10,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in the Yarmouk Camp of Damascus after the Syrian Arab Army and allied Palestinian factions launched an offensive against the deeply-entrenched positions of ISIS militants.
In the Yarmouk Camp of southern Damascus City, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Some 10,000 people, mostly Palestinian refugees, are being held against their will by ISIS militants who have fortified the Camp and the surrounding districts of Qadam and Tadamoun. With the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) now on the offensive to clear the militant presence in the camp, these refugees are now caught in the crossfire.
The term “Camp” is something of a misnomer that underestimates the complex topography of the Yarmouk Camp and its political landscape. First created in 1957 to house Palestinian refugees, the camp grew over the years, becoming something of a city-in-a-city and one of the largest hubs of Palestinian culture and population in the world. When the protests broke out against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, the camp had a population of 150,000 and was full of tight, winding streets resembling the Old City of Mosul.
The Palestinians initially sought to remain neutral in the conflict. However, polarisation grew after government forces launched a series of operations in the camp and subsequently blockaded the place, allowing a number of Syrian-Palestinian rebel groups such as the Hamas-linked Kataib Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis to take presence, alongside Syrian groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (which would later become Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham), Jaish al-Islam and Free Syrian Army (FSA) franchises in the neighbouring districts of Yalda, Babbila, Beit Sahm, Qadam and parts of Tadamoun. The arrival of ISIS in 2015 and its subsequent capture of much of the Yarmouk Camp further complicated the situation.
Since then, the camp has been under a siege, with clashes taking place sporadically either between ISIS and the other rebels or the SAA. Much of the camp’s population has since fled. For those who remained, life became harder and harder amidst regular executions of anyone suspected of disloyalty to ISIS. Much of the HTS has since left for Idlib and some of the rebel groups in Babbila, Yalda and Beit Sahm have entered long-standing ceasefire and reconciliation agreements. With each such movement tightening the siege on the ISIS-held Yarmouk Camp, the availability of food and medical supplies has become virtually nonexistent while healthcare facilities, already in poor condition, have practically stopped functioning.
The most recent clashes came after the SAA gained the upper hand in other parts of Damascus, including East Ghouta and the Eastern Qalamoun Mountains. Aided by the pro-Government Palestinian factions, such as Liwa al-Quds, the Galilee Brigades and Palestinian Liberation Army, the SAA has been engaged in intense fighting against the militants with non-stop airstrikes and shelling across the Camp that is only some two square-kilometres.
For the Palestinians fighting along the SAA, the offensive is their chance to reclaim one of the main hometowns of the Palestinian diaspora. For the SAA itself, the offensive is of more strategic and political significance. The capture of the Yarmouk Camp and the surrounding districts will place the entirety of the Damascus Province under loyalist control for the first time since 2012.