ISIS Takes Yarmouk, Damascus' Palestinian Refugee Camp Housing 18,000 People

On Wednesday, activists and Palestinian officials announced that ISIS fighters have entered the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Eighteen thousand Palestinian refugees are inside the camp, according to the BBC, and a rapid assault Wednesday morning has left “most” of the Palestinian enclave in southern Damascus under the control of the extremist group. The move highlights ISIS’s increasingly intense activity in the Damascus area, the group having previously focused on the northern and eastern regions of Syria.

A local Palestinian official told AFP early Wednesday that fighters had entered and gained control of much of Yarmouk. “Fighters from IS launched an assault this morning on Yarmouk and they took over the majority of the camp,” Anwar Abdel Hadi, director of political affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus, is quoted by Middle East Eye as saying. The PLO are the Palestinians' representative body. At that time, Hadi confirmed that fighting was ongoing within the camp.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the attack, stating that ISIS had gained control over a “large part” of Yarmouk after engaging in combat with Palestinian groups that also position themselves in opposition to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Syrian rebels withdrew from the camp in February 2014, according to Middle East Eye, leaving only the anti-regime Palestinians in residence.

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Yarmouk was established during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, to give shelter to Palestinians fleeing the conflict. The camp once housed 150,000 Palestinian refugees as well as Syrians, but had been increasingly embroiled in the country’s ongoing conflict. The camp had been besieged by regime forces for more than a year — presumably in an attempt to weed out the anti-Assad elements that ISIS has now clashed with. The ongoing state of siege has left Yarmouk's residents weakened, due to the persistent scarcity of food, water and medicine.

Early in March, The Guardian characterized Yarmouk as a “prison,” whose residents “survive on little food and water, with no hope of escape.” At that stage, the publication wrote that ISIS was not yet fully established in Yarmouk, but had taken control of neighboring suburbs and threatened that they could enter the camp at any time. Also in March, Business Insider reported that ISIS had increasingly encroached on the Syrian capital, re-establishing its presence in the city’s southern suburbs and struggling against opposition forces for control of southeastern areas.

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Benjamin Decker, a senior intelligence analyst at Tel Aviv risk consultancy firm The Levantine Group, told Newsweek that the capture of Yarmouk may be an attempt by ISIS to gain control of the camp’s humanitarian aid. Decker said:

It is by far one of the worst places in Damascus, if not the country, so there is very little security there and it was a very easy operation… There has been a massive campaign from the international community to ask for the Assad regime’s permission to deliver aid. They are completely trapped and [ISIS taking control] is likely to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis there.

Middle East Eye points out that ISIS — now in control of large swathes of Syria and neighboring Iraq — has been known to fight against other rebel groups as well as the Assad government forces. The goal is not simply to topple Assad, but to gain preeminence across an ever-expanding tract of land.

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