How the CIA helped jihadist rebels invade and occupy the capital of the Palestinian diaspora
The Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria was thrust into international conscientiousness in March 2014 when the United Nations published the now iconic image of “thousands of Palestinians waiting amid the rubble of crumbling buildings to receive food aid in Yarmouk.”
When describing the tragedy in Yarmouk, most Western journalists and human rights groups have overwhelmingly highlighted the role of the Syrian army, which imposed a siege on the camp in January 2013. Philip Louter of Amnesty International described for example how “Syrian [government] forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmouk.” Similar descriptions of Yarmouk, in which blame for the suffering of the camp’s civilians is attributed to the Syrian government, have often appeared in the Western press, including in Foreign Affairs, the Guardian, the Independent, Foreign Policy, and the Washington Post.
Certainly, the suffering of Palestinians in Yarmouk was very real, and it is clear the Syrian government’s brutal siege has contributed to it. However, crucial facts surrounding events in Yarmouk have been consistently omitted in Western media reporting; facts which, if known, provide a more accurate picture of who was responsible for the suffering in Yarmouk, and what could have been done to end it.
Largely omitted is the role that jihadist rebels and their state sponsors have played in driving the conflict in Yarmouk. Flush with weapons supplied by the CIA and Gulf intelligence agencies, rebels from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian wing of al-Qaeda (known as the Nusra Front) jointly invaded and occupied Yarmouk in December 2012. Rebels considered Yarmouk the “Gateway to Damascus” due to its strategic location in the suburbs of the Syrian capital. Controlling Yarmouk was crucial to the rebel effort to topple the Syrian government.
These jihadist rebels, including many foreign fighters, invaded Yarmouk against the will of the camp’s Palestinian residents, who wished to remain neutral in the conflict. Rebels disregarded Palestinian pleas against an invasion, considering the civilian suffering that would inevitably result as simply the “price of jihad.” Within days, hundreds of thousands of Yarmouk’s residents (the vast majority) had fled the camp to escape fighting between the rebels on the one hand and the Syrian army and allied Palestinian militias on the other. This mass displacement resembled that of the Nakba, or “catastrophe” which Palestinians suffered at the hands of Zionist militias in 1947-48.
The Syrian government then imposed the siege on Yarmouk in an effort to prevent al-Qaeda (hereafter Nusra) and its FSA allies from advancing further on the heart of Damascus. Once in control of Yarmouk, rebels destroyed and looted homes, stole medical equipment and supplies, imposed fundamentalist religious rule, siphoned off scarce food for their own fighters and families, and often prevented civilians, in particular men, from leaving the camp, wishing to use them as a source of recruitment and as human shields.
This led Ahmad Majdalani, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee, to insist in January 2014 (2 months before the infamous UN photo was published) that the rebels occupying Yarmouk, including Nusra, are “known for their terrorist links and methodology” and that Palestinians “everywhere know… that those who have taken the camp hostage are these groups, not the Syrian authorities,” while Maher Taher, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), described how, “There have been attempts by all Palestinian groups to help broker peace in Yarmouk. We reached agreements, but [the rebels] have a problem with implementation. The deal is essentially that armed groups should leave the camp and Palestinians should return. The Syrian government is being cooperative with these operations and has granted chances to feed civilians inside. But at the moment of implementation, the rebels break the agreement.”
The rebel effort to take Yarmouk camp hostage, with the assistance of external state backers, has served as a microcosm of the Syria conflict more broadly. Journalist Nir Rosen has noted that although the US and its allies claimed to intervene in Syria “on behalf of the people,” they were in fact “flooding the country with fighters and explosives” while supporting “the most reactionary, nihilistic, obscurantist and dangerous forces,” who are “destroying the country socially, economically, and physically, which is the goal.”
The disaster that would befall Syrian civilians as a result of US support for jihadist rebels was acknowledged directly in US foreign policy circles. Writing in Foreign Policy in August 2012, four months before jihadist rebels invaded Yarmouk, Gary Gambill explained that “militant Salafi-jihadist groups are assuming a steadily greater role in fighting [Syrian] regime forces on the ground. . . . Whatever misfortunes Sunni Islamists may visit upon the Syrian people, any government they form will be strategically preferable to the Assad regime. . . So long as Syrian jihadis are committed to fighting Iran and its Arab proxies, we should quietly root for them.”
Without understanding the role played by the rebels and their backers in the CIA and Gulf intelligence agencies, it is impossible to understand how and why thousands of Palestinians and Syrians from Yarmouk camp have died, why hundreds of thousands have been displaced (many becoming refugees for the second time) and why the camp, once considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora and a symbol of the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in Palestine, now lies in ruins.
In this essay, I provide a brief history of the rebel invasion and occupation of Yarmouk camp, while highlighting the role played by the rebels’ state sponsors. In doing so, I discuss the major events in Yarmouk from the beginning of the Syrian crisis in 2011 until the defeat of the rebels and liberation of the camp in 2018.
The Crisis Begins
Yarmouk, with a pre-war population of some 150,000 Palestinians and some 650,000 Syrians, was the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, lying in the southern outskirts of Damascus. Yarmouk was established in 1957 for Palestinians ethnically cleansed from their homes by Zionist militias as part of the establishment of the state of Israel in 1947-48, events known by Palestinians as the “catastrophe” or “Nakba.” Some of these refugees were re-settled in Yarmouk, which soon came to be considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. As Palestinians were granted all the rights of Syrians except citizenship and the ability to vote, Palestinians from the camp quickly integrated into the social and cultural life of the Syrian capital. Over time, many Syrians came to reside within the borders of the camp as well, and Yarmouk gradually became incorporated into the broader Damascus suburbs.
Controversy regarding Palestinians erupted during the early weeks of anti-government protests, when Buthaina Shaaban, a close advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, blamed Palestinians for rioting and attacking Syrian security forces in the coastal city of Latakia. Al-Akhbar, a leftist Lebanese newspaper viewed as pro-Hezbollah, cited Syrian state media as reporting on March 28, 2011 that “snipers from an armed group opened fire on pedestrians in Latakia” and that these attacks led to the “martyrdom of ten people from the security forces and civilians, and the killing of two armed militants who were roaming the streets of the city, occupied the roofs of some buildings, and opened fire indiscriminately on civilians, thereby spreading panic among the people.” Syrian state media also claimed that some 200 people (mostly from the security forces) were injured as a result, and that reinforcements from the army entered the city in response. These armed militants allegedly roamed the streets, damaging shops and cars, and burning public and private property.
While commenting on these events, Shaaban, pointed a finger at Palestinians directly, claiming to the pro-Syrian government newspaper al-Watan that “persons came from Ramel camp (for Palestinian refugees) into the heart of Latakia and destroyed shops, promoting civil strife and sedition, and when the security forces did not use violence against them, one who claimed to be of the protestors emerged and killed a member of the security forces and two protestors.”
Ahmed Jibril, the head of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), immediately contradicted Shaaban, denying to al-Watan that Palestinians were among the rioters. He claimed instead that the rioters were not Palestinians but Syrian “residents of a neighborhood adjacent to Ramel [Palestinian] camp, lying to the south of it, and which is separated from the camp only by a stream of water.” Jibril also claimed he had clarified this point to Syria’s Information Minister, Mohsen Bilal.
The PFLP-GC is an offshoot of the larger Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist political party and a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The PFLP was founded by George Habash, a Palestinian Christian who became a refugee in Lebanon as a boy after Zionist militias expelled his family from its home during the 1947-48 Nakba. Jibril, a former officer in the Syrian Army, criticized the PFLP for allegedly placing too much focus on theoretical discussion, and too little emphasis on actual armed struggle against Israel. Jibril split from the PFLP in 1968 and formed the PFLP-GC, which maintained bases in both Syria and Lebanon and remained close with the Syrian government, enjoying the strong support of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez.
Due to the PFLP-GC’s close ties with the Syrian government, the group became a target of a propaganda campaign meant to delegitimize its role in representing Palestinians in Yarmouk soon after the crisis in Syria began in the spring of 2011.
The Nakba and Naksa Protests
This propaganda campaign began after the controversial events of May and June 2011. On May 15, large demonstrations were organized by Palestinian youth activists in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, as well as in Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, to commemorate the Nakba and to agitate for the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what is now Israel.
In Syria, thousands of Palestinians marched to the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Waving flags and braving Israeli-laid mines, Palestinian protestors crossed the border fence and were welcomed by local Druze residents of the town of Majdal al-Shams. Israeli troops responded by opening fire on the protestors, however, killing 4. Israeli soldiers killed another 10 Palestinian protestors on the Lebanese-Israeli border as well.
The Nakba Day protests were followed three weeks later, on June 5, by protests commemorating the “Naksa” or “setback.” On that day in 1967, Israel defeated the Arab states in the Six Day War, and thereby conquered the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights, and Sinai. The Israeli victory set the stage for 50 years of occupation of Palestinian land. During the Naksa protest on the Syrian border in June 2011, protestors once again tried to cross the border fence. This time, Israeli forces responded even more harshly, killing some 22.
Israeli planners observed preparation for the protests in advance (which took place openly through social media), and sought early to establish a narrative claiming that the Syrian government was behind the protests, and that Assad supposedly wished to use them to deflect attention from the anti-government protests he himself faced. On March 23, roughly three weeks before the Nakba Day event, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz had reported that the Israeli army “predicts that Assad may try to ‘create a provocation along the norther border to divert attention from the growing protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.’”
After the Nakba Day protest on May 15, the New York Times quickly repeated this claim, stating that “there were also signs of official support in Lebanon and Syria, where analysts said leaders were using the Palestinian cause to deflect attention from internal problems,” while quoting an Israeli government spokesperson as claiming “This way Syria makes its contribution to the Nakba Day cause, and Assad wins points by deflecting the media’s attention from what is happening inside Syria.”
These claims were repeated three weeks later in the New York Times, after Israeli forces shot more Palestinians during the Naksa Day protests on June 5. The NYT reported that “Both Israel and the United States have suggested that the Syrian government orchestrated the confrontation at the border on Sunday, or at least did nothing to prevent it, to divert attention from its bloody crackdown on the antigovernment uprising in Syria,” while also quoting a shopkeeper from Yarmouk, Mohamed Rashdan, as saying “he believed the demonstration at the border was organized to serve the interests of President Assad, and that the protest had nothing to do with seeking justice for Palestinian refugees and displaced Syrian residents of the Golan Heights. He said that many camp residents blamed the Popular Front [PFLP-GC] for organizing the border protest ‘to help Syria run away from its local crisis.’” The NYT also mentioned a Reuters report that claimed “mourners accused the organization [PFLP-GC] of sacrificing Palestinian lives by encouraging protesters to demonstrate at the Golan Heights.”
Activists from the Syrian opposition spread similar rumors, namely that the Syrian government and PFLP-GC wished to somehow use these non-violent Palestinian protests to threaten Israel’s security. This claim was based on threats made by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s most powerful businessman, and advisor and cousin of President Assad. Makhlouf told Anthony Shadid of the New York Times that “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel. . . No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.”
Tareq Ibrahim, a pro-opposition Palestinian in Yarmouk who helped organize the Nakba and Nakba demonstrations, noted that “Popular coordination committees of the Syrian revolution informed us of what was being prepared and on the intentions of the regime and the PFLP-GC to use this movement to pressure Israel and present it as a threat to its security. But we could not stop mobilization.”
Ibrahim, who became convinced of these claims about Syrian government intentions, nevertheless acknowledged that members of the Syrian opposition with whom he organized were not supporters of the Palestinian cause, explaining that, “We were surprised by the rejection of certain sections of the Syrian opposition, especially from the liberals and the Muslim brotherhoods (which are now present within the National Coalition and the Syrian National Coalition), to link the Syrian revolution and the Palestinian cause. They justify their refusal by the need to win the world opinion and not to mix the causes for not disturbing the USA.”
It is hard to imagine anyone actually assuming that several thousand unarmed Palestinian refugees posed any kind of actual threat to Israeli security, so it is unlikely that Makhlouf had the looming Nakba protest in mind when making his threat.
Further, it is impossible that the Syrian government, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, could have organized the protests. Journalist Max Blumenthal interviewed Rami Zurayk, a professor of Agronomy at the American University of Beirut (AUB) who participated in the planning meetings for the Nakba Day protest in Lebanon. Blumenthal writes that according to Zurayk, “150 representatives of Palestinian factions and refugee groups gathered” at the planning meeting for the Nakba protest to “wrangle over the nascent movement’s language and long-term strategy. For the first time in recent memory, leaders of groups from across the Palestinian political spectrum agreed to unite under a single symbol, the Palestinian flag, and to place their factional rivalries aside. Almost as significant, according to Zurayk, was the involvement of Lebanese youth and civil society groups in the planning, as well as wealthy Palestinian students who risked bright futures overseas. ‘Every Arab wants to be involved in the Arab Spring,’ he said.”
Similarly, Yassir Ali, one of the protest organizers of the Nakba Day march on the Lebanese border, articulated the enthusiasm of Palestinians wishing to take part, despite the obvious dangers. Ali told the Guardian that “Palestinian people are used to paying with their lives. It’s a big price, but one we are prepared to pay to prove our right to return to the motherland.”
The broad participation of Palestinians in the planning of the Nakba Day protest in Lebanon resulted in some 40,000 Palestinians taking part there. Additionally, the Syrian and Lebanese borders were not the only places where Palestinians organized Nakba Day protests. Palestinians also organized protests in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, and Egypt, some of which also resulted in clashes with Israeli security forces, including at the Erez and Qalandia checkpoints.
The emergence of protests in multiple locations was possible due to collective coordination via Facebook by Palestinian youths in all these countries. The New York Times itself noted that “Palestinian activists have called on the Internet for a mass uprising against Israel to begin on May 15. A Facebook page calling for a third Palestinian intifada, or uprising, had gathered more than 300,000 members before it was taken down in March after complaints that comments posted to it advocated violence.”
Further evidence of the popular nature of the May 15 Nakba protest in Syria in 2011 comes from a Palestinian journalist and pro-opposition activist from Yarmouk, Nidal Bitari. Like Ibrahim, Bitari was against the idea of the protest and actively lobbied others against attending. Bitari describes how “On the morning of 15 May 2011, scores of buses were waiting at the camp’s main entrance to take people to the border about fifty kilometers away. I myself went with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) . . . Even though I had been strongly against the event, I was so carried away by the emotion that I took off my SARC uniform and followed the crowd from the Heights down the precipice-like hill to the no-man’s land and border zone below. Crowds of people, many in traditional dress, mostly young but some in their eighties, crying with joy at times, just wanted to get near this fence that suddenly made return seem so possible. The Israelis were firing tear gas and live bullets at protestors who scaled the fence, some even managing to get into the occupied Golan [emphasis mine].”
It is certainly possible the Syrian government wished to gain positive media attention by supporting the protests and allowing the protests to go forward (removing the checkpoints typically blocking access to the border), but it did not manipulate Palestinians into participating, nor encourage protestors to climb the fence to be shot by Israeli forces. For example, Middle East Online interviewed witnesses of the May 15 Nakba protests and reported that “On the Syrian side, police were deployed to try to stop the first wave of protesters, but they were quickly overwhelmed when a second group arrived [Emphasis mine].” Hassan Hijazi, a Palestinian protestor who managed to climb the border fence and cross into Israel, even reaching Jaffa with the help of an Israeli peace activist, clarified that the Syrian government was not behind the protests, despite Israeli government claims. He told Israeli TV that “We organized the protests on Facebook and the regime at first didn’t allow them to take place although we sent representatives. . . Hezbollah was the one that pressured the Syrian regime to allow us to hold the protests.”
In fact, the Syrian government likely had little choice but to honor Palestinian requests to protest. Had the Syrian government not allowed the protests to go forward in Syria, while protests proceeded apace in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, this would have allowed critics to suggest that the Syrian government did not support the Palestinian cause, and was attempting to suppress Palestinian efforts to struggle for the right of return.
The simple numbers present in each of the two protests on the Syrian border also suggest the Syrian government was not trying to mobilize Palestinians. The Nakba Day protest on May 15 was attended by several thousand protestors. One resident of Majdal al-Shams told the Guardian that “There are thousands and thousands of people on the Syrian border who are trying to cross. There has been a lot of fighting, and of course people are scared.” For the Naksa protest three weeks later, Bitari, who was present once again, notes that “I doubt that there were ever more than one thousand people that day.” If the Syrian government was deliberately trying to organize the protests and mobilize Palestinians to attend, it is odd the second protest would be so much smaller. Apparently this was because the Syrian government attempted to call off the second protest. Bitari notes that on “the eve of the [Naksa] protests, after the Lebanese government cancelled events on its own border, Damascus made known through the PFLP-GC that the protests had been called off.” Leftist Lebanese academic Assad Abu al-Khalil writes that “But an eyewitness at the protests told me that the Palestinian organizations were not present in the protests: that the Syrian regime did not want the Palestinian organizations to mobilize for fear of big massive protests, although Syrian TV was present. “
Who is to Blame?
Despite the obviously popular nature of the protests, the Israeli government continued to promote the conspiracy theory that the protests were being “orchestrated” by Assad, not only to demonize the Syrian government and its PFLP-GC allies, but also to deflect blame for the killings away from the Israeli Army itself.
Blogging for the Telegraph, a then obscure journalist working for a pro-Israel think tank, Michael Weiss, released a document claiming to show a meeting between the governor of Quneitra province, where the protests on the border of Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan heights took place, and Syrian intelligence officials, including Syrian security chief Assef Shawkat. Weiss’ blog post, and his claim that the document provided proof that the Syrian government orchestrated the Nakba Day protests, was then widely promoted in the Israeli press. Weiss originally claimed the document had been provided to him by the governor of Quneitra himself, but then later back pedaled to suggest he had received it from “very well-informed Syrian in a position to authenticate state documents.” This Syrian turned out to be Radwan Ziadeh, who has long had close ties to the US defense establishment and was an early proponent of US military intervention in Syria, in the form a no-fly zone.
While the credibility of the document was already suspect, having allegedly been supplied by someone with close ties to the US government (which was committed to toppling the Syrian government), the credibility of the document was further called into question by journalist Richard Silverstein, who was told by a former senior Israeli government official that Israeli intelligence had provided the document to Weiss. The Telegraph later quietly removed Weiss’ post from the web, replacing it with a generic link to the paper’s opinion page.
Similar Israeli efforts to deflect blame for the brutal killing of Palestinian protestors emerged years later. In another series of protests, known as the “Great Return March” in March 2018, Palestinian refugees in Gaza also attempted to cross the security fence into Israel. Israeli forces once again responded with deadly force against the unarmed refugees during weeks of protests, killing 100 (as of mid-May 2018). Israeli snipers targeted unarmed protestors from safe distances, several instances of which were caught on video, including the shooting of Palestinian footballer, Mohammad Khalil, in the knee, and Abdel Fattah Abd al-Nabi, in the back. Israeli snipers also shot and killed female Palestinian medic Razan al-Najjar. Israeli Brigadier General (Reserve) Zvika Fogel acknowledged that Israeli snipers were deliberately targeting protestors (including even children) with live bullets.
This time, Israel claimed that Hamas was behind the protests, in an effort to deflect attention from the actions of the Israeli army, just as it attempted to blame the Syrian government for the same in 2011.
The Funeral Turned Demonstration
Another controversial event occurred on the day after the June 2011 Naksa protest. On June 6, a funeral was held in Yarmouk for several of the Palestinians killed by Israeli snipers. Pro-opposition activists then turned the funeral into a demonstration in which some Yarmouk residents expressed anger at the Syrian government and Palestinian factions, including the PLFP-GC, for failing to support the Naksa protest.
Nidal Bitari explains that “There was a huge anger in Yarmuk about the deaths and the hundreds of wounded—people felt they had been used by the regime, which they held responsible for facilitating access to the border and then not providing any backup. But the rage was almost as great against the [Palestinian] factions for not doing anything to stop the bloodshed. To defuse the situation, we decided that the funeral for the Yarmouk martyrs would have to double as a demonstration.”
Note that while many were indeed angry at the PFLP-GC and Syrian government, this was because the PFLP-GC and Syrian government had failed to support the Naksa protest (did not provide back up, did nothing to stop the bloodshed), and not because they had organized the protests, as Israeli and US officials claimed. The Palestinian Maan News Agency reports for example that the funeral mourners were “Angered over the failure of camp leaders to organize demonstrations marking the Naksa, the anniversary of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, and Golan Heights [emphasis mine],” while Assad Abu-Khalil reports that “Eyewitnesses in Syria complained to me about the role of the Syrian army and security forces. How they stood idly by while the Israeli terrorist soldiers were committing their crimes.”
