Palestinians Agree to Work With Assad to Oust ISIS From Refugee Camp

Yarmouk Syria
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

An agreement has been reached between the Syrian government and Palestinian factions to cooperate in a joint military operation to remove ISIS from the Yarmouk refugee camp in south Damascus, according to a Palestinian official, despite a regime barrel bomb striking the camp's main hospital last night.

The Syrian government yesterday offered to arm the Palestinians fighting ISIS within the refugee camp and today Ahmed Majdalani, the former Palestinian Authority Labour minister who is heading a delegation to Damascus from the West Bank, confirmed that a "joint operation centre" will be created for Palestinian groups in Syria and the Syrian government to coordinate.

The operation will be conducted "to regain control over the area step by step, to protect the lives of the civilian residents of the camp and to avoid the overall destruction of the camp", he told the BBC in Damascus.

"It became necessary to take a step to protect our people and rid the camp of the armed gangs and [ISIS fighters] who want to use the Palestinian people in the camp as human shields for their operations to be pushed forward," he added.

The camp, where the Syrian and Palestinian population has shrunk from 150,000 to approximately 16,000 during the four-year-long Syrian civil war, was last week overrun by ISIS who captured large sections of the encampment, amid clashes with a Palestinian militia loyal to Hamas, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.

It is likely that the combination of Palestinian militiamen and Syrian regime firepower will remove the terror group from the encampment as their presence is minor compared to "a Mosul, a Tikrit or even a Raqqa", says Benjamin T. Decker, senior intelligence analyst at the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk advisory the Levantine Group.

"They will be pushed out of the camp," says Decker. "I think it's a matter of how long it will take and at what cost. This is a small group of loyal fighters who have embedded themselves and they are committed to dying. I think we are going to see a lot of suicide bombing operations, a lot of car bombs, it's going to be brutal."

Despite the agreement on the joint operation, fears remain that such a military operation will only add to the desperation of those who remain in the camp and give the Syrian regime additional legitimacy.

Reacting to the news of the agreement, Salim Salamah, a Syrian refugee who spent 22 years in Yarmouk until late 2012 and is now head of the Palestinian League for Human Rights in Syria, says the thought of a military operation within the camp is "very scary".

"The conduction of such a military engagement will mean nothing but a higher death toll and more people trapped in their houses for extra days without water and food," he says. "It might justify for the Syrian regime, which is our main concern, the excessive use of power which they have already put in place."

The agreement comes amid reports that the regime continues to drop barrel bombs on civilian targets within the camp, last night targeting the camp's main hospital, Palestine Hospital.

An eyewitness within the camp, speaking on condition of anonymity to Newsweek, revealed that a regime helicopter barrel-bombed the street outside the medical facility's main door, destroying one of two functioning Red Crescent ambulances and medical equipment on the complex's first floor.

"The helicopter came over the street of Palestine camp and came in at a very low height," they said. "The pilot brought the helicopter above the street in front of the hospital and was at a very low altitude. It then dropped the barrel bombs on the middle of the street in front of the door of hospital."

"When it exploded, all the shards went out. So the destruction meant that the entrance and all the emergency section in the camp was destroyed, everything glass and other equipment that were on the first floor were totally destroyed."

Yarmouk 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.

However, on Monday, the UN Security Council called for access to the camp because of the "grave situation" that remains in the camp with a lack of medical supplies, food and water. UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness says that 3,500 children remain at risk of death within the camp and urged the international community to act.

"The street fighting is so intense that civilians are too terrified to venture out even to scavenge for food for their families, it's as dire as it has ever been in Yarmouk," he warns. "Today, 3,500 children are at immediate risk of being killed, of being maimed and of being seriously injured. Is the world going to stand by and silently witness a slaughter of the innocents?"