Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2018
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Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

  • Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting
  • With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, there is still much work to be done

YARMUK, Syria: Not far from where he used to live, Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled watched as bulldozers rumbled back and forth scooping up smashed concrete from the devastated streets of Syria’s Yarmuk.
Once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, the camp in the Damascus suburbs has been emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria’s seven-year war.
But five months after regime forces expelled the last militants in the area, soldiers now stand guard at the camp’s entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.
On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.
“When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw,” said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.
“But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up,” Khaled said.
Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.
Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.
“We have shifted 50,000 cubic meters of rubble and reopened all the main roads,” Khaled said.
But “it will be a while before families can come back,” he added.
As Khaled surveyed the neighborhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.
Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011 and government forces imposed a crippling siege on the then rebel-held camp a year later.
Since the latest round of fighting to expel the Daesh group ended in May, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.
Walking through the camp, Khaled pointed out his former home and the office where he used to work. The first had been damaged in fighting, while the second was completely destroyed.
With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, according to an initial estimate, Khaled said there is still much work to be done.
And although he estimates 40 percent of the buildings could be lived in, another 40 percent need major work before their residents can return.
When he visited the camp in May, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described it as lying “in ruins.”
Basic services such as water and electricity were so severely damaged, he said, that it was hard to imagine people returning any time soon.
Funded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrian government, the clearing operation has been ongoing for 20 days and is expected to take another month to complete.
But there are no clear plans yet for the reconstruction of the neighborhood or its ravaged infrastructure.
PLO official Anwar Abdel Hadi said he hoped reconstruction would start “as soon as possible so that our people can return to the camp.”
“But the rebuilding is still awaiting a government decision,” he said.
Back in Yarmuk, Ibrahim Am Ali walked between the bulldozers, oblivious to the dust permeating his clothes.
“I was desperate when I saw how destroyed the building was where my brothers and I had gathered over the past years,” said the 74-year-old, also part of the team overseeing the clean-up work.
Now “we have started rebuilding the camp,” the Syrian-Palestinian said, wearing a light purple shirt.
“Perhaps I will never see it completely rebuilt, but it’s enough for me to have taken part in the very beginning.”


Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

Updated 22 October 2018
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Istanbul summit aimed at avoiding new humanitarian disaster in Idlib

  • The event will focus on ‘harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict’
  • Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Russian President Vladimir Putin are expected to attend a critical four-way summit on Syria in Istanbul next Saturday. 

They will discuss recent developments in the war-torn country as well as projections for a political settlement.

Experts have underlined the importance of this summit in providing a strong push for key EU countries to work together with regional players to end the years-long conflict in Syria as it will gather the four countries’ leaders at the highest level.

The summit will focus on the recent developments in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, and the parameters of a possible political settlement.

The ways for preventing a new refugee inflow from Idlib into Europe via Turkey, which is home to about 3.5 million Syrian residents, following a possible offensive by the Assad regime will also be raised as a topic that mainly concerns France and Germany and pushes them to work more closely with Turkey and Russia.

The summit will also aim at “harmonizing joint efforts for finding a lasting solution to the conflict,” presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin announced on Friday.

Germany and France welcomed the Turkey-Russia deal on Idlib that had set Oct. 15 as the deadline for removing all radical groups from a demilitarized zone in the province. Although the withdrawal of some opposition groups from the zone has not been accomplished in due time, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to extend the deadline for Idlib, which is still a strategic area where the opposition holds out.

“Turkey and Russia want the status quo for Idlib. Although the jihadists have not withdrawn from the demilitarized zone, Russia is turning a blind eye,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor and research director at the University of Lyon II.

“Turkey will make some efforts to save face. Turkish proxies have withdrawn because Turkey pays wages, so they must obey, but for the jihadists it is more complicated,” he told Arab News.

According to Balanche, without the complicity of Turkey, the Syrian regime cannot take over the north of the country.

“In exchange, Turkey wants a buffer zone in the north, all along its border. The main objective is, of course, to eliminate the Syrian Kurdish YPG from the border as it has already done in Afrin. A secondary objective is to protect its opposition allies and the Turkmen minorities, many in the province of Idlib but also between Azaz and Jarablus,” he said.

But the summit also shows that these four countries need each other in the Syrian theater as each of them has stakes regarding the settlement of the crisis.

Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said the main goal of the summit is to provide a major diplomatic boost to the ongoing Astana and Sochi peace processes, which have so far been led mainly by Turkey, Russia and Iran.

“A second and maybe even more important goal is to include France and Germany in the reconstruction efforts in Syria once the civil war is over,” he told Arab News.

Considering the cost of the reconstruction, estimated at about $400 billion, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are not ready to take this enormous financial burden without the financial support of the West, Ersen said.

“Both Paris and Berlin hope that Ankara’s ongoing efforts to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib can be successful. If the settlement in Idlib does not work, everybody is aware that this may lead to a big refugee crisis for both Turkey and Europe once again,” he added.

Martina Fietz, deputy spokeswoman for the German government, told a news conference in Berlin that her country is also hopeful about the forthcoming summit’s potential contribution to the stabilization of Idlib’s de-escalation zone.

“Progress in the UN-led political process, in particular the commencement of the work of the constitutional commission, will be discussed,” she said.

The chief foreign policy advisers of the quartet have met in Istanbul in recent weeks to discuss the agenda of the summit.