Yarmouk burns and the world fiddles

The terror attack on Garissa University in Kenya, and the taking by ISIS militants of most of Yarmouk – the largest Syrian Palestinian camp on the outskirts of Damascus – indicate a dire deterioration in the security situation in the Middle Eastern and North African region.

In the south of the Syrian capital lies the neighbourhood of Yarmouk. Yarmouk was once a sprawling neighbourhood, home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians but has been caught up in the country’s fighting and besieged by regime forces for more than a year. 


About 18,000 residents are estimated to remain in the camp after many fled the fighting. Populated now by mostly Palestinian refugees the camp has been ceaselessly barrel bombed and heavily shelled by Assad government forces since the ISIS launched an offensive against an armed Palestinian group there. 
Thousands of civilians have been trapped for weeks without receiving aid. Fighting has been raging since Wednesday (04.01.2015) between ISIS and rival armed groups. However, an activist in Yarmouk, speaking to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said that the government’s bombardment of residential areas has been the main cause for civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis. 
Doctors & Hospital Staff Flee
According to the activist and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, government helicopters have dropped barrel bombs, which are highly indiscriminate and destructive explosives, on the district. There were no details on casualties. The Yarmouk activist said doctors and hospital staff were part of the group of people that managed to flee the district, further crippling its already deprived medical system.

Food & Water Shortages
There are shortages of food and water causing rampant hunger and suffering among civilians. Palestinian officials in Damascus and other Syrian activists have said that ISIS seized control over up to 90 percent of Yarmouk and have been battling opposition groups across the district. 
Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis Arrest ISIS Fighters
But the Yarmouk activist denied reports that ISIS took most of the district, saying the cause for the intrusion of the group – coming from the nearby district of Hajr al-Aswad – was not to seize territory there, but to punish the Palestinian faction Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis for arresting ISIS fighters accused of assassinating one of their leading figures.

ISIS Expansion from Hajr al-Aswad
Fighting between the two sides has continued mainly in the southwestern outskirts of Yarmouk. Marwan Kabalan, a Syrian political analyst, told Al Jazeera that ISIL may be trying to expand its control in Damascus from the adjacent district Hajr al-Aswad, where it has been based for months. But he also noted that it would probably be “too difficult to take control over all of Yarmouk” for several reasons, including its urban nature and the number of armed groups that have established their foothold there.

“It [Yarmouk] is quite a big area. It was once the most populated area in Damascus, and now there are many armed groups there,” he said. “The regime has failed to seize the district from rebels for more than two years.” Activists reported that reinforcements from rebel groups, including Jaish al-Islam, arrived in Yarmouk on Sunday and managed to recapture several areas from ISIS.

Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra Front, FSA & Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis
Besides ISIL, control over Yarmouk is divided between the armed opposition groups of Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, Free Syrian Army groups, and Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Sunday that ISIS captured at least 10 fighters from Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis and other rebel groups.

Pro-ISIL social media accounts published pictures showing 11 rebel fighters captured by ISIS beside some ammunition they seized. 


Ali Haidar, the Syrian minister of information, told Al Jazeera that the government had been working on a reconciliation deal under which the Palestinian factions would lay down their arms, and in return the government would end the siege. “We were days away from an agreement. However, rebel groups who are not Palestinian are against reconciliation, like Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. This is why these groups allowed ISIS to come into the camp,” he said.

Barrel Bombs

A barrel bomb is a type of improvised explosive device (IED). Sometimes described as a “flying IED”, they are made from a large barrel-shaped metal container that has been filled with high explosives, with possibly shrapnel, oil or chemicals, and then dropped from a helicopter or airplane.

Due to the large amount of explosives (up to thousands of pounds), their poor accuracy and indiscriminate use in populated civilian areas (including refugee camps), the resulting detonations have been devastating. 

Critics have characterized them as weapons of terror and illegal under international conventions. The earliest known use of barrel bombs in their current form was in Croatia in 1991, where they were deployed from An-2 agricultural airplanes against Serbian positions around Vukovar. 


They were also used in Sudan in the 1990s, where they were rolled out of cargo-doors of transport planes. 

Barrel bombs have been used extensively by the Syrian Air Force during the Syrian Civil War and later by the Iraqi forces during Anbar clashes. Experts believe they will continue to be embraced by unstable nations fighting insurgencies since they are cheap to make and utilise the advantages of a government’s air-power.

