The Defenders of Yarmouk

Just a few miles from downtown Damascus, pro-Assad Palestinian militias are fighting a grinding battle to the death against the Islamic State.

A man stands on a staircase inside a demolished building in the Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp in the Syrian capital Damascus on April 6, 2015. Around 2,000 people have been evacuated from the camp after the Islamic State group seized large parts of it. At least 26 people, including civilians as well as fighters from IS and Palestinian factions, had been killed in the camp according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. AFP PHOTO / YOUSSEF KARWASHAN (Photo credit should read YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

YARMOUK CAMP, DAMASCUS, Syria — The streets here are all but deserted, except for the odd fighter running from one alley to the other. Buildings in this northern quarter are completely gutted: Holes have been punched through the internal walls to allow fighters to move without passing through the sniper’s alleys outside, and massive curtains hang across the gaping holes to obscure the movement of opposing fighters.

On the third floor of one of the destroyed buildings, Thaer sits patiently on a plastic chair, sniper rifle held against his shoulder, his eye never wavering from the telescopic sight. The baby-faced 20-year-old Palestinian has not moved from his position all morning, monitoring the entrance of a tunnel he discovered that belongs to the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. His commander and another fighter tiptoe quietly behind him, careful not to make any noise that could be heard through the curtain separating them from the militants located just across the street.

“Look over there. That’s where the entrance is; that’s where they’re coming from,” he whispered, pointing to a barely visible hole among the rubble of the opposite building.

A native of the Yarmouk refugee camp, Thaer has been fighting for two years with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), a nationalist Palestinian militant group headquartered in Syria. Founded and governed by Ahmed Jibril, the PFLP-GC is based in Yarmouk camp and is closely allied with the Syrian government. Thaer’s mother and sister fled to a Damascus suburb farther from the violence two years ago when the fighting in the camp intensified. He stayed behind to help his comrades, and the continuous battles have made him an experienced shot. “I’ve killed a lot of targets. I’m not afraid of them, of Daesh,” he said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State.

After two years of battles inside the camp, Yarmouk is now a shell of its former self, and the situation has only gotten worse with the recent onslaught from the Islamic State. The PFLP-GC and opposition fighters have dug in, unwilling to give up any territory. The future of the camp is bleak, as this particular battle looks to continue indefinitely.

The northern section of Yarmouk camp is now under the control of the PFLP-GC, while the Syrian army and the National Defense Force, a government-funded militia, surround the western and northern outskirts. The rest of the camp is under the control of al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and other opposition groups. The southern and eastern sections of the camp open up to neighborhoods under the control of the opposition.

In early April, the Islamic State infiltrated the opposition-controlled areas of Yarmouk, which is one of the largest Palestinian camps in Syria and used to be home to roughly 250,000 people. The jihadi group’s entry into the south of the camp was facilitated by Nusra, according to Palestinian officials and fighters on the ground. The ensuing fighting saw the Islamic State gain ground, capturing roughly 70 percent of the camp, while the PFLP-GC, taking advantage of the chaos, was able to advance in the remaining portion.

Today, no building remains intact; fighters have now installed themselves in the homes of others, moving among torn-up couches and dirty toys. While some reports from the opposition-held areas state that the Islamic State handed control of opposition-held areas to Nusra, other opposition reports and the PFLP-GC deny this, saying the Islamic State is still very much present, fighting alongside Nusra. PFLP-GC officials claim they are slowly gaining ground and now have control of approximately 35 percent of the camp.

Since 2012, the situation in the camp has been bad. Over the past three years, residents have been caught in the crossfire between the government-aligned forces and opposition groups and have suffered a crippling siege that left thousands of civilians in desperate need for aid. Now, the situation is even worse: Approximately 13,000 civilians remain in the opposition-controlled areas of the camp with little access to aid, leaving them in one of the worst humanitarian situations ever witnessed by international organizations.

The struggle for the camp, however, is far from over. Ahmad, a fighter barely out of his teens, keeps a lookout as his comrades move between buildings in between intermittent exchanges of gunfire.

“I will not stop until they leave the camp,” he says of the Islamic State. “I have no problem staying here in this position, not sleeping, digging out tunnels, and fighting. We need to do this.”

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The Palestinian fighters working on the side of the regime are not only fighting for their homes — they see themselves as the capital’s first line of defense against the jihadis. Yarmouk camp lies only six miles from the center of the capital. PFLP-GC officials believe the opposition wanted to use the camp as a base to enter into Damascus from the west, a plan they say was created by former Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan.

