The Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, which is only a 10-minute bus ride from central Damascus, has become the battle ground for a number of forces fighting to seize this strategic and symbolic area. The battle began in the early hours of April 1, when ISIL stormed the camp, for the second time in a year.
Clashes erupted between ISIL and a local fighting force, Aknaf Bait Al Maqdis, and tensions ensued among rebel forces nearby as they took sides in the clashes. Also, the Al Assad regime reportedly dropped barrel bombs inside the camp during the rebel clashes.
People in the camp have endured a humanitarian catastrophe for months because of a blockade imposed by the government. Scenes of malnourished and freezing children have become part of the reality, and they will probably get worse if the clashes continue.
But apart from the appalling humanitarian situation of the 18,000 Palestinians and Syrians in the camp, the outcome in Yarmouk threatens to be a turning point for the areas around Damascus. For two years, ISIL has sought to establish strongholds for itself with little success. Other than in Hajar Al Aswad, rebel forces, primarily Jaish Al Islam, tried relentlessly to prevent ISIL from establishing a foothold. Most of the camp is now under the control of ISIL.
Jaish Al Islam issued a statement accusing Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al Nusra, which has checkpoints near the regime front lines, of being in cahoots with ISIL. Similar accusations were issued by Palestinian fighters from within the camp. Tensions between Jaish Al Islam and Jabhat Al Nusra almost led to clashes.
Jabhat Al Nusra blocked Jaish Al Islam from crossing its checkpoints to fight ISIL in the Yarmouk camp. The Al Qaeda affiliate justified the move by saying that Jaish Al Islam’s convoy include another group, Sham Al Rasoul, which had previously killed some of its members and is supportive of reconciliation with the Al Assad regime. It also said that it is avoiding involvement in the current clashes to prevent the regime from seizing the opportunity and entering the area.
The outskirts of Damascus have symbolic and strategic importance for ISIL. The Yarmouk camp is a gateway into both central Damascus and the area mentioned in Islamic apocalyptic traditions (“Muslims’ stronghold will be in Ghouta, near a city called Damascus.”) Also, ISIL’s growing presence in the mountainous Qalamoun area near Lebanon will potentially help it attack the rebels in between as the group becomes stronger – a familiar tactic for ISIL. Jaish Al Islam is one of the few rebel forces that was not weakened through the infighting that began in late 2013. But that can still happen, especially as tensions grow with Jabhat Al Nusra and provincial factions that lean towards local ceasefires.
If ISIL’s presence near Damascus persists, that will likely help it attract more recruits, especially among those who do not fit with the current dominant forces in the area. The area is beset by local rivalries and tensions related to each group’s tactics and attitudes towards the Al Assad regime. And ISIL can appeal to many of those alienated by those forces. Because ISIL failed to establish itself in the countryside around Damascus, sympathisers and members have mostly served as sleeper cells – another pattern that is all too familiar in the way ISIL operates and expands.
ISIL has been quietly growing in southern Syria. It is following policies similar to how it gradually expanded in the early months of 2013 throughout other parts of Syria. It relies on buying loyalties, creating sleeper cells, exploiting local rivalries and setting up courts when its presence is secured. Also reminiscent of its early tactics, ISIL has proven to be more cooperative with other groups in southern Syria, particularly Jabhat Al Nusra, which may be one of the reasons why it avoided clashes with ISIL in Yarmouk.
The ISIL offensive in Yarmouk is the second attempt in a year. It should not be taken lightly. It is a well-calculated move and a product of a wider strategy to expand in southern Syria. If ISIL controls more territory in that region, it might benefit immensely from the urban, mountainous and border region to establish a long-term presence in the south.
Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: hxhassan