikes, barrel bombs, or by snipers.2
Now, however, the regime is altering its rhetoric on Yarmouk. Despite the two-year regime-imposed siege, supposedly to contain the terrorist threat, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad recently claimed the “Syrian government had used all its efforts to present humanitarian and medical aid to Palestinian refugees and that it had helped them exit Yarmouk safely.” But since the beginning of the siege, the Syrian regime has allowed only a trickle of aid to reach the remaining civilians, and only 94 people were permitted to evacuate last week through the camp’s northern corridor, which the regime controls. Since the Islamic State began raiding the camp, between 2,000 and 4,000 have instead risked fleeing through the southern end of Yarmouk, held primarily by IS and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Jabhat al-Nusra had been operating in the camp well before IS raided Yarmouk, and IS had been operating in the adjacent neighborhood of al-Hajar al-Aswad prior to last week’s raids, which were supposedly provoked when Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis kidnapped a few IS members. Yet only recently has the Syrian regime prioritized fighting militants operating within the camp. Syria’s Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs, Ali Haidar, said on April 8, “The priority now is to expel and defeat militants and terrorists in the camp. Under the present circumstances, a military solution is necessary.”
The Syrian government’s sudden new priority can partly be understood in light of the regime’s major setbacks outside of Damascus. On March 28, rebels led by Jabhat al-Nusra took over Idlib in the north. Other rebel forces are making their way from the south. On March 25, various rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, took over Bosra al-Sham, just north of the border with Jordan. This pushed Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the doorstep of Sweida (Jabal al-Druze), where Jaysh al-Muwahhideen (The Army of the Monotheists, a Druze militia group) has been attempting to protect its minority population at all costs. Weakened by these losses, Assad turned to the Damascus governorate, where he found himself perfectly positioned to take advantage of the situation in Yarmouk. The Syrian government has even generously offered to arm Palestinian groups to defeat IS. The regime might be able to sit back and watch as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State, Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, and Palestinian rebel groups kill each other off.
Yarmouk’s Palestinian refugees are now desperate to save their people from a massacre, even if it means accepting assistance from the regime. In the midst of this turmoil, Assad can publically claim to “save the Palestinians” despite being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian political activists and Yarmouk’s fatal two-year siege. Yet those who are ill, elderly, or injured are still in desperate need. Most healthcare workers have left, and IS raided the limited medical supplies of the only two healthcare centers remaining in Yarmouk, the Basel and Palestine Hospitals, which have both been devastated by bombs as well.3 Furthermore, residents have not received water or food supplies since the recent violence began.
Yarmouk’s current and former residents have immediately turned to social media and political artwork hoping to get the attention of advocacy organizations as they did when the siege began. They have little hope of saving the vibrant neighborhood that their ancestors created in 1957. Their only hope now is to save the people and extract themselves from Assad’s deadly chess game. This conflict has become a stark reminder that as long as the Palestinians remain stateless and lack the right to seek refuge, they will be vulnerable no matter how well they rebuild. Without the muscle of international actors and organizations to provide Yarmouk’s residents vital humanitarian aid, the world could witness yet another massacre as Palestinians become further entrenched in a conflict that is not their own.
Natasha Hall is an independent analyst specializing in refugee and humanitarian crises.
1. Activists point out that these barrel bombs are now killing more people than IS.
2. Based upon the author’s interviews with civil society activists and Local Coordination Committee members from Yarmouk, April 8, 2015.
3. According to humanitarian workers with The Jafra Foundation for Youth Development and Relief, an organization working with Yarmouk residents on the ground, April 3-5, 2015.