Barrel bomb attacks throughout Syria have killed more than 20,000 people since the conflict began in March 2011, according to a December 2013 statement by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). 

It is estimated that, as of mid-March 2014, between 5,000 to 6,000 barrel bombs have been dropped during the war and their use has escalated. Aleppo has been the focal point of the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs. 

Over time, government forces have refined their use of the barrel bomb to cause maximum damage – dropping one device and then waiting 10 to 30 minutes to drop another bomb on the same location. According to opposition activists, the aim is to ensure that those who flood the scene to rescue the victims are then themselves killed.

Yarmouk Camp

Yarmouk Camp (Arabic: مخيم اليرموك‎) is a 2.11-square-kilometre (0.81 sq mi) district of the city of Damascus, populated by Palestinians, with hospitals and schools. It is located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) from the center of Damascus and inside the municipal boundaries but when established in 1957, it was outside the surrounding city. Yarmouk is an “unofficial” refugee camp; it is home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria. As of June 2002, there were 112,550 registered refugees living in Yarmouk. During the Syrian Civil War, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the PFLP-GC supported by the Syrian Army government forces.

Yarmouk was established in 1957 on an area of 2.11 square kilometres (0.81 sq mi) to accommodate refugees who were squatters. Though it is not officially recognized as a refugee camp, road signs leading to this sector of the city read “Mukhayyam al-Yarmouk”, meaning “Yarmouk camp”.

Administratively, Yarmouk is a city (madina) in the Damascus Governorate. Over time, refugees living in Yarmouk have improved and expanded their residences. Currently, the district is densely populated, with cement block homes and narrow streets. Two main roads are lined with shops and filled with service taxis and microbuses that run through the camp.

According to the BBC, although Yarmouk “is identified as a camp, there are no tents or slums in sight. It is a residential area with beauty salons and internet cafes”. Living conditions in Yarmouk appear to be better than in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria and residents of the camp are made up of many professionals, such as doctors, engineers and civil servants, as well as many who are employed as casual laborers and street vendors. 

There are four hospitals and a number of government-run secondary schools. UNRWA operates 20 elementary schools and eight preparatory schools in the camp and sponsors two women’s program centers. There are three UNRWA health care centers in Yarmouk, two of which received upgrades in 1996 with contributions from the government of Canada. 

In 1997, six schools were upgraded with contributions from the government of the United States, and a kindergarten was built with funds from the government of Australia. In 1998, the UNRWA was also able to construct a health center funded by the government of the Netherlands. 

There is another Health Center whose expertise is devoted to prevention and treatment of thalassemia. The Center was built in 2009 thanks to funds provided by the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID). 

During the Syrian Civil War, Yarmouk camp became the scene of intense fighting between the Western backed rebel Free Syrian Army and its Palestinian ally Liwa al-Asifa on one hand and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) supported by Syrian Army government forces on the other. 

Subsequently the Syrian Army has besieged the camp, leading to many leaving the area and a significant deterioration in conditions for the more than 18,000 Palestinian refugees and other Syrians remaining inside the camp, whom the UN describes as living in “complete deprivation”. 

On 1 April 2015, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters entered the camp from the Hajar al-Aswad district, sparking clashes with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and the Free Syrian Army. ISIL initially took over much of the camp, but was later pushed back from some areas, before regaining control. 

On 2 April, it was reported that ISIL was in control of the entirety of the Yarmouk camp and was handing out bread to refugees. Later reports confirmed that Palestinian fighters along with local rebels managed to push ISIL fighters out of Yarmouk.

Acknowledgements & References: Al Jazeera; Joseph Willits @josephwillits; Shona Murray independent.ie; Wikipedia
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The Siege of Kobanî by the Islamic State (ISIL / ISIS): Situation Report (Warning: Graphic Content)

The YPG and YPJ are engaged in a fierce fight today with ISIS who have opened up a fourth front in the battle by launching attacks from the previously “safe” Turkish side of the town. It is unclear how ISIS can have been facilitated in this new strategy by a “member” of NATO, seemingly allowing ISIS launch an attack on the beleaguered town from within Turkish territory. The town and its brave defenders have unbelievably been under international political and economic embargo for three years. 

