‘The Islamic State, Nusra relationship in southern Damascus is good’

April 7, 2015

After sitting in the south Damascus suburb of al-Hajjar al-Aswad for nearly a year, the Islamic State seized control of Yarmouk camp just north from Palestinian militia groups over the weekend, several days after entering the camp reportedly with the assistance of Jabhat a-Nusra.

A two-year long blockade on Yarmouk camp, once home to more than 100,000 Syrians and Palestinians, has reduced the camp’s population to approximately 18,000 residents, according to a recent UNCHR estimate. At least 12 civilians have died due to starvation because of the blockade.

On Monday, the UN Security Council condemned “in the strongest terms the grave crimes committed by [IS] and Jabhat a-Nusra against 18,000 civilians” in Yarmouk camp, “emphasizing the need that such crimes do not go unpunished.”

“Nusra really did facilitate IS’s entry” into Yarmouk, says Matar Isamaili, the alias of a citizen journalist currently on the edges of Yarmouk camp.

IS entered Yarmouk because of local disputes with a Palestinian group in the camp, while Nusra blocked reinforcements from helping the Palestinian brigade, he tells Syria Direct’s Moatassim Jamal.

Q: What are the real reasons that the Islamic State stormed the camp?

There are a number of reasons.

One of them was IS’s assassination of a Hamas official in Syria who was located in the camp, named Yahya al-Hourani Abu Sahib. The next day, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis [a pro-Hamas Palestinian militia in Yarmouk camp] launched an arrest campaign that targeted dozens of IS agents in the camp after confirming that IS was involved in the assassination operation.

Add that to the fact that IS has been trying to spread its influence in southern Damascus for a year, and spread its control over areas other than its main base in al-Hajjar al-Aswad [just south of Yarmouk].

Additionally, IS wants to take revenge on the rest of the areas in southern Damascus, since it was expelled a year ago to al-Hajjar al-Aswad after attacking [the rebel groups] Jaish al-Islam and Ajnad a-Sham and killing a number of mujahideen, and arresting leaders from both groups. This led the rebels to launch a counterattack in southern Damascus, which culminated in IS’s defeat and re-concentration in al-Hajjar al-Aswad.

Therefore IS always tries to direct attacks at the rest of the areas [in southern Damascus] in an attempt to crush the other military brigades in the area.

Q: What exactly is Jabhat a-Nusra’s role in these events, and why are people saying that they helped IS invade the camp?

Because they really did facilitate IS’s entry from those areas under their control, like the vicinity of Palestine Hospital and Mashham Amir that looks over Street 30 in the camp.

Subsequently, Nusra participated in the fighting on IS’s side, after they prevented the [rebel groups] Jaish al-Islam, Liwa Sham a-Rusul, and Jaish al-Ababil’s reinforcements from breaking the [IS] siege on Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis.

This is because Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis helped Liwa Sham a-Rusul a while ago to expel Jabhat a-Nusra from Beit Sahem and push them into Yarmouk. So Nusra found this opportunity appropriate to take revenge on Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, Liwa Sham a-Rusul and the other brigades that helped expel it from Beit Sahem and the southern part of Damascus.

Q: What was the relationship like between Nusra and IS in the area before IS attacked the camp?

The relationship between IS and Nusra in southern Damascus specifically is good. It didn’t witness any strain during the past two years. Nusra even intervened to save IS when it was besieged in Yelda a year ago, when the rebel brigades initiated an attack on IS after the latter arrested leaders in Jaish al-Islam and Ajnad a-Sham.

Nusra intervened and saved 75 IS fighters from their besieged positions, on the basis that they would be tried in a fair trial afterwards. That never happened. Quite the opposite, they were smuggled out indirectly. They consider each other brothers who follow the same doctrine.

Q: How’s the general situation inside the camp right now after IS invaded?

Ninety percent of the camp is under the control of IS and Jabhat a-Nusra. Fighters with Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis are holed up in the vicinity of the Salah a-Din Mosque in the northeast of the camp, in a small geographical area.

IS is surrounding the area from three sides, the regime from the other. People have been fleeing for three days to the villages of Yelda, Babila and Beit Sahem, where hundreds of families were welcomed in [residents’] houses.

Yesterday, a school was opened in Yelda that took in 100 families. There is a lack of food and water in the camp, there is little activity inside because of fear of bombing or IS arresting anyone who has a relationship with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis or supporting brigades.

Q: Is IS’s rule in al-Hajjar al-Aswad and Yarmouk independent from their rule in A-Raqqa and Deir e-Zor and Al-Bokamel?

IS in al-Hajjar al-Aswad and Yarmouk are a bunch of unorganized rabble-rousers. They aren’t able to rule or lead the camp. Therefore they demanded that the employees from aid organizations, who had fled towards neighboring towns like Yelda and Babila and Beit Sahem, return to work inside the camp because they won’t be able to run the place on their own.

Q: We’ve heard from Nusra supporters that Jaish al-Islam and the other brigades were able to enter the camp from IS’s base of al-Hajjar al-Aswad, that the road was open. Why did Jaish al-Islam insist on entering from areas under Nusra’s control?

The road was not open. IS has a strong presence there [in al-Hajjar al-Aswad], they spread out snipers in addition to occupying strategic buildings and opening fire, targeting any attempts by Jaish al-Islam and other mujahideen to circle al-Hajjar al-Aswad.

I personally participated in the first operation that attempted to surround al-Hajjar al-Aswad, but the operation was not completed because our positions were discovered and IS snipers targeted us.

Q: What do civilians think of IS invading the camp, especially considering they’ve been suffering from siege and starvation for three years?

Of course they are blaming, and cursing, IS and Nusra. Civilians oppose their presence there in the camp to begin with, and they stand with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a Palestinian brigade from the FSA that now stands in the face of IS.