Syrian and Russian forces have launched a large-scale attack on a Palestinian refugee camp under the control of Islamic State, as the regime closes in on the last rebel-held territory in the Syrian capital. Pro-government troops fired a barrage of air strikes and surface-to-surface missiles into Yarmouk camp in southeast Damascus on Wednesday morning as they attempted to rid the areas of remaining jihadists. Rebels with the Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) agreed to an evacuation deal after the government launched its offensive on April 19th, but Isil militants refused to give up their fight.
Air strikes have levelled more than 60 per cent of the camp in the last few weeks, leaving the remaining civilians trapped in uninhabitable conditions. Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Yarmouk was home to around 160,000 Palestinian refugees – people who had been displaced from their homes in modern-day Israel during the 1948 war and their descendants. More than 100,000 Syrians also lived in the area.
When the Syrian revolution moved to Yarmouk, many Palestinians were forced to take a side. Some sought protection from the government, while others looked to the rebel groups. The area has been used by the militants to shell government areas in the centre of Damascus. On Wednesday, Syrian state TV reported that two people were killed and 19 injured after a rocket was fired from “rebel territory”.
Yarmouk has recently become the scene of the heaviest fighting in the country since nearby Eastern Ghouta fell into government hands in mid-April. It is now home to just a few hundred civilians after the rest fled, according to United Nations estimates which says that most of these are elderly residents who have been unable to leave. Dozens of civilians have been killed as well as some 140 fighters from both sides, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Right has reported.
A spokesman for the Liwa al-Quds, which fights under the banner of the Syrian army, said pro-government forces are “narrowing in on Daesh (Isil), whose remnants are concentrated in the Palestinian camp. The final battle will be there.”
A victory in Yarmouk would clear the whole of the capital of forces opposed to the government and further cement President Bashar al-Assad’s dominant position over “useful”, most populated parts of Syria.