While this anger was understandable, it is nevertheless unclear exactly what type of support Bitari and others had expected from the PLFP-GC and Syrian government during the Nakba and Naksa protests. Had the Syrian army attempted to intervene, it would have negated the peaceful nature of the border demonstration, given the Israeli army an additional pretext to shoot protestors, and possibly triggered a larger military confrontation.
Confrontation at the Khalsa
The LA Times summarized events of the funeral, quoting the official Palestinian news agency WAFA as claiming that the PFLP-GC “used live ammunition to shoot at young protesters in Yarmouk camp as they were participating in a funeral procession for Palestinians who had fallen during protests in the Golan Heights on Sunday.” The LA Times reported that between 14 and 20 protestors were killed by the PFLP-GC, while other press outlets, including the National, cited some 14 deaths.
Such a summary of events gives the impression that the PFLP-GC killed many protestors for simply participating in a funeral procession. This view would be promoted by Syrian opposition activists to further claim that both the Syrian government and PFLP-GC are enemies of the Palestinians in Yarmouk and of the Palestinian cause generally.
This was a misleading view of what occurred at the funeral, however. Reuters reports that “mourners threw stones at Palestinian figures who had praised Assad. Hundreds of refugees armed with sticks and stones then headed to the PFLP-GC headquarters and tried to storm it. Several protesters managed to get in and killed one PFLP-GC gunman,” after which the headquarters was burned down. The New York Times quoted Mohamed Rashada, the same shopkeeper quoted above, as explaining that “the crowd began to throw stones at the organization’s headquarters. Then, he said, ‘the building guards began to shoot at us.’”
Nidal Bitari provides a similar account, but suggests the PFLP-GC guards opened fire on protesters first. He explains that, “There were at least thirty thousand at the funeral/demonstration, by far the largest ever held in the camp. Yarmuk Street, about two km long and very wide, was packed from one end to the other. Soon the demonstration got out of hand. Protestors started rampaging and some turned onto the small street where al-Khalsa, the PFLP-GC headquarters, was located. A huge crowd, increasingly agitated, surrounded the building. In my opinion, it was less because of Jibril’s close ties to the government than because al-Khalsa was the closest at hand—even if it had been a Fatah office, I think it would have been attacked. One of the PFLP-GC guards fired at the unarmed crowd and killed a fourteen-year-old boy named Rami Siyam, and other GC militants began shooting from the roof. People went mad. They began setting fire to cars, and thousands stormed the building. Ahmad Jibril and his top deputies had to be rescued by the Syrian army, and PFLP-GC reinforcements were called in from Lebanon. At some point in the mêlée, gas bottles inside the building exploded, starting a fire, and by nightfall the four-story building was badly charred.”
Bitari notes that three people were killed that day, including the young boy Rami Siyam and also a PFLP-GC guard who died in the fire, explaining that the “press articles the next day reported that twelve or thirteen people had been killed during the demonstration, but this was totally false and some press agencies later corrected the story.” Ibrahim al-Ali of the Action Group for Palestinians (AGPS), a UK-based pro-opposition group, lists a lower number of dead as well, claiming four were killed, including two protestors who were shot (the young boy Rami Siyam and also Jamal Ghutan) and two PFLP-GC members (Khalid Rayyan, the guard who was burned to death in the fire, and Naser Mubarak, the PFLP-GC head for the Syria region, who was allegedly stabbed to death by protestors). Journalist Tarek Homoud, who is also a coordinator for AGPS, reports the killing of the PFLP-GC members as well, explaining that Mubarak (whom he refers to as Abu Al Abed Nasir) “was killed by knives as a group arrested him while he tried to calm them down. He was stabbed 50 times” and that “One of the building’s guards was killed by burning alive in his corner.”
Bitari, Homoud, and Ibrahim were all writing later, with a chance to determine how many died, as opposed to press reports from immediately after the incident, which apparently passed along the initial rumors of the number killed (between 14 to 20). Further, as opposition supporters, none of the above mentioned writers would have had an incentive to under count the dead among the protestors.
Other reports suggest that armed groups may have been involved in attacking the Khalsa, rather than just angry protestors armed with sticks and rocks. Journalist Sharmine Narwani reports that according to a Hamas official with whom she spoke, “Some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters went to Ahmad Jibril’s offices – the Khalesa compound – during the funeral and started shooting,” while al-Akhbar suggested that Salafi elements exploited the funeral in an effort to incite Palestinians against the PFLP-GC, and that this is what led protestors to try to breach the confines of the Khalsa. Asad Abu Al-Khalil also notes that according to an eyewitness he spoke with, “some were not happy about the role of the PFLP-GC, and some indicated that some fighters at the office in Yarmuk fired at the protesters. Apparently, that resulted in an armed clash and that gun fire can still be heard at this hour.” If armed clashes took place, this suggests there may have been armed men among the protestors and that weapons were not limited to the PFLP-GC guards.
While accounts conflict in regards to who attacked first, it is clear that the PFLP-GC guards were attempting to protect the PFLP-GC headquarters and party officials inside from an angry crowd. This does not justify firing live ammunition into the crowd, nor the killing of the young boy Rami Siyam, of course, but does suggest that the PFLP-GC did not simply open fire on civilians walking in a funeral procession in an effort to crack down on peaceful protests as suggested by the LA Times. Instead, it was a response to a chaotic situation, in which at least two PFLP-GC members also died, and in gruesome fashion. It was also only some of the protestors who were angry enough to attack the Khalsa, not the entire crowd of 30,000. As Bitari noted above, the protestors amassed on Yarmouk Street, which is “about two km long and very wide” and that only “some turned onto the small street where al-Khalsa, the PFLP-GC headquarters, was located” to attack the building.
Nevertheless, this incident would be used by opposition activists to suggest that the PFLP-GC had no legitimacy among Palestinians in the camp and was deliberately killing fellow Palestinians, as if for fun, on behalf of the Syrian government. For example, the pro-opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC) continued to claim years later that the PFLP-GC killed “more than 20 people” at the funeral “on what was known later as ‘Al Khalsa Massacre.’” This narrative would prove helpful in denigrating later efforts by the PFLP-GC to protect the camp from the December 2012 Nusra and FSA rebel invasion.
Palestinians Strive to Remain Neutral
Palestinians in Syria generally attempted to remain neutral when anti-government protests and armed insurrection against the Syrian state began in tandem in the spring of 2011. The PLO, with the approval of all its factions, followed a policy of “non-involvement of Palestinians and Palestinian camps” to preserve “the secure environment enjoyed by its residents of Palestinians and Syrians, which is free of weapons and armed militants, and the preservation of the Palestinian struggle to focus on Palestine and Jerusalem and in confrontation with our chief enemy, the Israeli occupation.”
Because of this stance, Yarmouk camp was initially spared the violence that soon engulfed many areas of Syria. As a result, the camp became a place of refuge for Syrians fleeing violence elsewhere, in particular from nearby neighborhoods in Damascus and its countryside.
The broad Palestinian consensus to remain neutral resulted in part due to the tragic consequences of past Palestinian involvement in inter-Arab disputes, in particular during the events known as Black September in Jordan, during the civil war in Lebanon, and during the first Gulf War in Iraq. In 1970 in Jordan, the PLO clashed with the Jordanian army after King Hussein felt threatened by the growing strength of PLO guerrillas in the country. Large numbers of Palestinians were killed, and the PLO itself was expelled to Lebanon. After PLO guerillas began taking part in the Lebanese Civil War on the side Muslim and Leftist forces, some 3,000 Palestinians were massacred by Phalangist Christian militias in Tel al-Zataar Palestinian camp in Lebanon in July 1976. The Phalangists enjoyed the support of Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who intervened in the civil war on the side of right-wing Christian forces. Palestinians experienced further tragedy when the Kuwaiti government expelled virtually its entire 400,000 strong Palestinian community in retaliation for PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s perceived support of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.
More immediately, memory of events in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon caused Palestinians to wish to remain neutral in the Syria conflict. Nahr al-Bared was almost totally destroyed in 2007 after jihadist militants infiltrated the camp, triggering fighting with the Lebanese army. Tens of thousands of camp residents were displaced and left homeless. Unsurprisingly, Palestinians in Yarmouk wished to avoid a similar fate.
The First Demonstrations in Yarmouk
According to Nidal Bitari, the first demonstration in Yarmouk that was directly related to the uprising and directed against the Syrian government occurred on August 17, 2011 and was attended by just 300 or so people. This demonstration was followed by a handful of others in subsequent months, which were even smaller in number and “were mostly staged by displaced Syrians who flooded into the camp in September to flee the fighting in their neighborhoods,” rather than by Palestinians from Yarmouk itself. Bitari describes how a Palestinian millionaire with close ties to the government, Yasir Qashlak, recruited supporters to demonstrate in favor of the government and to “stand outside the mosques after Friday prayers to prevent anti-regime protests.”
A similar phenomenon occurred in the Aydeen Palestinian camp in Homs, in which opposition activists and rebels from neighborhoods adjacent to the camp tried to involve Palestinians in the conflict. Pro-opposition AGPS writes that “The events of Syria eventually reached the [Aydeen] camp because of the displaced Syrian population that were now inside it” and that “Some of the opposition groups proceeded to try and involve the camp in a confrontation with the regime, yet the residents resisted in order to keep the camp neutral.” AGPS describes further how the Palestinian factions in the camp, including Hamas, formed a committee “in order to enter dialogue with the warring parties and to ensure the camp did not become involved in the conflict with the Syrian regime. Public meetings were held to explain the consequential danger if the camp became involved in hostilities. The committee visited families to prevent their children attending the demonstrations. The Committee made deliberate attempts to congregate in front of the mosques after each prayer, in order to prevent demonstrations. A delegation was formed to visit the elders and notables of Shmas area to demand they stop their children coming to the camp to demonstrate. The same committee became the mediator with the official bodies to ensure repairs and recovery from power, water, sanitation and hygiene breakdowns, and to follow up on the situation of detainees with political and security officials. This was a welcome mobilisation, proving popular among residents.” Palestinian efforts to keep rebels out of Aydeen camp ultimately failed, however, foreshadowing what would later occur in Yarmouk. AGPS describes further how “The regime accused the camp’s residents of embracing terrorists and providing them with accommodation,” while “Syrian security forces, slowly started implementing a crackdown on the inhabitants of the camp after armed groups started to emerge.”
Controversy regarding Palestinians in Ramel camp in Latakia continued in August 2011, and events there would also foreshadow later events in Yarmouk. Opposition activists claimed that the Syrian navy had bombarded Ramel camp from warships off the coast, and that Syrian security had turned a football stadium in to a mass detention center. These claims were given credibility by a statement issued by United Nations Refugee Works Administration (UNRWA) spokesman Chris Gunness, which stated that the organization was “gravely concerned about reports of heavy gunfire from Syrian security forces into the Palestinian refugee camp situated in the El Ramel district and surrounding areas of Latakia, including heavy fire from gunboats.”
These claims appear to be false, however. Tarek Homoud of AGPS visited Ramel camp at the time and observed that while there was a Syrian army operation against rebels there, the Syrian navy was not bombarding Ramel camp, and that the football stadium was not a mass detention center, but was simply being used to house internally displaced persons fleeing the fighting between the army and rebels. Homoud explains that the “Syrian army sent warning to the residents of the camp to leave. Thousands of its inhabitants left immediately in different directions. The sport city in Latakia city opened its doors to the IDPs [internally displaced persons]. The bombing that took place targeted the Syrian neighborhood and not as what was described officially which was that the Syrian’ armed boats shelled Palestinian camp. Only small parts of the camps were shelled when fighters entered it. This resulted in three persons being killed in the camp. The destruction was limited and some houses were exposed to live bullets.” Journalist Sharmine Narwani also confirmed that Syrian warships had not bombarded the city, explaining that “Three separate sources – two opposition figures from the city and an independent western journalist – later insisted there were no signs of shelling.”
War Comes to Yarmouk
Starting in the spring of 2012, Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels sought to establish a presence in Yarmouk (as they had in Aydeen and Ramel), in an effort to use it as a base for attacks on the capital, dubbing Yarmouk the “gateway to Damascus.”
Even pro-opposition Palestinians rejected rebel wishes to use Yarmouk as a base for military operations, however. For example, one pro-opposition activist from Yarmouk claimed that “The residents of the camp were against the FSA stationing in it. I personally rejected the FSA entering the camp. The camp had a humanitarian role; bringing the war to the middle of it was a mistake. . . . Only the Islamists in the camp were in favor of the FSA stationing in Yarmouk.” Further, while members of the Palestinian faction Fatah “silently despised” the Syrian government (to a large extent for its role in the Tel Zataar massacre during the Lebanese civil war), a Fatah representative nonetheless told Lebanon’s Daily Star that he and others in the party feared “the consequences if Islamists takeover” Yarmouk.
Palestinians were also keen to heed the ominous warnings from the Syrian security officials not to allow rebels to infiltrate the camp. Bitari writes that “In February 2012, for example, at a time when Yarmuk and the Damascus region were still relatively calm, and when the Baba Amro neighborhood of Homs was being razed [sic] by tanks and mortar fire, its entire population having fled, a senior Syrian Security officer pointedly warned one of our factional leaders: ‘Keep Yarmuk quiet, because we don’t like Yarmuk more than we liked Baba Amro.’ It didn’t matter to the government that the majority of Yarmuk’s residents opposed the FSA’s entry, any more than it mattered to the FSA.”
Who are the Truly Moderate Rebels?
It is interesting to note here that Fatah officials and the opposition activist mentioned above viewed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and their supporters as “Islamists.” While the FSA is typically considered as moderate, secular, and fighting for democracy in the Western press, in fact most FSA brigades are Islamists with a specifically Salafist and anti-Alawite sectarian orientation.
For example, Saudi-owned Al-Hayat described how the FSA was first established in July 2011 as a group of army deserters, but then numerous Salafist rebel factions, including Liwa Islam, Saqour al-Sham, Ahfad Rasoul, and Farouq, soon began fighting under the FSA banner. Prominent Israeli-Arab political figure and opposition supporter Azmi Bishara wrote in 2013 that “Islamic jihadist groups were part of the Free Army” and that their “presence aroused significant fear among Syrians,” due to the “spread of black Islamic flags making reference to al-Qaeda, and the appearance of religious sharia courts (see Syria – A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Kindle edition, chapter 9).”
The Daily Star observed that “More than one FSA battalion has named itself after Ibn Taymiyya, the 14th century Sunni Muslim scholar who urged the extermination of Alawites as heretics. This kind of act cancels out any favorable rhetoric or actions by other elements of the FSA, some of whose spokesmen often promise to establish a Syria that is pluralist and civil, and not religious in character.”
The sectarian nature of many FSA battalions is not surprising given that many were armed and funded by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which has a long history of advocating violence against Syria’s Alawites based on Ibn Taymiyya’s rulings. Brotherhood ideologue Said Hawwa, for example, strongly advocated killing Alawites on the basis of their religious identity during the 1979-82 Islamist insurrection against the Syrian state.
This explains the popularity of Adnan Arour, the Saudi-based Syrian Salafi preacher, among many opposition activists and rebels. Arour threatened in June 2011 that “We shall mince [Alawites fighting with the government] in meat grinders and feed their flesh to the dogs.” Then al-Jazeera journalist Nir Rosen noted in March 2012 that Arour’s “name is often chanted in demonstrations” which Arour would address via satellite feed from Saudi Arabia. The Daily Star noted in October 2012 that Arour was embraced by the supposedly moderate FSA rebels, explaining that, “The latest misstep by the opposition was a video issued last week, in which FSA figures announced the unification of Revolutionary Military Councils in a number of major towns. While the rhetoric of the event was primarily nationalistic, the guest of honor at the long dais, flanked by a dozen officers, was Sheikh Adnan Arur, the regime’s favorite target of spite – a hard-line Sunni cleric who has been vicious in his rants against the Alawites.”
One FSA faction that invaded Yarmouk alongside Nusra in December 2012 was the Eagles of the Golan (Nusur al-Jolan). Israeli military officials described the group to the Telegraph as “a radical Salafist faction,” with the Telegraph adding that the group, “made up largely of foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda militants from Iraq, boasts that once it has ousted the Assad regime, it will focus its attention on Israel.” Ironically, the Israeli military later admitted to arming and funding some 12 FSA rebel groups in the southern Syrian areas of the Golan and Deraa starting as early as 2013, making it likely that the Israeli military itself had funded the Eagles of the Golan at least shortly after the group invaded Yarmouk.
Summarizing the rebel scene in September 2014, Nir Rosen observed that “There are no actual moderate insurgents either ideologically or in terms of their actions. Most of the significant fighting forces are Islamists with sectarian agendas, all have committed war crimes, virtually no minorities remain in opposition held areas and dissent is dangerous.”
Rebel Infiltration of Yarmouk
There were some Palestinians, however, who differed from the majority and wished to see a rebel presence in Yarmouk. Bitari writes that in the spring of 2012, a “growing minority of young Palestinian activists had abandoned any pretense of neutrality and were exploring various forms of contact with the opposition. These young people established their own ‘coordinating committee’ specifically to communicate with their Syrian counterparts. Even though they were acting completely on their own, many of us found these contacts very dangerous for the camp’s safety and neutrality. We talked to them many times in an effort to get them to end these contacts. Eventually they did, in late spring 2012, when the FSA began floating the idea of planting car bombs inside the camp to get residents to invite them in for protection. At that point, even these strongly anti-regime young people could not continue the ‘coordination.’ Everyone knew that once the FSA was nearby, tanks and mortars would soon follow.”
The rebels did detonate a car bomb in Yarmouk in March 2012, while also carrying out bombings in Damascus more broadly. The Electronic Intifada notes that “In March, a car exploded in one of the quietest thoroughfares of the camp on the same day that two bombs ripped through downtown Damascus, killing those inside the car.” Al-Jazeera reported that according to Syrian state media, SANA, the bomb in Yarmouk targeted a military bus. The other two bombings that day targeted a customs office and an air force intelligence building. The Syrian Health Minister claimed that 27 people were killed, and 97 wounded, while the BBC reported a higher number of dead, up to 55. The high death toll resulted from the fact rebels detonated the bombs at 7:30 am, during the early Saturday morning rush hour. Opposition activists immediately claimed that the bombings were false flag operations carried out by the government, only to then have Nusra claim responsibility in a video statement.
Rebels Declare War on the Palestine Liberation Army
In addition to seeking ways to infiltrate the camp, rebels also began a campaign of assassinations against Palestinian military leaders and cadre of the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) in an effort intimidate Palestinians into withdrawing support for the Syrian government. The Electronic Intifada notes that “In yet more ominous developments, there have been reports of the mysterious killings of Palestine Liberation Army cadres of various ranks — a brigade of the Syrian army in which all Palestinian men in Syria over the age of eighteen are required to carry out military service.”
The Palestine Liberation Army was founded in 1964 as the military wing of the PLO. Brigades of the PLA were created in Gaza, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria. All branches of the PLA were later incorporated into the Palestine National Authority (PNA) except for the Syrian branch, which became an all-Palestinian branch of the Syrian army.
Journalist Sharmine Narwani visited Yarmouk and spoke with two PLA commanders, General Hassan Salem and General Nabil Yacoub, who report to head PLA commander Major-General Tariq al-Khadra. Narwani provides an overview of PLA commanders targeted by rebels in the first half of 2012:
“On January 5, Major Basil Amin Ali was assassinated by an unknown assailant in Aarbin – east of Jobar in the Damascus suburbs – while he was fixing his car by the side of the road. Colonel Abdul Nasser Mawqari was shot dead inside Yarmouk the following month, on February 29. A week later, on March 6, Colonel Rida Mohyelddin al-Khadra – a relation of PLA commander, General Khadra – was assassinated in Qatna, 20km south of Damascus, while driving home in his car. On June 5, PLA Brigadier-General Dr. Anwar Mesbah al-Saqaa was killed in Aadawi Street in Damascus by explosives planted in his car, under his seat. He had left his home in Barzeh and was dropping his daughter off at university. Both she and the driver of the car were injured. A few weeks later, on June 26, Colonel Ahmad Saleh Hassan was assassinated in Sahnaya, also in the Damascus suburbs. General Abdul Razzak Suheim, his son, and a soldier guarding them were killed on July 26 in rebel-occupied Yalda.”
The New York Times reported the assassination of PLA commanders Ahmed Salih Hassan and Anwar al-Saqaa as well, noting that “The government says that opposition gunmen killed them because of their role in supporting the Syrian military.” The NYT also reported opposition activist claims that these PLA commanders were being assassinated not by rebels, but by the Syrian government “because they refused to participate in Syrian crackdowns.” The NYT does not mention whether opposition activists provided any evidence to support their claims.
