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Islamic State conquers Yarmouk in macabre win for Syrian troops

People who’ve fled Yarmouk sit on mattresses inside a school in Damascus on Monday. April 6, 2015. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the camp after the Islamic State group seized large parts of it.

YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Islamic State fighters have taken control of Yarmouk, a mostly Palestinian neighbourhood in the southern suburbs of Damascus, after brushing aside what remained of resistance in this one-time centre of the Palestinian diaspora.

Remarkably, the advance of the widely feared jihadi movement that has terrorized communities across Syria and Iraq with its brutal and mass executions met no resistance from nearby Syrian military units even though IS positions now are established just a few kilometres from Bashar al-Assad's presidential palace.

Syrian troops have set their sights on other rebel targets, it would seem, such as the al-Qaeda-connected Nusra Front, and are counting on Islamic State's presence to, in effect, shore up the regime's southern defences.

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The Palestinians of Yarmouk are mere pawns in this macabre game and now have been exiled twice.

In 1948, they left homes in Safed, Tiberias and Haifa and sought refuge in Syria from an advancing Israeli army.

Yarmouk was better off than the official United Nations camps in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, which were always far from urban areas. The people here set down their roots as close to the centre of the capital as they were allowed and mixed with the local population. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), though it did not consider Yarmouk an official camp, helped with food, schools and health centres, and the people worked and studied hard. They built a real community that expanded with the natural growth of their population.

Before the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, some 150,000 Palestinians lived here, in a 2 1/2-square-kilometre enclave of three- and four-storey residential/commercial buildings. By the war's second year, barely 20,000 people remained. Many who fled were turned back at the Jordanian border – no more Palestinian refugees, they were told. Some tried their luck in Lebanon, also crowded with refugees.

The 15,000 or so Palestinians who remain in Yarmouk, including as many as 3,000 children, have been left to fend for themselves. Supplies have long been cut off by the Assad regime as it battled those in the camp that sided with rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army and the Nusra Front. There is reportedly no access to clean drinking water and no route in for medical supplies.

Now, there are reports that the IS conquerors have begun distributing bread to the people, while the UN Security Council this week urged all sides to allow humanitarian relief to reach those trapped in the area.

In a peculiar turn, Islamic State has indicated it prefers to refrain from attacking the Assad regime as it concentrates on building its caliphate state-within-a-state. This is all the more important now that IS forces were driven out of Kobani in northern Syria and have been made to retreat from some parts of Iraq. The group's reputation is on the line.

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The Nusra Front, on the other hand, has been on a roll. It was the Nusra Front, along with a local ally, that conquered Idlib in northwestern Syria in late March, only the second urban centre lost by the regime after Raqqa, in eastern Syria, where Islamic State is headquartered.

It is "crucial for Assad" to damage the Nusra Front's credibility, said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

In what she describes as "a wily and tactical manoeuvre," the Syrian regime actually facilitated IS access to Yarmouk in order to embarrass the Nusra Front leaders. Nusra is internally split between hard-liners who staunchly oppose Islamic State and pragmatists with strong connections to the IS leadership.

When IS forces marched into Yarmouk last week, the hard-liners were overwhelmed while the pragmatists stood back.

"The regime's calculation was that this contradiction between the actions of some al-Nusra brigades and the 'neutrality' of others would embarrass the leaders of al-Nusra and hurt the group's credibility," Ms. Khatib said.

And it appears to have worked. "Public criticisms of al-Nusra's apparent flip-flopping in Yarmouk have already begun to emerge," Ms. Khatib said, "and rival groups see in the Yarmouk scenario an opportunity to reassert themselves in the face of al-Nusra."

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There is a further reason for letting IS forces walk into Yarmouk, Ms. Khatib says – to help prevent the regime losing the southern city of Daraa, where the protests that sparked the civil war took place four years ago, and where the secular rebel group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), is challenging the regime's control.

Islamic State has long sought a foothold in the south, the reasoning goes, relying until now on local recruitment of Syrians and Palestinians. The Assad regime is banking on IS forces using Yarmouk on the south side of Damascus as a base from which to take on the FSA.

The regime is "enabling IS access to the south because this serves the regime's aim of crushing the moderate opposition in the area," Ms. Khatib concludes.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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