Yarmuk, an epicenter of Syria’s bloody conflict

Smoke billows during Syrian army air strikes as seen from the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus. (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2018
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Yarmuk, an epicenter of Syria’s bloody conflict

BEIRUT: Poverty and exile, siege and starvation, militant rule and government shelling — few places have seen more suffering in Syria’s seven year, atrocity-filled war than the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk.
A striking 2014 picture of tired, gaunt-looking residents massing among the ruins for a food distribution drew comparisons with a World War II ghetto and became a symbol of the Syrian conflict.
The gutted neighborhood in southern Damascus, which is now Daesh’s last urban redoubt in Syria or Iraq, was once Syria’s biggest Palestinian refugee camp, home to around 160,000 people.
Years of crippling siege and bombardment by the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose presidential compound is visible from the camp, had already sent tens of thousands of them into a second exile.
Yarmuk is one of the closest spots to central Damascus to have been controlled by Daesh.
After months of sporadic shelling as it concentrated its efforts on retaking the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, the resurgent regime launched a final offensive last week to retake Yarmuk.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, around 1,000 Daesh fighters remain in Yarmuk and the adjacent neighborhoods of Hajjar Al-Aswad, Tadamun and Qadam.
Most of them are former members of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian ex-affiliate Al-Nusra Front, but Daesh fighters also include Palestinian refugees who joined when the extremists took over much of the camp in 2015.
Facing them are regime and allied forces who have turned their attention to militant-held pockets in southern Damascus after completing their recapture of Ghouta, an area east of the capital.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, the Syrian army is leading the battle, with Russian officers supervising and Palestinian militias contributing hundreds of foot soldiers.
The Observatory said dozens of fighters had already been killed in the fighting on both sides.
Daesh militants have posted several grisly pictures on their social media accounts purportedly showing regime or allied fighters they beheaded.
But the militants are unlikely to hold out much longer. Seven years of conflict that made Yarmuk one of the conflict’s worst humanitarian and military flashpoints looks set to end in further death and destruction.
Yarmuk camp was opened in 1957 with tents set up for Palestinian families forced to leave their homes by the establishment of Israel. These were soon replaced by permanent structures.
The wider area of Yarmuk was also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
In 2011, regime attempts to use the traditionally apolitical Palestinian refugee community to raise tensions with Israel and divert attention from the internal uprising in Syria backfired.
Syrian opposition groups came to see Yarmuk as a potential forward base in their campaign to unseat Assad. The fighting that ensued levelled the area and forced most residents to flee.
According to the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, most of the camp’s 6,000 residents have been displaced by the recent fighting.
The agency’s spokesman Chris Gunness said he was “deeply concerned” about them and asked the belligerent parties to give the UN humanitarian access to the besieged neighborhood.
Yarmuk, which was meant as a haven for displaced Palestinians, had come to symbolize a humanitarian catastrophe that caused some of the worst displacement since World War II.
A picture taken during a UN food distribution in January 2014 gripped the world’s imagination and drew attention to Yarmuk’s plight.
The photo — depicting thousands of haggard-looking civilians thronging the ruins of their neighborhood as they waited for a food handout — drew parallels with the Warsaw ghetto, even in the Israeli press.
Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman, said that year: “The lexicon of man’s inhumanity to man has a new word: Yarmuk.”
Stories of children eating paper, families surviving on animal feed, and outbreaks of typhoid made Yarmuk a cause celebre, contributing to the global pressure on Assad.


Truckloads of civilians leave Daesh enclave in Syria

Updated 22 February 2019
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Truckloads of civilians leave Daesh enclave in Syria

  • The village is all that remains for Daesh in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria
  • The SDF has steadily driven the militants down the Euphrates after capturing their Syrian capital

NEAR BAGHOU: Trucks loaded with civilians left the last Daesh enclave in eastern Syria on Friday, as US-backed forces waited to inflict final defeat on the surrounded militants.
Reporters near the front line at Baghouz saw dozens of trucks driving out with civilians inside them, but it was not clear if more remained in the tiny pocket.
The village is all that remains for Daesh in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost the major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.
The SDF has steadily driven the militants down the Euphrates after capturing their Syrian capital, Raqqa, in 2017, but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.
The US-led coalition which supports the SDF has said Islamic State’s “most hardened fighters” remain holed up in Baghouz, close to the Iraqi frontier.
Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF’s media office, earlier told Reuters that more than 3,000 civilians were estimated to still be inside Baghouz and there would be an attempt to evacuate them on Friday.
“If we succeed in evacuating all the civilians, at any moment we will take the decision to storm Baghouz or force the terrorists to surrender,” he said.
Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against Islamic State and the wider conflict in Syria, the militant group is still seen as a major security threat.
It has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River — a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States will leave “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a US pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.
Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of the 2,000 troops, saying they had defeated Daesh militants in Syria.

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