These claims appear hollow, however, as rebels publicly declared their desire to target pro-government Palestinian leaders just 17 days after the NYT report. The Daily Star reported on July 18, 2012 that “In a statement issued on Monday night, the FSA’s joint command warned that pro-regime Palestinian leaders on Syrian soil were ‘legitimate targets.’” Further, Palestine’s Ambassador to Syria, Anwar Abdul-Hadi attributed the killings to the rebels, explaining that “Rebels killed some PLA officers to force Palestinians to help the Syrian revolution – to intimidate them. And they blamed the Syrian army. The target of this crisis is the Palestinian case. They think when they occupy Palestinian camps in Syria and divide them, they will forget Palestine.” An unnamed Palestinian official speaking to Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat in March 2012 similarly stated that these assassinations were an effort on the part of the rebels to drag the Palestinian camps into an internal Syrian issue in which “we have no interest. . . we requested of them that they leave us out of this game.”
Rebel Assassination Campaign
Rebel efforts to assassinate pro-government Palestinian leaders would also fit with broader US plans to help rebels carry out assassinations in an effort to de-stabilize the Syrian government as a whole. Leaked emails from the private intelligence firm Stratfor detail such a strategy. One Stratfor analyst learned in a meeting with Pentagon planners in December 2011 that Western governments had Special Operations (SOF) teams on the ground in Syria already at that time in an effort to train opposition forces, in the hope of fostering “guerrilla attacks, assassination campaigns” and to “try to break the back of the Alawite forces, [to] elicit collapse from within.” As mentioned above, the first assassinations of PLA commanders occurred shortly after this time, in January 2012.
Evidence of such an assassination campaign comes from Amnesty International, which documented efforts by the Nusra Front and FSA affiliated brigades to kill government informants (real or imagined) in Damascus and its suburbs, stretching back even further, to June 2011. Amnesty cited a relief worker involved in transporting the dead and wounded in the Damascus suburb of Douma as describing how “In July and August 2011, one man was ‘executed’ around every two weeks… We would go and pick them up. The most common reason given for the killings was that the victim served as an informer for the security. The number of those ‘executed’ gradually increased to one every week, then two or three every week. By July 2012, three to four people were being ‘executed’ every day, and we stopped knowing the exact accusation. People just referred to them as informers.”
Amnesty notes as well that “Ali al-Zamel, a Palestinian refugee accused by armed opposition groups of acting as an informer for the Syrian authorities, was abducted in July 2012 and killed around five days later” and that his body was dumped in the “hole of death,“ a 15m long, 6m wide and 5-7m deep hole dug for the foundations of a building in an area south of al-Tadhamon, near Yarmouk, which “was apparently used by armed opposition groups to dump bodies of people they had summarily killed. Residents frequently checked the hole . . . to see if further bodies had been dumped there.”
In November 2012, the well-known Syrian-Palestinian actor Mohammed Rafeh was assassinated by rebels in the Damascus suburb of Barzeh. According to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Rafeh “was killed for apparently giving information to the regime about rebels and antigovernment protesters.” The Boston Globe notes however that “Mr. Rafeh’s death comes after a campaign began on social media calling for actors who support Syrian President Bashar Assad to be punished,” suggesting that Rafeh was assassinated simply for his outspoken public criticism of the rebels.
False Flag Murders
In many cases, opposition activists promoted conspiracy theories claiming that the government was responsible for assassinations actually carried out by rebels. Opposition supporter Azmi Bishara noted that in Homs, opposition activists accused the Syrian government of assassinating a number of prominent civilians during the summer of 2011, when in fact it was known the rebels were responsible. He provides as examples the head of the chest surgery division of the National Hospital, Hassan Eid (Alawite, killed on August 34, 2011), the deputy director of the faculty of chemistry in Homs University, Na’il al-Dakhil (Christian, killed 26 September, 2011), the vice dean of the faculty of architecture in the Ba’ath University in Homs, Muhammad Ali Aqil (Shiite, also killed 26 September, 2011), and the nuclear engineer Aws Abd al-Kareem Khalil (Alawite, killed September 28, 2011). Bishara notes that while the above mentioned men had participated in a national dialogue organized by the Syrian government [dialogue with the government was anathema to the rebels], the men had nevertheless rejected Syrian government efforts to end the crisis militarily (via a “security solution”) and had demanded real democratic reforms. Despite this, rebels assassinated them anyway. Bishara also notes that opposition activists justified passing unconfirmed, exaggerated, and fabricated information of this kind (falsely blaming the Syrian government) to the media because of their belief that it “served the revolution” (see Syria – A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Kindle edition, Chapter 11).
When Hamas operative Kamal Husni Ghanaja was found dead in his home outside Damascus in late June 2012, the Syrian opposition immediately claimed that a “pro-government Shabiha militia tortured Ghanaja to death and ‘set his house on fire to destroy the evidence of their heinous crime’ and that a ‘pro-regime militia called Shabiha has been entering Palestinian refugee camps under the guise of ‘safeguarding the camps’ but they ‘commit murder and engage in kidnapping.’” It is unclear why the Syrian government would wish to kill Ghanaja, who must have had close ties to Syrian intelligence, given that he “was involved in smuggling arms from Iran to Gaza,” according to Israeli intelligence. Opposition claims that the Syrian government killed Ghanaja were proven false when a Hamas spokesperson indicated one week later that, “An internal investigation indicated brother Ghanaja died because of the smoke coming from a generator he used in his house … he was not murdered.”
In perhaps the most notable case of the entire war, rebels murdered a young illiterate man with a clubbed hand named Ibrahim Qashoush in July 2011, claiming he was an informer. Qashoush worked as a security guard at the local fire department in Hama. Rebels slit Qashoush’s throat and dumped his body in the Orontes River. Opposition activists from the Local Coordinating Committee (LCC) in Hama then used photos of his body to claim Qashoush had actually been a non-violent demonstrator famous for writing songs sung in local anti-government protests, and alleged the Syrian government had murdered him and ripped out his vocal chords as punishment for his songs. In reality, however, the protest singer was another man, Abdul Rahman Farhood, who is still alive and living as a refugee in Europe, as journalist James Harkin confirms in a long piece published in GQ Magazine. One Syrian human rights investigator acknowledged to Harkin that “Some of the opposition were telling lies [about Qashoush] because they thought it would be helpful. It was because of this that I fell out with them.” The false claim that the Syrian government killed Qashoush did help the revolution, according to Harkin, as Qashoush’s slaying became a “rallying point for protesters” in Hama, who considered him “the nightingale of the revolution.”
Opposition efforts to falsely blame the Syrian government for atrocities over the years have apparently led to skepticism among many Syrians in regard to opposition media in general. Lina Shaikhouni, a journalist on the Arabic Team at BBC Monitoring, observes that “more Syrians watch government-controlled TV than any opposition channel because of the lack of trust. . . There are people who are producing ‘fake news’ [on the rebel side] who are hurting the credibility of the revolution.”
Given the rebel assassination campaign which was proceeding apace in the summer of 2012, and the opposition practice of blaming the government for killings actually carried out by the rebels, and the threats made by FSA leaders against pro-government Palestinians, there is every reason to believe that rebels were killing PLA commanders during this period and that opposition claims that these officers were killed by the government because they “refused to crackdown” on protestors were fabricated by opposition activists for public relations reasons.
PLA Conscripts Massacred
Sharmine Narwani further describes rebel efforts to target Palestinians from the Palestine Liberation Army. On July 11, 2013 news broke that rebels had “kidnapped and killed 14 Palestinian soldiers heading back to Nairab camp on a weekend break from training exercises in Mesiaf, 48km southwest of Hama. According to the PLA generals I interviewed, the soldiers were divided into two groups – half were shot, while the other half were tortured and then beheaded. Many Palestinians I interviewed told the story of the driver of the PLA van – who was not a soldier himself. Ahmad Ezz was a young man from the Nairab camp in Aleppo. The rebels spared him – temporarily – then strapped him into a vehicle rigged with massive explosives, and ordered him to drive into a Syrian army checkpoint. According to multiple Arabic news reports, at the very last minute, Ahmad veered sharply away from the checkpoint. The rebels detonated the explosives and Ahmad died, but by changing course he spared the Syrian soldiers. In what perhaps speaks to Palestinian sentiment about the Syrian conflict more than many of the ‘contested’ incidents, the residents of Nairab camp turned out en masse for Ahmad’s funeral. Says Mohammad, a young Palestinian whose family lives outside Yarmouk in one of the neighboring suburbs – and who first told me the story of Ahmad – ‘We saw him as a hero for saving the [Syrian] soldiers.”’
Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat interviewed a local youth from Neirab camp, who gave further details, explaining “the soldiers were kidnapped two weeks ago during their return from military service in a convoy on the road from Msaif in Hama province, and we didn’t hear any news from them from that time on, until their bodies were found, dumped on the side of the road” and he added that “most of the victims lived in Neirab camp.”
Al-Sharq al-Awsat also quoted an opposition activist who, while denying that the rebels killed the PLA conscripts, nevertheless implied their deaths were justified by claiming that “the Assad regime wants to include the Palestinians in their conflict with the Syrian people through turning them into Shabiha, and this is what [the regime] relied on in Neirab camp where it exploited the economic situation of the Palestinian youth and pushed them to participate in acts of repression in exchange for money.” This claim is not credible given that the massacred Palestinian youths had not joined the PLA for money, but were conscripted as was legally required, and had not participated in the conflict up until that time.
Other opposition activists claimed that the PLA conscripts were killed by the Syrian government, supposedly to “send out a warning message” to Syria’s Palestinian community. The account of the PLA commanders interviewed by Narwani was inadvertently confirmed, however, by journalist Tarek Homoud of the pro-opposition AGPS. While claiming that the killers of the PLA conscripts were unknown, Homoud nevertheless acknowledges that “a burned body of a bus driver was found two days after the killing of the [PLA] recruits” at the site of the check point attack (in an area called Rikarda) and that rebel groups Saqour al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham had taken credit for the attack via video uploaded to YouTube. In the video, a truck bomb is shown exploding as it approaches the target and rebels announce the attack was carried out in retaliation for the so-called Tremseh massacre (discussed below). One month later, C.J. Chivers of the New York Times documented another instance of FSA rebels in Aleppo attempting to use a captured pro-government fighter as an “unwitting suicide bomber” in the same manner.
If the Syrian government was responsible for the kidnapping and killing of the PLA recruits, it would not be possible for rebels to have forced the conscripts’ bus driver to drive the truck bomb attacking the Syrian Army checkpoint at Rikarda, and for his burned body to be found at the scene. More obviously, it does not make sense for the Syrian government to kill its own Palestinian supporters, as claimed by opposition activists. Instead, rebels targeted the PLA recruits as part of a broader assassination campaign targeting pro-government Palestinians, which is consistent with public threats made by the FSA leadership, as noted above.
Despite this, AGPS would later claim directly that the government had killed the PLA conscripts, alleging that rebels found photographs of the corpses of two of the young conscripts when raiding a government criminal security branch in Idlib in early 2015. AGPS claims such photographs provide proof the Syrian government had tortured and killed them.
This is an odd assumption to make, given that Syrian police would likely take photographs of the corpses upon their discovery as part of any criminal investigation into the killings. Documenting war time deaths in this way would simply be routine. During the height of the sectarian civil war in Iraq in 2005, for example, the New York Times reports that “A small window in the [Baghdad] morgue is the last hope for people looking for their dead. Holding photographs of the missing, they peer through it to a computer screen where a worker flashes pictures of all the bodies no one has claimed. . . Some bodies are eventually found by their families, but most languish in the morgue. They are given numbers and, after two months, buried in unmarked graves in two Baghdad cemeteries.”
Funerals Again Become Protests
Amidst the war of rumors about which side carried out the massacre of the PLA conscripts, Palestinians in Yarmouk organized a demonstration on Thursday July 12, 2013 to express anger about the killings. Al-Akhbar reports that Syrian security forces and PFLP-GC militants opened fire on the crowd in an effort to control the protests, allegedly killing 9 people. Al-Akhbar quotes a protestor who alleged that Syrian security forces “aimed at the heads and chests of protesters, shooting to kill.” Al-Akhbar also quotes a Yarmouk resident who attended the demonstration as saying, “We don’t know who started firing first, but with our own eyes we saw the firing gradually increase, leading to the death and injury of tens of protesters. Afraid of getting injured, I dropped to the ground,” suggesting there once again may have been armed men among the crowd, and making it unclear which side initiated the shooting. Al-Akhbar also quotes a member of the PFLP who claimed that “we cannot prevent our Syrian brothers who live in al-Hajar al-Aswad or al-Tadamon or other neighborhoods [adjacent to Yarmouk] from protesting peacefully in the camp. At the end of the day, this is their land and we are guests here. . . I have verified information that the Syrian youth in al-Hajar al-Aswad succeeded in exploiting the fervor and rage of the youth in the camp, turning the protest last Thursday over the death of 17 PLA soldiers into an anti-Syrian regime protest.”
This led opposition activists to organize another protest in Yarmouk the following day, Friday July 13, to continue protesting the deaths of the PLA conscripts. The New York Times reported that “A small anti-Assad demonstration in Yarmouk on July 13 turned violent when Syrian troops fired into the crowd.” A pro-Fatah website (Sawt Fatah) reported that “hundreds participated in a peaceful march” which was blocked at a PFLP-GC checkpoint. An argument broke out, after which the protesters “were fired upon from several sides, forcing the people to scramble to escape.” The Fatah source also claimed that government “snipers targeted the activists of the march, which led to the death of four youth from the camp, including the child Yazen Naser al-Khadra [15 years old according to some sources], Dhia Muhammad, Anas al-Bara’i and Hani al-Kharma.” The source claimed further that the marchers “did not raise slogans against the regime, but were expressing their anger at being so often targeted by all the warring parties in Syria, without knowing by whose hands.” Tarek Homoud of AGPS also claims four deaths, and describes how “All the protests came to an end peacefully, except one in Palestine Street. The Syrian army opened fire against protestors leaving Four Palestinians dead; this caused some opposition fighters to intervene resulting in confrontations that lasted a day.”
The growing unrest in Yarmouk at this time led Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi to write on his Facebook page that “The hardest thing is to have the most honored and distinguished guests in your country [Palestinians] . . . and to see some of them not respect the origins of this hospitality,” and that if they fail to do so, “let them go to the ‘oases of democracy’ in the Arab countries.”
The protests and clashes continued the next day as well, on Saturday July 14, with al-Sharq al-Awsat citing an opposition activist in Yarmouk claiming that FSA rebels had closed entrances to Yarmouk with burning tires, and had raised the flag of the Syrian revolution above several buildings in the camp. The Saturday protests were in response to events from the day before, in particular the killing of the young boy Yazen Naser al-Khadra, who opposition activists claimed had been shot by a sniper with two bullets to the head, as well as in response to an alleged massacre in the town of Tremseh, in Hama province, that occurred two days before, on Thursday July 12.
The Tremseh “Massacre”
Opposition activists claimed to Der Spiegel that the Syrian army had “murdered more than 220 men, women and children” in Tremseh and that “Some were reportedly killed by shelling from the Syrian army, while others were killed by pro-government thugs from nearby villages” while the New York Times quoted opposition activists as claiming that the killings in Tremseh were “unlike any massacre that has previously occurred in Syria.”
It soon became apparent that opposition claims of a massacre in Tremseh were false and that the government account of events there was correct. The Syrian government had claimed the violence in Tremseh “was not a massacre, but a military operation targeting armed fighters who had taken control of the village.” This view was confirmed when UN observers visited Tremseh on Saturday July 14 and issued a report stating that the Syrian army did attack the village, but appeared to target “specific groups and houses, mainly of army defectors and activists.” The New York Times noted that the pro-opposition SOHR “had been able to confirm only 103 names [rather than 220 as claimed by the opposition], and 90 percent of them were young men. There were no women’s names on the list of 103 victims obtained from activists in Homs,” further confirming the government claim that it targeted rebels in the attack.
Operation Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake
On Saturday, 14 July 2012 (the same day that protests raged in Yarmouk and the correct details of events in Tremseh emerged), the rebels also launched a large offensive to take Damascus, dubbed operation “Damascus Volcano and Syrian Earthquake,” which was made possible by weapons shipments organized by US planners two months before. In May 2012, the Washington Post had reported that “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” The Post noted further that “Materiel is being stockpiled in Damascus” and that according to an opposition figure, “Large shipments have got through. . . Some areas are loaded with weapons.’”
Reuters notes that the July 14 offensive began when rebels attacked Syrian security forces in the Hajar al-Aswad district of southern Damascus, which is adjacent to and south of Yarmouk. The operation involved 2,500 rebel fighters, many of which were redeployed from other parts of the country. The fighting spread to three other districts the next day, including the Midan district in the heart of Damascus, with battles flaring within sight of Assad’s presidential palace. Rebels hid in narrow alleyways and battled government tanks using rocket-propelled grenades and roadside bombs. The offensive was highlighted by the rebel bombing of the National Security building in Damascus on July 18, which killed 4 top Syrian security officials, including the defense minister Dawoud Rajha, national security chief Hisham Ikhtiyar, and Assad’s brother-in-law, deputy defense minister Assef Shawkat. The New York Times noted that “The attack on the leadership’s inner sanctum as fighting raged in sections of the city for the fourth day suggested that the uprising had reached a decisive moment in the overall struggle for Syria. The battle for the capital, the center of Assad family power, appears to have begun.” Rebels claimed the bombing was “a turning point in Syria’s history” and the “beginning of the end” for the government. One rebel commander was more cautious,however, suggesting that “It is more ebb and flow; these skirmishes are just a test as our fighters infiltrate then withdraw. . . The Free Syrian Army has a hit-and-run strategy. This is urban warfare. It favors the rebel forces and not the conventional forces.” The Syrian army was able to repel the offensive, re-taking control of the Midan district on July 20, 2012. However, the rebel withdrawal from the heart of Damascus was merely tactical and rebels would try to take the capital again in coming months. Al-Monitor reports that “The regime appears to have won Round 1 in the fight for Damascus, but the war is far from over.”
Neutrality Falls Apart
This is also when reports first emerged of Palestinians with the PFLP-GC fighting with the Syrian Army, as well as of reports of Palestinians fighting with the rebels. On July 18, the Daily Star quoted an opposition activist known as Abu al-Sakan as claiming that “Many Palestinian youth have joined the FSA, and they are fighting side by side with the Syrian revolutionaries in the Tadamon and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad districts.” The Guardian noted on July 20, 2012 that a source in Yarmouk “said members of the Free Syrian Army were fighting tanks in the area and trying to prevent the security forces from entering. But they have been overrun after Palestinian factions, close to the regime, sided with the government troops.”
The fighting in these districts caused a massive influx of displaced persons into areas viewed as neutral and safe, such as Yarmouk and also the nearby Khan al-Sheih Palestinian camp. Those fleeing the violence were graciously hosted by camp residents, whether in UNRWA schools, mosques or private homes. Al-Akhbar reported that the common feeling among the displaced was one of sadness mixed with anger: “Says Abu Muhammad, the father of four children, ‘we are not guilty of anything but wanting to live in peace, far away from the game of the current war. My house lies in the Hajr al-Aswad area and missiles destroyed it, and I was hit by shrapnel in my hand, and I also broke three ribs in my chest. I still can’t remember the details of leaving Hajr al-Aswad and arriving at this school with my family.’”
Yarmouk did not remain safe for long, however. Fighting spilled over into the camp more and more during July. Civilians lived in fear, often not knowing whether the bombs falling on their homes were from the hands of the rebels or the Syrian army. One elderly Yarmouk resident described how when he had once fought as a guerilla for the PLO against Israel, Palestinians had had a clear enemy. However, “if I am now killed in my home, I will not know the source of the bullet or missile or who fired it. We are living in a dirty and frustrating time now.”
One Fatah supporter emphasized his party’s efforts to remain neutral during this period, while also acknowledging the risks of doing so: “Palestinians have also paid the price of Arab countries’ struggles for decades. So most Fatah supporters are trying to stay on the fence. . . But it is difficult because even if they do not go to the revolt, the revolt is coming to them.”
Jibril Arms the Popular Committees
In the wake of the July rebel offensive on Damascus and increased fighting in neighborhoods adjacent to Yarmouk, the PFLP-GC leadership was keenly aware of the threat of a jihadist rebel takeover of the camp, and argued that remaining neutral was no longer a viable option. Ahmed Jibril began distributing weapons to several hundred of his PFLP-GC supporters in Yarmouk to create “popular committees,” in an effort “to defend the Palestinian refugee camps against the free army.” The popular committees comprised about 500 men from a variety of Palestinian factions, excluding Hamas.
Al-Akhbar notes however, that many Palestinians in the camp opposed these actions because they considered “the participation of supporters of Ahmed Jibril in preserving the security of the camp a clear violation of the agreement made by all factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in the beginning of the events in Syria, which declared that all Palestinian resistance factions refrain from engaging in the internal Syrian conflict and remain committed to neutrality.”
