The al Qaida-linked Nusra Front is helping the Islamic State’s attack on the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in the hope it can seize the strategically important camp for itself, some Syrian activists believe.
Last week, Nusra Front fighters helped the Islamic State grab large parts of Yarmouk, located on the outskirts of Damascus, despite the fact that the groups have been bitterly fighting in other parts of the country.
Some 19,000 people are trapped in the camp, which has been under government siege since the end of 2012. The U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has said Yarmouk is starting to resemble a “death camp.”
Notably, the Islamic State push into Yarmouk has brought the Islamic extremists closer than they’ve ever been to President Bashar al-Assad’s capital.
The situation inside the camp, which is dominated by several armed Palestinian militias, is fluid and complicated.
Some of the Palestinian militias backed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad have joined the fight against the Assad government.
Other Palestinian groups, such as Fatah al-Intifada and Liberation of Palestine-General Command, believed to have been created with the assistance of Assad’s intelligence agencies as far back as the 1970s, are still supporting the government.
Syria Deeply spoke about the developments inside the camp with one local activist who identified himself as Walid al-Agha, who is also a member of the Revolution Spring Gathering, a group of activists and journalists in the south of Damascus established during the Syrian Revolution.
Syria Deeply: Can you explain the allegiances of the Palestinian brigades, which include both opponents and supporters of the Assad government, in the camp?
Walid al-Agha: Inside the camp there are two brigades fighting against the regime. The first is Aknaf Bait al-Maqdes, which is in the south of the camp and is ideologically related to Hamas and fighting by the side of the Free Syrian Army. The second brigade is a small faction called the Free Palestinian Liberation Army. Its commander, Colonel Khaled Abu al-Hassan, was killed recently. He was a defector from the Palestinian Liberation Army, which was established by the regime.
The brigades fighting with the regime are the Popular Front-General Command, led by Ahmed Jibril, and Fatah al-Intifada. They’re in the north of the camp, and they’re aiding the siege of the camp. There are rumors these brigades entered the camp to fight ISIS with al-Aknaf, but that’s not likely at all because of the animosity between the two parties, despite the difficult situation of al-Aknaf currently, as they’ve been trapped in small areas between the regime and ISIS.
Syria Deeply: Why has ISIS invaded the camp now?
Al-Agha: I don’t think there’s a specific reason for this invasion. They always seek to expand and control more free areas. This is their policy all around Syria.
Syria Deeply: What role did Jabhat al-Nusra play in these battles? Was it neutral?
Al-Agha: Nusra was never neutral. They fought with ISIS during their battles and they supply them with logistical support. Nusra also provided headquarters for the ISIS fighters to enable them to penetrate the camp more easily, and they prevented the reinforcements sent by the free army from reaching the camp to support al-Aknaf brigades in standing against ISIS and clashed with them.
Syria Deeply: Why did Nusra make this decision, despite their apparent animosity towards ISIS?
Al-Agha: Nusra benefits from the expansion of ISIS. When ISIS is stronger, Nusra is stronger too, especially after their recent expulsion from Bait Sahm by the free army Liwa Sham al-Rasoul, which is close to al-Aknaf brigades in terms of orientation and approach. Aknaf Brigades share control over the camp with Nusra. Eliminating Aknaf would allow Nusra to seize control of the entire camp.
Syria Deeply: Have any Nusra fighters defected to ISIS? And why is Nusra fighting ISIS in other areas of Syria but helping them in the south of Damascus?
Al-Agha: I don’t know about any defections from Nusra. But in general, Nusra in the south of Damascus is more likely to be classified as ISIS than Nusra. They’re different from Nusra in the rest of Syria.
Syria Deeply: How did ISIS break through the south of Damascus in spite of the tight siege? And how could they manage to sneak into the camp so fast?
Al-Agha: Nusra has been in the south of Damascus since the beginning of 2012, along with the local brigades, which was inside the camp before the start of the siege on south Damascus. When ISIS was formed at the start of 2013, some of al-Nusra’s men joined ISIS and spread in different areas south of Damascus. The ISIS fighters outside did not sneak through the siege – it’s the ISIS fighters who were already positioned inside that launched the attack.