BEIRUT – On Wednesday militants from the Islamic State jihadist group seized control of most of the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, a local Palestinian official told AFP.
"Fighters from IS launched an assault this morning on Yarmuk and they took over the majority of the camp," said Anwar Abdel Hadi, director of political affairs for the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Damascus, claiming that fighting in the camp was continuing through pockets of resistance among Palestinian militants. Syrian activists and a Lebanon-based TV station reported that, after entering from Hajar Aswad (the southern Damascene neighbourhood completely controlled by armed rebels) IS militants engaged in combat with Palestinian groups within the camp – who are also opposed to Bashar al-Assad’s regime - in an attempt to secure its capture. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, confirmed that IS now controls a "large part" of the camp after clashes broke out with members of the Palestinian faction Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.
Yarmuk was once a thriving neighbourhood home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians but has been caught up in the country's fighting and besieged by regime forces for more than a year. Only about 18,000 residents are estimated to remain in the camp since many have fled after months of being caught between government forces and Syrian insurgents including al Qaeda's Nusra Front. The siege has caused significant shortages of food, water and drugs inside the camp.
Syrian rebels had withdrawn from the camp in February 2014 under a deal that left only Palestinian anti-regime groups inside. IS, which has seized control of large parts of Syria and Iraq, has fought not only against the Assad regime but also against other rebel groups as it seeks to expand the territory under its control.
This marks the deepest infiltration yet by IS militants into Damascus, which has remained a fortress for the Assad regime. Their capture of the Yarmouk camp places them in a better position to challenge President Bashar Assad’s stranglehold of Syria and threaten his seat of power.