On Wednesday, May 2nd, the Syrian government announced that it had reached an evacuation deal with rebel fighters in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. The deal, as reported by the official Syrian government news outlet, allows the fighters and their families, who number about 5,000, to be transported by bus to the northwestern province of Idlib, an area still controlled by rebel forces. According to Zeina Khodr, a reporter for Al Jazeera stationed in Lebanon, the rebel forces were compelled to accept the government’s demands for the release of prisoners and the guarantee of safe passage for thousands of government-friendly civilians to make their way from the combat zone to safer, government-controlled territory.
The deal comes after a prolonged assault from the Syrian government’s forces on pockets of rebel resistance in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, on the outskirts of the capital city of Damascus. Since the beginning of the campaign on April 19th, activists in nearby rebel towns reported to Al Jazeera that at least 18 civilians have been killed, while UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria estimates that 60 percent of the refugee camp has been destroyed by the heavy bombardment. The Syrian government’s use of heavy weaponry in such a densely packed civilian zone has prompted new warnings by the United Nations about a looming humanitarian crisis in the area.
At the peak of its strength in 2015, Yarmouk came completely under the control of ISIS, prompting the Syrian government to act without regard for civilian lives as heavy artillery, including airstrikes, were used against the camp. According to the United Nations, more than 1,200 civilians remain trapped inside without access to food or medicine, afraid to venture out of their basements for fear of collateral damage.
In a statement released before the evacuation deal was reached, Pierre Krahenbuhl, Commissioner-General of the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees, said that “Yarmouk and its inhabitants have endured indescribable pain and suffering over years of conflict. We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of civilians, including Palestinian refugees, after more than a week of dramatically increased violence.”
The evacuation could be a sign of progress from a government which has, in the past, shown no regard for potential civilian casualties. This deal comes in the wake of a similar deal struck between the Syrian government and rebel forces in the wake of the Syrian government’s alleged chemical attack in the city of Douma, which saw nearly 50,000 people moved out of the devastated area. Al Jazeera reports that this deal is part of a wider agreement between the Syrian government and the rebel groups to surrender heavy and medium military hardware.
It is apparent to many onlookers that the use of heavy weapons, such as airstrikes, is of little use in urban areas and may even serve to amplify the number of civilian casualties due to the imprecise nature of such weapons. This deal, if honoured, could be a sign that the Syrian government is beginning to scale down their targeting of civilians, and if so, could prove to be a step of progress in a war that has already seen more than half a million killed and millions displaced. It is the role of organizations such as the United Nations and other advocacy groups to keep the Syrian government honest, rather than just taking this deal at face value.
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