Syria's desperate Rukban camp won't see aid from new US assistance package

Assad regime and its Russian backers have blockaded the remote camp for years, with US forces stationed right next door

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The US has said that its new $756 million humanitarian assistance package to Syria will “touch the lives of Syrians in all 14 governorates”.

But residents at the remote Rukban refugee camp, located close to an American military base, will see none of that aid.

Rukban is located within a safe zone established by the US and Russia near the Jordanian-Iraqi border, about 35 kilometres from the US garrison at Al Tanf.

Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's regime and its Russian allies have blockaded the camp — which has not received a major aid convoy in three years — over claims it is a bastion of anti-regime “terrorists”.

Access to humanitarian aid was first cut by the Jordanian government in 2016 and shifted to Damascus-based agencies under the UN umbrella.

Aid to the camp, in other words, can only enter with the permission of the regime that has blockaded it.

Meanwhile, the residents of Rukban live with severe shortages of food and medical supplies. The camp has largely relied on illegal smuggling from regime-held territories in Syria to get basic survival necessities, according to the Syrian Emergency Task Force, which has worked directly with Rukban.

Despite the camp's desperate situation and its proximity to US forces, Washington defers to Damascus and Moscow when pressed on Rukban.

“The Biden administration remains committed to increasing humanitarian access to all parts of Syria,” a State Department representative told The National.

“We continue to urge the Assad regime and Russia to allow life-saving aid to reach the people of Rukban."

The administration declined to comment when asked if the US had any responsibility to the civilian population in the safe zone.

US forces at the Al Tanf garrison are close to the suffering civilians in Rukban.

“Both the Assad regime and Russia view the [displacement camp] as a kind of glaring example of the refusal of Syrians to accept the legitimacy and sovereignty of the Assad government,” Steven Heydemann, non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Centre for Middle East Policy, told The National.

“And this is a way of forcing a community that has its ties to an area of Syria that was heavily, heavily pro-opposition to submit to the authority of the Assad regime and in what Russia would define as the Syrian state.”

Rukban's population is made up entirely of civilians, more than half of which are children under the age of 12, according to the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Rukban residents receive vaccinations in 2018. AFP

“The fact that we have continued to rely on this process for years, without any shift, in that policy is a tragedy,” Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

“It has been a huge disappointment, including under President [Joe] Biden, because we cannot rely on the very people besieging the camp to provide that aid. And we must find a solution for that.”

For the people living in Rukban, the realisation that the recent aid announced by the US will not bring any relief to their community is both unsurprising and upsetting.

“The United Nations has never helped us with anything,” a Rukban resident told The National.

“[The UN] is able to provide us with everything a human being needs and all that the stranded here in Rukban requires. But no, no aid comes from the UN.”

Rukban's population has declined drastically since 2016, both due to deaths and forced returns to territory held by the Assad regime.

At its peak, Rukban was home to about 60,000 people. Now, population estimates range between 8,000-10,000.

The camp, made up largely of mud-brick homes and makeshift tents, lacks basic medical supplies and health infrastructure, and many residents have died of disease and exposure, the Syrian Emergency Task Force reported.

“Babies die because of lack of nutrition. And sometimes parents tell us about how their children die and what breaks their heart is they don't even know why, because they don't have the right medical experts or anyone to to even diagnose what happened,” said Mr Moustafa.

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We cannot rely on the very people besieging the camp to provide that aid
Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force

And forced returns to regime territory are also a major concern.

“[Forced return] often results in arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killing, at the very best being placed in a holding centre without really knowing what the future may hold for them in regime-held Syria,” said Mr Moustafa.

He added that the Syrian Emergency Task Force has heard from former Rukban residents who have reported harassment from regime officers, including accusations of terrorism and arbitrary detentions.

The US government has been Syria's single biggest donor of humanitarian aid, with more than $15 billion in assistance sent since the civil war erupted in 2011.

Under the previous administration of Donald Trump, defence officials asserted that delivering aid to Rukban would mean undertaking permanent responsibility for the residents' well-being.

There has been little change on Washington's posture on the issue under Mr Biden.

While there is little risk geopolitically if Washington were to circumvent Damascus and deliver aid delivery to Rukban, lack of retaliation is not guaranteed.

FILE - This file picture taken Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017, shows an overview of the informal Rukban camp, between the Jordan and Syria borders. Statements issued by the United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said their joint convoy reached Rukban camp and would deliver assistance to 50,000 people The convoy was supposed to arrive last week but was delayed due to logistics and security concerns. The U.N. said the operation is expected to take three to four days. (AP Photo/ Raad Adayleh, File)

“It's hard to imagine that an operation that was clearly humanitarian would provoke a military response from the Russians or the [Assad] regime, but it's happened before,” said Mr Heydemann of the Brookings Institution.

“So that's another implication that I'm sure the US is working through as it thinks about changing its policy.”

But the lack of international support for Rukban, he added, helps to preserve the status quo of the Damascus and Moscow-enforced blockade.

“Because of the unwillingness of other actors to get involved … if you're the Assad regime, or if you're sitting in Moscow, there's very little downside to ensuring that Rukban fails and that life there becomes so miserable that residents are forced to submit to the Assad regime,” he said.

For Rukban's residents, the blame for the blockade is “of course on Russia and the [Assad regime]", but there is widespread despair and confusion over the inaction of international community.

“We are only asking for our rights … our rights to medicine, to education and food,” a camp resident said.

Updated: September 20, 2022, 12:35 PM
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