Anwar Raja, the PFLP-GC’s media director, was unapologetic about arming the popular committees however, feeling it was a necessary measure, despite opposition from the other Palestinian factions. Raja explained that, “We warned Palestinians in 2011 and 2012 about rebels coming to occupy Yarmouk, and increased these calls as rebels took control of surrounding areas in Tadamoun, Hajar al-Aswad, Yalda. We said the groups should arm themselves in defense of the camp, but they ignored us.”
During this time, al-Akhbar reports that a group of Yarmouk businessmen also sent a delegation to the Damascus police chief to request that walking police patrols be established to protect the camp from rebels, the cost of which these businessmen offered to pay from their own pockets, and that rebels assaulted the Damascus police headquarters later that same evening, killing all the officers present. Al-Jazeera reported on the attack as well, claiming that rebels killed and injured tens of security men and “shabiha” (pro-government thugs) during the assault, while also capturing the weapons cache inside.
Pro-opposition Palestinians began to accuse the popular committees themselves of constituting “shabiha.” Al-Arab quoted some Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk as calling on the UN, rights groups and the PLO to “save them from the shabiha of the Syrian regime and its snipers.”
One member of a local humanitarian group, the Jafra Foundation, described how the neutrality of the camp slowly fell apart during this period: “The Palestinian camps were a safe haven for internally displaced persons and for the wounded, especially in Yarmouk camp. Now, this wasn’t appreciated by either side – the Assad regime or the opposition. The opposition wanted us to participate more in protests and militias and side with them. At the same time, the regime used the same logic – they accused us of allowing ‘terrorists’ to enter the camps and of not fighting with the Syrian regime, which, they say, was always with us and supported our rights. This confusion from the two sides also found its voice within the Palestinian people. Some people began to participate in demonstrations and [rebel] military actions. On the regime side, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command and Fatah al-Intifada began to recruit for Assad. In the beginning, the idea was just to protect the camps. That changed.”
The Ramadan Massacre
It was in this context that two mortars landed in Yarmouk on 2 August 2012, tearing into a busy street during the height of Ramadan celebrations, killing twenty. Al-Akhbar quoted an eyewitness to the bombing as stating that “A state of terror and chaos filled the place after the first bomb fell. We immediately tried to help the injured. After only two minutes the second bomb fell in the same place, which caused a large number of dead and injured.” Saudi-owned al-Sharq al-Awsat reported claims from the local representative of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) that the “massacre that was committed was intentional,” because three shells (rather than two, as reported by other sources) fell “within two minutes in the same place within Ja’una Street in the camp” and that “We have verified the source of the shells and found they were fired from the site of regime artillery on Qasioun mountain above the Republican Palace.” According to al-Sharq al-Awsat, the Syrian Army supposedly carried out the massacre because of the “dissatisfaction of the Syrian regime with the Palestinian movement, especially after the uprising of the camp, and the support it presented to oppressed Syrian families” displaced due to fighting in nearby neighborhoods such as al Tadhamon, Hajer al-Aswad, Yalda and Qa’aa.
Despite opposition and PCHR claims that the Syrian government was responsible, the New York Times reported that, “Details surrounding the attack suggest it may not be that simple,” suggesting that the rebels may have carried out the attack in retaliation for PLFP-GC efforts to arm the popular committees. The NYT quoted one spokesperson for a local Palestinian opposition group who described Jibril’s efforts to distribute weapons as “provocative,” while the NYT also noted that “the blasts appear to have hit near the office of a faction that was distributing weapons, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command. A well-placed opposition activist who declined to be identified publicly because of political considerations said the bombings might have been the work of rebels who had aimed for that office but missed.”
Such a view seems reasonable given that the Free Syrian Army had a few weeks earlier declared that pro-government Palestinian leaders were legitimate targets, as mentioned above. This, on top of Jibril’s efforts to distribute weapons, could easily have prompted rebels to target the PFLP-GC headquarters in retaliation. Further, if the Syrian government did wish to retaliate against Palestinians broadly for their supposed support of the opposition, as al-Sharq al-Awsat claims, it would still not make sense for the Syrian army to bomb areas of Yarmouk under the control of its own allies (areas near the PFLP-GC headquarters), which allies had just begun to fight actively on the side of the government, and upon whom the Syrian army would rely heavily in coming months to try to prevent rebels from capturing the camp. Indeed, Maan reports that a mortar shell struck the PFLP-GC headquarters two days later, on August 4, causing “serious material damage” but no casualties. Strangely, Maan’s sources in Yarmouk also claim the Syrian army fired the mortar, but again this would not make sense, as the Syrian army would not attack the very headquarters of its own Palestinian allies. More likely, rebels targeted the PFLP-GC headquarters on August 2, missed, and accidentally killed 20 people. Rebels then attempted to hit the headquarters a second time two days later, and were successful, while blaming the Syrian government in both instances.
Abdul-Hadi of the PLO also seemed to view the August 2 bombing as rebel retaliation for Jibril’s arming of the popular committees, as he felt that Jibril’s actions had brought disaster to Yarmouk. Maan quotes Abdul-Hadi as saying “The Yarmouk camp has not witnessed any tough events since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, except in the last two months. The latest event was yesterday when 20 people were killed and about 65 were injured . . . Thursday’s attack came after Jibril armed some men in the camp under the pretext of protecting the Palestinians. . . . We reject this completely because our protection is the responsibility of the state of Syria, and we are only guests there [emphasis mine].”
Importantly, opposition activists viewed the alleged killing of Palestinians by the government as positive, as it would supposedly help break the bond between the Palestinians and the Syrian government, causing them to come to the opposition’s side and end their neutral stance. The New York Times describes how “Trying to break that bond has been a primary goal of the opposition” and that “Other activists blamed the government [for the August 2 bombing] although they acknowledged that they wanted to draw the Palestinians into the conflict.” The NYT quotes an opposition activist as saying “Let [the Palestinians] show the world how they don’t want to get involved after many of them were killed by Assad,” revealing the disdain that many in the opposition felt towards Palestinians for their attempts to remain neutral. This resembled rebel anger at residents of Aleppo during the same period for their lack of support for the “revolution.” Journalist James Foley (later kidnapped and murdered by ISIS) related in October 2012 how one rebel commander promised that “Aleppo would burn” because its residents, also majority Sunni like the rebels, were only “concerned with their barbecues.”
The bond between Palestinians and the Syrian government proved difficult to break, however. The New York Times reported in late June 2012 that “Syria prides itself on being one of the few Arab countries to offer Palestinians full civil rights. They can own property and hold government jobs, for instance. ‘It is hard for us to forget that Syria deals with us as ordinary citizens,’ said Abu Mohammad, 40, another refugee, who runs a candy store in the Yarmouk camp. ‘If Assad is gone, no Arab or foreign state will host us,’ he said. ‘We want to live in peace and look after our sons, not to live in tents again.’”
The Storm before the Storm
The fighting that began in Yarmouk in the summer of 2012 intensified further in the fall. In late October 2012, the FSA brigade known as the Falcons of the Golan (Suqour al-Golan) announced the formation of the Storm Brigade (Liwa al-Asifah), made up of all Palestinian rebels, specifically for the purpose of fighting pro-government Palestinian cadre of the PFLP-GC and the popular committees. A rebel commander declared to Reuters that, “Now they are targets for us, targets for all the FSA. All of them with no exceptions,” while Maan cited rebels who claimed the Storm Brigade was created to “to wrest control of Damascus’ Yarmouk refugee camp.” On November 5, the New York Times quoted an activist as describing that “It’s a real war. . . Explosions, bombing and gunfire, and of course the helicopters, which have become part of the sky in Damascus now, like birds” and that five people were killed when a minibus in Yarmouk was targeted by small artillery fired by an unknown group. On November 7, Reuters reports that Syrian rebels killed 10 PFLP-GC fighters in clashes near Street 30 in Yarmouk and in Hajar al-Aswad. On November 23, al-Akhbar reports that “Four people were killed and a PFLP-GC activist was seriously wounded when a bomb planted under a car went off, the group said, blaming the rebel Free Syrian Army for the attack.” The chaotic nature of events during this period was described by a Yarmouk resident named Abu Majd who explained that “Whenever I have tried to leave my home, I have encountered militants in the streets. I do not know whether they belong to the FSA or the popular committees that answer to Ahmad Jibril [of the PFLP-GC], or even the Syrian army or security forces.”
Damascus as a whole was in chaos during this period, as rebel suicide and car bomb attacks on government targets had “become a near daily reality in the capital Damascus,” according to the Telegraph, with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front, playing an increasingly prominent role. Reuters reported for example that “Nusra claimed responsibility in one day alone last month [November 2012] for 45 attacks in Damascus, Deraa, Hama and Homs provinces that reportedly killed dozens, including 60 in a single suicide bombing.”
At the same time, foreign jihadists continued to enter Syria to fight for Nusra. One Nusra member who helped smuggle fighters and weapons into Syria from Lebanon explained to the Telegraph that “Some of the foreign fighters hate the west and all non-Muslims. . . They want to attack churches. Personally, I don’t like this. But this is how they were taught in Iraq and Chechnya.” The same Nusra member added that he had smuggled in jihadist fighters from “Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkmenistan, France and even from Britain.”
Opposition Conspiracy Theories
By this time it was becoming clear that Nusra as an organization was also deeply embedded within the broader US and Saudi-backed “moderate” FSA rebel brigades, a fact which had previously been obscured, thanks to conspiracy theories promoted by the Syrian opposition. In December 2012, just weeks before Nusra and FSA brigades invaded Yarmouk, McClatchy reported that “When the group Jabhat al Nusra first claimed responsibility for car and suicide bombings in Damascus that killed dozens last January , many of Syria’s revolutionaries claimed that the organization was a creation of the Syrian government,” however, “it is increasingly clear that [Nusra’s] operations are closely coordinated with more secular rebels. Some Syrians say that Nusra’s importance is a result of the West’s failure to support those secular rebels. But the closeness of the coordination between Nusra and other rebels makes it difficult to support one without empowering the other.” McClatchy notes further that Nusra has “proved to be critical to the rebels’ military advance. In battle after battle across the country, Nusra and similar groups do the heaviest frontline fighting. Groups who call themselves the Free Syrian Army and report to military councils led by defected Syrian army officers move into the captured territory afterward.” One Nusra fighter explained to Reuters during this time the reason for such close cooperation: “Our aim is to depose Assad, defend our people against the military crackdown and build the caliphate. Many in the Free Syrian Army have ideas like us and want an Islamic state.”
When the US State Department designated Nusra as a terrorist group in December 2012, Moaz al-Khatib, the leader of the main political opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNCROF) immediately objected, suggesting the decision should be “reviewed” and that “We might disagree with some parties and their ideas and their political and ideological vision. But we affirm that all the guns of the rebels are aimed at overthrowing the tyrannical criminal regime.” The Telegraph also reported at the time that “a total of 29 opposition groups including fighting ‘brigades’ and civilian committees, have signed a petition calling for mass demonstrations in support of Jabhat al-Nusra” and that the petition promoted “the slogan ‘No to American intervention, for we are all Jabhat al-Nusra’ and urges supporters to ‘raise the Jabhat al-Nusra flag’ as a ‘thank you.’” Consequently, FSA brigades have proven largely indistinguishable from Nusra in many of the most important battles of the Syria conflict, including in Yarmouk.
The fighting in October and November was just the prelude to a larger rebel effort to take Damascus in December 2012. As a part of a program code-named Timber Sycamore, CIA planners accelerated weapons shipments to Syrian rebels during this period, primarily via partners in Saudi intelligence, and began to train rebels directly at camps in Jordan starting in October 2012. McClatchy reports that one rebel participant in the training program “said men he believed were American intelligence officers observed what was taking place. Another said he believed British officers were helping to organize the training. The training itself was handled by Jordanian military officers, the rebels said. By November , another rebel said, the training had expanded to anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.” The LA Times reported that rebels from Damascus were among those receiving training, and that “CIA officials declined to comment on the secret training programs, which was being done covertly in part because of U.S. legal concerns about publicly arming the rebels, which would constitute an act of war against the Assad government.”
The New York Times reported of this period that “With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment” which “expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year , the data shows. . . Most of the cargo flights have occurred since November , after the presidential election in the United States.” The NYT quotes Hugh Griffiths, of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute who notes the massive amounts of weaponry rebels received. Griffiths explains that “A conservative estimate of the payload of these flights would be 3,500 tons of military equipment. . . The intensity and frequency of these flights. . . are suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation.” The NYT indicates further that “arms and equipment were being purchased by Saudi Arabia in Croatia and flown to Jordan on Jordanian cargo planes for rebels working in southern Syria” and “formed what one former American official who was briefed on the program called ‘a cataract of weaponry.’”
The New York Times also reported of this period that, according to US officials, the bulk of these weapons shipments were going to “hard-line Islamic Jihadists.” US officials at the same time claimed incompetence, suggesting that the military assistance reaching the rebels via its own partners in Saudi and Qatari intelligence and under the supervision of the CIA, was somehow reaching exactly those rebel groups “we don’t want to have it.” Such statements, while patently false, seemed to be an effort on the part of US officials to establish plausible deniability, given that they were overseeing the shipment of weapons to Nusra, an official al-Qaeda affiliate, which would clearly be illegal under US law.
One FSA commander told the Washington Post that these weapons shipments were part of an effort to “shift the focus of the war away from the north toward the south and the capital, Assad’s stronghold,” while another noted rebel commander, Saleh al-Hamwi, indicated that “The shift was prompted by the realization that rebel gains across the north of the country over the past year were posing no major threat to the regime in Damascus” and that weapons shipments would flow through Jordan into Syria because the “province of Daraa [in southern Syria] controls a major route to the capital and is far closer.” Al-Hamwi adds that “Daraa and Damascus are the key fronts on the revolution, and Damascus is where it is going to end.”
Though rebels had succeeded in penetrating the heart of the capital during the July 2012 offensive “Operation Damascus Volcano,” they had nevertheless failed to hold territory and could only engage in hit-and-run attacks. The Syrian army was then able to force a rebel retreat. Reuters reported that according to one rebel commander, the July 2012 offensive failed because it had been disorganized and lacked proper re-supply lines.
If rebels were to succeed in taking Damascus, better supply lines therefore needed to be established, and Yarmouk, located in the southern suburbs of Damascus, was crucial for this effort. Yarmouk is bordered to the south by the town of Hajar al-Aswad, a rebel stronghold that itself is bordered to the south by the Damascus countryside, and easily reachable from Deraa. If rebels from the FSA and Nusra could capture Yarmouk, this would help in establishing a reliable supply-line stretching from Jordan all the way to Damascus, and keep the US and Gulf-supplied weapons flowing for another major offensive on the capital.
Nidal Bitari, the pro-opposition activist and journalist from Yarmouk mentioned above, notes that Yarmouk’s residents were aware of the coming rebel assault, not only on Damascus, but on Yarmouk as well. He notes that “The FSA, by that time joined by the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, had long set their sights on Yarmuk camp as the ‘gateway to Damascus.’ Since the autumn of 2012, they had been talking more and more openly about the ‘zero hour’ for liberating Damascus, and everyone knew that Yarmuk was the intended launching pad. . . And with the PFLP-GC now fighting the rebels outside the camp, the FSA could claim that the camp’s neutrality had ended and use that as an excuse to go in.”
PFLP-GC officials allege that then director of Saudi Intelligence and former ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was the chief planner of the assault on Yarmouk. This seems reasonable given the role of Saudi Intelligence in organizing weapons shipments to the rebels on behalf of the CIA during this period, and given that, according to a leaked National Security Agency (NSA) document, Bandar was personally giving orders to rebels to “light up Damascus” and “flatten” the Damascus airport with missiles just three months later. Bandar’s efforts to arm jihadist rebels in Syria mirrored his previous efforts to help US officials in the Reagan administration arm Nicaraguan insurgents ( Contras) in the 1980’s, in an attempt to de-stabilize the Nicaraguan (Sandinista) government, while also mirroring Bandar’s role in helping CIA officials arm and train jihadist rebels (mujahedeen) traveling to fight in Afghanistan against Soviet forces during the same period.
Mustafa al-Harash, writing for the Institute of Palestine Studies (IPS), claims that on the evening of December 15, 2012 news from a source in the Syrian armed opposition reached the PLO that rebel groups had decided to storm the camp and had designated a zero hour for doing so, which was just hours away. After holding an emergency meeting, the PLO factions decided to send a delegation to meet with the leadership of the rebel groups and to discourage them from storming the camp. The rebel groups had already made a decision and would not retreat from it, however, indicating that they were not concerned with the consequences of assaulting the camp, in terms of death and destruction and displacement of civilians, considering this simply the “price of jihad” (dharibat al-jihad) that civilians must pay. The rebel leadership insisted that assaulting Yarmouk was justified because the camp is on “Syrian land,” and necessary for gaining an advantage against the Syrian security apparatus and its Palestinian allies in the popular committees.
Nusra and the FSA initiated the assault first on Hajar al-Aswad, to the south of Yarmouk, after which rebels entered Yarmouk itself on the night of Saturday December 15. Al-Akhbar reported that “The past few days saw rockets raining down on the camp, often followed by the sirens of ambulances en route to the scene to collect the dead and injured. During the short lulls in violence, residents rushed out to stock up on supplies before the situation deteriorated again. On Saturday night, the fighting reached its peak as the armed opposition launched a three-pronged attack to take the camp. The pro-regime PFLP-GC fighters were overwhelmed and suffered tremendous losses as they were unable to evacuate their wounded due to opposition snipers posted on the roofs. By morning [Sunday December 16], cars carrying opposition fighters and Palestinians waving the rebel flag could be seen driving around many of the camp’s inner neighborhoods.”
Bombing of the Abdul Qader Mosque
This fighting set the stage for perhaps the most infamous incident in Yarmouk of the entire war, when the Syrian air force bombed the Abdul Qader al-Husseini mosque and a UNRWA school later that evening, on Sunday December 16. The SOHR reported 8 killed, while opposition activists claimed at least 25 dead. The New York Times described the scene of the bombing: “In Yarmouk, burned body parts littered the ground at the Sheik Abdul Qader mosque, which had offered shelter to Palestinians and others displaced by fighting in other areas. Minutes before, a Syrian fighter jet fired rockets at the camp. Women, crying children and white-bearded men thronged the streets with hurriedly packed bags, not sure where to look for safety.”
A humanitarian activist from the Jafra Foundation recalled how “rebels from the Free Syrian Army marched into the camp from the south. Within 30 minutes, the Syrian government responded, sending an MiG warplane to attack two shelters inside the camp—one a school and the other a mosque. . . Time in Yarmouk was separated into before the MiG and after the MiG.” The New York Times interviewed a fleeing Yarmouk resident who was “was shocked on Sunday at the speed of the government assault, in which fighter planes and artillery were used to attack the area hours after rebel fighters entered Yarmouk.”
The victims of the horrific mosque and school bombings appear to have been residents who were not able to flee the camp after the Syrian government warning to do so. The Guardian quotes an elderly woman named Um Hassan as explaining that many had left Yarmouk after warnings broadcast from mosques early on Sunday morning but that “others had sought refuge in a mosque and remained behind. Syrians who had fled from battle zones elsewhere in Syria were staying in a nearby school. They also chose to stay. Both groups were hit by bombs dropped from jets.”
The government claimed that the bombing of the school and mosque was a mistake, made in the context of attacking the rebel positions to prevent their further advance on Damascus (perhaps assuming that most civilians had fled and/or that rebels were using the mosque and school as bases). In contrast, opposition activists claimed the Syrian air force bombed the mosque and school on purpose, and wished to target civilians directly, in an effort to punish Yarmouk’s civilians for supposedly supporting the rebels.
Whether this was a mistake, or a deliberate massacre by the Syrian air force, is perhaps impossible to determine. When reading accounts of the events in Yarmouk surrounding the bombing, however, it is apparent that some residents of the camp speaking with the media reversed the chronology of events, suggesting that the Syrian air force first bombed the mosque, and then rebels invaded the camp, as if in response. For example, the pro-opposition Syria Deeply quoted an unnamed opposition activist from Yarmouk as recalling that “The FSA invaded the camp two hours after the regime bombed us with MIGs, and claimed it was liberated [emphasis mine].” This description of events is obviously incorrect, as most sources acknowledge there was fighting inside the camp prior to the bombing of the mosque. Perhaps this activist just misremembered events, or perhaps different residents became aware of the rebel assault into the camp at different times, depending on their circumstances and location in the camp. Not everyone in the two by two kilometer camp would be familiar with what was going on in all areas.
