Syrian army pounds Palestinian camp; UN warns of dire conditions

A picture taken on April 22, 2018, shows smoke billowing from the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, south of the Syrian capital Damascus, during regime strikes targeting the Daesh group in the camp. (AFP / Rami al Sayed)
Updated 27 April 2018

Syrian army pounds Palestinian camp; UN warns of dire conditions

AMMAN, Jordan: The Syrian army on Thursday intensified its bombardment of a besieged camp for Palestinian refugees and nearby rebel-held areas in southern Damascus, the last area near the capital outside government control.
Most civilians have long since fled the Yarmouk camp, once the largest in Syria for Palestinian refugees, but enough have stayed behind that the United Nations has called on the warring parties to spare civilians.
The Russian-backed Syrian army launched a major offensive last week to capture the south Damascus enclave that includes Yarmouk and neighboring areas, which have been held for years by rebel fighters and Daesh militants.
The Yarmouk campaign is part of a wider offensive to recapture remaining rebel areas that has shown no sign of letting up since Western countries launched air strikes on April 14 to punish the government for a suspected poison gas attack.
President Bashar Assad’s is now in by far his strongest position since the early months of the seven-year civil war.
Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner of the United Nations Works and Relief Agency which runs camps for Palestinian refugees, warned of the “catastrophic consequences of the escalation” in the camp, which had “endured indescribable pain and suffering over years of conflict.”
State media showed footage of a ground assault led by tanks on the fringes of Hajjar Al-Aswad, which adjoins the sprawling Yarmouk camp. Aerial strikes and bombardment have relentlessly pounded residential areas for days.
The army said it had made advances and killed dozens of militants. Rebels in the area say however that there has been no significant push inside Hajjar Al-Aswad or the camp, despite hundreds of strikes.
At least 19 civilians have been killed and 150 injured since the campaign began, mostly women and elderly, according to Ayman Abu Hashem, a lawyer and former camp resident in touch with residents who have stayed. The sprawling camp was part of a densely populated, impoverished squatter belt only few kilometers away from the heart of the capital.
Two sources inside the camp said around 1,500 families remain there.
Christopher Gunness, a UNRWA spokesman, said the plight of remaining civilians had worsened: “Many are sleeping in the streets, begging for medicine. There is almost no water or electricity. Their suffering is unimaginable.”
The camp has been under siege by the army since rebels captured it in 2012. Most civilians fled when Daesh militants drove out comparatively secular rebels in 2015, but thousands remained behind, many of whom have fled this week.
At least 3,500 Palestinian refugees from the camp have in the last week taken shelter in the nearby town of Yalda, according to UNRWA and a resident who confirmed the figure.
Yalda is not controlled by Daesh fighters but by rebels who have long abandoned fighting under de facto cease-fire deals with the army. The government aims to push them to leave the area for northern Syria under an evacuation deal. 


Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

Updated 9 min 55 sec ago

Kurdish fighters withdraw from besieged Syria town

  • The evacuation opens the way for Turkish-backed forces to take over in first pullback under US-brokered cease-fire
  • The Trump administration negotiated the accord after heavy criticism at home and abroad

RAS AL-AIN, Syria: The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces fully withdrew from a Turkish-encircled town in northern Syria on Sunday, in what appeared to be the start of a wider pullout under a cease-fire deal.
Ankara launched a cross-border attack against Syria’s Kurds on October 9 after the United States announced a military pullout from the war-torn country’s north.
A US-brokered cease-fire was announced late Thursday, giving Kurdish forces until Tuesday evening to withdraw from a buffer area Ankara wants to create on Syrian territory along its southern frontier.
The deal requires the SDF — the de facto army of Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syria — to pull out of the border zone extending 32 kilometers (20 miles) deep into Syrian territory, the length of which is not clear.
The Kurds have agreed to withdraw from an Arab-majority stretch of border from Tal Abyad to Ras Al-Ain, around 120 kilometers (70 miles).
But Turkey ultimately wants a much longer “safe zone” to stretch 440 kilometers along the frontier.
On Saturday, SDF commander Mazloum Abdi said Kurdish forces would withdraw from the 120-kilometer zone as soon as they were allowed out of Ras Al-Ain, which was besieged by Turkey’s troops and Syrian proxies.
The SDF later said its fighters had completely evacuated the border town as part of the truce agreement, after Turkey’s defense ministry confirmed they were departing.
An AFP reporter on the ground saw at least 50 vehicles, including ambulances, leaving the town hospital, from which flames erupted shortly after their departure.
Dozens of fighters in military attire left on pickups, passing by checkpoints manned by Ankara-allied Syrian fighters, he said.
In the town of Tal Tamr, Samira, 45, was among women and men carrying SDF flags awaiting the convoy from Ras Al-Ain.
“I can’t believe Sari Kani has fallen,” she said, using the Kurdish name for Ras Al-Ain.
“We’re saluting our fighters who defended us, though the great powers betrayed our people,” she told AFP.
Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US special forces from northern Syria in what was widely seen as betrayal of the Kurds and a green light for a Turkish attack.
The Kurds have been a key ally to Washington in the US-backed fight against Daesh in Syria, but Turkey views them as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.
A week ago, the Pentagon said Trump had ordered up to 1,000 troops out of northern Syria.
Earlier Sunday, US forces withdrew from their largest base in northern Syria, the Observatory said.
The correspondent in Tal Tamr saw more than 70 US armored vehicles escorted by helicopters drive eastwards on the highway, some flying the American flag.
The Observatory said the convoy was evacuating the Sarrin military base on the edge of the planned buffer zone.
Sunday’s pullout, the fourth such withdrawal of American forces in a week, left Syria’s northern provinces of Aleppo and Raqqa empty of US troops, Abdel Rahman said.
Since October 9, Turkish-led bombardment and fire has killed 114 civilians and displaced at least 300,000 people from their homes, the Observatory says, in the latest humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year civil war.
More than 250 SDF fighters and 190 pro-Ankara combatants have lost their lives, it says.
Ankara says it has lost five soldiers.
On Sunday, the Observatory said pro-Ankara fighters executed three civilians who were hiding in an industrial part of Ras Al-Ain.
On Twitter, Trump cited Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday as saying the cease-fire was “holding up very nicely.”
“There are some minor skirmishes that have ended quickly. New areas being resettled with the Kurds,” he said.
The Kurdish authorities in northeastern Syrian said they were “perplexed” by Trump’s statement on a successful truce.
“Turkey and its mercenaries have absolutely not abided by it and repeatedly violated it,” they said in a statement.
“Trump saying the Kurds have been resettled in new areas opened the way to ethnic cleansing,” it warned, calling for international protection for the displaced.
International observers have warned that Turkey’s incursion could force Kurdish fighters to redeploy from prisons and camps where they are guarding thousands of suspected Daesh fighters and family members, making way for jailbreaks.
That has raised fears of a resurgence by the extremists, whom the SDF expelled from their last scrap of territory in March but who continue to claim deadly attacks in Kurdish-held areas.