ISIS use suicide bombers to commence attacks from Turkish territory

There have been in excess of 1000 mortars rounds launched at the YPG / YPJ forces and six suicide bomb attacks in a single day. The Islamic State group claimed three successful suicide attacks in Kobani’s border crossing point, the SITE Intelligence Group reported. The group, quoting Twitter accounts linked to the militants, said the suicide attacks were carried out by a Saudi and a Turkmen, adding that one of them was driving a Humvee.  

Figure 1: YPG fighters moving between the ruins of Kobane


Al-Qaeda affiliated groups have now joined ISIS in their genocide supported by hundreds of millions of dollars in illegal funding from external state terrorists and possess tens of thousands of weapons including tanks, heavy mortars and artillery captured by ISIS in the early stages of the most recent phase of the conflict. 

Despite all of this, the highly mobile and motivated but lightly armed forces of the YPG and the YPJ in Rojava have not only resisted and held out despite facing overwhelming odds and international collaboration with ISIS but they have not been intimidated, continue to resist and shall soon succeed in liberating Kobane.

ISIS “open” new front in siege from Turkey
“ISIS used to attack the town from three sides,” Nawaf Khalil, a spokesman for Syria’s Kurdish Democratic Union Party, told the Associated Press. “Today, they are attacking from four sides.” Turkey, while previously backing the Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war, has been hesitant to aid the defenders of Kobane because it fears that could stoke Kurdish ambitions for an independent state.

Anger over Turkeys support of ISIS

Thousands of Kurds in Riha (Urfa) and Pirsus cities in Turkey are flooding across the Kobane border to support the resistance inside the beleaguered town. (SOURCE: Local TV Channels).

Figure 2: Kurds crossing the Turkish border to support Kobane 


Syria’s Foreign Minister said in a television interview aired Friday night that the U.S.-led coalition’s weeks of airstrikes against militants in Syria had not weakened the Islamic State group. Washington and the U.N. Security Council “should force Turkey to tighten control” of its border in order to help defeat militants, he added.

Video 1: YPG fighting ISIS in Turkey, today.

The assault began with a suicide bomb in an armoured vehicle on the border crossing between Kobanî and Turkey, said Khalil and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The video footage below (taken 29.11.2014) from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights purports to show ISIS militants firing from inside Turkish territory. Mustafa Bali, a Kobane-based activist, said by telephone that Islamic State group fighters have taken positions in grain silos on the Turkish side of the border and from there are launching attacks toward the border crossing point. 

See video below from point “01.18” point showing ISIS fighters in position firing from grain silo located inside Turkish territory. 
Video 2: ISIS firing on YPG from positions in Turkey

He added that the U.S. led coalition launched an airstrike Saturday morning on the eastern side of the town. “It is now clear that Turkey is openly cooperating with Daesh,” Bali said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. Later in the day, he said the situation was relatively calm on the border after a day of heavy clashes. 
Figure 3 & 4: Air strikes 29.11.14 at Kobane

On the 76th day of ISIS attacks on Kobanê, the YPG and YPJ fighters have gained control of 75-80% of the city. As the Kurdish forces advance, the ISIS gangs fire mortars at random and use snipers, but to no avail as their attacks are repulsed. Clashes are continuing on the eastern, southern and south western fronts. 

On the western front the YPG and YPJ fighters are being supported by Peshmerga and Burkan el Firat. The Islamic State group claimed to have carried out four further suicide attacks in Kobane to the south of the town. The Peshmerga are not on the front line, instead supporting the YPG/YPJ by firing mortars and katyusha rockets. 

Background on Burkan el Firat, membership & objectives

The Firat New Agency previously announced:

The Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) and Free Syrian Army (FSA), including other armed opposition groups have formed a joint front against the Islamic State (ISIS) in the region around the Euphrates. It has been reported that that the YPG, FSA and other smaller opposition groups have come together to form a ‘joint operation room’ against the Islamic State threat in the Euphrates region. 
The name of this joint force is ‘Burkan El Firat,’ and its aim is to oust IS from the areas currently under its control. The ‘joint operation room’ declared itself in a military ceremony in Western Kurdistan, with the declaration being read by a FSA commander. 
It was declared that the forces joining the ‘Burkan El Firat’ against the gangs of El Bagdadi were as follows: Liva El Tevhid Eastern Wing, Liva El Siwar El Raka, the Shams El Shemal brigades of the Fecir El Huriya, YPG, YPJ, Seraya Cerablus, Liva Cephet El-Ekrad, Siwar Umunaa El Raka, El Kasas Army and Liva El Jihad Fi Sebilillah. 
The following was also listed in the declaration: 1. All the members who have joined ISIS under false pretences must leave the group. 2. The international community must do their part against the terrorist group ISIS. 3. All parties against ISIS must contribute physically and financially to the joint operation room. 
It was also declared that the objective of the joint operation room is to oust ISIS from all the areas currently under their control. The following areas were listed: Karakozak, Sirrin, Cerablus, Minbic and surrounding villages, Rakka and surrounding villages.Figure 5: Burkan el Firat announcement of joint front against ISIS in the Euphrates region
YPG/YPJ fighters who have repulsed attacks by ISIS gangs are continuing to advance step by step and are inflicting heavy losses on the ISIS gangs and seizing large amounts of ammunition and weapons. See below YPG and Burkan al-Firat joint forces of the FSA crossing into the Turkish side of via the Murshitpinar border gate in North Kobane, not to attack Turkish forces or occupy ‘Turkish’ soil, but to repel ISIS insurgents who were allowed by Turkey to carry out their attacks on Kobane from there. (DIHA)

Figure 6: Murshitpinar Turkish / Syria border gate in North Kobane
Statements from YPG/YPJ spokespersons

YPJ commander Zilan Kobanê said that in recent days on the eastern front in particular many points have been cleansed of ISIS gangs and large quantities of munitions seized. YPG commander Ciwan Kobanê added: “We are advancing step by step. This means that Kobanê is gradually being cleansed of the gangs.”  
Figure 7 & 8: YPG spokesman Ciwan Kobanê & YPJ Spokeswoman Zilan Kobanê
The most intense clashes on the eastern front around Municipality Street, which is now almost entirely under the control of YPG and YPJ fighters. ISIS have abandoned many positions YPJ commander Zilan Kobanê, who is fighting on the front line in the Municipality Street area, said the gangs have been run out of many areas on the eastern front in the last 3 days, adding that the enemy gangs have suffered heavy casualties. She said: “They are now resorting to sporadic sniper fire and indiscriminate mortar fire as we have broken the back of their attacks.”  
Comments from YPG commander Ciwan Kobanê
YPG commander Ciwan Kobanê added “Our comrades have demonstrated in the last 3 days that the gangs will not be able to stand up to our forces. In the last 3 weeks there have been fierce clashes around the Municipality Street area and we are advancing step by step.” He added that the liberation of the city would take time pointing out that “Urban warfare is an arduous, drawn out process. We have experience of this. Fighting is going on house to house, street to street. We are advancing steadily but slowly.”
Peshmerga call for regional unity against ISIS
In the wider debate Kurdish Peshmerga forces and their spokesman Khalil Jangi have called for unity amongst all groups and minorities battling the ISIS war criminals saying:
Figure 9: Khalil Jangi, Peshmerga Spokesman
“In this picture, you see an Assyrian mother and her three year old child. She fled from ISIS in Mosul to the city of Dohuk in the governorate of Iraq and part of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Assyrian nation must not accept the crimes committed against them by ISIS, and remain silent. All Assyrians have a duty to their people and nation to fight together against the criminal ISIS.”
 Figure 10: Assyrian mother and child fleeing from ISIS in Mosul (el-Mōṣul)
“Assyrians, Kadanians, Izadids, Syrians, Yazidis and Kurds only salvation from ISIS is to stand together. We have the same enemy. Kurdistan is the home for all nations and religions, we are all living together and look forward to peace and prosperity. We will defend our land and people against all enemies.” 
YPGH / YPJ Fighting for the future of all our children, Support Them
The Kurds of the ‪#‎YPG‬ and ‪#‎YPJ‬ are fighting for every child’s future – around the world – support them.


 
Figure 11: The tragedy of Kobane

The unspeakable tragedy of the ISIS barbarians aggression against innocence is shown above with pictures from a Syrian Kurdish refugee camp filled with children from the Kobane area in front of living quarters separated by plastic sheets at a camp in Suruc and receiving food rations, on the Turkey-Syria border.  
The realities of the conflict – ISIS dead
 
Figure 12: ISIS Dead

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: ANF / İBRAHİM ASLAN / ERSİN ÇAKSU / JAMES HUGHES / JAMIE READ / The Lions of Rojava Media Center