Yarmouk burns and the world fiddles

The terror attack on Garissa University in Kenya, and the taking by ISIS militants of most of Yarmouk – the largest Syrian Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus – indicate a dire deterioration in the security situation in the Middle Eastern and North African region.

In the south of the Syrian capital lies the neighbourhood of Yarmouk. Yarmouk was once a sprawling neighbourhood, home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians but has been caught up in the country’s fighting and besieged by regime forces for more than a year. 

About 18,000 residents are estimated to remain in the camp after many fled the fighting. Populated now by mostly Palestinian refugees the camp has been ceaselessly barrel bombed and heavily shelled by Assad government forces since the ISIS launched an offensive against an armed Palestinian group there. 
Thousands of civilians have been trapped for weeks without receiving aid. Fighting has been raging since Wednesday (04.01.2015) between ISIS and rival armed groups. However, an activist in Yarmouk, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that the government’s bombardment of residential areas has been the main cause for civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis. 
Doctors & Hospital Staff Flee
According to the activist and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, government helicopters have dropped barrel bombs, which are highly indiscriminate and destructive explosives, on the district. There were no details on casualties. The Yarmouk activist said doctors and hospital staff were part of the group of people that managed to flee the district, further crippling its already deprived medical system.

Food & Water Shortages
There are shortages of food and water causing rampant hunger and suffering among civilians. Palestinian officials in Damascus and other Syrian activists have said that ISIS seized control over up to 90 percent of Yarmouk and have been battling opposition groups across the district. 
Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis Arrest ISIS Fighters
But the Yarmouk activist denied reports that ISIS took most of the district, saying the cause for the intrusion of the group – coming from the nearby district of Hajr al-Aswad – was not to seize territory there, but to punish the Palestinian faction Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis for arresting ISIS fighters accused of assassinating one of their leading figures.

ISIS Expansion from Hajr al-Aswad
Fighting between the two sides has continued mainly in the southwestern outskirts of Yarmouk. Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian political analyst, told Al Jazeera that ISIL may be trying to expand its control in Damascus from the adjacent district Hajr al-Aswad, where it has been based for months. But he also noted that it would probably be “too difficult to take control over all of Yarmouk” for several reasons, including its urban nature and the number of armed groups that have established their foothold there.

“It [Yarmouk] is quite a big area. It was once the most populated area in Damascus, and now there are many armed groups there,” he said. “The regime has failed to seize the district from rebels for more than two years.” Activists reported that reinforcements from rebel groups, including Jaish al-Islam, arrived in Yarmouk on Sunday and managed to recapture several areas from ISIS.

Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra Front, FSA & Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis
Besides ISIL, control over Yarmouk is divided between the armed opposition groups of Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army groups, and Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday that ISIS captured at least 10 fighters from Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis and other rebel groups.

Pro-ISIL social media accounts published pictures showing 11 rebel fighters captured by ISIS beside some ammunition they seized. 

Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister of information, told Al Jazeera that the government had been working on a reconciliation deal under which the Palestinian factions would lay down their arms, and in return the government would end the siege. “We were days away from an agreement. However, rebel groups who are not Palestinian are against reconciliation, like Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. This is why these groups allowed ISIS to come into the camp,” he said.

Barrel Bombs

A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device (IED). Sometimes described as a “flying IED”, they are made from a large barrel-shaped metal container that has been filled with high explosives, with possibly shrapnel, oil or chemicals, and then dropped from a helicopter or airplane.

Due to the large amount of explosives (up to thousands of pounds), their poor accuracy and indiscriminate use in populated civilian areas (including refugee camps), the resulting detonations have been devastating. 

Critics have characterized them as weapons of terror and illegal under international conventions. The earliest known use of barrel bombs in their current form was in Croatia in 1991, where they were deployed from An-2 agricultural airplanes against Serbian positions around Vukovar. 

They were also used in Sudan in the 1990s, where they were rolled out of cargo-doors of transport planes. 

