Once the de-facto capital of the Palestinian diaspora, the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus is witnessing heavy fighting between the Syrian Arab Army and the ISIS militants who took over much of the camp in 2015.
For the past two weeks, the Yarmouk Camp south of Damascus City and the neighbouring districts of Yalda, Babbila, Beit Sahm, Hajar al-Aswad, Qadam and Tadamoun have been witnessing intense battles between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and ISIS militants. The region, which is the current focal point of military developments in Syria, remains the last areas of Damascus Province not under the control of the Syrian Government.
Widely considered to be the capital of the Palestinian diaspora in the world, the Yarmouk Refugee Camp was opened in 1957 to accommodate Palestinians displaced in 1948 and onwards. The camp, located 20 minutes from Damascus City Centre and covering an area of 2.1 square-kilometres, has since grown into a heavily-urbanised city-within-a-city of around 150,000 to 180,000.
The inhabitants of the camp were initially neutral when the protests against the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad broke out in 2011. However, the camp was still targeted by the authorities who believed rebels to be operating in the camp. Subsequently, a number of rebel groups including Hamas-linked Kataib Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis gained a presence, alongside Syrian groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (which would later become part of Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham), Jaish al-Islam and the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated Jaish al-Ababil. The SAA subsequently blockaded the camp and the surrounding area, resulting in a sharp decline of available supplies and living standards.
Things worsened in 2015, when ISIS militants stormed the camp, taking over 70% of the camp. The militants enforced their brutal rule on the remaining inhabitants of the camp, estimated to number between 6,000 to 18,000, raiding the SAA and rebel positions in the surrounding districts on a regular basis.
The SAA launched the operations against ISIS militants in the Yarmouk Camp and the neighbouring districts of Qadam, Tadamoun and Hajar al-Aswad districts after it consolidated its hold on the East Ghouta suburb. In addition to attacking ISIS, the SAA also attacked the HTS militants, controlling a small pocket in the northern districts. Meanwhile, government negotiators have been pressuring the rebels in Yalda, Babbila and Beit Sahm to accept a “reconciliation” deal or evacuate.
Over the course of the weekend, all non-ISIS groups have agreed to evacuate, with the HTS bound for Idlib, Jaish al-Islam to Jarablus and the FSA factions to Daraa. With the evacuation of the other factions underway, ISIS has been surrounded almost entirely, fighting a losing battle. Through it all, life for the thousands of civilians held by ISIS against their will and caught in the crossfire has become progressively harder, with reports of a veritable humanitarian disaster unfolding in the camp.