Syria Consultations on the Situation in Yarmouk
Tomorrow morning (20 April), Pierre Krähenbühl, Commissioner-General of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, and the UN’s Deputy Special Envoy for Syria, Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, will brief Council members via video teleconference from Jerusalem and Damascus, respectively, on the perilous situation in Yarmouk—a Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus that has been besieged by the government for two years and was overtaken by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in early April.
Just days after ISIS invaded the camp, Krähenbühl briefed Council members in emergency consultations on 6 April. He reported that 18,000 civilians, including 3,500 children, were trapped in Yarmouk amidst intense fighting and that their lives were profoundly threatened. (Four years ago, Yarmouk was home to approximately 160,000 Palestinian refugees and nearly 90 percent have fled the camp over the course of the Syrian crisis.) He also informed Council members that UNRWA did not have access to the camp and needed secure conditions to deliver aid and enable the evacuation of civilians.
Following the consultations, Council members agreed on “elements to the press” that supported UNRWA’s efforts, condemned ISIS and called for the protection of civilians and humanitarian access. The press elements did not include any specific condemnation of the Syrian government’s siege and aerial bombardment of Yarmouk. Instead there was an indirect reference reiterating all parties’ obligations to implement Security Council resolutions 2139, 2165 and 2191 and to lift the siege of populated areas. Press elements are the weakest Council outcome and the language vis-à-vis the government similarly lacked force. The format and language was likely intentional so as to secure Russia’s consent for the press elements and avoid a confrontation that might delay or obstruct Council members’ ability to respond at all to the developments in Yarmouk. Finally, the press elements indicated that Council members would look into further measures to help provide protection and assistance—it seems this was in reference to how the Council could support the evacuation of civilians. However, there has not been any concrete follow-up on this issue.
Krähenbühl traveled to Damascus on 11 April and Council members will be interested in the details of his recent meetings with officials there. He is likely to emphasise that the situation remains dangerous and that UNRWA’s priorities are to get access to Yarmouk to provide assistance, continue to assist those who have managed to escape the camp and to assess how many civilians remain in the camp following the ISIS takeover. Although the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) has announced that the camp is nearly empty of civilians, without access for UNRWA to make its own assessment, Krähenbühl is unlikely to state how many civilians remain in the camp. Some Council members have expressed caution about such claims as they may provide the government with a premise to undertake a major military offensive to flush out armed groups from the camp—echoing the Secretary-General’s sentiment expressed in 9 April media comments that the refugee camp is beginning to resemble a death camp due to threats by both ISIS and the government.
Council members may also be interested to hear Krähenbühl’s impressions from his visit to areas neighboring Yarmouk where civilians who have fled the camp have found temporary shelter—in particular their reports of the situation in the camp.
Deputy Special Envoy Ramzy also travelled to Damascus following the Secretary-General’s 9 April comments that Yarmouk was an epic humanitarian catastrophe with residents facing a double-edged sword of armed groups inside the camp and government forces outside. Ramzy met with Syria’s deputy foreign minister and with leaders of the Palestinian diaspora in Syria in an attempt to calm the situation in Yarmouk. Also on 9 April, a senior PLO official in Damascus announced that following talks with the Syrian regime, 14 Palestinian factions favoured the idea of joining forces with the government against ISIS. However, the main Palestinian group ISIS was battling in Yarmouk, anti-regime and Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, was not among the 14 factions in these talks. According to media reports, a Hamas official based in Lebanon expressed concern that the presence of ISIS would give the government a pretext to destroy the camp—which would de facto mean an attack on other anti-government armed groups in Yarmouk as well as the remaining civilians. Meanwhile, PLO officials in Ramallah rejected the idea of aligning with the Syrian regime and stressed the neutrality of the refugee camp in a 13 April letter to the Security Council. Despite the official PLO position that groups inside the camp should not be drawn into the Syrian conflict, in reality that has already happened and Council members will want Ramzy’s evaluation of how intra-Palestinian rivalries are affecting the situation in Yarmouk. Council members will also want to hear whether Ramzy considers genuine the government’s promise of cooperation to aid civilians trapped in Yarmouk and those who have fled Yarmouk in light of their two-year siege of the camp that has resulted in hundreds dead, including from malnutrition.
Council members will be interested in Ramzy’s assessment of how ISIS was able to enter and take over the camp so quickly and what can be done to stabilise the situation there. He is likely to stress that the crisis comes on the back of a government siege and is intertwined with the strategic location of Yarmouk on the southern perimeter of Damascus and ISIS and Al Nusra Front cooperating rather unusually to wrest control of the camp from various armed Palestinian factions who had been negotiating with the government to ease conditions in the camp. While ISIS is a major threat, Ramzy may also draw attention to the ongoing government bombardment of the besieged camp as another significant challenge to civilian protection. Council members may also be interested in whether Ramzy can provide any clarity to media reports from late last week that ISIS had largely withdrawn from Yarmouk, leaving Al-Nusra Front in control of large parts of the camp.
At press time, there was no outcome expected following tomorrow’s consultations. However, it seems likely that the crisis in Yarmouk will refocus the Council’s attention in the near future on the use of siege tactics in Syria. In the last Secretary-General’s report on the humanitarian situation in Syria, UN estimates of besieged populations rose from 212,000 to 440,000, largely by government forces and ISIS.