Barrel bombs have been used extensively by the Syrian Air Force during the Syrian Civil War and later by the Iraqi forces during Anbar clashes. Experts believe they will continue to be embraced by unstable nations fighting insurgencies since they are cheap to make and utilise the advantages of a government’s air-power.

Barrel bomb attacks throughout Syria have killed more than 20,000 people since the conflict began in March 2011, according to a December 2013 statement by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). 

It is estimated that, as of mid-March 2014, between 5,000 to 6,000 barrel bombs have been dropped during the war and their use has escalated. Aleppo has been the focal point of the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs. 

Over time, government forces have refined their use of the barrel bomb to cause maximum damage – dropping one device and then waiting 10 to 30 minutes to drop another bomb on the same location. According to opposition activists, the aim is to ensure that those who flood the scene to rescue the victims are then themselves killed.

Yarmouk Camp

Yarmouk Camp (Arabic: مخيم اليرموك‎) is a 2.11-square-kilometre (0.81 sq mi) district of the city of Damascus, populated by Palestinians, with hospitals and schools. It is located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from the center of Damascus and inside the municipal boundaries but when established in 1957, it was outside the surrounding city. Yarmouk is an “unofficial” refugee camp; it is home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria. As of June 2002, there were 112,550 registered refugees living in Yarmouk. During the Syrian Civil War, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the PFLP-GC supported by the Syrian Army government forces.

Yarmouk was established in 1957 on an area of 2.11 square kilometres (0.81 sq mi) to accommodate refugees who were squatters. Though it is not officially recognized as a refugee camp, road signs leading to this sector of the city read “Mukhayyam al-Yarmouk”, meaning “Yarmouk camp”.

Administratively, Yarmouk is a city (madina) in the Damascus Governorate. Over time, refugees living in Yarmouk have improved and expanded their residences. Currently, the district is densely populated, with cement block homes and narrow streets. Two main roads are lined with shops and filled with service taxis and microbuses that run through the camp.

According to the BBC, although Yarmouk “is identified as a camp, there are no tents or slums in sight. It is a residential area with beauty salons and internet cafes”. Living conditions in Yarmouk appear to be better than in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and residents of the camp are made up of many professionals, such as doctors, engineers and civil servants, as well as many who are employed as casual laborers and street vendors. 

There are four hospitals and a number of government-run secondary schools. UNRWA operates 20 elementary schools and eight preparatory schools in the camp and sponsors two women’s program centers. There are three UNRWA health care centers in Yarmouk, two of which received upgrades in 1996 with contributions from the government of Canada. 

In 1997, six schools were upgraded with contributions from the government of the United States, and a kindergarten was built with funds from the government of Australia. In 1998, the UNRWA was also able to construct a health center funded by the government of the Netherlands. 

There is another Health Center whose expertise is devoted to prevention and treatment of thalassemia. The Center was built in 2009 thanks to funds provided by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). 

During the Syrian Civil War, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Western backed rebel Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian ally Liwa al-Asifa on one hand and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) supported by Syrian Army government forces on the other. 

Subsequently the Syrian Army has besieged the camp, leading to many leaving the area and a significant deterioration in conditions for the more than 18,000 Palestinian refugees and other Syrians remaining inside the camp, whom the UN describes as living in “complete deprivation”. 

On 1 April 2015, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters entered the camp from the Hajar al-Aswad district, sparking clashes with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and the Free Syrian Army. ISIL initially took over much of the camp, but was later pushed back from some areas, before regaining control. 

On 2 April, it was reported that ISIL was in control of the entirety of the Yarmouk camp and was handing out bread to refugees. Later reports confirmed that Palestinian fighters along with local rebels managed to push ISIL fighters out of Yarmouk.

Acknowledgements & References: Al Jazeera; Joseph Willits @josephwillits; Shona Murray independent.ie; Wikipedia

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