In some cases though, the reversal of the chronology seems deliberate and politically motivated in order to bolster opposition claims that the government had bombed civilians on purpose. If the Syrian air force bombed the camp before the rebels invaded, the bombing could have no possible military purpose and could only be in an effort to kill civilians. The Guardian cites a Yarmouk resident named Abu Khalil, who had fled to the Sabra-Shatila camp in Lebanon, as claiming that “There had been no fighting inside the camp [Yarmouk] at all until Sunday. . . There were clashes on the outskirts, but the Free Syria Army had not entered the camp at all. They only came in after the air strike [emphasis mine].” Abu Khalil’s reversal of the chronology appears politically motivated, given other anti-government comments he makes. He explains for example that “No Palestinian will trust [the Syrian government] anymore after what they did on Sunday.” The Guardian uses Abu Khalil’s statements as anecdotal evidence to reinforce the broader claim that Palestinians “are now openly hostile towards a regime that had long portrayed itself as the protector of the 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria, most of whom had called Yarmouk home until now.”
The New York Times did mention the rebel attack on the camp in their coverage of the Abdul Qader Mosque bombing, but did not make the chronology clear, suggesting similar bias.
In perhaps the most blatant case, Amnesty International entirely omits any reference to the rebel invasion when providing an account of the attack on the Abdul Qader mosque and UNRWA school, mentioning only briefly that rebels had established a presence in the camp some months before. Readers are left with the impression the Syrian government bombed the mosque and school solely in an effort to target civilians.
In contrast, the pro-opposition Orient News does not cite the bombing of the Abdul Qader mosque at all when discussing the rebel invasion of the camp in one particular report. Orient instead claims the rebels had no choice but to invade because the PFLP-GC local committees were shabiha who helped the regime stage attacks from Yarmouk on nearby neighborhoods and that Yarmouk became involved in the conflict due to the fault of Ahmed Jibril, who sided with the regime and armed the popular committees.
Years later, al-Sharq al-Awsat published an article denying that the rebels had any interest whatsoever in entering the camp, instead promoting the conspiracy theory that Syrian intelligence planted agents loyal to it in the camp who posed as members of the FSA, to help lure or bait the rebels into entering. Allegedly, this was done so the regime could then besiege Yarmouk and empty it of all residents, in order to reduce the threat to the capital Damascus from the camp.
The Khalsa Falls
On Monday December 17, al-Akhbar quoted a prominent PFLP (separate from the pro-government PFLP-GC) leader who described the situation as “extremely dangerous. The FSA has taken total control over wide sections of the south of the camp, such as Square 15 and the area surrounding the Khalsa,” the PFLP-GC headquarters, resulting in a PFLP-GC withdrawal. The PFLP leader speculated that “the worst is yet to come. If the camp falls under the control of the Free Army and the extremist Islamic jihadist groups, it will become the launching pad for military operations, and the camp residents will pay a heavy price.”
The same day, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem sternly warned on state television that that Palestinians should not offer “shelter or assistance to terrorist groups” in Yarmouk. The Syrian government also issued additional calls for residents to leave the camp via text message, asking residents to leave Monday and Tuesday morning as well, between 5am and 9 am. One fighter active with a pro-government Palestinian faction said that “the regular Syrian army sent [residents] instructions to stay away from the theater of military operations or leave the camp, in preparation for ‘expelling the foreign fighters inside.’”
Al-Akhbar reports that on Wednesday December 19, rebels were able to take control of the Khalsa, causing PFLP-GC fighters to retreat to the northern edge of Yarmouk, between the camp and Damascus, where they were reinforced by Syrian army tanks. Rumors circulated that the Khalsa suddenly fell after some PFLP-GC fighters defected to the rebels, making the rebel entry into the camp much easier. This was confirmed by a PFLP-GC fighter among the group that unsuccessfully defended the Khalsa, who claimed they had been betrayed by a group of popular committee fighters led by a commander named Hadi al-Sahali, who had allowed rebels to enter the camp from the direction of Yalda.
It was rumored as well that these defections even reached into Jibril’s inner circle, including to one of his wives, who allegedly held Salafist beliefs, and that Jibril had fled to the pro-government stronghold of Tartous, on the Syrian coast. Hassaam Arafat, a member of the PFLP-GC politburo, denied reports that Jibril had fled, saying he was still in Damascus.
On the same day the Khalsa fell to rebels, al-Jazeera reports that the FSA took complete control of Hajar al-Aswad as well, thus securing their supply line for the flow of US and Saudi-supplied weapons coming across the border from Jordan via Deraa.
As fighting continued, Maan reported that the then Palestinian Ambassador to Syria, Mahmoud al-Khalidi, “had contacted the Syrian Foreign Ministry to request an end to airstrikes on Yarmouk, but Syrian officials insisted rebels must leave the camp first.” A truce did emerge however, based on an understanding that armed groups from both sides must leave the camp. CNN reported on December 20 that “representatives for Syrian forces and the Free Syrian Army rebels decided that all armed groups, including the army and the rebels, should withdraw from the camp and leave it as a neutral zone” but that the resultant truce had not held “because of ‘intermittent’ government shelling on Yarmouk and clashes on the camp’s outskirts.” Al-Akhbar reports that the truce did in fact hold for several days, only for clashes between pro-government forces and rebels to erupt again on the evening of December 25.
Negotiations continued into January, but then stalled, as it became clear the rebels were unwilling to relinquish control of the camp. Maan quoted PLO official Anwar Abdul-Hadi as stating that a “deal had been delayed because of several demands by the Free Syria Army” while Nidal Bitari would later comment that, the “FSA leaders had their own reasons for wanting to enter the camp and had no intention of leaving it once they got in.”
The New Nakba
As the fighting between the government and rebels continued, camp resident’s continued to flee to safety. The pre-war population of Yarmouk had been roughly 800,000, with some 160,000 Palestinian refugees, and the remainder Syrians. One PFLP official estimated the number in the camp by December 2012 had been even higher, perhaps one and a half million, due to the number of displaced who had sought refuge in the camp while fleeing violence in adjacent neighborhoods. Within days of the fighting in December 2012, the camp had become largely depopulated. Maan quoted PLO Ambassador al-Khalidi on Tuesday December 18 as stating that “Over 95 percent of Palestinians in Yarmouk have fled the refugee camp near Damascus under heavy shelling.”
This caused many to draw parallels between the mass displacement of residents from Yarmouk, the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, and the mass displacement of Palestinians during the original Nakba, or “catastrophe,” when Zionist militias ethnically cleansed some 750,000 Christian and Muslim Palestinians in 1947-48 in an effort to capture land for the creation of the Jewish state.
Thousands of Palestinians fleeing Yarmouk gathered in front of the immigration and passports office in the Ain Karsh district of Damascus to obtain permission to travel to the Palestinian camps in Lebanon. Others found refuge in other Palestinian camps in Syria, in particular Khan al-Sheih. Al-Akhbar quoted one Palestinian father as saying “It was a difficult decision I took with my family to settle our affairs to head toward Ain al-Hilwah camp in south Lebanon and to live with our relatives there. I do not possess the money to travel to ensure securing work in Lebanon to support my family. But the scenes of death after the bombing of the Abd al Qadir al-Husseini mosque were enough to leave the camp and never return.”
Al-Akhbar described this time as “the new chapter in the exile of the Palestinians from their homeland,” and that “The residents of the camp have lived through a state of terror and fear in recent days, as the scope of the destruction in the camp increased as result of bombing with mortars from the side of the free army and artillery shells and missiles from airplanes of the Syrian regime army. The mutual bombing led to tens of dead and injured and resulted in large material damages, which caused a mass exodus estimated at thousands of families which recently decided to leave their homes, carrying with them anything they could, in a scene harking back to memories from the Nakba of 1948. . . Yesterday morning, the residents of the camps in Khan al Sheih, al-Sabina, and Jaramana awoke to the arrival of tens of thousands of displaced persons from Yarmouk camp. Some were transported in trucks collectively, while others arrived walking by foot after the paths were blocked before them.”
During the course of the fighting, Syrian security forces and PFLP-GC militants detained a number of Palestinians suspected of helping the rebels, including many health workers, whose whereabouts remained unknown even years later. Amnesty International reports for example that, “Dr AladdinYoussef, a neurological surgeon, disappeared after being arrested at a Syrian military checkpoint on or around 18 December 2012. A volunteer with the [Palestinian Red Crescent-Syria] told Amnesty International that Dr Youssef was detained after he entered into an argument with security officials at the checkpoint who refused to allow him to exit in order to fetch medicines. The fate of urinary surgeon Dr Nizar Jawdet Kassab, who was detained by government forces at a Yarmouk checkpoint on or around 19 December 2012, is also unknown. The fate of paramedic Hussam Mou’ad, who was arrested on 30 December 2012, is unknown. Salma Abdulrazaq, an engineering student aged 21 who volunteered with the medical scouts (al-Kashafa al-Tibbiya) of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), was also arrested on 30 December 2012 when she was searched at a checkpoint and found to be carrying a small quantity of medicines into Yarmouk. She was taken to the Palestine Branch of Military Intelligence for interrogation, after which her fate is unknown.”
Pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl describes how local humanitarian activist Khaled Bakrawi was arrested by Syrian security forces in January 2013 and allegedly tortured to death in prison in September 2013. Bakrawi was well known in the camp for his humanitarian activities and had been injured during the Nakba day protest in 2011 by Israeli forces.
In August 2013, when thirteen Palestinian detainees, including several women, were released in exchange for the body of a dead Syrian soldier, pro-opposition Almodon reports that “When one of the detainees was released, he was asked what he had done to be arrested and said, “I didn’t do anything . . . I don’t know.”
Writing for al-Akhbar, journalist Qassem Qassem suggests it is an “undeniable fact” that the Palestinian filmmaker from Yarmouk, Hassan Hassan, was “killed in the regime prisons” and that he was not a terrorist or “takfiri,” and “never carried a gun nor blew himself up with an explosive vest.” Qassem notes that the four-minute film for which Hassan was detained, first by rebels from Nusra and later by the regime [government], had criticized the [pro-government] Palestinian factions and popular committees on the one hand, as well as the Islamists [rebels] on the other.
Determining the fate of Palestinian detainees in government prisons remained an issue for years, and was always included as part of PLO proposals to end the fighting in Yarmouk and to facilitate the exit of the rebels from the camp. Writing in 2014, Mustafa Harash described how “No serious progress has been made until now on the issue of Palestinian detainees, and it is known that their issue was one of the main points on the agenda of the PLO delegation in talks with the involved Syrian parties, which promised to solve their issue and reconcile their status [with the state].” Harash notes that the detainees fell into four categories, namely common criminals, militants who took up arms against the state, media activists supporting the militants, and those with no involvement in the conflict at all.
Opposition activists have claimed large numbers of Palestinian civilians have been detained, disappeared, and tortured throughout the conflict. For example, AGPS claimed that by 2015, the Syrian government was holding 1016 Palestinian detainees and that another 427 had died under torture during the conflict, in particular at Palestine Branch 235 of Syrian security.
It is difficult to know if these numbers are credible, given that AGPS relies on local opposition activists (who consistently provide false information) and that AGPS is itself a sister organization to the UK-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC), which has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a belligerent in the conflict (giving the group a strong incentive to exaggerate numbers). Also of note are the clearly false and exaggerated accusations made against the Syrian government by pro-opposition and Western-funded human rights groups. Notable examples include the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report detailing the Caesar photos (see this summary and analysis of the Caesar photos by researcher Adam Larson, and this critique of the HRW report by Larson and journalist Rick Sterling) and the Amnesty International report alleging mass hangings by Syrian authorities at Sednaya prison (see this critique of the Amnesty report by Sterling as well). Reports such as these have played a key role in the US propaganda effort against the Syrian government throughout the conflict.
While accusations of “industrial scale” killing in Syrian prisons are fabrications, it is at the same time likely that the Syrian government often sweeps up many innocent people while trying to target insurgents and their supporters. Most governments (sadly) resort to such measures when fighting counter-insurgency wars. After illegally invading and occupying Iraq between 2003 and 2011, US forces detained and tortured large numbers of Iraqi civilians in an effort to defeat the insurgency (through which al-Qaeda gained a foothold in Iraq and later became ISIS). The Iraqi government has detained large numbers of civilians as part of its effort to defeat ISIS since 2013, and has acknowledged the use of torture against suspected ISIS militants. One must suspect the Syrian security services are doing the same in an effort to defeat its own al-Qaeda-led insurgency. Additionally, even if Syrian military officials were actively trying to prevent the use of torture, its occurrence would likely still be common due to the chaos and lack of oversight that results when large numbers of people are detained in the midst of a violent conflict.
While the Syrian government is responsible for protecting Damascus from the US and Gulf-backed al-Qaeda (Nusra)-led rebel invasion (just as the Iraqi government was responsible for protecting Baghdad from ISIS) this does not at the same time justify detaining innocent people in the process, nor the use of torture (whether of civilians or detained rebel fighters).
Rebel Rule Begins
Those few Palestinians not able to flee the camp after the rebel invasion soon caught a glimpse of the nature of the armed men now occupying Yarmouk. Rebels quickly began to loot property, impose their extremist religious views on residents, and express disdain for the Palestinian cause. Nidal Bitari explains that “the rebels became more and more abusive toward those who remained. Some brought in friends and relatives to squat in empty houses; looting and robberies became common. Jabhat al-Nusra set up Islamic courts, and Palestinian activists were arrested and tried. There were rumors of assassinations. The most serious abuses were committed by the FSA’s Eagles of the Golan and Ababil Hawran brigades, which the FSA leadership, located outside the camp, said it was unable to control. . . . After the FSA entered the camp, residents were shocked to hear rebel fighters telling them to go back where they had come from. A similar attitude was reflected later at the official level: during negotiations for lifting the siege on Yarmuk, the FSA reportedly rejected a proposal that all armed men leave the camp on the grounds that the rebels were fighting for their land, and that camps were on their land.”
Similarly, Syria Deeply published an interview with an unnamed activist from Yarmouk who explained that after the rebels came, “The FSA broke into houses of the [PFLP]-GC and Syrians who they claimed were working for the regime. They looted and occupied the houses. They took over our hospitals and stole medicine. People felt it was the same as the Nakba (the much-decried Palestinian exodus following Israeli statehood in 1948).”
Sharmine Narwani quotes Shaker Shihabi, the director of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) as claiming that rebel looting hurt the ability of the PRCS to provide medical care to camp residents and that “about eight cars, six ambulances, were stolen (after rebels occupied the camp), they robbed our biggest storage facility for drugs and medical supplies.”
The Electronic Intifada recounted the case of Mahmoud al-Shihabi, a Yarmouk resident, who explained that when he was in Beirut for a visa interview with the US embassy, “fighters showed up at his house while only his mother and one of his sisters were home. . . Because some supporters of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, had taken shelter in Yarmouk after being uprooted from nearby neighborhoods, opposition forces searched dozens of homes, he said. ‘They told my mother she had to leave because they believed that the regime’s military was camping out in our homes,’ al-Shihabi explained, adding that a number of homes on his street were subsequently destroyed.”
Residents also soon realized that many of the rebels were not Syrians, but foreigners recruited from abroad to fight for Nusra . Al-Shihabi claims that when rebels arrived in Yarmouk in December 2012, “I saw foreign fighters in the camp, from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Tunisia, [and] Albania.”
This caused sources from the Palestine Liberation Army to refer to the rebels occupying Yarmouk as “takfiiri gangs, who expelled Palestinians from their homes just as Zionist militias did in 1948. The only difference is that these takfiiri gangs claim to do so in the name of Islam and Arabism. They are enemies of the Arab nation and of the Palestinian cause, whether on purpose or not. They behave like Zionist militias, whether on purpose or not. They are enemies with Arab and Islamic masks who . . . have not taken any action against the Zionist occupation.”
The Siege Begins
In response to the December 2012 rebel invasion and occupation of Yarmouk, and to prevent the rebels from advancing further on Damascus, the Syrian army and its allies in the PFLP-GC established check points at the northern edge of the camp, imposing a partial siege. The siege was only partial as rebels controlled entrances to the south of the camp, connecting it to Hajar al-Aswad, which rebels also controlled. Syrian and allied Palestinian forces monitored what went in, and what went out of the camp entrances they controlled, while civilians were able to access UNRWA assistance at the Zahra entrance to Yarmouk.
Individuals attempting to bring food into the camp were at times prevented from doing so by Syrian government forces, apparently under the assumption that any food would be used to help the rebels. For example, Amnesty International documented the case of Ghassan Shihabi and his wife Siham, who tried to enter the camp on 11 January 2013 to bring 25 bags of bread to residents trapped inside. A Syrian intelligence officer initially blocked them from entering due to ongoing clashes. Siham explained that the intelligence officers “searched the car and said they wanted to confiscate the bread: ‘You can’t take bread in,’ an Air Force Intelligence officer told us. I said: ‘We’re taking bread for the families.’ The officer replied: ‘No, you’re taking bread for the armed men.’ I said: ‘Since anyway you’re not allowing us to enter with the car, we’ll park it here and keep the bread in the bunker. You don’t have to confiscate them.’” Ghassan and Siham were eventually allowed to enter, but according to Siham, Ghassan was shot and killed by a Syrian army sniper from behind as their car approached the first FSA checkpoint within the camp.
CIA Sends More Weapons
In March 2013, CBS News reported that the US and its regional partners had “dramatically stepped up weapons supplies to Syrian rebels” in recent weeks as part of a “carefully prepared covert operation” to help “rebels to try and seize Damascus.” Despite claims that the weapons were meant for “secular” fighters, and that US officials were “wary of arming the rebellion, fearing weapons will go to Islamic extremists,” CBS observed that in fact the weapons were going to Nusra, explaining that “there is little clear evidence from the front lines that all the new, powerful weapons are going to groups which have been carefully vetted by the U.S.” and that “Many videos have appeared online showing militants from the various Islamic extremist rebel factions — including Jabhat al-Nusra, which the U.S. has officially labeled a foreign terrorist group — with such weapons in recent weeks.”
Rebel attacks in Damascus continued. On February 21, 2013 Reuters reported that “A car bomb killed more than 50 people and wounded 200 in central Damascus on Thursday when it blew up on a busy highway close to ruling Baath Party offices and the Russian Embassy” and that “Rebels who control districts to the south and east of Damascus have attacked Assad’s power base for nearly a month and struck with devastating bombs over the last year. The al Qaeda-linked rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which claimed responsibility for several of those bombs, says it carried out 17 attacks around Damascus in the first half of February, including at least seven bombings.” The Telegraph reported on the incident as well, citing opposition activists as noting that many children were among the victims, as the bomb exploded near a school, just as students were leaving for the day, and that rebel groups launched four additional missiles into Damascus, and detonated another car bomb in Barzeh, which killed 8. Nayef Hawatmeh, founder of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), another Marxist group that had split with the PFLP decades before, was among those injured in the bomb targeting the Baath party offices.
Opposition efforts to promote conspiracy theories continued. The Telegraph reported rebel claims that the attack was “committed by the regime to cover its crimes,” and that “Some opposition activists claimed that to get through government checkpoints to the city centre the bombers must have been backed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.” The Telegraph also noted, however, that although “There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Thursday’s attack. . . Jabhat al-Nusra, which America has proscribed as a terrorist group for its alleged ties to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, has admitted to at least seven similar bombings this month alone in the city.”
On March 18, based on specific orders from Saudi Prince Bandar, rebels carried out missile attacks on various locations around Damascus, including the international airport and presidential palace, as mentioned above. On March 21, a large explosion killed 42 in a mosque in the center of the city. Among the dead was 84 year old Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Bouti, one of the most influential Sunni scholars in the world, a strong supporter of the government from early in the uprising, and a strong critic of Salafism. Pro-opposition activists and journalists blamed the Syrian government for killing al-Bouti, suggesting the bombing was a false flag attack. However, the New York Times quoted a pro-opposition activist as explaining “The regime will never get rid of such an important figure. . . He’s like the spiritual father to Bashar,” while al-Jazeera reported that al-Bouti’s daughter denied reports that her father had planned to defect to the opposition, making clear that her father had supported the Syrian government out of personal conviction until his death.
On March 28, CBS News noted that “Rebels have captured suburbs around Damascus but have been largely unable to break into the heavily guarded capital. Instead, they have hit central neighborhoods of the city with increasingly heavy mortar volleys from their positions to the northeast and south.” On April 8, Reuters reported that a suicide car bomb killed at least 15 people and wounded 53 in the main business district of Damascus, and that rebels had “pushed into areas near the government-held heart of the city, stepping up mortar and car bomb attacks in recent weeks,” while quoting a rebel commander who noted that the Syrian army was imposing a siege on Eastern Ghouta, another rebel-controlled Damascus suburb, to try to “disrupt rebel preparations for a ‘big battle’ to break into central Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.”
