Plight of Rukban thousands should shame the world

Facing starvation and regime bombardment, camp's residents might be on the move again

FILE - This file picture taken Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, shows an overview of the informal Rukban camp, between the Jordan and Syria borders. The United Nations’ children agency says on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 that two children have died in a desert camp for displaced people along the Syria-Jordan border. The agency says a 5-day-old boy and a 4-month-old girl died in the squalid Rukban camp, which houses over 40,000 people. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh, File)
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As the world comes to terms with the inevitability of Bashar Al Assad being part of the country's future, the lives of millions who opposed his brutal regime hang in the balance. In few places is that truer than the desert camp of Rukban, near the Jordanian border, where 60,000 innocent civilians are at the mercy of rebels and regime forces. Thanks to a months-long blockade, they are existing in dire circumstances, with the regime preventing deliveries of humanitarian aid. Their lives speak to the horrors of Syria's eight-year-long war and an indication that the worst is far from over, despite Mr Al Assad's claims that the conflict's end is nigh. The one reprieve protecting the camp was a nearby US military base at Al Tanf. But now, with US President Donald Trump's withdrawal of American troops from Syria, that shield has gone and the residents of Rukban, under threat from the Syrian regime, could again face packing up what little they possess and moving to an even more precarious fate.

US-aligned rebel groups are reportedly considering transferring Rukban’s desperate residents to their enclaves in northern Syria, which would involve crossing government-held areas, exposing them to potential air and ground assault by the regime and its Russian backers. And although a de-escalation zone exists around the northern rebel enclave of Idlib, it is not free from potential regime bombardment. Indeed, regime forces have shown scant regard in the past for the protection such zones should provide. The Russian defence ministry recently described Rukban as a “black hole generating waves of Islamist insurgency”, with worrying implications for its residents.

As the threat of regime and Russian shelling looms, the world has turned its back on the defenceless people of Rukban. Jordan has denied them entry, insisting the camp be dismantled and accusing terror cells within it of attacking its territory. On Monday, Rukban's management appealed for international support. Given the scant protection the international community has offered to desperate Syrians thus far, their pleas might fall on deaf ears.

The logistics involved in moving 60,000 people safely across the country beg yet more questions. But for Rukban's residents it is simply another stop on a gruesome road as they are shunted from pillar to post. Inside the camp, children face starvation and illness. Without a single aid shipment in 12 months, the sheer lack of supplies risks turning the vast camp into a cemetery. Meanwhile, state violence has conspired with nature to imperil them further: Rukban has been hit with torrential rain and freezing temperatures. As powers greater than themselves toy with their fate, the camp's residents are burning rubbish for warmth and inhaling the toxic smoke. These are not US human shields or pawns to be traded, but innocent human beings, trapped between a squalid camp and the threat of regime assault. Their fate – symbolic of the entire conflict – should shame the world.