Syria's remote Rukban refugee camp shrinks as Russia blockade forces return to regime-held areas

Syria's remote Rukban refugee camp shrinks as Russia blockade forces return to regime-held areas
Just a quarter of the population of the Rukban refugee camp remains. Thousands have fled due to a Russian blockade on aid.
3 min read
28 July, 2019
Just a quarter of the camp's population remains [Anadolu]

The population of an isolated Syrian refugee camp in a US-protected desert zone has dwindled due to a long-lasting Russian block on supplies, aid workers, diplomats and residents say.

Just five months ago, more than 40,000 internally displaced Syrian refugees lived in the al-Rukban camp, located in a remote desert zone close to the Syrian border with Jordan.

Now, just a quarter of that population remains after a Russian aid blockade forced thousands to move to areas held by the Syrian regime, Reuters reported.

It is this same strategy of brutal sieges on opposition bastion that President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian ally used to push rebels to submit.

Most residents of Rukban fled Syrian regime and Russian bombardment elsewhere in the country. Many fear arrest, torture and even death if they return to regime-held areas.

That fear is not unfounded, with Human Rights Watch documenting cases of arbitrary arrests of former rebel fighters in areas recaptured by the regime in May.

Russia and the Syrian regime have imposed a brutal siege on aid entering the camp since October last year, preventing strugglers and traders who used to bribe their way across checkpoints from entering the camp.

When residents refused to use "humanitarian corridors" to regime-held areas opened by Russia in February, Moscow threatened to starve the camp and force male residents into the Syrian regime army.

The camp is located inside the al-Tanf "deconfliction zone" set up by the US-led international coalition in 2016. First set up to train opposition forces for the fight against the Islamic State group, the zone has since been described as a base for monitoring Iranian movements in Syria.

Moscow has repeatedly demanded Washington vacate the area, calling the zone a safe haven for rebels and a de-facto occupation.

But advocates also place blame on the US for the starvation of the camp, whose residents live near to a Pentagon-run base which they say has abandoned vulnerable refugees in need. 

Jordan and the United Nations have also been accused of not having done enough to protect the isolated refugees. 

"The situation is very, very bad and food supplies are not available," Rukban resident Mahmoud al-Humeili told Reuters.

Etana, a leading Syrian policy research group based in Jordan, says that thousands of refugees have fled Rukban "out of desperation", despite the risk of arrest by the Syrian regime.

The group estimates that, as of 23 July, there were only 11,000 people in the Rukban camp.

"Conditions are currently the worst in the history of the camp with the Syrian regime and its Russian ally continuing to implement a starve or surrender strategy to force the camp's occupants to leave," Etana said.

Those that remain, residents said, prefer to be evacuated to the last remaining opposition bastion in northwestern Syria, Idlib - which is currently suffering a daily campaign of brutal aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russia.

US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey did not shy away from the residents' criticism of Washington when he spoke to The Washington Post earlier this month.

"If we feed them, it will look like we are going to stay there forever," he said. "We can't commit to a long-term presence in al-Tanf or in anyplace else in Syria."