U.S. silent on Palestinian refugees under siege in Syria’s Yarmouk camp

While the Trump administration responded to a recent chemical attack in Syria, it has yet to take any action to protect civilians there.

A picture taken during a government guided tour near Damascus' southern al-Qadam neighborhood shows smoke rising from buildings in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of the capital and the surrounding areas, during regime shelling targeting Islamic State (IS) group positions on April 24, 2018. CREDIT:  Maher al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images.
A picture taken during a government guided tour near Damascus' southern al-Qadam neighborhood shows smoke rising from buildings in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of the capital and the surrounding areas, during regime shelling targeting Islamic State (IS) group positions on April 24, 2018. CREDIT: Maher al Mounes/AFP/Getty Images.

The long-suffering population of the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk has been the flashpoint of the government’s fight with the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS) in recent days, with catastrophic consequences for defenseless residents.

The camp, located in the Syrian capital of Damascus, has been hit hard with years of fighting, has been controlled by ISIS, and bombed by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

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At one point home to 160,000 people, roughly 1,200 remain in the unofficial camp, which was established in 1957, nine years after the creation of Israel displaced a large Palestinian population.

Unlike its response to an April 7 chemical attack in Douma, the administration of President Donald Trump has been silent on the assault on the refugee population.

Aside from responding to two of the many chemical attacks against civilians, the Trump administration has taken steps that might been seen as helping Assad: It stopped the CIA program arming rebels and has signaled that it wants to take its troops out of Syria entirely and let “other people take care of it now.” (French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have talked him out that. For now.)

“There’s no way this administration doesn’t know of the crimes being committed … they know it’s happening and they’re doing nothing to stop it, so they’re absolutely complicit.”

Neda Kadri, co-founder of Humans 4 Humanity, an organization working with refugees in Greece, is a Syrian Palestinian American, with family in several suburbs of Damascus.

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She’s incredulous at the lack of response to civilian deaths, including those at Yarmouk, that result from conventional weapons.

“It’s okay, so long as the chemical weapons threshold isn’t crossed. I don’t know if disheartening is the word for it, but sometimes, it feels like it’s a big joke, but that focus on just those kind of weapons is giving them [Assad’s forces] the green light,” Kadri said.

Worse yet, Palestinians being targeted in Yarmouk are being made refugees three times over or more, depending on how many times they are internally displaced after fleeing their homes.

“And every single time is more dehumanizing than the time before,” said Kadri.

“Things like this shouldn’t be okay,” she said, adding, “Indiscriminate bombing of civilians is a war crime, so if you’re just going to put statements out … and then not do anything about it … I’m way beyond statements at this point.”

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In the early days of the conflict, Kadri said she was against military intervention, but thinks the United States should take concrete action at this point.

“I wish we could’ve taken action back then — we would have saved a lot of lives,” she said, adding that for her, the 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria are irrelevant as they are fighting ISIS, not mitigating Assad’s assault on civilians.

The precision of U.S.-led strikes on facilities associated with chemical weapons has prompted Kadri to believe that the Trump administration is well aware of the suffering in Syria.

“There’s no way this administration doesn’t know of the crimes being committed — whether it’s people being tortured to death … whether it’s using internationally-banned weapons … they know it’s happening and they’re doing nothing to stop it, so they’re absolutely complicit,” said Kadri.

Even prior to this week's shelling, Yarmouk, seen here in April 6, 2015, was devastated when ISIS seized parts of it, driving thousands of Palestinian refugees out of their homes. CREDIT: Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images.
Even prior to this week’s shelling, Yarmouk, seen here in April 6, 2015, was devastated when ISIS seized parts of it, driving thousands of Palestinian refugees out of their homes. (CREDIT: Youssef Karwashan/AFP/Getty Images.)

Darren Fenwick, vice president of the Syrian American Council, a grassroots organization advocating for peace in the country, told ThinkProgress that the situation in Yarmouk is “really horrific … and it’s really not getting any of the attention it needs.”

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“It’s a really dire situation. People aren’t able to get any food there. The water is bad, which has been the case for several years. The only hospital is out of service — it was bombed. There are people who are still reportedly trapped under the rubble, and there are no civil defense teams there. The only ambulance driver there was killed a few days ago.”

Many of the camp’s remaining residents, which include the elderly, said Fenwick, are trapped and hiding in basements from the Assad regime’s barrel bombs and airstrikes.

Given the lack of access to the area, it’s hard to tell how many people have been killed and injured in recent days, with reports fluctuating between six and 15 deaths, and as many as 100 injured.

The Syrian American Council was in support of the U.S.-led missile strikes launched in response the chemical attack in Douma, but wanted it to be “much broader than it was, as opposed to just a pin-prick,” said Fenwick.

“Ultimately, the way to save civilians is to ground Assad’s air force … There needs to be safe zones or no-fly zones to protect civilians,” he said, adding that the strikes “sent a small message, but did not do enough.”

Fenwick also said that Western powers need to understand that “more people are killed by airstrikes. And yes, chemical weapons are horrific … and there should be a response to that, but at the same time, civilians are being barrel-bombed,” despite U.N. resolutions that aim to prevent the use of barrel bombs, the destruction of hospitals, and the targeting of civilians.

Without the requisite pressure on the Assad regime and the Russians — and that could include tougher strikes on Assad’s airport, expelling more diplomats and applying tougher sanctions — he said there will be little hope of a resolution.

“So far, there’s been nothing. When there’s no incentive, there’s no reason for the regime to come to the table,” said Fenwick.

Pierre Krahenbuhl, general commissioner for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) told reporters at a press scrum in Brussels on Wednesday that the agency has little access to provide humanitarian aid to those trapped in Yarmouk and scattered to nearby areas.

The agency is also struggling with a funding shortage. Krahenbuhl blamed the Trump administration for that crisis, citing the U.S. president’s decision in January to cut aid to the refugees because Palestinian authorities would not negotiate with Israel on President Trump’s terms.

“Following the U.S. decision to reduce its contribution by $300 million this year, we had an overall shortage of $446 [million] … what is at stake is the school system of UNRWA for 520,000 students in the Middle East — so in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza — and of course, our health care work, the food distribution, and other emergency work that we do,” said Krahenbuhl.

“One of the things that the world has to remember: Syria is an absolutely catastrophic disaster and conflict. And in the middle, millions of Syrians have faced traumas that we can’t even properly describe. Palestine refugees in Syria are a community that live for the second time in their large history the trauma of displacement, of loss of relatives, of loss of neighbors, friends, livelihoods and homes,” he added.