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.


UN to deliver aid to Syrians trapped near Jordan border

Updated 18 min 14 sec ago
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UN to deliver aid to Syrians trapped near Jordan border

  • An estimated 50,000 women, children and men are stranded at the Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian border
  • Jordan has allowed several humanitarian aid deliveries to the area following UN requests, but the borders remain closed

DAMASCUS, Syria: The UN said it was organizing a joint aid convoy with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to tens of thousands of Syrians stranded in the desert near the Jordanian border.

The world body said the convoy would deliver “humanitarian assistance to an estimated 50,000 women, children and men who are stranded at the Rukban camp in southeast Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian border.”

“The overall humanitarian situation inside the Rukban camp is at a critical stage,” said Ali Al-Za’tari, the UN’s top official in Damascus.

Linda Tom, a spokeswoman for the UN’s humanitarian coordination office, OCHA, said the world body was “deeply concerned over the deteriorating humanitarian situation” at the camp.

A suicide bombing claimed by Daesh in June 2016 killed seven Jordanian soldiers in no-man’s land near the nearby Rukban crossing.

Soon afterwards, the army declared Jordan’s desert regions that stretch northeast to Syria and east to Iraq “closed military zones.”

The kingdom, part of the US-led coalition fighting Daesh, has allowed several humanitarian aid deliveries to the area following UN requests, but the borders remain closed. 

The camp, home to displaced people from across Syria, also lies close to the Al-Tanf base used by the US-led coalition fighting IS.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the camp suffers from a severe lack of food and medicines, compounded by its remote desert location, the closure of the Jordanian border and regime forces cutting off all roads to it.

The last delivery of UN aid to Rukban took place in January 2018 through Jordan.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF last week urged warring parties in Syria to allow basic health service deliveries to the camp, saying two babies without access to hospitals had died there within 48 hours.

On Thursday, UN humanitarian aid expert Jan Egeland confirmed the regime had agreed to allow convoys of aid to the Rukban area.

He said Russian officials had told him Syria’s regime had withdrawn a controversial law that allowed for authorities to seize property left behind by civilians who fled fighting in the country’s civil war.

Egeland of the office of UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also confirmed he will leave his post in November. 

He spoke a day after de Mistura told the UN Security Council that he is leaving for “personal” reasons.

The envoy said that he will make a final effort before stepping down next month to advance toward a new constitution for Syria — a key step in ending the country’s civil war.

De Mistura announced at the end of a Security Council briefing that he is leaving the job in late November for “purely, purely personal reasons” related to his family after four years and four months in one of the toughest UN jobs.

He told council members that objections by the Syrian government are still holding up the launch of the committee meant to draft a new constitution.

While there is agreement on the 50-member government and opposition delegations for the drafting committee, de Mistura said the government objects to a third 50-member delegation that the UN put together representing Syrian experts, civil society, independents, tribal leaders and women.

De Mistura said he has been invited to Damascus next week to discuss the committee’s formation.

He said he also intends to invite senior officials from Russia, Turkey and Iran — the guarantor states in the so-called “Astana process” aimed at ending the violence in Syria — to meet him in Geneva, and to talk to a group of key countries comprising Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Britain and the US.