Yarmuk, an epicentre of Syria’s bloody conflict

BEIRUT: Poverty and exile, siege and starvation, militant rule and government shelling — few places have seen more suffering in Syria’s seven year, atrocity-filled war than the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk.
A striking 2014 picture of tired, gaunt-looking residents massing among the ruins for a food distribution drew comparisons with a World War II ghetto and became a symbol of the Syrian conflict.
The gutted neighbourhood in southern Damascus, which is now the IS group’s last urban redoubt in Syria or Iraq, was once Syria’s biggest Palestinian refugee camp, home to around 160,000 people.
Years of crippling siege and bombardment by the government of President Bashar al Assad, whose presidential compound is visible from the camp, had already sent tens of thousands of them into a second exile.
Yarmuk is one of the closest spots to central Damascus to have been controlled by IS.
After months of sporadic shelling as it concentrated its efforts on retaking the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, the resurgent regime launched a final offensive last week to retake Yarmuk.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, around 1,000 IS fighters remain in Yarmuk and the adjacent neighbourhoods of Hajar al Aswad, Tadamun and Qadam.
Most of them are former members of Al Qaeda’s Syrian ex-affiliate Al Nusra Front, but IS fighters also include Palestinian refugees who joined when the militants took over much of the camp in 2015.
Facing them are regime and allied forces who have turned their attention to militant-held pockets in southern Damascus after completing their recapture of Ghouta, an area east of the capital.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, the Syrian army is leading the battle, with Russian officers supervising and Palestinian fighters contributing hundreds of foot soldiers.
The Observatory said dozens of fighters had already been killed in the fighting on both sides.
IS fighters have posted several grisly pictures on their social media accounts purportedly showing regime or allied fighters they beheaded.
But the militants are unlikely to hold out much longer.
Seven years of conflict that made Yarmuk one of the conflict’s worst humanitarian and military flashpoints looks set to end in further death and destruction.
Yarmuk camp was opened in 1957 with tents set up for Palestinian families forced to leave their homes by the establishment of Israel. These were soon replaced by permanent structures. The wider area of Yarmuk was also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
In 2011, government attempts to use the traditionally apolitical Palestinian refugee community to raise tensions with Israel and divert attention from the internal uprising in Syria backfired. Syrian opposition groups came to see Yarmuk as a potential forward base in their campaign to unseat the government.