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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 January 2019

Rukban residents ask to be moved to northern Syria if US troops withdraw 

A US garrison near the camp has protected the settlement from advances by government forces

A man carrying a box of humanitarian aid distributed by the Syrian Arabic Red Crescent at Rukban Camp near the Jordanian border. EPA
A man carrying a box of humanitarian aid distributed by the Syrian Arabic Red Crescent at Rukban Camp near the Jordanian border. EPA

Residents of an informal desert camp located near Syria’s border with Jordan are urging world leaders to relocate their camp to northern Syria because they say they fear an attack by government forces once US troops withdraw from a nearby garrison.

For the past three years, the Al Rukban camp has been protected by a US deconfliction zone established around a nearby garrison in the town of Al Tanf, where US forces operate alongside Pentagon-backed rebel groups, including the Maghawir Al Thawra (MAT) battalion.

The Al Tanf airbase has acted as a buffer against advances by pro-government forces, including Syrian troops and Iran-backed militias.

A planned evacuation of the Al Tanf garrison is now sparking concern among nearly 60,000 civilians residing in the camp, who are asking to be moved to rebel-held parts of the country.

In a letter, seen by The National, the camp’s management urged world leaders such as US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May to ensure the safety of residents by relocating the camp to northern Syria.

“We are calling for the international protection of residents inside the camp,” read the letter sent to The National. “After the US announced its decision [to leave Syria], we urge you to relocate us to northern Syria,” the letter added.

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Russia has accused the US of using Ruban's residents as “human shields” to protect its military base in Tanf. Russia’s defence ministry has also described the area as a “black hole generating waves of Islamist insurgency.”

With US forces gone, the Syrian government and its allies may be emboldened to act against rebels stationed in the area, including Maghawir Al Thawra and the Lions of the East group, another Washington-backed rebel formation.

“We need the international community to find an appropriate solution so that people are guaranteed peace, dignity and security,” the letter said.

The Rukban camp is among the most desperate settlements in Syria.

Humanitarian organizations and the United Nations have had only limited access to the Rukban camp in the berm between Jordan and Syria since its formation. The last time aid was delivered to the area was in November. Even then, residents said that aid deliveries were not enough to meet demand.

Conditions inside Rukban continue to deteriorate as aid agencies struggle to send relief to the area. Water pollution, high temperatures, unsafe human waste disposal and garbage accumulation have led to major health issues. UNHCR says diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections are the camp’s leading causes of morbidity.

Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp. AFP
Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp. AFP

“Hunger, disease and abuse are on the rise, so we are asking the United Nations and humanitarian bodies to provide immediate and continuous aid and medical supplies to the camp,” the letter said.

“We have no source of livelihood. In 2018 the camp had only received one aid shipment, and it’s not enough to last a family for more than one week or two weeks at best,” the letter said.

The letter said that most of the residents are displaced Sunni Arabs, who have spent nearly a decade resisting Mr Assad’s regime.

“Civilians fled from Palmyra and Homs as they were forcibly displaced due to the demographic changes and the terrorist acts committed by Al Assad’s regime, Shiite militias and ISIS.”

Residents inside the camp told The National that they have been pressured to return to their cities and towns that have come under government control.

But they said they are willing to do “whatever it takes” to ensure that they are free from regime rule.

“These towns and cities are occupied by Shiite terrorist militias; how can we trust the guarantees from the government that it’s safe to return” Jamil Abu Ahmed, a resident of the camp said.

Maghawir Al Thawra and the Lions of the East rebel group assist with security in the camp.

Earlier this month, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels were cracking down on ISIS sleeper cells in the settlement.

A planned US withdrawal from Syria has raised questions over whether or not these rebel groups will have the resources to continue to monitor the area. It has also raised alarm over the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in parts of the Syrian desert near Rukban, where the groups operate.

Updated: January 3, 2019 04:48 PM

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