When the opposition began launching attacks in 2012, Abu Ahmad, a slight man in his 50s, was called in from Lebanon to help lead the fight back. The overall security commander of the PFLP-GC on the ground in Yarmouk, he fought alongside Jibril in the 1970s and 1980s and walks with a limp from an old battle wound. He points out alleyways and buildings that had been taken by the opposition in 2012 and were then recaptured by the PFLP-GC, emphasizing that the rebels had managed to make their way up to the very edge of the camp’s northern quarter before being pushed back.

Heavy fighting abated in the summer of 2014 as factions attempted to work on a local cease-fire in the camp.

“The cease-fire details were in place and ready to be implemented by the end of March 2015 when the terrorists of Daesh and Nusra launched their attack on the camp, scuttling all previous efforts,” Abu Ahmad says. As a result, the military operations resumed as negotiations were put on hold.

With the fighters in Yarmouk just feet from their enemies, the struggle has now gone underground. Access to Riji Square — recently recaptured by the PFLP-GC from Nusra — is only through a newly dug tunnel that runs under several buildings now belonging to the Palestinian group.

According to a PFLP-GC commander, it took his group three months to build this particular passage. Electricity supplied by the Syrian government provides a dim light throughout the tunnel. In some areas, fighters have to crawl on their hands and knees to get through, dragging whatever military equipment can fit. In the middle of the tunnel lies a makeshift room with a couch facing several closed-circuit television screens observing different points of the camp.

Sitting on the couch, Abu el Azz Daham cuts a formidable figure. Tall, burly, and sporting a bushy, dark beard, the veteran PFLP-GC commander oversees hundreds of fighters in the northern quarter of Yarmouk.

“Before the last battle, we would hit the militants from the roofs,” he said, sitting back and observing the TV screens in front of him. “They would be on the ground, and we would throw mortars down at them.”

“Now it’s different. We’ve built tunnels, and we’re hitting them from underneath as well.”

The Palestinian group’s enemies, evidently, have adopted the same strategies. In a video Daham filmed just days ago, he shows the entrance to a tunnel he says was dug out by the Islamic State and Nusra. Seconds later, a Katyusha 107 mm rocket with more than 100 pounds of explosives wrapped around it was fired from the fifth floor of the neighboring building into the hole, bringing down rubble around it.

“They’ve built tunnels, which they learned from Hamas,” said Daham. “Who taught Hamas and even Hezbollah how to build tunnels back in the day? We did.”

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The camp is a microcosm of the tangled loyalties created by the Syrian crisis. The recent battle against the Islamic State, for instance, saw a number of defections from Hamas-controlled militant group Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis — previously allied with opposition factions in the camp — to the regime side, after the Islamic State beheaded 10 Aknaf men. But other fighters from the group defected to Nusra and the Islamic State. According to Palestinian sources, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, who is based in Qatar, made several calls to PFLP-GC leader Jibril, as well as Hezbollah and Amal leaders in Lebanon, in order to secure the safety of Aknaf fighters. Now, approximately 160 Aknaf fighters are fighting alongside the regime, according to Palestinian sources, but Daham still eyes them with suspicion.

“I don’t trust anyone — these are the same people who let Nusra into the camp in 2012.” he said. “Everyone here works autonomously. We do our work; they do their work. I personally do not coordinate with them.”

Families have been torn apart by their allegiances to different factions. “We had a situation recently where one PFLP-GC fighter discovered that his brother was fighting alongside Nusra,” said Daham. “This is what we are living.”

Umm Yousef, a nurse with the PFLP-GC, is a constant presence on the front line. Refusing to let the younger, less experienced medics go all the way to the front, she tends to the wounded fighters herself. Originally from Lebanon’s Burj al-Barajneh refugee camp, she moved here with her husband, a PFLP-GC fighter, several years ago. He was kidnapped and beheaded by opposition factions in 2012, and since then she has thrown herself into her work.

“Recently I attended to [Mohammad] Zaghmout, the former bodyguard to [Hamas leader] Meshaal,” she said. “I hate him; I wanted to kill him. Hamas are traitors to all Palestinians. But I did my job. I helped him get better.”

This hatred is more than shared by the fighters on the other side of the battle lines. “We are coming to get you, you dogs of the PFLP-GC,” reads an inscription scrawled on the wall of a building retaken by the Palestinian group.

The PFLP-GC fighters laugh when they pass it. “We are coming to chase them,” said one, after reading the scrawls.

“If we weren’t here fighting, [the militants] would be able to access Damascus,” said Daham. “We’re here to protect the camp and Damascus. Unlike Hamas, we are loyal to Syria. Syria was loyal to Palestine.”

Photo credit: YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images

Nour Samaha is a journalist based in Lebanon.