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Yarmouk: the victim of IS-Nusra power struggles Open in fullscreen

Hamza al-Mustafa

Yarmouk: the victim of IS-Nusra power struggles

Yarmouk has been largely destroyed and depopulated [Getty]

Date of publication: 22 April, 2015

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Comment: The Islamic State group's takeover and withdrawal from Yarmouk refugee camp south of Damascus is explained by calculations of opposition groups in the area, says Hamza al-Mustapha.

Since its inception, the Islamic State group has fought with single-minded determination to capture and hold areas of Syria, conquering and absorbing rivals as it went. This is what makes its retreat from Yarmouk refugee camp so unexpected.

After the IS took complete control of the camp, the group retreated to its stronghold in al-Hajar al-Aswad in southern Damascus. It gave control of Yarmouk to the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, both of which are enemies of the IS which it has fought on numerous occasions.

One explanation is that Yarmouk is a poor prize. Control does not provide any advantage - the dire conditions of its Syrian and Palestinian residents are a heavy burden.

Further, given the current military stalemate in the area, it is impossible for any group to use the camp as a launching pad for assaults on central Damascus.

Some pro-regime figures have claimed that the IS entered Yarmouk to block a reconciliation deal between the Syrian regime and the armed factions in the camp.

     Control of Yarmouk does not provide any armed group, including the IS, with any significant advantage.


However, IS has supported such reconciliations in the past. In Yalda, next to Yarmouk, the IS emir for southern Damascus, Abu Sayyah Framah, oversaw a reconciliation deal with the regime and even maintained calm after the regime violated the agreement by arresting dozens of families leaving the area.

The IS failed to attract fighters and solidify its presence in the suburbs of Damascus for a number of reasons, perhaps the most important being strong opponents in the form of Jaish al-Islam and the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union.

The forms of religious practice prevalent in southern Damascus and Ghouta have also prevented the IS from establishing a foothold in the area.

Thus, after the IS made important advances in areas such as Yalda, Babila, Beit Sahm, Yarmouk and Tadammon, armed factions such as Jaish al-Islam, Ajnad al-Sham and the Free Syrian Army easily pushed the IS back and forced it to sign a truce on 21 September 2014.

Since then it has been limited to al-Hajar al-Aswad, with only about 300 members.

The IS attacked Yarmouk from their stronghold in al-Hajar al-Aswad with the backing of Nusra, which prevented other rebel factions from supporting the Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis group in the camp.

We must widen our scope beyond Yarmouk to understand why Nusra gave IS its support.

On 26 June 2014, the creation of the Unified Judicial Council was announced in Eastern Ghouta, which included most armed factions in the area including Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.

That council was created to defeat the IS, administer areas taken from that group, and act as the arbiter in disagreements between factions.

The fight over the Unified Judicial Council


However, after IS was expelled from Eastern and Western Ghouta and weakened in southern Damascus, the council has became the governing body that various factions competed to dominate.

Yarmouk fell victim to a power struggle between armed factions over an area that had been pounded into rubble by the regime's barrel bombs.

Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaish al-Islam, succeeded in controlling the council and began taking decisions that favoured his group and Ajnad al-Sham against Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham.


Skirmishes occurred in Beit Sahm between a number of groups in the council, and tensions rose after Nusra withdrew and Ahrar al-Sham resisted a council order to arrest its military commander.

Ahrar al-Sham was leaning toward a peaceful resolution to the conflict, however it seems that Nusra had other ways of curbing the influence of Jaish al-Islam, the IS' arch rival.

Nusra facilitated and coordinated the IS attack on Yarmouk to draw the IS and other armed factions into a battle that would weaken both sides.

Nusra would remain neutral and reap the rewards of the settlement between the IS and other factions.

However, it seem that Jaish al-Islam became aware Nusra's plan and targeted IS cells in various areas in Damascus to prevent a repeat of a Yarmouk scenario.

Yarmouk fell victim to an irresponsible power struggle between various armed factions over an area that had already been pounded into rubble by the regime's barrel bombs.

These armed factions are fully responsible for the suffering of Yarmouk's residents, which they ignored as they competed to control an area that was of little use to them.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.


This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

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