Palestinian Fighters Retake Parts of Refugee Camp Seized by ISIS

Yarmouk Syria ISIS
Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the Al-Wafaa campaign at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus April 1, 2014. Reuters / Rame Alsayed

Fighters from Palestinian factions and Syrian rebel groups have retaken areas of the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk, in Damascus from ISIS, which the terror group had seized yesterday, according to a monitoring group.

The radical Islamists captured most of the camp, situated on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, on Wednesday as they sought to edge closer to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's stronghold in the city. During the four-year-long civil war, the refugee camp's population has shrunk from approximately 150,000 to only 18,000 as thousands fled the civil war to neighbouring countries or other areas of Syria.

However, Syrian rebels and a group loyal to Palestinian faction Hamas, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, launched a counter-offensive against ISIS to push them out of the areas they controlled, clashing in the early hours of this morning with the group's militants, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

"Syrian rebel groups entered the camp and helped the Palestinians push back ISIS in fierce clashes," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Observatory, told AFP news agency.

The monitoring group said that there were conflicting reports as to whether ISIS had been completely removed from the camp or still held onto some areas despite their losses.

"The clashes between IS militants and fighters of Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis battalions had continued until after midnight in Yarmouk Camp," a SOHR statement read. "There is conflicting information about whether Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis battalions, backed by Islamist groups, could retake the whole areas or that IS are still taking control over some areas in the camp."

Benjamin T. Decker, senior intelligence analyst at the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk company The Levantine Group, said that, with clashes continuing between the militant groups, the residents of Yarmouk would likely prefer to be under the control of rebel groups or even the Assad regime, instead of ISIS.

"If this battle continues for Yarmouk over the coming weeks, I think what we will see overall is a shift in terms of the residents will prefer the PFLP and the Assad regime, because the Assad regime can guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid and at least a minimal delivery of basic human services," he noted.

Decker added that ISIS may begin to move into other refugee camps in Syria to further delegitimise the group's enemies, such as the Assad regime and the U.S.-led coalition, using strikes against the group as recruitment propaganda to claim that they are striking children and not military targets.

Spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), Chris Gunness, last night said that the conflict between armed groups within the camp has left the UN agency "extremely concerned about the safety and protection of Syrian and Palestinian civilians" in Yarmouk, adding that 3,500 children reside in the besieged compound.

Conditions in the camp have deteriorated since 2012 as rebels fighting the Assad regime have used the camp as a base to attack the president's forces in the capital, Damascus, leaving the Syrian government to impose a siege on the camp.

The camp was constructed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war for Palestinian refugees fleeing the violence. In June last year, Syrian rebels battling president Bashar al-Assad agreed a ceasefire deal which allowed the siege on the camp to be lifted and basic goods to be delivered.