Fighters with the Islamic State seized large parts of the predominantly Palestinian Yarmouk camp on the southern side of Damascus this past week. International aid agencies warn that conflict between IS and other rebel factions, as well as an ongoing government blockade, could lead to a humanitarian disaster inside the camp.
The Islamic State’s recent advance sparked fighting with Palestinian rebels groups who also opposed President Asad, including Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis. But with 90% of the camp now under IS control, the organization has begun rounding up men that could pose a challenge to their occupation of the area. According to Arab Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toumeh, IS beheaded Sheikh Abu Salah Taha, a senior leader of Hamas’s Syrian branch. Following the killing, Hamas leaders in Gaza reacted by arresting IS supporters in the enclave.
Men walk past destroyed buildings in Yarmouk on April 6, 2015. (Photo: AFP)
Additionally, conflicting reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) have suggested that fighters affiliated with the al-Nusrah Front could also be assisting IS. Allied Islamists have been largely successful in marginalizing other Western-back opposition groups in southern Syria, posing a new challenge to Washington’s Syria strategy.
According to the UN, the approximately 18,000 people remaining in Yarmouk have been struggling to acquire food, water, and other basic necessities since the government decided to seal off the area two years ago. During that time, residents have often been afraid to go out because of snipers, leaving dead bodies to rot on the streets. Meanwhile, government forces routinely drop barrel bombs and shell the area without regard to civilians living in the densely packed neighborhood. Residents will now be subjected to IS brutality in the form of beheadings and other atrocities as well.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as some Arab Israelis, have held demonstrations in solidarity with their compatriots suffering in Syria. But most of the world has paid little attention to the crisis in Yarmouk amid the Islamic State’s advances in western Iraq.
For Asad, the Islamic State’s success in southern Damascus presents a mixed opportunity. While IS removed the threat of Palestinian rebels inside the camp, the terrorist group’s fighters now have a foothold to launch attacks just a few miles from the Presidential Palace.