In May 2013, some Yarmouk residents displaced from Yarmouk organized a demonstration on the camp’s outskirts to protest the rebel occupation. Rebels opened fire on the demonstrators and the handful of Syrian soldiers accompanying them. Demonstrators told Sky News that “We don’t want the [rebel] fighters here, we want the army to kill them!” while one woman called militants from the FSA “dogs,” claiming they were not Syrians but foreigners from Chechnya and Afghanistan.
Did Hamas Support the Rebels?
On February 24, 2012 Hamas’ Prime Minister in Gaza, Ismael Haniya officially broke with the group’s long time patrons, the Syrian and Iranian governments, in a speech from al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. This was significant because, as the New York Times noted, President Assad had “given safe haven to leaders of Hamas while helping supply it with weapons and cash in its battle against Israel.” It appears some of the Hamas leadership felt comfortable turning its back on Syria and Iran, given the large amounts of money it began receiving from Qatar, which provided several hundreds of millions of dollars to help rebuild Gaza in 2012 after successive Israeli assaults. Also crucial was the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which had won parliamentary and presidential elections after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Hamas shares ideological roots with the Egyptian Brotherhood, and Hamas therefore suddenly found an ally in the new Egyptian government (only to have Brotherhood leader Muhammad Morsi deposed in a military coup a year and a half later, in July 2013).
Others in the Hamas leadership were skeptical of this change of allegiance. Leaders from the group’s military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, reminded Hamas political bureau chief, Khaled Meshaal, that in fact it was Iran’s “military support rather than Gulf financial support . . . that had enabled Hamas to face the last major Israeli assault on Gaza in November” 2012, while Ezzat al-Rashq, a member of the Hamas political bureau, explained that “Iran had been the main financial supporter for the Hamas government in Gaza. Without the Iranian money . . . Hamas would have never been able to pay its 45,000 government employees.”
In April 2013, the Times (UK) reported that “Diplomatic sources said that members of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades were training FSA units in the rebel-held neighbourhoods of Yalda, Jaramana and Babbila [all neighborhoods near Yarmouk].The development appears to confirm that Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, has made a final break with its former Syrian host and fully embraced the patronage of Qatar, the small but influential Gulf state that is a major financial and logistical backer of some rebel factions.”
Rumors persisted after this time that Hamas was helping train members of the FSA in tunnel building techniques to help the Qatari-supported rebels penetrate Damascus. Palestinian sources (likely connected to Fatah) claimed to al-Sharq al-Awsat that Hamas was directly supporting a rebel group within Yarmouk known as Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, and that Hamas had gone so far as to send trainers from Gaza to help the group. PFLP-GC commanders also claimed that Hamas was supporting Aknaf and that the group had helped rebels from Nusra and the FSA enter the camp during their initial invasion of Yarmouk in December 2012. Foreign Policy quotes PFLP-GC commander Abu al-Azz Daham as claiming, “We’re here to protect the camp and Damascus [from the rebels]. Unlike Hamas, we are loyal to Syria. Syria was loyal to Palestine.”
In contrast, Palestinian political analyst Fakher Abu Sakher explained to al-Sharq al-Awsat that the Hamas leadership was actually divided on the issue of Syria, with one group, led by Khaled Meshaal, advocating cutting ties with Syria and Iran on the one hand, and another group led by Mahmoud al-Zahar wishing to maintain ties with the group’s former sponsors, on the other. Years later, in 2015, a fighter from the Qatari-backed jihadi rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, bragged that his group had benefitted from Hamas expertise in building a tunnel to be used to attack Syrian government forces on Mount Arbaeen, while Palestinian journalist Ibrahim Khader claimed those training the rebels were in fact former members of Hamas who had split from the group and were in Syria without the approval of the leadership.
Fighting Returns to Yarmouk
In early July 2013, the PFLP-GC amassed a large group of fighters to retake Yarmouk by force. Of this period, the LA Times explained that some PFLP-GC “Fighters said progress had been slow but steady. One fighter said five days of combat had gained 75 to 100 yards of ground. The militiamen have now taken up positions in some of the captured buildings, using the same routes through the walls long traversed by the rebels. Graffiti on the walls extol rebel groups such as the Farouq Brigade and Al Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked faction whose ranks include many foreign fighters, some with combat experience in Iraq or Afghanistan. . . Rebels in Yarmouk move stealthily in a labyrinth of tunnels and paths created by holes blasted in adjoining buildings. The networks can stretch for hundreds of yards and connect with other routes, some of them given numbers for identification purposes. The pursuing soldiers and militias use the same routes if they capture them. Each side lobs mortar rounds across the other’s lines. The military also has heavy artillery and aircraft at its disposal. The result has been the utter devastation of broad stretches of suburban Damascus. Still, rebels survive amid the ruins. The government has said it is making progress. Daily reports boast of success in clearing the capital suburbs and the surrounding countryside of ‘terrorists,’ the government’s term for armed rebels. On the ground, however, it is hard to judge who has the upper hand. Car bombings and mortar strikes within the city limits appear to have declined, perhaps an indication that the rebels have been pushed back. But major swaths of the suburbs remain no-go zones.”
Accusations of Chemical Attacks
On 21 July 2013, amid the intense street to street fighting, opposition activists began to claim that the Syrian army had used chemical weapons in Yarmouk. Pro-opposition Almodon reported that “During the last 48 hours, Yarmouk camp has seen a battle that is the most violent since it entered a circle of confrontations approximately seven months ago with Syrian regime forces and shabeeha. In a development which is the first of its kind in Damascus, activists speak of the exposure of Yarmouk to bombing with chemical weapons, resulting in the death of 15 people,” while the Times of Israel cited 22 dead and added that the main Syrian opposition group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (NCSROF) “condemned the attack and said it had video proof of the incident. It also called for international intervention to ‘protect the civilians against Assad’s systematic use of chemical weapons.’”
Claims of a chemical attack in Yarmouk appeared to be a fabrication, however, given that even the pro-opposition Violations Documentation Center (VDC) documented the death of 16 non-civilians (rebels) and 2 civilians in Yarmouk on July 21 as the result of “shooting,” “explosion[s],” and “shelling,” while making no mention of any chemical attack. Further, opposition claims of a chemical attack in Yarmouk were soon quietly dropped, as the NCSROF never provided the video footage it had claimed to possess.
There was also no indication of a chemical attack in Yarmouk in the report issued by the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission. The Syrian government had invited the mission to Syria to investigate a number of alleged chemical attacks, in particular the attack in Khan al-Assal in March 2013, in which one Syrian soldier and 19 civilians were killed. The Sellstrom report summarized the UN mission’s findings regarding seven possible chemical attacks occurring in Syria between October 2012 and August 2013. The report confirmed that Syrian army soldiers were exposed to sarin during clashes with rebels in two instances (in Jobar and Ashrafiah Sahnaya) but made no mention of any allegations of chemical weapons use in Yarmouk. If opposition claims had been credible, the UN mission would have at least investigated or discussed the possibility of a chemical attack in Yarmouk in the Sellstrom report.
It is interesting to note here that the NCSROF immediately “called for international intervention” after falsely accusing the Syrian government of a chemical attack in Yarmouk. Many Syria analysts have observed that provoking Western military intervention, as occurred in Libya, was the primary rebel strategy to topple the Syrian government. Azmi Bishara writes that “A number of [opposition] politicians were betting on international intervention to protect the revolution according to the Libyan model, which was present in their minds (see Syria-A Way of Suffering to Freedom, Kindle edition, chapter 5).”
Christopher Phillips of Chatham House notes that, “As early as 28 October 2011, activists named a ‘Friday of no fly zone,’ followed by a ‘Friday of the Syrian Buffer Zone’ on 2 December. Leading figures in the SNC [opposition Syrian National Council] such as Burhan Ghalioun and Bassma Kodmani spoke of their preference for military intervention at the beginning of 2012, as if it was a realistic possibility. As rebels formed their militias, many based their strategy on taking sufficient territory not to fully defeat Assad, but to persuade the US to finish him off. . . the rebels’ regional allies actively encouraged the opposition to expect US military intervention. As Kodmani later recalled, ‘the regional powers were absolutely confident that intervention would happen. Again, Libya had happened, they had participated in the Libya campaign, and they were confident they were going to participate in a campaign in Syria as well.’ She went on, ‘I recall very well, they were always reassuring the opposition “it is coming, it is coming definitely, the intervention is coming.’” . . . Many regional leaders, particularly [Turkish prime minister] Erdogan, believed that the obstacle to US action was domestic: Obama’s campaign for re-election. Turkish officials reportedly told oppositionists to be patient; that intervention would occur after the campaign finished in November 2012 (see The Battle for Syria, Kindle edition, page 170-71).”
Some US officials also viewed military intervention in Syria according to the Libya model as desirable. An email to Hillary Clinton from her advisor Sydney Blumenthal noted that the fall of Ghaddafi would provide “another model for regime change: that of limited but targeted military support from the West combined with an identifiable rebellion.”
Because President Obama had declared that any Syrian government use of chemical weapons was a “red line,” a false flag chemical attack attributed to the Syrian government provided a possible avenue to trigger the Western intervention promised by Turkish and Gulf officials. This was the view of at least some members of the US intelligence community. Journalist Seymour Hersh reports that Turkish “Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan was known to be supporting the al-Nusra Front, a jihadist faction among the rebel opposition, as well as other Islamist rebel groups. ‘We knew there were some in the Turkish government,’ a former senior US intelligence official, who has access to current intelligence, told me, ‘who believed they could get Assad’s nuts in a vice by dabbling with a sarin attack inside Syria – and forcing Obama to make good on his red line threat.’” Similarly, journalist Charles Glass of Harper’s reported that a former US ambassador to the Middle East told him, “The ‘red line’ was an open invitation to a false-flag operation.”
At the same time, the Syrian government and its supporters immediately realized the danger of being blamed for such a chemical attack, providing a strong incentive for them to avoid the use of such weapons. In response to claims about the Syrian army’s use of chemical weapons in Yarmouk, the PFLP-GC released a statement claiming that, as part of the “media war against the government of Syria, channels of destruction and sedition have started to air misleading propaganda claiming that the Syrian Arab Army would fire mortars and or missiles into the camp with chemical gases, whereas these elements themselves are planning chemical attacks to blame the government,” as occurred in Khan al-Assal.
Coincidentally, or not, new allegations of Syrian government use of chemical weapons emerged on 21 August 2013 (just four weeks after the alleged chemical attack in Yarmouk and just three days after the Ake Sellstrom-led UN mission had arrived), this time in the nearby Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta. Rebels claimed some 1,300 dead, this time releasing “dozens of videos” of the victims “within hours” of the attack. Syrian state media claimed this was a false flag, meant to pave the way for US intervention on the rebels behalf, and “an attempt to divert the UN chemical weapons investigation commission away from carrying out its duties” to investigate the Khan al-Assal attack.
US planners drew up plans to bomb a wide array of Syrian military targets and were on the verge of initiating the bombing campaign, which was only averted at the last moment, partly due to doubts raised by Obama’s then director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who warned that Syrian government responsibility for the attack was “not a slam dunk.”
PLO Delegation Arrives
Amidst allegations of a chemical attack in Yarmouk in July 2013, a delegation from the PLO arrived in Syria, in an attempt to negotiate an end to the fighting. The delegation included PLO executive committee members Ahmad Majdalani and Zakaria al-Agha, who met with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad and Major General Ali Mamluk. On August 6, the PLO delegation formally proposed the following, which won approval from Syrian authorities and from all PLO factions:
1) The exit of all rebels from the camp and amnesty for those desiring it.
2) Easing freedom of entry and exit to and from the camp, including the crossing of individuals and humanitarian and medical aid, to encourage the return of the displaced to their homes.
3) Return of electricity and water and communications and infrastructure, as well as educational and health services.
4) The release of detainees among camp residents whose involvement in the fighting could not be confirmed.
PLO efforts to negotiate an end to the fighting and the exit of Nusra were met with skepticism by opposition activists. Writing in pro-opposition Almodon, Mahmoud Sarhan claimed the PLO peace proposal was just “theatre” providing cover for the Syrian army to solve the issue of the camp militarily, while also alleging government forces had shot two grad rockets into the camp on July 24 (three days after the alleged chemical attack), killing up to 15.
Sarhan also criticized the possibility of opening a humanitarian corridor to allow families to evacuate the camp at this time, claiming such corridors are the way that the Syrian government forcibly displaces civilians, in a form of collective punishment. Criticizing efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor here seem odd. It would make sense to evacuate as many civilians as possible from a war zone, especially those wishing to leave. Once an end to the fighting could be negotiated, the civilians could hopefully return. If not, at least they would escape the violence.
Other opposition activists have claimed such evacuations constitute Syrian government efforts to ethnically cleanse Sunnis and that the “regime’s ethnic-cleansing policy also included the Palestinians in Syria, as they are primarily Sunnis. The regime is systematically destroying the refugee camps in Syria as one way to ‘cause Sunni demographic change.’” However, in areas where the Syrian government has defeated rebels throughout the war, the internally displaced and refugees have been able to slowly return, including large numbers of Sunnis, in particular to Aleppo. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that by November 2017, one year after Aleppo was liberated by the Syrian army, some “440,000 displaced Aleppans have returned to the city and surrounding areas. Some 300,000 are thought to have returned to Eastern Aleppo, which witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Syrian conflict,” even though “those returning know that it will take many years before normality is restored.” UNHCR also quoted Abu Ahmed al-Shawa, a resident who returned to Aleppo and reopened his restaurant in the façade of a totally destroyed building, as explaining, “Destruction is easy but rebuilding is hard. It will take a long time to bring Aleppo back from all this.”
The Siege Intensifies
The PLO-led negotiations to end the conflict in Yarmouk failed, however. Rebels remained in the camp, with roughly 20,000 civilians, while the siege and fighting continued. The government tightened the siege further during the summer of 2013, in an effort to protect Damascus, but with little concern for civilians remaining in Yarmouk. Months went by when very little aid was able to reach the camp. UN efforts to deliver aid were hampered by Syrian government bureaucratic red tape. Ben Parker of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria complained that officially, the UN was allowed to deliver aid anywhere, “But every action requires time-consuming permissions, which effectively provide multiple veto opportunities.” Filippo Grandi, Commissioner-General of UNRWA detailed how “entry and exit were tightly controlled by the warring parties, but residents continued to receive some assistance. Access became tighter until it was all but sealed in September ,” after which residents began living “as in a medieval siege,” and subsisting “on grass, spices mixed in water, and animal feed. They burned furniture on their balconies to keep warm; they suffered severe malnutrition and dehydration. Many died from readily treatable conditions.” Jonathon Steele of the Guardian writes that “In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.”
Rebels also bore blame for continuing the crisis and preventing food and aid from reaching residents, however. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) claimed that both sides had blocked medical aid to the sick and wounded because “whatever medical aid is brought to one part or the other is interpreted as an indirect military support to the other side.” Similarly, Maan explained that little food aid and medicine had reached the camp during 2013 “because of the siege of the regime forces from outside, and the sniper operations which the armed groups inside the camp undertake.”
The New York Times noted that Palestinians in Yarmouk were not only “blockaded and bombarded by the Syrian government,” but at the same time “ruled internally by a tangled web of armed groups, including Syrian insurgents and Palestinian factions, said by residents to siphon scarce food to their own fighters and families.”
The phenomenon of rebel siphoning and hoarding of food occurred in other areas of Syria under rebel control and besieged by the Syrian army. Robert Worth of the New York Times visited Aleppo after it was liberated by the Syrian army in 2016, and wrote that areas of the city previously under rebel control had been “a chaotic wasteland full of feuding militias — some of them radical Islamists — who hoarded food and weapons while the people starved.” Turkish journalist Fehim Tastekin visited Aleppo after liberation as well, and reported that, “Umm Khatice, a woman in Bustan al-Qasr, said her family never left their house and lived in misery for five years, suffering from hunger. ‘We were the starving ones, not the armed groups. Those thugs confiscated relief supplies, distributed them to their supporters or sold them. Many people had no choice but to join them to survive,’ she said. . . . Another man said they experienced hunger and thirst under the blockade, but those who agreed to join the armed groups managed well. We were also told how armed groups did not allow civilians to leave the area under government blockade, and even fired on those who wanted to leave.” After the Syrian army liberated the Damascus suburb of Douma in April 2017, the AP similarly reported that “Many residents blamed the greed of some local businessmen and the main rebel group in Douma, the Saudi-backed Army of Islam, for much of their misery, by raising food prices to make more money and hiding the scant food supplies from people in need. After the Army of Islam left town, they said, they discovered the militants had stored large amounts of rice, flour, wheat, canned goods and other food — enough, they said to feed residents for months.“
As a result of the government siege and rebel hoarding of food, many civilians in Yarmouk starved to death. Newsweek quoted Ram Heramic, a 24 year old Yarmouk resident as saying, “I remember the first person to starve to death. . . .He was a 6-year-old boy called Abd Alhay Yousif. It’s ironic—his name means ‘one who worships immortal gods’ . . . The immortal gods did not protect him. He never grew up.” Newsweek notes further that “Heramic and others from Yarmouk compile what they call the Starvation Death List. It has 177 names of people who have died of hunger [between 2013 and May 2015] during the period of siege when hardly any goods have been able to reach the camp.”
Siege related deaths appeared to begin in October 2013, while quickly accelerating in subsequent months. According to the database of Palestinian victims compiled by the pro-opposition AGPS, three Palestinians died due to starvation and lack of medical care in October (listed as “siege victims”), four died in November, and 17 seventeen died in December. Amnesty International claims numbers that are higher, but with a similar trajectory, listing six siege related deaths in October, 26 in November, and 38 in December.
Negotiations Fail Again
PLO efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis also continued during this time, and the warring parties appeared close to coming to an agreement, which revolved around the withdrawal of both the rebels in the camp, and of the PFLP-GC militants manning the checkpoints surrounding it. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported on November 13 that Zakariyah al-Agha of the PLO executive committee once again met with Syrian Foreign Minister Mikdad and Major General Mamluk and announced an agreement for the opening of a secure route to allow the entry of urgently needed humanitarian supplies and for establishing a mechanism for evacuating weapons and armed men from the camp. The secretary of the Fatah movement in Lebanon, Fathi Abu al-Urdat told al-Sharq al-Awsat as well that “we don’t want the camp to be martyred and turn into a second Nahr al-Barid,” referring to the Palestinian camp in Lebanon that was destroyed during fighting between jihadist militants and the Lebanese army in 2007. Al-Urdat also noted the agreement allowed for a presidential pardon for those rebels willing to give up their weapons, and also for the release of Palestinian detainees in Syrian government prisons and revealing information about those detainees who were among the missing.
Palestine’s ambassador to Syria, Anwar Abdul Hadi, told al-Akhbar two days later, however, that “The negotiations with the fighters have gone nowhere,” due to the insistence of the Hamas-affiliated fighters to be included in the administration of the camp. Al-Akhbar claimed as well that the “first step to evacuate civilians from the camp on Tuesday morning failed, despite the PLO’s best efforts. Opposition fighters did all they could to prevent local residents from leaving by either taking their identification papers or firing at them if they tried to bypass their checkpoints. “In December, PLO official Ahmed Majdalani noted to Maan that negotiations remained stalled, but that now, “the obstacle was the PFLP-GC, who attempted to implement a unilateral solution by bringing back gunmen — both Syrians and Palestinians affiliated to the group — into the camp to maintain security.”
Rebels Hold Yarmouk Hostage
In January 2014, as the deaths from starvation continued to mount, the Syrian government finally began to ease its restrictions and help facilitate the delivery of aid to the camp. Both UNRWA and the PFLP-GC began to organize aid convoys and to attempt to evacuate the sick and wounded. These efforts were blocked by rebel snipers, however.
On January 8, Maan cited a popular relief committee member as claiming that “A group of sick refugees who were to leave Yarmouk camp for treatment were unable to be transferred out of the camp after rebel militants opened fire at the camp’s popular committee members and Palestinian militants.” The LA Times reported on January 18, 2014 that “Palestinians and the United Nations attempted to bring a food convoy into the camp,” but “they were shot at by armed groups from inside the camp and forced to retreat.” AFP noted that the “aid convoy was the sixth to have failed to enter the camp.” During this time, Ahmed Majdalani also accused a rebel group known as the Pact of Omar Brigades of blocking the entry of aid into, and the exit of injured civilians out of, the camp.
Rebel efforts to prevent delivery of food to the camp could not have come at a worse time, as the rate of siege related deaths continued to surge. The AGPS database indicates that 62 Palestinians in Yarmouk died due to starvation and lack of medical care (also listed as siege victims) during January (compared to 38 in December), while Amnesty claims 65 siege related deaths in January (compared to 38 in December).
This raises the question of why rebel groups would wish to block food aid from entering the camp, and block civilians from exiting. PLO official Anwar Abdul-Hadi provided an answer, explaining that “The rebels . . . keep preventing (food aid) operations and they use hunger as a way to keep the Syrian government under pressure,” and that during early 2014 “all [Palestinian] groups sent 12,000 food baskets and evacuated 4,000 Palestinians. And each few days, rebels make a fight to interrupt and stop this operation.”
