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.


Russia, Iran, Turkey seeking deal on new Syria constitution body

Updated 18 December 2018
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Russia, Iran, Turkey seeking deal on new Syria constitution body

  • Foreign ministers near agreement on the composition of a Syrian constitutional committee
  • UN Special Envoy has tried since January to clinch agreement on the identity of 150 members

GENEVA: Russia, Iran and Turkey are nearing agreement on the composition of a Syria committee that could pave the way for the drafting of a new constitution and for elections after a devastating civil war, diplomats said on Tuesday.
The foreign ministers of the three nations, who support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly eight-year-old conflict, began talks in Geneva to seal their joint proposal and seek the United Nations’ blessing for it, they added.
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, asked on arrival whether he expected to reach an agreement with counterparts Sergei Lavrov of Russia and Mevlut Cavusoglu of Turkey, told reporters: “I hope so.”
Staffan de Mistura, UN Special Envoy for Syria who steps down on Dec. 31, has tried since January to clinch agreement on the identity of 150 members of a new constitutional committee to revitalize a stalled peace process.
President Bashar Assad’s government and the opposition fighting to topple him have each submitted a list of 50 names. But Russia, Iran and Turkey have haggled over the final 50 members from civil society and “independent” backgrounds, diplomats say.
“The three countries are coming with a proposal for the third list, which has been the heart of the problem,” one diplomat following the negotiations closely told Reuters.
Turkey and other nations would consider working with Assad if he won a democratic election, Cavusoglu said on Sunday.
Turkey supports rebels who control part of northwest Syria. A year ago, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan described Assad as a terrorist and said it was impossible for Syrian peacemaking efforts to continue with him.
Assad, whose forces have reclaimed most of Syria with Russian and Iranian support apart from Idlib, a northwestern province, has clung to power throughout the conflict and is widely seen as being loath to yield power after it ends.
The Damascus government has previously brushed off UN-led efforts to set up a constitutional committee.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem, in comments reported by state media on Monday, said it was “early to talk about” the constitutional committee starting work. He blamed attempts at “interference” by Western states for the hold-up in its formation, in addituon to “obstacles” laid by Turkey.
Syrian authorities have only ever signalled a readiness for “amendments” to the existing constitution and also said these must be put to a referendum.
De Mistura said at the weekend that the constitutional committee could be a starting point for political progress.
“It does touch, for instance, on presidential powers, it could and should be touching on how elections are done, on division of power, in other words a big issue,” he said.