Who are the Warring Factions in Syria’s Yarmouk Refugee Camp?

Mystery surrounds the map of conflicting forces within the camp and its surroundings, especially with the large number of forces and the complexity of their interrelations and alliances

The so-called “Islamic State” has seized most of the area of Yarmouk refugee camp—the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria—after battles against Syrian and Palestinian opposition factions and forces fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad who had controlled the camp for nearly two years. Mystery surrounds the map of conflicting forces within the camp and its surroundings, especially with the large number of forces and the complexity of their interrelations and alliances. So who are the warring factions in the Yarmouk refugee camp and why they are fighting each other?

The Islamic State (ISIS)

Fighters of ISIS entered the Yarmouk camp south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, last Wednesday through the ISIS-held al-Hajar al-Aswad area south of the camp. It was reported that ISIS seized most of the camp within hours before it was met by the Syrian and Palestinian opposition factions who had controlled the camp for nearly two years.

According to one observer from the camp, a Palestinian journalist who recently fled Syria and requested anonymity for personal reasons, ISIS’ attack on the camp came on the eve of rumors about a preliminary accord of “reconciliation” between the Syrian regime and the Palestinian factions loyal to it with the factions who controlled the camp. The reconciliation aimed to “neutralize the camp in the ongoing conflict in Syria.”

The journalist added that the understanding, according to the information he received, includes a “cease-fire in the camp, a lifting of the siege imposed on it, and the formation of a united force from all the Palestinian factions inside the camp. These forces would be responsible for supervising the situation and maintaining security in the camp.” The accord appears similar to the “reconciliation” reached between the regime and Syrian opposition forces in the towns of Yalda and Babbila months ago.

The Nusra Front

The Nusra Front used to share control of the Yarmouk refugee camp with a number of Syrian and Palestinian opposition factions. However, the Front facilitated the entry of ISIS into the camp last week, and took part in the clashes alongside ISIS against other opposition factions and forces fighting in the camp.

Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis

This faction is considered the largest faction that had controlled the camp before the alliance between the Nusra Front and ISIS. Violent clashes took place between Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and the attacking forces, which led to casualties on both sides.

The faction does not broadcast its loyalty explicitly, but some sources confirm its direct relation to the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas). They confirm that most of its fighters were former bodyguards for the head of the Hamas’ Political Office, Khaled Meshaal, before he and other Hamas leaders left Syria after the outbreak of the war in 2011. Hamas as taken a “neutral” position on the war, as described by some observers.

An official source in Hamas denied any relation to Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis or any other armed organization in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.

Ahrar Jaish at-Tahrir

This faction is a Palestinian group formed by Khalid Hassan, a former colonel of the Palestinian Liberation Army in Syria, before he left the army after refusing to carry out orders that would implicate his soldiers in the Syrian war. Hassan, nicknamed the “Colonel of the Camp,” was killed on Monday during the clashes against ISIS and al-Nusra.

Palestinian Jaish at-Tahrir is considered the military arm of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which was founded in 1961 in a number of Arab countries. Its forces essentially obey the orders they receive from the host governments.

Jaish at-Tahrir, which includes dissidents from the PLO, controlled the camp alongside Aknaf Beith al-Maqdis, the Nusra Front, and the Syrian opposition factions before ISIS attack the camp last week.

Syrian-Palestinian Opposition Factions

Beside Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and Ahrar Jaish at-Tahrir, Syrian factions such as Ansar al-Islam, Ahrar ash-Sham, the Army of Islam, Sham ar-Rasoul and Jaish al-Ababil participated in repelling the ISIS-Nusra attack—most of them were deployed in the areas of southern Damascus adjacent to the camp and its surroundings.

There are also other opposition groups from neighboring areas that have offered to intervene, according to opposition sources.

The Syrian Regime’s Army

The Syrian Army and the Palestinian factions loyal to it besieged Yarmouk refugee camp for nearly two years, after the Syrian-Palestinian opposition factions and the Nusra Front seized the area. All the attempts by Palestinian factions to reach an understanding with each other on the status of the camp, and on how to insulate it from what is happening in Syria, have failed.

The regime’s army has bombed the camp almost daily since then, and the pace of bombings has increased over the past week after the ISIS attack.

Palestinian Factions Loyal to the Regime

The regime calls them “the Coalition of Palestinian Forces and Peoples’ Committees,” which includes numerous armed factions, most notably Fatah-Intifada, People's Front-General Command, the Special Forces, and the People’s Struggle Front. These factions fight alongside the regime’s army and they have besieged the camp in the two years since the Syrian-Palestinian factions and al-Nusra seized it.

These factions are supposed to be part of the PLO, but they partially reject the Palestinian leaders’ policy, and declare their full allegiance to Damascus within the so-called “axis of resistance.”

It is noteworthy to mention that Pierre Krähenbühl, the Commissioner General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), said on Monday in statements to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York that “more than 12 armed groups are currently fighting in and around the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.”

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