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Why losing Yarmouk is not necessarily bad for Assad

For the past week, fighting has intensified around Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus. A squad from ISIS stormed into the southern side of the camp from the area of Hajar Al-Aswad which directly borders the camp, clashing with the Palestinian brigade Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis. A small group of ISIS fighters have been quietly located in Hajar Al-Aswad since last September, but recently began expanding their activities, according to Britain's Channel 4 television. The capture of Yarmouk would represent the group's deepest foray into Damascus and establish its fighters just five kilometres away from Bashar Al-Assad's presidential palace.

Despite the camp being seen as a "gateway to Damascus", the fall of Yarmouk to ISIS may not be as devastating a loss for the regime as one might assume. A strict, impenetrable siege has been enforced on the camp by Syrian regime forces since July 2013. The completeness of the blockade has left the camp's residents in a dire situation; a Muslim cleric was forced to issue a legal opinion allowing people to eat cats, donkeys and dogs to prevent more deaths from starvation. Assad knows that as a result the siege, ISIS will face a band of exhausted people with few weapons. At the same time, the pressure will be off him to secure the refugees' safety, which has become an emblem of his regime's cruelty. Syrian opposition figures have even suggested that Assad may have facilitated the entry of ISIS into Yarmouk; this position is no doubt spurred by the militants' swift and, it is assumed, easy entry into the camp with no reported clashes with the Syrian military which is supposed to be laying siege to it.

In fact, the loss of Yarmouk could be part of Assad's strategy. Some analysts have suggested that the Syrian president has been indirectly allowing ISIS to access the southern region of his country. The more moderate rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have made significant gains in the southern province of Daraa, the cradle of the revolution, a vital battleground and a direct route to Damascus. Western countries have supported the moderate rebels as a viable opposition to Assad with military and financial assistance.

Yarmouk is around 100 kilometres from Daraa. The war in Syria has a complex network of front lines and Assad can surely not afford to fight on all of them at once for such a prolonged period of time. The embattled regime leader may be hoping that ISIS will use the camp as a base to attack the FSA in the south, crushing the only opposition the international community sees as a viable player to back in this conflict.

If the above occurs and the moderate rebels struggle against ISIS so close to Damascus, positions on Assad needing to step down as part of a solution could alter. The US government and the exiled Syrian opposition, supported by Britain, the EU, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have argued with equal vehemence that peace is inconceivable while Assad remains in power. However, America's backing of Syria peace talks in January was seen as further evidence that the Obama administration has quietly dropped this longstanding demand. ISIS and Assad appear to have reached some kind of deal not to fight one another and focus on fighting the more moderate rebels; a "put our differences aside for mutual benefits" kind of agreement. This deal is not a concern for Assad, as when it comes to ISIS, he knows it is plausible that he could strike a similar deal with the international community, putting differences aside later on to fight the mutual enemy.

Something similar is happening inside Yarmouk refugee camp; reports are surfacing of an alliance between the Palestinian factions and Assad's forces, which have been besieging them for nearly two years. Ahmad Majdalani, a Palestinian Authority envoy who was sent to Damascus this week told Associated Press by telephone that all the Palestinian factions in Yarmouk agreed to take part in the joint military operation command with the Syrian army that will spearhead the campaign, including anti-Assad Palestinian groups.

As the Yarmouk situation is uniting Assad with some of his enemies, it is also dividing others. The camp had previously fallen under the control of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra and reports from eyewitnesses claim that the group is now fighting alongside ISIS, its former rival. This has not only caused it to clash further with other groups, but there have been internal battles over the question of allegiance to ISIS; the latest move could see the group fragment, which would weaken it. Out of the two groups, the regime is likely to prefer ISIS, which does not share the ultimate goal of Al-Nusra to destroy the Assad government. If ISIS is strengthened by weakening Al-Nusra, it is still a gain for Assad.

The appearance of ISIS in the camp seems to have shocked many; the group has a hold over much of eastern Syria, part of the north and the Qalamoun Mountains near neighbouring Lebanon, but an organised presence in the outer suburbs of Damascus was heard of until now. A rebel coalition took over the city of Idlib last week, making it the second major urban centre to be lost by the Syrian regime. While Assad will still be recovering from this loss, as analyst Lina Khatib from the Carnegie Middle East Centre suggests, the fall of Yarmouk to ISIS could be more of a "regime-blessed tactic". Whatever else it might be, Yarmouk will certainly be a game-changer in the conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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