Argument

The Starving of Yarmouk, Then the Capture

The Starving of Yarmouk, Then the Capture

After Bashar al-Assad’s regime spent nearly two years massacring Palestinians in Yarmouk camp, after regime bombardments destroyed nearly 70 percent of the camp, after thousands were arrested and tortured to death, and after civilians were forced to resort to scavenging through trash and weeds to ward off starvation — after all this, the world is finally paying attention to the situation in this long-suffering southern Damascus neighborhood. And all they want to talk about is the Islamic State.

I think this is a disgrace. But since this is what the world wants to hear, I will tell them. You cannot understand the Islamic State’s assault on the camp or what it means unless you also consider how Bashar al-Assad, as a gift to the Palestinian people, turned a thriving neighborhood of hundreds of thousands of people into a desperate population of 18,000 waiting to die. We cannot stop what happened in Yarmouk from repeating itself elsewhere unless we save the 600,000 besieged civilians whom Assad is starving to death.

Let me go back to the beginning, when the siege of Yarmouk began in late 2012. I was there at the time because, as a Syrian-Palestinian, I had many family members living in the camp. My brothers had pleaded with me for hours to join them on a trip to the camp, because they wanted me to move into my aunt’s house there. Yarmouk at the time seemed much safer than my nearby hometown of Moadamiya, a Damascus suburb southwest of the capital, where I was an opposition activist.

We arrived at the camp on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, at a time when the Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian supporters were making rapid gains. As usual, Assad was responding by shelling innocent civilians at random. The shelling kept us up for much of the night, but eventually I drifted off to sleep. I woke up to the sound of a huge explosion close by.

It was the first attack on Yarmouk camp by a fighter jet. The regime’s target: Abdul-Qader Mosque, a place of worship that was packed with displaced people. Watching from my window, I saw scenes of panic and chaos, shrapnel and body parts lying everywhere. Tanks then moved in to surround the camp. When an announcement came ordering us to leave in three hours or not at all, we left. On our way out, we passed dozens of tanks and thousands of troops ready to march. The siege on Yarmouk had begun.

The regime’s starve-and-surrender siege tactics later came to my hometown of Moadamiya, so I have some idea what residents of Yarmouk are going through.

Hunger is not like the other weapons Assad has used to kill us. When a helicopter circles overhead, you can run to the basement and take shelter from the barrel bombs. When the artillery shells start falling, you can flee behind a building to take cover. When the regime sends tanks and troops, you can run to the front lines and attempt to push them back. Even when an arrest raid is underway, you have some hope to flee, hide, or defend yourself. But you can’t run from hunger: When your entire town is under siege, there is nothing you can do. All you can do is watch as your family members waste away before your eyes.

Being under siege breeds a special type of desperation. During the worst part of the siege in Moadamiya, people who had fought for democracy for three years and had seen their friends, relatives, or children killed by the regime were ready to surrender out of hunger. People that desperate are willing to do anything for food or resources. They would even join the Islamic State.

That is what happened in al-Hajar al-Aswad, the Damascus neighborhood south of Yarmouk that the Islamic State used as a launchpad for the attack on the camp. In those neighborhoods, the Islamic State offered money, food, advanced weapons, and other resources to residents who despaired of getting help from elsewhere. Many of these residents were dead-set on avenging their lost loved ones after Assad forced their towns to surrender in early 2014 following starvation sieges.

The Islamic State tried to recruit in Yarmouk, but local residents did not take the bait. That is why the Islamic State used areas where it was already established to conquer Yarmouk by force. Assad’s siege of civilians helped the Islamic State even in Yarmouk because — after two and a half years of starvation and bombardment — the local battalions in the camp were too weak to push the group out.

But that is not the whole story. Local residents of Yarmouk were surprised to see a raid of hundreds of Islamic State fighters from southern Damascus successfully enter their area. When al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda were controlled by the Free Syrian Army, there were many attempts to break the siege on the camp with similar raids. Each one was a disaster; Assad’s forces have the area tightly monitored and controlled. Simply put, there is no way the attack by the Islamic State could have happened unless Assad wanted it to.

Then there is another question: How did the Islamic State get such large quantities of resources into besieged areas? The Free Syrian Army in besieged Yarmouk had only handmade light weapons, while the Islamic State in besieged al-Hajar al-Aswad had advanced missiles and high-tech rifles. Believe me, infants would not be starving in my hometown if regime sieges could be evaded through tunnels or bribes. Those resources got in because the regime allowed them to enter.

What happened in Yarmouk and al-Hajar al-Aswad can happen in other besieged areas in the capital. For Syrians under siege, surrendering to Assad or joining the Islamic State are two sides of the same coin: They are both the result of desperation from starvation. When you see Assad bragging in the media that some besieged Syrians have surrendered, you can bet there are others who just secretly joined the Islamic State. So long as Assad’s starvation sieges continue to weaken the Syrian people, the Islamic State will find an opening by persuasion or conquest.

Right now, the Islamic State is gunning for the Syrian capital of Damascus. All of my friends in besieged suburbs near the capital have noticed an uptick in Islamic State recruitment efforts recently. We know that the Islamic State has a big resource advantage in these areas, sometimes even including grain silos. If Bashar al-Assad’s starvation weapon is not taken from him, it will be only a matter of time before more towns fall. The only solution is to break the sieges.

YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images