May 17, 2018
The Regime's Strategy in Southern Damascus: Securing its Southern Front
By Hasan Arfeh
Yarmouk is an important southern gateway to the heart of Damascus. The camp is a strategic military location for the regime should it choose to launch its battle against opposition factions and gain full control of Sayedah Zeinab (six miles south of Damascus) and extend to Daraa; further south and close to the Jordanian border. Sayedah Zeinab is an important Shia shrine which the Iranians and Hezbollah covet. The southern opposition factions pose a threat to the regime because of their strategic location as the bulk of their forces are from the Yarmouk camp. The regime seeks to secure and control this area by defending against any potential attacks from southern Syria.
Current map of southern Damascus as of May, 2018. Click to enlarge.
Assad’s military campaign targets many southern Damascus neighborhoods, including the Yarmouk camp, Hajar al-Aswad, Tadamon, Asali and other parts of Qaddam: areas that fell out of regime control and joined the revolution in 2012. These areas, particularly the Yarmouk camp, saw several battles between regime forces and its allied armed groups such as Fatah al-Intifada and Jabahat Shabiyyah li Tahrir Filastin (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine) on the one hand, and the Free Syrian Army factions along with some Palestinians on the other.
Yarmouk camp was established in 1957 to provide accommodation and housing for Palestinian refugees in Syria, located five miles south of Damascus. With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, the residents of the camp joined the Syrian opposition--as did many Syrian cities, which revolted against the regime in search of freedom and social justice. The camp residents suffered under Syrian and Palestinian corruption for decades.
Prior to 2011, the Yarmouk Camp housed 160,000 people, most of them 1948 Palestinian refugees and some Syrians. The camp was available for anyone who wanted to live there due to its integration as a residential area. The cost of housing was also cheaper compared to other areas in Damascus. As such it was the go-to destination for poor Syrians to reside. After the revolution, many opponents of the regime used it as a base for the peaceful protest movement against Assad and clashes broke out in September 2012 between the forces of the regime and its militias on the one hand, and the opposition forces and supportive Palestinian groups on the other. As a result of these battles, the site witnessed a great exodus, in which about 140,000 inhabitants migrated to other Syrian areas and outside Syria.
Yarmouk entered a new phase when ISIS took control of large swaths of the camp in 2015, having defeated Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis (a Palestinian rebel group) and the Nusra front. The camp became a nightmare for its residents. Externally, they were besieged by the regime while, internally, besieged by ISIS. It imposed extreme laws on all residents; fighting and killing anyone who did not give their allegiance or recognize Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s authority.
Journalist Walid al-Agha, who covered southern Damascus, said, “The southern areas outside of regime control were divided into three parts: the first consisting of Yelda, Babila, and Beit Sahm fell under opposition control (Jaysh al-Islam, Jaysh Ababil, Luwa’ Sham al-Rasul, and Ahrar al-Sham); the second consisted of Hajar al-Aswad, Yarmouk, al-‘Asali, and parts of al-Tadamon and Qaddam fell under ISIS; the third consisted of a small bit of territory northwest of Yarmouk toward Damascus known as the Rija area and was formerly under Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Nusra Front and was besieged by ISIS which was besieged by the regime.”
Agha confirmed that most of the approximately 1,000 people who fell under ISIS control, after it took over in 2015, fled to neighboring areas under opposition control. Only a few remained in Yarmouk, refusing to leave their homes and land. Many did not have the means to leave anyway.
According to Agha, opposition-controlled areas now suffer from overcrowding of civilians, with approximately 80,000 squeezed into the small geographical areas of Yelda, Babila, and Beit Sahm. Recently, 12,000 Palestinian refugees have been displaced from Yarmouk.
After the regime took control of Eastern Ghouta and displaced residents in March, it headed towards southern Damascus to impose its authority on all areas surrounding the capital. Indeed, the regime began to use military force against these areas. Some of its shells hit the opposition there despite the truce signed in 2014, which provides for a ceasefire between the regime and the opposition factions in Yelda and Beit Sahm.
"The regime wants to completely secure the entire area of Damascus. Controlling the camp and the surrounding areas will give it a huge morale boost, especially as this battle against ISIS is good publicity for the regime among the international community," said Agha.
And this is truly what the Assad regime has done: while its forces targeted ISIS, its delegations negotiate with HTS to remove them from Yarmouk Camp. The regime negotiated transfer operation of HTS fighters, their families, and civilians in their areas of control in Rija and northern Yarmouk towards the Aleppo and Idlib countryside began on April 30. In return, about 1,200 civilians and fighters loyal to the regime have been transferred out of the HTS-besieged towns of Fua and Kafriya to the Idlib countryside towards Aleppo. This exchange marked the implementation of the first phase of the agreement, which took place on April 29 between HTS representatives and those of the Assad regime and Russia.
This was followed by an agreement on the transfer of the people of Yelda, Babila, and Beit Sahm. Starting May 2, the text provided for the expulsion of rebels, their families, and every civilian rejecting the agreement were to be sent to Jarablus in northern Syria, controlled by Turkish-backed forces. The opposition factions also surrendered to the regime and agreed not to engage with ISIS in al-Hajar al-Aswad and on the outskirts of Yarmouk.
Walid Maw’id (pseudonym), a Syrian-Palestinian journalist, says that the Syrian regime has taken control of most areas of the Yarmouk camp, with 60-70 percent of its infrastructure destroyed. According to Maw’id, "The most disturbing point is the state of obscurity and disregard for Yarmouk and its people...and the absence of any movement, even in solidarity or protest against what is happening."
It is expected that the regime will control Yarmouk Camp completely, and will not stop its campaign against ISIS in other areas. The regime is intent on taking full control of the area to secure its southern front against any expected attack from the opposition against the capital Damascus. As Syrian and Russian planes continue to bomb and besiege the area, civilians remain trapped and starving; desperate to flee. Many will not survive.
Hasan Arfeh is a Syrian journalist based in Turkey.