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After IS Invasion, Syria's Yarmouk Refugee Camp 'Like Hell'

Men walk past destroyed buildings in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on April 6.

Men walk past destroyed buildings in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital, Damascus, on April 6.

The desperate humanitarian situation in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus is becoming even worse, activists, aid workers, Yarmouk residents, and officials have warned.

Islamic State (IS) militants infiltrated the Yarmouk camp -- which was once home to 160,000 people, both Syrian and Palestinian -- on April 1, and clashed with the Palestinian faction Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis, which is loyal to Hamas.

Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate, whose militants were already present in the camp, reportedly facilitated the IS takeover of Yarmouk by preventing other groups from entering and reinforcing Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.

Amid the escalating clashes, Syrian government forces stepped up their shelling and aerial bombardment of Yarmouk, including by dropping barrel bombs, according to Amnesty International.

Fleeing Yarmouk

Around 18,000 people, including 3,500 children, were living in Yarmouk when IS invaded on April 1.

Ayman Fahmi Abu Hashem, who heads the Syrian opposition interim government's committee on Palestinian refugees, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on April 7 that since the IS takeover, dozens of families have been forced to flee Yarmouk for Yelda, a town to the west of the camp.

"This is because of their fear of the barrel attacks and because of the lack of food and water. At this time it is impossible to stay in the camp because of the absence of the most basic living requirements," Abu Hashem said.

However, the government's barrel-bomb attacks are also affecting the Yelda area, where many of the displaced families from Yarmouk are sheltering in mosques and schools, according to Abu Hashem.

"The situation is only getting worse, unless relief aid is brought in to the besieged areas , given that the regime is intensifying its blockade and its bombardment," Abu Hashem said. "What is needed is to create safe passage for these civilians to leave this area that has truly become analogous to Hell."

No Medical Aid For Yarmouk

Despite the escalation in clashes in Yarmouk, and despite the Syrian government's increased shelling and aerial attacks, government forces and IS militants have refused to allow any medical or humanitarian aid into Yarmouk, leaving dozens of injured people without access to medical assistance, according to Amnesty International.

On April 9, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for immediate access to Yarmouk, to which it has not been able to enter since October 2014. "With the recent upsurge in fighting in and around Yarmouk the situation for civilians has deteriorated once again," said Marianne Gasser, the head of the ICRC in Syria. "People were already worn down by months of conflict and constant shortages of food, water and medicine and they need urgent help."

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has also warned that the level of aid it has been able to provide to Palestinians and Syrians trapped in Yarmouk has been "well below the minimum required." "Potable water is now unavailable inside Yarmouk and the meager health facilities that existed have been overrun by conflict," UNRWA said in a statement on April 5.

UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) workers stand by aid parcels at the Yarmouk camp in February 2014. The UNRWA says it now has limited access to the camp

UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) workers stand by aid parcels at the Yarmouk camp in February 2014. The UNRWA says it now has limited access to the camp

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) said on April 7 that it would be coordinating aid efforts to Yarmouk with the Syrian government. PLO Executive Committee member Zakariya al-Agha told reporters in Gaza City that the Syrian and Palestinian Red Crescents as well as UNRWA would work together to provide shelter for those who have fled Yarmouk, and that there are PLO fighters inside Yarmouk to help defend the camp's residents, according to the Palestinian news agency Maan.

But Mohammed Alloush, the political coordinator of the Syrian Jaysh al-Islam faction, told Radio Free Iraq's correspondent in Syria that the Palestinian Authority had "distanced itself" from events in Yarmouk. "The camp residents have been supported by Jaysh al-Islam and only two other factions. We have only heard distant pronouncements by the Palestinian officials. Even worse, Ahmed Jibril's group [the PLO] who are Bashar al-Assad's lackeys supported IS with bombardments during their assault on the camp," he said.

'Jabhat Al-Nusra To Blame For IS Assault'

Alloush told Radio Free Iraq (RFI) that Jabhat al-Nusra was to blame for colluding with IS and allowing its gunmen to infiltrate into Yarmouk.

Alloush said that IS would not penetrate into the Damascus countryside, but the "decisive battle" between IS and rebel forces would take place in Yarmouk and the Al-Hajar al-Aswad district of Damascus city, which borders Yarmouk and is the area from which IS managed to enter the camp.

The expansion of IS into Damascus represents a real threat to moderate Syrian rebels, Alloush believes. "When IS emerged in Damascus and its countryside, they were fought against in the eastern sector and they were pushed back. In southern Damascus, it was agreed by the factions to fight them; they were surrounded in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad area, but they spread out from there toward Yarmouk. This expansion is a real threat to the moderate factions in Syria. It is an important area: after the Yarmouk camp they will practically be at the heart of the city," Alloush told RFI.

Middle East Eye, an online news portal reporting on events in the Middle East, spoke to a 30-year-old journalist and activist in Yarmouk named as Ahmad, who said that the IS militants in the southern Damascus area were locals, not foreign fighters.

"Most of the fighters of IS are not foreigners; they are sons of southern Damascus. IS did not come from nowhere. It was born out of the siege. Last year when food and water were running out and electricity was dwindling, support for IS began to grow. When IS first emerged in July 2014, people saw positive outcomes. They stopped corruption. They ensured that people had food and drink. But they soon diverged from that path and become more violent, more extreme. They began to impose their own ideology as opposed to caring about what the people actually wanted," Ahmad told Middle East Eye.

IS in southern Damascus originally emerged in the Hejira neighborhood, the home of the Shi'ite Zainab Mosque, which has been heavily guarded by the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hizballah. After IS was pushed out of Hejira, the group moved into Yelda and then into Al-Hajar al-Aswad, according to Ahmad.

'New Reality In Yarmouk'

While the IS assault on Yarmouk exacerbated an already desperate humanitarian situation, it also deepened fault lines in the complex and shifting struggle for power and influence among the rebel groups in the camp.

Anwar Raja, a spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) -- who some view as "Assad's enforcers" inside Yarmouk -- told RFI that the IS group's assault on Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis came after a split between that group and Jabhat al-Nusra, who formerly backed the Palestinian faction.

"That is why IS began to 'liquidate' Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis, and a new reality has now emerged and has benefited the Palestinian National Alliance led by the Popular Front General Command, and we have advanced at the heart of the camp; we now control more than 40 or 45 percent of the camp," Raja said.

As a result of the infighting in the camp, "rebel groups are fighting each other instead of fighting the [Syrian government] regime," Ahmad, the journalist and activist from Yarmouk, told Middle East Eye. "We don't know what the aim of the rebels is it to control the camp, defeat the regime? Get rid of another rebel group?"

Meanwhile, the Syrian government has offered to arm Palestinians in Yarmouk to help them fight IS, Palestinian officials said. The Syrian deputy foreign minister, Faisal Meqdad, met with a PLO delegation in Damascus on April 8 to extend the offer of assistance to the Palestinians fighting IS, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.

The offer by Meqdad to help the PLO "fight terror" in Yarmouk comes as the Syrian Army continues to shell the camp.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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