The extremist group of the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), along with the Nusra Front, are controlling eighty to ninety percent of the Yarmouk Camp in south Damascus, an activist and resident of the camp told Middle East Monitor on Saturday morning.
Multiple reports from the Yarmouk Camp, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, have claimed that ISIS has been pushed out of the area, yet this statement has not been confirmed. According to Reuters, residents said that ISIS militants had left the camp on Wednesday and retreated to their stronghold in Al Hajar Al Aswad, southwest of Yarmouk, almost eight kilometers away from Damascus centre, from where ISIS had initiated its offensive on the camp earlier this month.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, reported the opposite, indicating that ISIS has not yet left the camp, describing a scene dominated by fierce clashes between ISIS, Palestinian armed militants, and rebel groups.
Khaled Abu Walid, the activist from Yarmouk, told MEMO over Skype that he has heard news in the camp that ISIS is planning to leave. The camp, therefore, will mainly be under the control of the Nusra Front, also known as Jabhet Al Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria.
“ISIS and Jabhet [Nusra] are one hand in Yarmouk,” he added.
Yarmouk’s military complication
Recently, it has become unclear which groups are fighting one another in southern Damascus, particularly in Yarmouk Camp.
Nusra Front used to hold control of the camp, along with other Palestinian and Syrian rebel groups, before ISIS entered. ISIS took control of the camp on April 1 and the Nusra Front was accused of permitting its entrance. Soon after, Nusra Front published a statement declaring neutrality in the battle in Yarmouk, suggesting that Nusra may have changed its prior opposition to ISIS. Later, Nusra’s support to ISIS in Yarmouk was confirmed, and currently fights within their ranks.
Aknaf Beit Al Maqdis, a Hamas-aligned militia, is another group present in Yarmouk and has been fighting along with the rebels for the last two years as Assad’s forces lay siege to the camp. After ISIS capture of the camp, according to Abu Walid, the group made an alliance with the regime armed forces to fight ISIS and Nusra.
“Aknaf [Beit] Al Maqdis is over, it merged with the regime forces and fights along with them,” Abu Walid, adding that the leader of Aknaf Beit Al Maqdis, Ahmad Zaghmout, received treatment in a Damascus regime hospital earlier this month.
The current situation in the camp is that Aknaf Beit Al Maqdis along with the regime forces are fighting ISIS from the northern side of the camp, Damascus side, while other rebel groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Liwa Sham al-Rasoul, known as Islamist groups, are fighting ISIS from the southern side.
Jaysh al-Islam with cooperation from the FSA’s First Brigade has launched a battle in the eastern suburbs of Damascus on Thursday aiming to “eliminate” ISIS presence around the capital. The group has claimed multiple advances on ISIS in Al Qaboun and Barzeh, two neighborhoods in northeast Damascus.
Captain Islam Alloush, a spokesperson of Jaysh al-Islam, said that his group is fighting ISIS in Al Hajar Al Aswad, ISIS stronghold, and on the verges of Yarmouk aiming to storm the camp soon.
“The majority of Nusra fighters have pledged allegiance to ISIS,” said Cap. Alloush, noting that basic aim of Nusra Front has been to fight the Assad regime. He stressed, however, that Jaysh al-Islam will fight anyone who joins ISIS, even if one of their own fighters.
The clashes among armed groups have left civilians in the camp and surrounding areas with no real protection, as the regime forces continue bombarding Yarmouk using its air force and artillery.
The Yarmouk Camp has received major international attention as it demonstrates the suffering of Palestinian refugees from the Syrian war. The camp is considered a main gate to Damascus, located inside of the municipal boundaries of Damascus, and is only 6 kilometers away from the city center. If ISIS takes full control over Yarmouk, the group would be controlling a major access point to the capital.
The largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria lives in the 2.1 square-kilometers Yarmouk camp, established in 1957. Before the start of the conflict, the camp had three health centres and 28 schools.
As the camp has become involved in the conflict, Assad forces initiated a siege on Yarmouk in July 2013, banning any resources from entering the camp, effectively besieging around 18.000 people. Rights and monitoring groups have said that around 100 people have starved to death. In June 2014, regime and rebel groups reached a temporary truce for basic services to be restored. Soon after, the truce failed and the blockade and shelling on the camp resumed.
Abu Waild said that when ISIS entered the camp, they aimed to gain population support by directly distributing food aid and necessities to the residents.
The United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees documented thousands of displaced families fleeing to Yalda and Tadamoun, areas east of Yarmouk hosting displaced Palestinian refugees and Syrian civilians from Yarmouk. On Friday, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has called for an immediate 30 million USD to support the emergency humanitarian response to civilians in Yarmouk.
Conditions in Yarmouk camp are concerning and unpleasant. According to residents, people of the camp are now divided. Some do not support ISIS’s ideology, some are in support of ISIS, and others want to keep the camp neutral from the Syria conflict. Abu Walid observed that the majority, however, are in support of ISIS.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.