A besieged camp on the Jordanian border has become the latest battleground in the seven-year Syrian conflict, with activists accusing warring sides of ignoring the appalling conditions faced by 50,000 people sheltering in an area under the control of US-backed forces.
After aid workers warned that disaster loomed at the isolated Rukban settlement, where two infants have died in recent days and more than a dozen people have reportedly perished from malnutrition and lack of medical care this month.
Residents of sandstorm-raked Rukban had relied on supplies brought through the regime lines, but that route was cut at the start of the month, according to an activist and official in the camp who said food was running short. On Thursday Damascus gave permission for a UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy to deliver relief.
“A catastrophe is inevitable if the siege is not broken,” said Mahmoud Qassem al-Humeili, who leads the relief effort, adding that there was not a single doctor in the camp. The settlement has existed in some form since 2014, when Syrians, mostly fleeing Isis’ advance in the north-east of the country, found themselves stranded at the closed Jordanian border, through which they had hoped to gain asylum.
Rukban is situated between regime forces and the closed Jordan border, within the so-called deconfliction zone established by the US-led coalition fighting Isis. It is about 20km from the Tanf base that is home to US military personnel battling the jihadis.
That operation was complicated in early 2017 by an advance from pro-regime forces into the eastern desert, resulting in the 55km deconfliction zone being set up to prevent clashes between Iran-backed regime forces and western troops and their allies. The Rukban camp was inside the zone.
Analysts said besieging Rukban may be part of a plan by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and its backers to push the US to leave Syria. “Russia and Damascus have been keen to embarrass the US and Jordan in order to pressure the Americans to vacate Tanf,” said Sam Heller, a senior analyst with Crisis Group.
Syria is also keen to revive trade with Jordan, and the military presence in Tanf blocks a major trade route. This week Syria and Jordan reopened another border crossing almost 300km south.
Colonel Sean Ryan, a spokesperson for the US-led coalition, said that the Rukban camp was a “humanitarian concern but not technically part of our military operation”.
He said “we understand that they [the regime and its allies] do not want our presence in the area”, but that the mission was “the lasting defeat of Isis”. Some members of the jihadi group were reportedly living in Rukban, he added.
However, for people inside the besieged camp, the failure of the US to come to their aid is hard to understand.
“They say they’re here to fight terrorism,” said Khalid al-Ali, an activist who has been in the camp for two years. “What terrorism? Isis does not exist in this area.” Mr al-Ali said tribal elders were seeking to negotiate a reconciliation deal with the regime.
Unicef, the UN’s children’s organisation, said last week that a five-day-old boy and a four-month-old girl in the camp died within 48 hours.
Abu Ammar al-Homsi, an imam who organises a school in the camp, said: “Believe me, we would eat leaves if there were any trees.”
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