Balkis Press / SIPA / AP

ISIL takeover of Palestinian camp in Syria a ‘siege within a siege’

For almost two years, rebel-held Yarmouk camp in Damascus has been suffocating under a regime stranglehold

For the last remaining Palestinian residents of Yarmouk outside Damascus, this week’s takeover by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant is a “siege within a siege.”

For almost two years, the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been suffocating rebel-held Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee settlement turned residential neighborhood just 10 minutes from the heart of Damascus.

Water has been cut off, available only when aid groups sneak it in, and medical supplies and food are scarce. Yarmouk, once known as the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, has shrunk from a prewar population of 180,000 to just 18,000, with about 200 people starving to death since the regime blockade began in 2013, the United Nations says.

The camp’s plight worsened on April 1, when ISIL fighters surged into Yarmouk from their nearby stronghold of Hajr al-Aswad and swiftly overpowered its Palestinian defenders, Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis, a Hamas-aligned militia. As of Thursday, ISIL had taken over 70 percent of the camp, assisted, sources said, by elements of Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front) — Al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria and, normally, ISIL’s chief rival.

About 2,000 people managed to escape since ISIL infiltrated, but the rest "are now trapped in a siege within a siege,” said Salim Salamah, a Yarmouk native who left in 2012 and now heads the Palestinian League for Human Rights in Syria from Sweden.

Sources on the ground describe a terrifying scene. Farouq al-Rifai, an activist from Yarmouk who said he spoke from an "adjacent neighborhood" but is in contact with many in the camp, said that pitched street battles have broken out and that sniper fire from roofs has killed fighters and civilians alike. The last remaining relief workers in the camp have been forced to flee after several were killed and others were kidnapped by ISIL.

Meanwhile, regime warplanes add to the chaos by dropping barrel bombs “all over the camp — north, south, east and west,” Salamah said. People are running out of food, but “they can’t leave their houses to find it because they don’t know where clashes on the ground will take place.”

Though the situation on the ground is murky, with conflicting reports that Palestinian factions in the camp have conspired with the invasion, the broad consensus is that Yarmouk has fallen casualty to a turf war between ISIL and an array of disjointed rebel factions active in the area. ISIL, which controls over 30 percent of the country, mostly in the north and east, has been quietly expanding its reach in southern Syria through a strategy of "buying loyalties, creating sleeper cells [and] exploiting local rivalries," according to Hassan Hassan, an ISIL expert and columnist for The National

Yarmouk, already crippled by the regime’s stranglehold, was a soft target for the group to creep ever closer to the historic gates of Damascus. “Daesh wants to control the camp in order to announce a ‘state of Damascus,’” said Rifai, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.

Even if ISIL conquers Yarmouk in the coming days or weeks, analysts say it is unlikely to reach much farther. Damascus, the seat of the Assad’s power, is heavily militarized, and other rebel factions in the area are currently more powerful.

Still, when ISIL gets on a winning streak, its foes “tend to get out of the way,” noted Aron Lund, the editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s Syria in Crisis blog. “In most areas, there’s been this snowball effect where they break through and then pick up a lot of new recruits. Maybe they’re hoping that will be replicated in Damascus.”

Simultaneously, many accuse the regime of allowing ISIL to take over Yarmouk. Across Syria, analysts say, the regime and ISIL have tacitly agreed to hold their fire in order to squeeze out their mutual enemies in the middle: the so-called moderate and Islamist rebel forces, led by the surging Jabhat Al-Nusra. That appeared to be the case in Yarmouk, said Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, in an op-ed for CNN.

The regime “did not stand in the way of ISIS fighters who raided the camp” but rather “calculated that ISIS’ takeover … would achieve a much bigger gain: sparking a rift within Al-Nusra," said Khatib. If it is true that some Nusra leaders helped ISIL infiltrate Yarmouk, a betrayal to their allies in other factions who are fighting solely to topple Assad, then the regime’s tactical maneuver may pay off. Rebel infighting could flare up, either within Nusra or between it and its allies, benefiting both the regime and, arguably, ISIL.

But enemy forces are not solely to blame for Yarmouk’s plight, Rifai and other anti-Assad Palestinians say. The Palestinian diaspora in and outside Syria has been split over the war from the beginning. The Assad regime, Lund noted, has “for decades cultivated a set of loyal Palestinian factions,” some of which were used to crack down on demonstrations in the camps and later took up arms against the rebellion. In 2012, during the early days of the conflict, a pro-Assad Palestinian faction controlled much of Yarmouk before being chased out by Free Syrian Army rebels.

Yet whatever side they take in Syria's multifaceted war, Palestinians see the humanitarian crisis in Yarmouk as evidence that the diaspora's prominent political bodies have abandoned them. When Assad tightened his siege of the camp in 2013, making it nearly impossible for food and other supplies to get in, all the major Palestinian political factions with a presence in Yarmouk — including the Palestine Liberation Organization — packed up and left.

The PLO, therefore, is “complicit in the killing of Palestinian civilians,” reads a recent statement from local Palestinian activists. “Through their abandoning of the camp … the PLO has given it to ISIL and the regime on a golden platter.”

In a desperate bid to save Yarmouk's residents, if not the camp itself, activists and aid groups are calling for a humanitarian corridor to be opened so that people can escape. The U.N. Security Council echoed that call Tuesday, though it wasn’t clear whom it was addressing.

For Palestinians, however, there is no permanent escape from their crisis. While over 4 million of the most desperate Syrians have managed to flee the country, Palestinian refugees living in Syria do not have that option. Neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey have prohibited most Palestinian refugees from entering their borders, citing their lack of valid identity cards.

“Palestinians are more trapped than anyone else,” Salamah said. “They’re also trapped by statelessness.”

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