Gun fighting and shelling erupted Sunday in Damascus's Yarmouk refugee camp, shattering a 19-day ceasefire brokered by the United Nations last month to allow humanitarian aid into the camp. Yarmouk today is home to some 40,000 Syrian and Palestinian residents, of whom over 100 are believed to have starved to death during a suffocating government siege that had lasted almost a year, while other residents were forced to survive by eating grass.
Fighting broke out Sunday after al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra declared that it was re-entering the camp after having withdrawn as part of the ceasefire agreement, charging that the government had "failed to abide by even one of the ceasefire's conditions." On Tuesday, the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS), an al-Qaeda splinter group, claimed to have taken control of parts of Yarmouk, with ISIS supporters circulating a hashtag on Twitter declaring "ISIS liberates Yarmouk camp" and posting triumphant photos of ISIS in the camp.
At least one analyst suggests, however, that despite the pageantry, ISIS's influence in Yarmouk remains limited, as is the case throughout Damascus and Outer Damascus.
"Just because they held a parade doesn't mean they control Yarmouk," says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a London-based Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum, in a conversation with Syria Direct's Alex Simon on Wednesday. While ISIS maintains a presence in the Syrian capital and its outskirts, al-Tamimi says it is not enough to capture and hold territory at this stage. ISIS's exaggeration of its own gains, he adds, is really about generating publicity and "pushing back against ceasefires because of regime sieges on areas in Damascus."
ISIS supporters Tuesday circulated a hashtag on Twitter reading "ISIS liberates Yarmouk camp."
Photo courtesy of @almatr41.
Q: What's your impression of how strong ISIS is in Yarmouk Camp?
ISIS has been in Yarmouk for quite a while—I remember a video from May, or May/June, in which they were in the Yarmouk Camp area. Basically, like other Damascus localities, it's really just a few dozen ISIS people. Just because they held a parade there doesn't mean they control Yarmouk or are the main faction there. From what I know, this ISIS thing in Damascus—each locality, you can expect roughly a few dozen people, whether it's Zabadani, Qalamoun, or Yarmouk.
In Yarmouk, there's a few dozen, and what they've done is they put themselves on social media from time to time saying "look, we're holding a parade…look, we're against these traitors from the FSA who hold ceasefires or try to negotiate with the regime." It's just a few dozen, and you'll find that that's the case in pretty much all Damascus localities.
Q: So you saw this campaign on Twitter yesterday with the hashtag "ISIS liberates Yarmouk camp." What do you think triggers a social media campaign like that, if it's not substantive military gains?
There's this idea of pushing back against ceasefires because of regime sieges on areas in Damascus, and also it's just a way ISIS knows it can generate more attention to itself in various areas. People started tweeting at me saying "Brother, is it true that Yarmouk has been liberated?" No, it's a few dozen fighters, calm down. They just decided to show rejection of the ceasefire by raising their flag, but I don't think it means they controlled the area. As far as I can tell, it's another of these publicity stunt style things.
They did the same thing in Fallujah after they moved in, when the Iraqi army withdrew—they held a parade in the center of the town, and people were saying "Oh, Fallujah's been taken over by ISIS," when actually they were one faction among many in the town. And that's always been the case. There was no point at which they controlled the whole town, but they know that doing these things can make them stand out.
Q: We've been seeing buzz about a possible confrontation between ISIS and this group called Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa in a-Raqqa province. Is this something to keep an eye on?
Liwa Thuwar a-Raqqa is basically spearheading an underground sabotage campaign against ISIS—bombings, IEDs, gunfights. That is real. I saw a statement about Liwa Thuwar Raqqa about continuing the fight against ISIS even after they'd been driven out of the city. And I'm pretty sure there's a Jabhat a-Nusra underground in Raqqa province as well. There's also an underground regime presence, you see these pictures coming out of some regime flags being raised in parts of Raqqa
Q: Could these groups pose a real threat to ISIS control?
It's more of a nuisance and security threat for ISIS personnel rather than actually challenging ISIS's rule in Raqqa province. I don't think other rebel groups have numbers or organization to push into Raqqa and take ISIS's strongholds, which are Raqqa, Tabqa, Ma'adan, pretty much all the major towns in Raqqa province.
Q: What's your sense of ISIS's presence elsewhere in Damascus and Outer Damascus, particularly in Qalamoun?
Damascus province stands out because this is one of the few areas where ISIS is not fighting with other rebels, everyone's really focused on the regime. That's not to say there are no tensions, but there's been a lack of infighting. Again, it's in this range of dozens at most. But they are not fighting with other rebels. [In Qalamoun], it's pretty much that they're all focused on the priority to push back against regime forces. ISIS in Qalamoun does have a bit of history, in that in the past they did have joint fronts with Jabhat a-Nusra and this Saudi muhajireen-led battalion called the Green Battalion, which basically was announced in August and is led by Saudis, though it does have a number of other nationalities, including native Syrians.
Q: So there's little or no infighting in Qalamoun—what about actual cooperation between ISIS and the other rebels?
It is my sense that they are cooperating, everyone is cooperating. But I venture to say that Jabhat a-Nusra leads it, in terms of leading the Qalamoun front of rebels against regime forces. I remember a video as the rebels were being pushed back in Qalamoun, before the regime advance halted, they decided to form new opposition umbrellas under Jabhat a-Nusra's leadership.
Q: Is your sense that this sort of cooperation is limited to Damascus and Outer Damascus, or is there similar cooperation happening in the north?
In Raqqa, you have some other battalions that work with ISIS, but they're subordinate—it's not an equal relationship. They're basically taking orders from ISIS. In Hasakah, I think ISIS has co-opted some local Arabs to fight against the [Kurdish Peoples' Protection Units], and you do have some battalions aligned with them still, like this one called Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa, who originated in Aleppo; they're not part of ISIS but they work for ISIS.