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.”