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How the jihadist seizure of Yarmouk benefits Assad

The international focus on the jihadist advance into Yarmouk is very convenient for Assad

Sharif Nashashibi

Published: Updated:

The jihadist’s seizure of most of the Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians in Syria has been widely portrayed as a threat to the Syrian regime, owing to the camp’s proximity to President Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power in Damascus. In actuality, this development benefits him in several ways.

Prior to the advance last month of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, Yarmouk was largely controlled by Palestinian and Syrian rebels opposed to the regime. They, not the army, are the ones being targeted by the jihadists - this typifies ISIS’s general military strategy of mainly going after anti-Assad forces.

Indeed, despite suggestions that the seizure of Yarmouk could provide ISIS with a springboard into the capital, the group has largely withdrawn from the camp “after expelling their main rival,” the Hamas-linked Aknaf al-Maqdis, Reuters reported last week.

There is legitimate speculation about how ISIS managed to invade the camp when it is under tight regime siege. This whole episode has been beneficial to Assad on so many levels that it has led to accusations of direct collusion

Sharif Nashashibi

The international focus on the jihadist advance into Yarmouk is very convenient for Assad, whose forces have besieged the camp since 2012. Much of the current coverage gives the impression that the humanitarian disaster in Yarmouk began with ISIS, rather than years of merciless regime bombardment and a crippling siege that has caused Palestinian refugees to starve to death.

The regime’s savagery in Yarmouk has never received adequate attention - now it is at best an afterthought, if not forgotten altogether. Grotesquely - with the United Nations, foreign officials and aid groups turning to the regime for a solution - Assad is positioning himself as the camp’s only potential saviour. This represents an extension of the trend of people advocating cooperation with the regime against ISIS, despite all the death and destruction wrought by Assad.

Similarly, with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) turning to the regime for help, and the latter expressing its willingness to do so, Assad is attempting to reclaim the mantle of defender of the Palestinians despite killing and starving them. This can be seen as a slap in the face for Hamas, which came out in support of the Syrian revolution in its early days, and thereby hindered Assad’s ability to portray himself as a champion of the Palestinian cause.

According to PLO official Ahmed Majdalani, 14 Palestinian factions have said they back a joint military operation with the regime to expel the jihadists from Yarmouk. This is music to Assad’s ears, if the claim is true - it is unclear which factions Majdalani is referring to, and the PLO distanced itself from his endorsement of a regime offensive on the camp.

The actions of both the jihadists and the regime have been mutually beneficial with regard to Yarmouk. The siege has severely weakened rebels in the camp, which enabled ISIS and the Nusra Front to quickly overrun it. This has led to increased regime bombardment of Yarmouk, including with dreaded barrel bombs.

“The use of barrel bombs against a besieged and starving civilian population is yet another demonstration of the Syrian government flouting international humanitarian law and its callousness towards civilians,” Amnesty International said this month, referring to Yarmouk. “Sparing civilian life does not appear to come into the equation when they decide to bomb an area... Shelling and dropping barrel bombs on a populated civilian area is a war crime.”

Syria’s ‘reconciliation’ minister said earlier this month that “a military solution is necessary” to “expel and defeat militants and terrorists in the camp.” The interpretation that this is simply aimed at ISIS and the Nusra Front is naive - they have provided a pretext for the regime to finally take over Yarmouk under the guise of liberating it from jihadists.

Collusion?

There is legitimate speculation about how ISIS managed to invade the camp when it is under tight regime siege. This whole episode has been beneficial to Assad on so many levels that it has led to accusations of direct collusion, spurred by the history of the relationship between the two.

“Local residents of Yarmouk were surprised to see a raid of hundreds of [ISIS] fighters from southern Damascus successfully enter their area... Assad’s forces have the area tightly monitored and controlled. Simply put, there is no way the attack... could have happened unless Assad wanted it to,” Syrian-Palestinian Kassem Eid, who was in Yarmouk at the start of the siege and had family members living there, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine.

“How did [ISIS] get such large quantities of resources into besieged areas?” he asked. “Believe me, infants would not be starving in my hometown if regime sieges could be evaded through tunnels or bribes. Those resources got in because the regime allowed them to enter.”

Indeed, the jihadist advance into Yarmouk seems to have done nothing to weaken the siege. In fact, develops have highlighted regime control over what happens inside and around the camp.

Some 2,000 people were reportedly evacuated from Yarmouk via two secure roads under the control of the army, which helped in the evacuation. The U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees said it had provided urgent supplies to around 500 evacuees “following facilitation and dialogue” with the regime.

Furthermore, the deputy to the U.N. envoy to Syria said the United Nations would work with the regime to ensure the safety of Palestinians and Syrians in Yarmouk. He said he left a meeting with the deputy foreign minister “quite satisfied and confident that there will be very good cooperation.”

How could all this be possible if Assad was not calling the shots?

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Sharif Nashashibi, a regular contributor to Al Arabiya English, The Middle East magazine and the Guardian, is an award-winning journalist and frequent interviewee on Arab affairs. He is co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. With an MA in International Journalism from London's City University, Nashashibi has worked and trained at Dow Jones Newswires, Reuters, the U.N. Development Programme in Palestine, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the Middle East Economic Survey in Cyprus, and the Middle East Times, among others. In 2008, he received the International Media Council's "Breakaway Award," given to promising new journalists, "for both facilitating and producing consistently balanced reporting on the highly emotive and polarized arena that is the Middle East." He can be found on Twitter: @sharifnash

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.