Tens of thousands of Syrian civilians living in a desert camp on the southern border with Jordan may be moved north over fears of a government attack once US forces withdraw from a nearby military base.
Talks were held on Monday between commanders of Pentagon-backed rebel groups, including the Maghawir Al Thawra battalion and Lions of the East, on transferring about 60,000 civilians from the Rukban camp to rebel-held territory in northern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Observatory did not say how the rebels proposed to relocate the residents, which would involve crossing government-held areas.
Rukban lies in a deconfliction zone imposed around the nearby garrison town of Al Tanf where US forces are based, but Washington's plan to pull its troops out of Syria will leave the camp exposed to attacks by the Syrian government and its allies against rebels in the area.
“This decision has sparked resentment and fear inside the camp,” the Observatory said. Most of the residents are displaced Sunni Arabs, who have spent nearly a decade resisting President Bashar Al Assad's regime.
Russia has accused the US of using Rukban's residents as human shields to protect its military base in Al Tanf. The Russian defence ministry has described the area as a “black hole generating waves of Islamist insurgency”.
The rebels began cracking down on ISIS sleeper cells in the camp earlier this month, according to the UK-based Observatory, which relies on a network of informants in Syria.
The camp remains the most desperate settlement in the war-torn country. The United Nations Children’s Fund said last month that freezing temperatures and lack of basic commodities have put thousands of residents at risk of death and disease, among them many children and elderly. Hailstorms and torrential rain have flooded the camp, prompting residents to call for international assistance to leave.
In a letter to the UN and the European Union on Monday, the camp’s management said the fate of the 60,000 civilians was in the hands of the international community.
"We publicly announce Rukban camp as a humanitarian disaster," said the letter, which was seen by The National.
The camp will turn into a cemetery if no immediate action is taken, it said.
“The citizens of the camp are suffering from the siege imposed by Al Assad’s regime and its Shiite terrorist militias.”
The management urged the international bodies to pressure the Syrian regime to end its blockade of the camp, which has prevented deliveries of humanitarian aid and fuel. Since January last year the camp has received only one aid shipment, in November.
“The cold is killing children and the elderly. People are burning rubbish to keep themselves warm but this is causing diseases and polluting the camp,” the management said.
Jordan has denied entry to the civilians trapped at Rukban and has called for the camp to be dismantled.
"The continued existence of Rukban camp is a threat to our national security," Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said last month, adding that terror cells from the camp had carried out attacks in Jordan.