Rebels also prevented civilians from leaving the camp because they needed the fighting aged males to remain in the camp as a source of recruitment, and because rebels wished to use civilians as human shields to deter attacks from the Syrian army and the PFLP-GC. In March 2015, for example, one mother from Yarmouk described her dilemma to Jonathan Steele of the Guardian: “’I am trapped,’ the woman, named Reem Buqaee, told me. She had been given permission to leave Yarmouk three months earlier with her three teenage daughters. The oldest one was pregnant. Owing to malnutrition, she was suffering from anemia so severe that she was at risk of losing her baby. The other two girls also had medical problems. But leaving the camp had meant splitting the family. The husband of the pregnant woman could not leave the camp, nor could Reem’s husband, or her 16-year-old son. Rebel groups were eager to keep people in the camp, she said, particularly men and boys. Their departure was seen as defection from the opposition cause as well as potentially making it easier for government troops to enter the camp by force and regain control.” Rebel efforts to trap civilians in Yarmouk were later repeated in Aleppo, as rebels fired on civilians attempting to escape rebel held districts of the city through corridors set up by the Russian and Syrian militaries in 2016, as reported by the Independent.
This led Ahmed Majdalani to put primary blame for the catastrophe in Yarmouk on the rebels, explaining to AFP on 14 January 2014 that jihadist rebels from Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Golan were well “known for their terrorist links and methodology” and that Palestinians “everywhere know… that those who have taken the camp hostage are these groups, not the Syrian authorities.”
Majdalani’s view of events in Yarmouk is important because he was from a neutral party (from the PLO rather than from the pro-government PFLP-GC) and because he was deeply involved in negotiations between the rebels and government to end the fighting. He was therefore intimately aware of the dynamics on the ground in the camp.
Nusra Sabotages the Agreement
Days later, the situation finally began to improve. On 18 January 2014, aid was delivered inside the camp itself for the first time in four months. The deliveries were made possible by an agreement between the government and rebels that led to a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Nusra fighters from Yarmouk to neighboring Yalda, leaving the camp in the hands of local Palestinian rebel factions. The agreement would foreshadow Syrian government efforts to end fighting in various parts of the country through the use of amnesty offers. Led by Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haidar, the Syrian government began offering rebels the possibility of staying in their local areas and reconciling with the state in exchange for laying down arms, or evacuating to rebel-held Idlib province.
By February 26, UNRWA spokesperson Christopher Gunness was increasingly optimistic, noting that thousands of food parcels had been distributed to camp residents since 18 January and that “Significantly, the UNRWA team was permitted to work from an UNRWA facility in Yarmouk for the first time since December 2012. . . This represents a highly encouraging step towards re-establishing full services and humanitarian access to Yarmouk.” Civilians were still dying from starvation and lack of medical care, though apparently at a lower rate. The AGPS database listed 36 siege related deaths in February (compared to 65 in January).
While aid access slowly improved, efforts to end the conflict as a whole quickly fell apart, as Nusra rebels returned to the camp, invading it just a week later, on 2 March 2014. The Telegraph quoted a Yarmouk resident as saying that “A small number of people had started to be allowed out of Yarmouk under the agreement” between the rebels and the government but that “Now al-Nusra has stormed the camp and taken over the checkpoints inside and the agreement is finished,” disrupting aid deliveries once again. Al-Akhbar reports that elements of ISIS also entered the camp alongside Nusra at this time. ISIS militants also arrested several residents of the camp that had been involved in negotiating the agreement with the government, which ISIS viewed as a “pagan reconciliation,” causing them to issue threats against “anyone who puts his hand in any step of the initiative” to end the fighting.
Nusra and ISIS efforts to disrupt a negotiated settlement occurred repeatedly over the course of the rebel occupation of Yarmouk, despite broad agreement among the Syrian government and allied Palestinian militias on the one hand, and local Palestinian rebel groups on the other, about how to de-militarize the camp and end the conflict. In July 2014, al-Akhbar quoted a Palestinian activist in Yarmouk, Hussein al-Assady, as explaining that all the interested parties were willing to come to an agreement, but that the al-Qaeda offshoot rebel groups in the camp, including Nusra, Pact of Omar, and ISIS, prevented the execution of any agreement and refused to leave the camp. Al-Assady points out that the Palestinian rebel groups continually made promises about their ability to convince Nusra and others to respect an agreement, but were never actually able to make good on such promises. Al-Akhbar also cited Shadi Salaama, an activist on the issue of reconciliation in Yarmouk camp, as explaining that as a result, “the fate of hundreds of thousands of displaced residents of the camp, Palestinians and Syrians, continues to depend on the promises of leaders of the militants who benefit from the current situation in the camp remaining as it is.”
In August 2014, AGPS similarly reported that, “a civilian delegation, who oversaw the signing of the neutralization agreement, entered the camp. They entered to witness the surrender of youths [rebels] to the Syrian authorities in order to regularise their status in the implementation of the framework of the initiative provisions. The delegation was met by gunfire however, as they were shot upon by Al Nosra Front members, leading to the injury of ‘Naim Al-Khatib’ a member of the popular mobility in the Yarmouk refugee camp, who was shot in the foot and taken to [the] hospital. In addition, a number of people in the camp carried out a demonstration demanding the immediate implementation of the initiative terms, and to accelerate ending the siege for the return of displaced people.”
In November 2014, journalist Sharmine Narwane quoted Maher Taher, a member of the political bureau of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) as describing how, “There have been attempts by all Palestinian groups to help broker peace in Yarmouk. We reached agreements, but [the rebels] have a problem with implementation. The deal is essentially that armed groups should leave the camp and Palestinians should return. The Syrian government is being cooperative with these operations and has granted chances to feed civilians inside. But at the moment of implementation, the rebels break the agreement (note that the PLFP is separate from the pro-Syrian government PLFP-GC).”
Tenuous and Unreliable Aid
Throughout 2014, UNRWA had been able to deliver aid to the camp but reported that its access was “tenuous and unreliable” and that it was able to deliver food aid “equivalent to only 400 calories per resident per day.” Jonathon Steele of the Guardian reports that “For most of 2014, both sides were willing to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the camp on an ad hoc basis, UN officials told me, even if the amount was far below what was needed. Every day, UNRWA would check whether there had been exchanges of fire in Yarmouk. Sometimes the agency’s minivans never left the warehouse in central Damascus, on other occasions, delivery convoys were turned back.”
In November 2014, Sharmine Narwani visited Damascus and reported that “UNRWA told me it hands out approximately 400 boxes each day they are present in Yarmouk. Armed clashes prevent it from being able to access delivery points inside the camp on most days though” and that the main UNRWA representative in charge of food distribution inside Yarmouk explained that “The Syrian government is doing its best to make this operation smooth. They do not put a cap on the number of [food] parcels to come in the camp,” while specifically crediting Kinda Chammat, Syria’s female minister of social affairs, for the government’s cooperation. UNRWA partnered closely with the General Authority for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR), a division of the Syrian ministry of social affairs, to distribute food and medical kits. On November 28, Ali Mustafa, Director General of the GAPAR told Syrian state media (SANA) that “the total of food packages that have been distributed since the beginning of the year  reached 55,174, while the number of health packages reached 10,884.”
The health crisis in the camp continued, however, with AGPS reporting that “A severe shortage of medicines, medical and personnel supplies has been felt throughout the camp. This has led to the spread of many chronic diseases and consequentially death. Medical staff in the camp have warned of worrying numbers, receiving between 10 and 15 cases a day of fever, typhoid and anemia; and the spread of many chronic and communicable diseases such as Tuberculosis. The number of people with typhoid fever (typhus) inside the camp reached 110 with no access to drugs for treatment. Many diseases were also caused due to lack of water and fluids such as kidney stones” prompting the GAPAR and Palestinian embassy to begin providing vaccinations to be distributed throughout the camp by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in July 2014.
ISIS Comes to Yarmouk
Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that throughout 2014, the various FSA brigades in the camp either disintegrated or merged into the more powerful groups, namely Nusra and the Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, led Abu Ahmed al-Musheer the former bodyguard of Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Meshaal. The co-existence between Nusra and Aknaf eventually broke down however, leading to a bloody struggle for influence in the camp, and a war of assassinations between the two.
By March 2015, despite the tension between Nusra and Aknaf, UNRWA was making daily deliveries of food to the camp. During this time, support for Nusra from the government of Qatar, a close US ally, became more explicit. Qatari officials began openly encouraging Nusra to officially cut ties with al-Qaeda in order to help rebrand the organization. Reuters reports that “Sources within and close to Nusra said that Qatar, which enjoys good relations with the group, is encouraging the group to go ahead with the move, which would give Nusra a boost in funding” and that “Intelligence officials from Gulf states including Qatar have met the leader of Nusra, Abu Mohamad al-Golani, several times in the past few months.”
A month later, in April 2015, the crisis in Yarmouk intensified yet again. Intra-rebel fighting erupted when Nusra commanders cooperated with ISIS in an effort to gain the upper hand against their rivals in Aknaf. It should be remembered that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had sent Nusra leader al-Golani from Iraq to Syria in the fall of 2011 with orders to establish Nusra. The two groups were essentially different branches of the same organization, one Syrian and one Iraqi, until spring 2013, when a power struggle between al-Baghdadi and al-Golani emerged. This struggle, which largely revolved around control of revenues from Syria’s eastern oil fields, caused the two groups to formally split, and to become bitter enemies. In the southern suburbs of Damascus, however, the two groups continued to work closely together, causing one local activist to observe that now “ISIS and Jabhet [Nusra] are one hand in Yarmouk,” despite their bitter rivalry elsewhere.
Amal Asfour, a member of the Palestinian National Assembly for Relief in Yarmouk camp, described further how hostilities emerged in Yarmouk in April 2015 between Aknaf on the one hand, and Nusra and ISIS on the other. Asfour explains that ISIS fighters assassinated Aknaf leader Yahya Hourani and that, “After the assassination, one of the groups of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis arrested elements from ISIS in the camp, over the objections of Jabhat al-Nusra. These events prompted Jabhat al-Nusra to turn on Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, despite some elements having coordinated with them in the past, and launch a conspiracy in full collaboration with ISIS groups to invade al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Takadom, to invade Yarmouk camp, control it, and eliminate Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis. This invasion took place over a very short period of time, demonstrating the extent of the coordination and cooperation with Al-Nusra, in order to pave the way for ISIS to achieve this control without any difficulties or confrontation.”
In contrast, ISIS sources claimed the group invaded Yarmouk because Aknaf was preparing to reach an agreement with the Syrian government to end the fighting and facilitate the exit of the rebels. The head ISIS commander in Yarmouk claimed that the Aknaf leadership had “come to an agreement to make the Yarmouk camp neutral” and “hand it over to the Palestinian factions that were allied with the Nusayri regime [Syrian government].” The ISIS English-language magazine, Dabiq, claimed that ISIS then created “a plan to counter Aknaf’s move, and by Allah’s grace, the mujahidin succeeded in foiling the agreement. The battle for Yarmuk began with the Islamic State [ISIS] attacking from multiple directions and taking control of a number of neighborhoods. As the battle continued, Islamic State cells in Yarmuk as well as the surrounding regions continued to play a key role, including multiple units of Islamic State cells in the Tadamun region north of the town of Yalda who succeeded in blocking numerous supplies and reinforcements coming from the area northeast of Yarmuk. The soldiers of the Khilafah [ISIS] continued advancing against the Sahwat [Aknaf] in Yarmuk and succeeded in pushing them back to the edge of the region. At this point, many of their fighters voluntarily surrendered themselves and numerous others were killed. The few who remained made contact with the Nusayrī regime and the pro-regime Palestinian factions in the area, who then began supplying them with weapons, ammo, and food. This new level of cooperation with the Nusayriyyah was enough to demonstrate Aknaf’s degree of treachery towards the people of Yarmuk.”
When the fighting erupted, ISIS quickly took control of some 70% to 90% of the camp, forcing UNRWA to suspend aid deliveries once again. Al-Sharq al-Awsat cited local sources as reporting that of some 250 Aknaf fighters in the camp, 100 fled to the neighboring areas of Yalda and Babila under FSA control, 70 defected to the Syrian government side, while Nusra and ISIS “liquidated” the remainder. The Daily Mail reported that ISIS militants were beheading Aknaf fighters in public executions in the streets. The pro-government Syria Times reported that Mohammad Zaghmout, an Aknaf leader, had indeed defected to the government side (he was “under Syrian state protection”) and had been treated in a hospital in Damascus.
Amal Asfour notes as well that ISIS “took advantage of the opportunity to break furniture and steal food from displaced families and forcibly invaded some offices that were providing relief services to the people of the camp, including the office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, where the civil relief association of PLO factions is headquartered, where they broke furniture, stole goods and materials that they could take, burned posters of the martyrs, banners, and Palestinian flags, and wrote slogans on the walls, such as ‘We will kill you, infidels.’”
PFLP-GC Defends Damascus
Al-Jazeera reported that “The government forces control the northern part [of the camp] towards Damascus. It is their priority to keep the capital safe. . . The fact that [ISIS] fighters are less than 10km away is of a huge concern” and that if the government creates a humanitarian corridor for civilians to escape, “who will be coming out?” Nonetheless, al-Jazeera reported that some 2,000 people were able to be evacuated at this time, with many finding shelter in government schools in neighboring areas. PLO official Abdul-Hadi described further how “Syrian troops had helped in the evacuation, which came as Palestinian forces battled to hold back IS [ISIS] fighters who have captured large swathes of the camp since Wednesday,” while Ali Mustafa of the GAPAR reported the group was providing bread, water and food supplements to Yarmouk residents taking refuge in the nearby Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Babila, and Beit Sahem. Qatari-owned al-Araby al-Jadid reported that only roughly 6,000 to 8,000 civilians remained in the camp, while Foreign Policy reported a higher number of some 13,000.
Fighters from the PFLP-GC confronted ISIS fighters at the northern edge of the camp to stop their advance, while the Syrian military bombed ISIS positions. Foreign Policy quoted one PFLP-GC fighter originally from Yarmouk as saying “I will not stop until they [ISIS] leave the camp. . . I have no problem staying here in this position, not sleeping, digging out tunnels, and fighting. We need to do this,” while quoting another PFLP-GC fighter who felt that “If we weren’t here fighting, [ISIS] would be able to access Damascus. . . We’re here to protect the camp and Damascus.”
Palestinian factions comprising the PLO initially agreed to allow the Syrian army to enter the camp to try defeat ISIS militarily, only for the PLO to reverse course, allegedly after pressure on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from the rebels’ backers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Al-Akhbar reports that PLO official Ahmed Majdalani came to Damascus carrying a letter from President Abbas authorizing the Syrian state to take whatever measures appropriate to defeat ISIS in the camp, and also that Majdalani had announced that the 14 factions of the PLO and the Syrian army would establish a joint operations room to coordinate military efforts against the terror group. Majdalani told Syrian state media (SANA) that “The decision will be jointly made by the two sides to retake the camp from the obscurantist terrorists who seize it now.”
Al-Jazeera reported that President Abbas then issued a statement contradicting Majdalani and denying such plans, asking Syrian authorities not to attempt to defeat ISIS militarily, but to instead resort to “other means to protect the blood of our people and to prevent further destruction and displacement of the children of Yarmouk camp.” PFLP-GC representatives accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of threatening to cut aid payments to the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a result of the PLO’s initial decision to work with the Syrian army to defeat ISIS in the camp, and claimed that Qatar extended a $100 million dollar interest-free loan to the PA after Abbas changed his and the PLO’s initial decision.
US Planners Welcome ISIS and Nusra Advances
Abbas’ decision came at a time when the Syrian government as a whole was in real danger of falling to jihadists from both Nusra and ISIS, both of which continued to cooperate closely to control Yarmouk. The New York Times observed at this time that “By seizing much of the camp” ISIS had “made its greatest inroads yet into Damascus,” while the Washington Post noted that “Their new push puts [ISIS] within five miles of the heart of the capital . . . even as they are on the retreat in Iraq.”
Additionally, the April 2015 entry of ISIS into Yarmouk was soon coupled with the ISIS capture of Palmyra in the deserts of eastern Syria in May 2015, allowing ISIS to push further toward the Damascus suburbs from the east. While US planes bombed ISIS positions in north eastern Syria and in Iraq, the LA Times reported that US planners had the ability to bomb convoys of ISIS fighters moving west across the open desert from Raqqa to Palmyra, but chose not to.
The threat to the capital from ISIS at this time was also coupled with the threat from the Saudi-backed Salafist rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, which continued to hold the Damascus suburbs of Eastern Ghouta. In 2013, the group’s founder, Zahran Alloush had called for “cleansing Damascus” of all Alawites, while calling Shiite Muslims, of which Alawites are considered an offshoot, “unclean” and threatening to make them “taste the worst torture in life before Allah makes you taste the worst torture on judgment day.” Jaish al-Islam gained notoriety for parading Alawite captives in cages and placing them in public squares to serve as human shields to allegedly deter Syrian government attacks, as reported by the Telegraph. The AP reports that in the spring of 2015, Jaish al-Islam was powerful enough to hold “a massive military parade that included thousands of opposition fighters marching in formation and a striking display of tanks and armored vehicles at the doors of the Syrian capital” demonstrating “the Saudi-backed group’s growing clout in the eastern Ghouta suburbs, which for years were seen as a potential launch pad for a ground attack on Damascus, seat of President Bashar Assad’s power.”
Secretary of State John Kerry shockingly admitted that US planners had actually welcomed the ISIS push toward Damascus at this time, which they felt they could leverage to put pressure on Assad to give up power to the US-backed opposition. Kerry explained that “the reason Russia came in is because ISIL [ISIS] was getting stronger. Daesh [ISIS] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus. And that is why Russia came in. They didn’t want a Daesh government and they supported Assad. And we know this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we thought Assad was threatened. We thought we could manage that Assad might then negotiate. Instead of negotiating, he got Putin to support him [emphasis mine].”
Kerry’s comments explain why US-allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar may have exerted pressure on Abbas not to permit the Syrian army to enter Yarmouk to fight ISIS, as Saudi and Qatar must have also welcomed the ISIS push toward Damascus, in accordance with US preferences. This should not come as a surprise, given that Saudi Arabia and Qatar had been providing “clandestine financial and logistical support to ISIL [ISIS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region,” for years, and with the full knowledge of US officials, as acknowledged by Hillary Clinton advisor John Podesta and by US General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
The Syrian government lost Idlib province to jihadist rebels at this time as well, after a major Nusra-led rebel assault in March and April 2015. Syria analyst Charles Lister reports in Foreign Policy that US-backed Free Syrian Army brigades played a crucial role in supporting the Nusra assault on Idlib, and that US planners had increased weapons shipments to these “vetted” rebel groups and encouraged them to cooperate closely with Nusra. This allowed rebels to benefit from the lethal combination of Nusra suicide bombers and US-supplied weapons. Syria analyst Hassan Hassan observed during this time that “The Syrian rebels are on a roll” and that “The recent offensives in Idlib have been strikingly swift — thanks in large part to suicide bombers and American anti-tank TOW missiles.” The rebel success in Idlib, in particular in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, allowed rebels to threaten Latakia as well. Hassan also writes that, “For the first time since the conflict began, Assad’s heartlands in the Western region [Latakia] seemed exposed.”
US officials supported rebel efforts to assault Latakia, despite expectations that the rebels would massacre the large numbers of Alawite residents of the region. The New York Times observed that, “If the rebels had captured the area — where Alawites are the majority — a result would almost certainly have been sectarian mass murder. Many people in the region would have blamed the United States, which armed some of the rebels operating in the area. . . Andrew Exum, who worked in the Pentagon at the time, told me that the military drew up contingency plans for a rapid collapse of the regime. The planning sessions were talked about as ‘catastrophic success.’”
It was expected that Nusra and their FSA allies would massacre Latakia’s Alawites as Nusra religious clerics draw on the writings of the fringe 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya to argue that Alawites are infidels deserving of death, as noted above.
Despite US wishes, Russia refused to allow Damascus and Latakia to fall to ISIS and Nusra. In September 2015, Russia intervened militarily, gradually turning the tide in the conflict. US planners responded to Russian efforts to save Damascus and Latakia from the jihadists by further increasing shipments of TOW anti-tank missiles to the FSA, despite the clear knowledge these weapons would benefit al-Qaeda (Nusra).
Former Allies Become Enemies
After ISIS entered Yarmouk in April 2015, the Syrian government continued the siege to prevent ISIS and Nusra from advancing further on Damascus. Conditions in the camp remained dire. Starting in February 2016, the situation improved somewhat as the Syrian government was allowing aid to be delivered to check points at the edges of the two by two kilometer camp, in areas adjacent to Yalda, giving residents the chance to walk to retrieve it. UNRWA reported in April 2016 these deliveries had “significantly alleviated the shortages of food.”
