DAMASCUS (Mideast Discourse) — While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken center stage in the media, little attention is being paid to a tragedy playing out in southeastern Syria. Far away from the western media coverage of the “Islamic State of Idlib”, the scene is set in a desolate area on the border between Syria and Iraq, adjacent to the illegal U.S. military base of Al Tanf. The Rukban Camp holds 13,500 displaced Syrian civilians and 6,000 armed militant terrorists of Maghawir Al-Thawra and their families.
On March 28, the Russian-Syrian Coordination Committee released a statement in Damascus, in which they exposed U.S. support for the terrorists who control the camp. Under the guise of humanitarian aid, the U.S. has coerced the UN into complicity. UN aid trucks, according to the statement, are being used to deliver not only food and supplies to the suffering civilians but also arms and ammunition to Maghawir Al-Thawra who administer the camp. The U.S. uses the residents of the camp as a pretext to continue its illegal occupation of the area, claiming the U.S. troops are protecting the displaced civilians living at the camp.
The situation in the camp is dire, as the terrorists are in complete control, even deciding who eats, and who starves. According to the joint statement, many civilians have been evacuated from the camp and relocated to government-controlled areas that are safe and have free medical care facilities under the Syrian Ministry of Health, who work in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO). However, the U.S.-backed terrorists have prevented some civilians from leaving by threatening them with dire consequences based on misinformation. Maghawir Al-Thawra is benefitting from the suffering civilians trapped in the camp as hostages.
The ‘Russian Centre for Syrian Reconciliation’ said in September 2019 that the Rukban Camp is controlled by an illegally armed militia, and they had refused to let UN buses inside to evacuate those who needed to be evacuated, instead insisting on using the civilians as human shields. Maghawir Al-Thawra had seized a large cargo delivered by the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent and the confiscated goods were warehoused by the terrorists.
“Sometimes, we received aid from the Red Crescent, but we only saw a small portion of it, most often sold to us, not given for free. The militants take the free aid and resell it to the refugees — that’s their business. To get money, we had to work at the camp. They set up a brick factory and we had to work like dogs there,” said Ahmad Mohammed, a former resident at Rukban Camp, who has been evacuated to Palmyra, and is now living safely there. He said that Maghawir Al-Thawra was selling humanitarian aid given freely, “Medical aid depended on the militants, too: if you co-operate, you have access to doctors. If you don’t, there will be no aid,” Mr. Mohammed said.
The U.S. military uses the assets on hand, in this case Maghawir Al-Thawra, to keep the very small numbers of American troops safe, and firmly in control of the area. The Pentagon knows it would be very hard to get approval for 6,000 Americans troops to hold Al Tanf, but the terrorists are on hand and are vicious fighters who will carry out crimes without batting an eye.
U.S. troops illegally occupied the area at Al Tanf in 2015, defying international law and the UN charter. President Trump famously ordered the troops to withdraw from Syria, only to back-track later and order the U.S. military to occupy and confiscate the oil wells in the Deir-Ez-Zor area illegally. However, the U.S. military presence at Al Tanf has never been under the withdrawal order, and the U.S. military base there is only manned by a few hundred troops. They partner with the Maghawir Al-Thawra, who are on the U.S. payroll and are tasked with the security and administration of Rukban.
“We believe that the American side’s reluctance to exert influence on their militants to ensure the unhindered departure of people from the Camp and the safe work of humanitarian representatives in the At-Tanf zone they occupied is clear evidence of their intention,” the March 28 statement asserted.
The UN is prolonging the suffering
On March 18, UNICEF shut down the only clinic providing Rukban Camp residents with advanced medical care, such as surgeries, and Caesarean-sections. Two days later a group in Rukban issued an urgent appeal addressed to the UN and the international community in general, calling for quick action to lift what it called the “Coronavirus siege,” which has only worsened the already miserable situation in the camp.
Serena Shim, an American journalist, was covering the Syrian conflict from the Turkish-Syrian border in 2014. She had reported that terrorists had crossed from Turkey into Syria on trucks bearing the symbols of the UN’s ‘World Food Organisation’ and other humanitarian aid organizations. She was killed the day after she had broadcast that the Turkish intelligence agency had threatened her. While her death was pinned on a cement truck hitting her small car, the driver of the truck was never charged.
Syrians need to return to normal life in their homes, not in camps. The solution for the Rukban Camp is to be shut down, the residents evacuated to safe areas, which have aid, schools and medical care available. The US troops should evacuate from the area, taking with them their partners Maghawir Al-Thawra. The Syrian war is over. Peace has returned to Syria, and there is no justification for keeping hostages in a camp, which has always been more like a prison than a sanctuary.
Feature photo | A U.S.-backed anti-government fighter mans a heavy machine gun next to a US soldier in al Tanf, a border crossing between Syria and Iraq. Hammurabi’s Justice News | AP
Steven Sahouni is an independent Syrian political analyst and writer based in Lebanon; he has been covering the Syrian crisis since it’s onset in 2011 and has published several articles in numerous media outlets – He is regularly interviewed by US, Canadian and German media.