Rebel violence once again disrupted UNRWA efforts to deliver aid, however, as cooperation between Nusra and ISIS in the camp fell apart. Fighting soon broke out between the former allies in early April 2016, with UNRWA reporting that the “outbreak of fighting has already caused UNRWA to suspend humanitarian missions to Yalda this week. As long as the fighting continues, these missions will remain suspended.” One Yarmouk resident explained that during this time residents were scared to leave their homes for fear of ISIS snipers, and could not go to Yalda to get supplies because “Daesh [ISIS] won’t let people leave,” noting as well that the “Palestine hospital is just being used for ISIS fighters, not civilians. They control the medicine. [Al]-Basel hospital has been destroyed.”
ISIS fighters continued to threaten other areas of Damascus as well, carrying out two suicide bombings targeting the nearby Sayida Zeinab shrine, the first in April 2016, killing 15, and wounding dozens, and the second in June 2016, killing 12.
By December 2016, ISIS had seized most of Yarmouk from Nusra, and the Syrian army maintained the siege, but was staying out of the fight, allowing the jihadist rebels in the camp to simply kill each other, while focusing its efforts on liberating Aleppo. Pro-Syrian government al-Masdar News reported that “Currently, there is no Syrian Arab Army (SAA) or Palestinian resistance in the camp, so ISIS is just combating their former allies [Nusra] that allowed them to enter Yarmouk in March 2015.”
By May 2017, the rebel infighting and government siege had taken its toll, and militants from both groups considered accepting Syrian government offers to be evacuated from Yarmouk to join fellow fighters in other areas of the country, namely Idlib for the Nusra fighters, and eastern Syria for ISIS fighters. On May 21, 2017 Bas News reports that ISIS established registration points where residents could go to sign up to be evacuated and that ISIS fighters were seen quickly selling their belongings for cheap prices. ISIS commanders sent text messages to their fighters stating that emigration to the “caliphate” in eastern Syria was obligatory. Bas News also reported that a group of Nusra fighters had already abandoned their positions in Yarmouk and traveled to Idlib. The negotiations to evacuate Nusra fighters, including many wounded, took place under the direction of Syrian Minister of Reconciliation Ali Haider as part of the “four towns” agreement. Haider explained to al-Sharq al-Awsat that the efforts to end the rebel presence in Yarmouk had “come a long way” and that the Syrian state was using “all means available to ease the way for the rebel evacuation and for the return of the people of the camp to their homes.” Negotiations for a broader rebel evacuation failed however, and ISIS and elements of Nusra remained in the camp.
Timber Sycamore Ends
Nusra’s willingness in the spring of 2017 to consider evacuating Yarmouk, after years of intransigence, roughly coincided with the end of US support for the rebels broadly. In July 2017, President Trump formally ended the CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebels, while himself acknowledging what had been obvious for years, namely that the CIA-supplied weapons, purchased largely with Saudi money, had “ended up in the hands of ‘Al Qaeda.’” Once the flow of money and weapons from the CIA ended, it was only a matter of time before the Syrian army would be able to liberate not just Yarmouk, but all of the southern Damascus suburbs.
While President Trump formally ended CIA support for the rebels, US policy had begun to shift in a different direction already by late 2016, during the last months of the Obama administration. While CIA director John Brennan remained a “vigorous defender” of the CIA program to help Syria’s rebels topple the Syrian government, others in the Obama administration began to acknowledge that allying with al-Qaeda over the past 6 years had been a mistake.
The Washington Post reported in November 2016 that “Officials who supported the shift said the Obama administration could no longer tolerate what one of them described as ‘a deal with the devil,’ whereby the United States largely held its fire against al-Nusra because the group was popular with Syrians in rebel-controlled areas and furthered the U.S. goal of putting military pressure on Assad.”
President Obama also finally acknowledged what had been obvious for years, that there was no practical distinction between the Syrian opposition, which the US had long backed, and al-Qaeda. One US official told the Post as well that “The president doesn’t want this group [Nusra] to be what inherits the country if Assad ever does fall. . . This cannot be the viable Syrian opposition. It’s al-Qaeda.”
Jaish al-Islam and ISIS Go to War
Rebel infighting in Yarmouk continued in the fall of 2017 when new tensions emerged between ISIS and the Saudi-backed Salafist rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, which also controlled territory in the Damascus suburbs, in particular in Eastern Ghouta, as described above. The most recent dispute between ISIS and Jaish al-Islam originated over control of the checkpoint between Yarmouk and Yalda in October 2017. By January 2018, a full blown conflict had emerged between the two groups. Al-Masdar News reported that Jaish al-Islam “carried out an infiltration operation against ISIS, attacking the terrorist group’s positions in the city’s southern districts. Reports clarify that the attack took place in an orchard area between the Yalda and Hajjar As-Aswad neighborhoods with both Jaysh al-Islam fighters and Islamic State [ISIS] terrorists exchanging heavy fire.” ISIS militants counter-attacked one week later, with al-Masdar reporting that, “Using shock troops backed up by medium weapons support, ISIS attempted to overrun Jaysh al-Islam positions in Yalda’s Zein neighborhood. At the present time heavy firefights are ongoing as Syrian rebels cling on to their positions in the Zein neighborhood, refusing to concede an inch of territory. . .” ISIS fighters were finally able to breakthrough Jaish al-Islam’s line of defense on Zein Street to re-take control of almost all of Hajjar al-Aswad and to control all of Taqadam.
In February 2018, ISIS turned its attention once again to fighting militants from Nusra within Yarmouk, with clashes on Haifa Street leading to the deaths of roughly 100 fighters on each side. The Turkish Anadolou Agency reported that due to this fighting “Daesh [ISIS] took control of a Palestinian hospital and nearby areas. This reduced areas under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham [Nusra] control to around 15 percent. Since the attacks, Daesh now controls 75 percent of Camp Yarmouk, which has around 5,000 civilians living in it.”
The Liberation of Ghouta
In March 2018, the Syrian army battled rebel groups Jaish al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman in an effort to retake the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, from which rebels regularly launched mortars into Damascus, targeting markets and church gatherings, while the Syrian government subjected Eastern Ghouta to a harsh siege similar to that imposed on Yarmouk. SOHR claims that rebel shelling of Damascus had killed 116 people, including 18 children and 14 women over the previous three months.
After a sustained bombing campaign of rebel positions in Ghouta from the air, the Syrian army launched a ground assault, forcing rebels to finally agree to give up their heavy weapons and either be evacuated to Idlib or be reconciled with the state. By March 27, both Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman had reached deals with the government, while hardliners in the Jaish al-Islam leadership were still pushing for better terms before coming to an agreement. On April 6, pro-opposition SOHR reported that of the 10,000 fighters under Jaish al-Islam’s command, 4,000 were refusing to be evacuated. However, on April 9, Jaish al-Islam finally agreed to evacuate the remainder of its fighters and their families to Idlib as well, and to release 3,500 prisoners and hostages it had captured in preceding years, including many Alawites captured in 2013 as part of the rebel massacre in nearby Adra. The New Arab reported that an AFP correspondent “at a collection centre said emotions there were running high as hundreds of Syrians gathered to welcome freed relatives, some of whom had been held by Jaish al-Islam for several years.”
SOHR reported on April 9 that “that more than 1000 citizens broke in to warehouses of foodstuffs and fuel used to belong to Jaysh Al-Islam, and locals asserted . . . that the warehouses contain hundreds of tons of foodstuffs that were kept in Douma city, where the citizens took over food and fuel, after the siege imposed since 2013,” and that a mob of demonstrators went to the house of Jaish al-Islam general sharia official, Abu al-Kaka, demanding his exit while shouting “Douma is free, free and Al-Kaka is out.”
While residents celebrated the end of rebel rule, this appears to have come at a terribly high cost. SOHR claimed that 1745 people, including 371 children and 229 women, had been killed by Syrian army bombardment in Ghouta. How many of the men were civilians, and how many were rebels, is unclear as SOHR somewhat misleadingly counts rebels who are not defectors from the Syrian army as civilians. Also unclear is how many of these civilians may have been killed in the crossfire during the ground offensive, whether by pro-government fighters or rebels, rather than through bombardment. SOHR’s casualty numbers should be viewed with further caution, as SOHR is pro-opposition and receives funding from the British government, a belligerent in the conflict. These uncertainties aside, it appears that many civilians died during the Syrian government assault.
Many pro-government fighters appear to have been killed as well. According to announcements on various social media pages of pro-government fighting groups, rebels killed 539 pro-government soldiers, including 57 officers (among them two Brigadier Generals and six group commanders) during the Syrian army assault. Seventeen Palestinians from the Palestine Liberation Army and Free Palestine Movement were also among the dead.
The agreement for Jaish al-Islam to evacuate came amidst further allegations of Syrian government use of the chemical weapons in Douma two days before, on April 7. The pro-opposition Violation Documentation Center (VDC) quoted doctors insisting that a sarin like chemical had been used, an accusation that was repeated by US officials. The US military carried out airstrikes against Syrian government targets one week later, using these allegations of a sarin attack as a pretext.
US and opposition claims were found to be false, however, after the final report issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded that no traces of any “organophosphorous nerve agents,” including sarin, had been found in the environmental and blood samples taken at the site of the alleged attack. Controversy persisted, however, as opposition supporters alleged the Syrian army had instead carried out a chlorine attack (though chlorine is not typically deadly), while others pointed to evidence suggesting that several aspects of the alleged chemical attack had been staged.
The Liberation of Yarmouk
Once the rebels had been defeated in Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian army turned its sights to defeating ISIS in Yarmouk and in the adjacent neighborhoods of Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qadam, and al-Tadhamon, which ISIS also controlled. SOHR reported on 16 April 2018 that the Syrian army was mobilizing near Yarmouk, and had received reinforcements in the form of fighters from Liwa al-Quds, a Palestinian militia which had long been fighting alongside the Syrian army in Aleppo. Palestinian fighters from the PFLP-GC, Fatah al-Intifada, and the PLA also prepared to join the fight on the Syrian army’s side.
SOHR noted as well that FSA rebel groups controlling other southern Damascus suburbs of Yalda, Beit Saham and Babila had agreed to an evacuation deal with the government, with some fighters (from Ababil Houran) heading toward rebel-controlled territory to the south near Deraa, and with others (from Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and Sham al-Rasul) heading toward Idlib.
The willingness of all these rebel groups to give up the fight in the Damascus suburbs appears to be the result of the Syrian army’s defeat of Jaish al-Islam in Ghouta, and of the realization that, one year after the end of Timber Sycamore, US and Gulf assistance would not be forthcoming. Retired Syrian Brigadier General Amin Hatit claimed to pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen TV that part of the reason for these agreements was the “huge loss of hope” as a result of the “power displayed by Syria both militarily and politically in confronting the terrorists in Eastern Ghouta, and due to the determination of the Syrian leadership to complete the cleansing operation around the perimeter of Damascus. And the militants found that there is no point in looking for a hand to save them from abroad and they chose peace instead of confrontation and killing.”
At this same time, Wesam Seba’na of the Jafra Foundation saw the build-up of government forces against ISIS and Nusra as a sign of renewed hope that Palestinians would soon be able to return to the camp after “the terrorists had been driven out,” while viewing the return to Yarmouk as a necessary step on the road to securing the greater right of one day returning to Palestine itself.
The government offensive to liberate Yarmouk from ISIS and Nusra began on 19 April 2018. Al-Sharq al-Awsat described how the Syrian army had given ISIS a 48 hour ultimatum to evacuate the camp. When this deadline passed, bombing began. Al-Sharq al-Awsat also reported that by the third day of the bombing, according to ISIS sources, the Syrian government had dropped up to 100 bombs on the camp, while Syrian government sources said the battle would be difficult due to the urban environment and because ISIS militants had dug an extensive tunnel network underground, just as Jaish al-Islam rebels had in Ghouta, which was limiting the effectiveness of efforts to bomb ISIS positions.
On April 23, Tom Rollins of IRIN reported that according to UNRWA, most of Yarmouk’s remaining civilians (5,000 out of an estimated 6,000) had been able to flee the fighting, taking shelter in nearby Yalda, but that many of the displaced were now “begging for medicine and are sleeping in the streets.” Rollins also reports that “Yarmouk resident ‘Am Bilal, who fled to Yalda over the weekend, told IRIN that the people who stayed behind now cannot leave their homes because of the bombing. ‘The only way out is to cross to Yalda,’ ‘Am Bilal said. ‘Nobody knows how many stayed behind.’”
On April 28, Reuters reported that “Footage on state TV showed tanks rolling across an open area of fields to the edge of the enclave, which includes parts of al-Qadam district, al-Hajar al-Aswad and the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. It showed uniformed soldiers moving through battered streets with dense clouds of black smoke overhead, while the whizz and crash of artillery fire, the rattle of small arms fire and deep echoing blasts could all be heard.”
On April 30, Syrian state media, SANA, reported that Nusra fighters had finally agreed to be evacuated from Yarmouk along with their families, in exchange for Nusra releasing 85 hostages from the rebel-held town of Eshtabraq and for allowing 5,000 residents of two Shia villages in Idlib, Kefraya and Foua, to be evacuated to government territory. ISIS fighters continued to reject an evacuation deal, presumably due to differences over where they would be allowed to go and what weapons they would be able to take with them.
The Syrian army continued to battle ISIS for three more weeks. Finally, on 21 May 2018, the Syrian government announced that Damascus and its surrounding countryside were now “entirely safe areas after fully cleansing al-Hajar al-Aswad and al-Yarmouk Camp of terrorism” as the remaining 1,600 ISIS militants agreed to an evacuation deal, and left the camp in black buses.
With ISIS and Nusra finally gone, UNRWA estimated only 100 to 200 residents remained in the camp, including many elderly and sick who had been unable to flee. Among those remaining were four sisters from the Abdul-Mahmoud family, who had stayed in their home in Yarmouk throughout the entire conflict. The AP described how “When the first Syrian soldier reached Lod street in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria’s capital, four sisters who survived the seven-year conflict hiding in their ground floor apartment emerged hesitantly and asked: ‘Are you a soldier or a militant?’ The young man came closer and took out his military ID to prove he was a Syrian soldier. The women began wailing emotionally, hardly believing that three years of rule by the Islamic State group had come to an end. ‘The nightmare is over. They are gone,’ said 62-year-old Izdihar Abdul-Mahmoud.”
At What Cost?
While Syrians and Palestinians alike had reason to celebrate the defeat of ISIS in Yarmouk, the victory was bitter sweet. Many were killed in the fighting, both fighters and civilians, and much of the camp, once the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, and proud symbol of the right of return of Palestinians, lay in ruins.
SOHR claimed that ISIS militants killed 250 Syrian soldiers and pro-government Palestinian fighters during the month long battle, and that pro-ISIS social media accounts had shared images showing captured pro-government fighters being beheaded by the group. At the same time, SOHR claimed that Syrian government forces had killed 233 ISIS fighters as well. The Electronic Intifada reports that according to pro-opposition AGPS, “Around 30 Palestinian residents were killed” during the month-long Syrian army offensive. Presumably AGPS is equating residents with civilians.
The UAE-owned National quoted one returning resident, Omar, as describing how his old neighborhood was totally unrecognizable. “We kept walking and walking, not knowing where we were, other than that we were on Palestine Street. All the buildings and shops were either on the ground or mostly destroyed. . . When we reached the street where my family’s building is, finally I saw some buildings still standing. I started to walk super carefully, looking up, until I saw the corner of my house and said to myself, ‘At least it’s standing’. . . If you closed your eyes and someone brought you there, you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were in Yarmouk, Daraya or any other destroyed area [of Syria].”
The sadness of returning to such devastation was compounded by the sight of Syrian soldiers looting what little of value was left in the camp. Omar recounted seeing “men in military uniforms everywhere carrying fridges, washing-machines, and anything else they could carry.” The National notes further that, “Even one politician from a prominent pro-government Palestinian faction in Damascus criticised the looting of homes this week when writing on his Facebook page, ‘Are we returning to the camp or not? Leave people their memories [in the camp]. We may have been happy to defeat terrorism…but we need a solution. We want to return to Yarmouk.’” Saudi-owned Al-Hayat reported that members of the pro-government Palestinian popular committees appealed to UNRWA to exert pressure on the Syrian government to put an end to the looting.
Is Reconstruction Possible?
After almost six years of fighting, the difficult task of rebuilding the camp still lay ahead. Russia Today (RT) quoted UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness as wondering how residents could possibly return, given the scale of the destruction. RT also quoted PLO official Abdul-Hadi as describing the next steps to be taken after liberating the camp, namely conducting a security sweep, removing the rubble, and taking account of the damage, in order to rebuild and allow residents to finally return. Hadi noted he would be carrying out discussions for the rebuilding of the camp with officials from UNRWA, the Syrian state, and donor countries. Wesam Seba’na of Jafra acknowledged the destruction, but was hopeful, saying “There is destruction and so on… but [in those areas] there are still many buildings standing. There’s the possibility that with a little reconstruction… people will be able to go back there.”
It was clear however, that reconstruction would be difficult, both in Yarmouk and elsewhere in Syria, as US planners extended economic sanctions and vowed to prevent outside reconstruction aid. In September 2018, Reuters published an article noting that US imposed sanctions were crippling Syrian government reconstruction efforts before they had even begun, while in October 2018, US ambassador to Syria James Jeffrey claimed that it was Syria, Russia, and Iran that had destroyed the country (ignoring massive US support for the jihadist rebels they were fighting), and that as a result “we are not going to put it back together, and we are going to do everything we can, and that’s a lot, to ensure that nobody else does” until US goals in Syria were achieved.
It would also be difficult for the Syrian government to fund its own reconstruction, with US forces and allied Kurdish militias from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) occupying strategically important areas of northern and eastern Syria, including areas previously under ISIS rule, such as Raqqa. Al-Jazeera observed that US and “SDF-controlled area contains 90 percent of Syria’s oil and gas reserves, including al-Omar, its largest oil field, as well as most of its water resources, major dams, and power plants. The northeast is also Syria’s breadbasket. As long as this area is out of its control, no government in Damascus can survive independently from foreign aid.” US planners then resisted efforts by President Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria in an effort to retain this leverage (which Foreign Policy described as maintaining “the ability to influence what endures”).
While the brutality of the Syrian government siege on Yarmouk was widely acknowledged in the Western press and among human rights organizations, the main driver of the conflict, namely the efforts of US planners to help jihadist rebels invade and occupy Yarmouk, against the will of camp residents, was ignored. Also ignored was the threat faced by millions of civilians had Damascus fallen to al-Qaeda, whether in the form of Nusra or ISIS, as US planners had hoped. Many thousands of Alawites, Christians, and pro-government Sunnis would have likely been massacred, and millions displaced.
Because the rebels never had popular support from Yarmouk’s residents, there was never a justification for them to occupy the camp. Rebels did not enter Yarmouk to protect its residents, but rather did so because of Yarmouk’s strategic location for attacking Damascus. The rebels and their supporters in the Syrian opposition sought to drag Palestinians into the conflict for their own reasons, despite Palestinian wishes to remain neutral and keep the rebels out. Suggestions that the rebel occupation of Yarmouk was justified are even less credible considering the rebels, many of them foreigners, advocated a Wahhabi-inspired sectarian religious ideology originating in Saudi Arabia that is not broadly accepted by Palestinians, or by Syrians, including Palestinian and Syrian Sunnis.
Western human rights organizations must certainly have been aware of all this, as well as of the fact that, as Syria expert Joshua Landis has noted, “Probably 60 to 80 percent of the arms that America shoveled in have gone to al-Qaida and its affiliates.” Nevertheless, human rights groups, including Amnesty International, failed to demand that the US and its Gulf allies stop arming the rebels. Nor did they demand that the US and Gulf states use their leverage with the rebels to encourage them to withdraw from Yarmouk.
Because the US and Saudi-supplied weapons continued to flow, the conflict in Yarmouk, as well as the suffering of the camp’s remaining civilians, ground on for over six years. As University of Virginia political scientist Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl has argued, “The foreign support for the Syrian rebels has thus predictably produced . . . the worst of all possible worlds — it has extended the fighting, made compromise more difficult, and increased the dangers of rebel infighting, while also facilitating the rise of extremists.”
That western human rights groups loudly condemned Syrian government violence in Yarmouk, while at the same time omitting or downplaying the role played by jihadist rebels, suggests such rights groups were not trying to honestly advocate for the civilians of Yarmouk, but instead wished to weaponize human rights concerns in support of US and Gulf efforts to destroy the Syrian state, with predictably tragic consequences for the civilians they professed to try to save.