Islamic State gains ground from al Qaeda in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp

The Yarmouk refugee camp in the Syrian capital of Damascus has witnessed fierce battles between the Islamic State and Al Nusrah Front in recent weeks. Multiple reports say the Islamic State has been gaining ground from Al Nusrah, which is an official branch of al Qaeda’s international organization.

Yarmouk was once home to more than 100,000 Syrian and Palestinian refugees. Its current population is far less, but it is difficult to find a precise estimate. Earlier this month, the UN warned that the fighting between the rival jihadists has only added to the humanitarian crisis for those refugees who remain. The Syrian government also launches airstrikes in the area as well.

“The continuous, highly intense fighting is not only causing civilian casualties and fatalities, but has also acutely aggravated shortages of food and clean water for the approximately 6,000 civilian families residing inside Yarmouk,” Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said on April 14. UNRWA has regularly attempted to supply food, hygiene products and blankets to the residents of Yarmouk and nearby camps, but its mission has been interrupted by the heavy fighting.

16-04-14 Amaq ISIS battles AQ Fighters in Southern Damascus

The Islamic State began its new push in Yarmouk on April 7. Multiple factions have clashed there since 2012, but the so-called caliphate saw an opportunity to advance and took it. An offensive by the Islamic State a year earlier, in April 2015, fizzled after local militant groups and Al Nusrah thwarted its expansion. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s organization has controlled turf inside the camp since then, but the situation was essentially a stalemate. That has changed in recent weeks, with Al Nusrah losing turf.

Amaq News Agency, which is part of the Islamic State’s prolific media machine, released the infographic seen on the right on Apr. 14. It says the Islamic State controls 30% of Yarmouk and 70% of the nearby “Palestine Camp.” The infographic also indicates that 15 Al Nusrah Front fighters defected after Baghdadi’s men announced amnesty for any jihadists who left the al Qaeda branch’s forces. Amaq refers to Al Nusrah as simply “Al Qaeda,” which is accurate. The group is openly loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri and staffed with veteran jihadists throughout its ranks.

Amaq has regularly reported on Al Nusrah’s (al Qaeda’s) alleged defections and losses since then, with 10 al Qaeda fighters purportedly defecting on April 18. Five more al Qaeda jihadists reportedly defected on April 23, with the Islamic State killing three men who refused to switch sides.

Amaq has also been eager to trumpet al Qaeda’s loss of ground. A headline from the media outfit on April 7 read: “Islamic State fighters take control of the Juwrat ash-Sharibati neighborhood and parts of the Yarmouk Camp, south of Damascus, after clashes with al Qaeda.” That same day, the media arm reported: “Breaking | Islamic State fighters take control of the Arubah checkpoint seperating Yalda [another area] from the Yarmouk Camp in Damascus after clashes with al Qaeda.”

Another headline on April 11 said: “Renewed advance by Islamic State forces at the expense of al Qaeda fighters in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, capturing new positions.”

It is often difficult, if not impossible, to fully verify Amaq’s claims. But independent reporting indicates that the Islamic State has the upper hand in the current battle.

“Daesh [Islamic State] has chased Al Nusra[h], its former ally in the Yarmouk camp, from 90 percent of the territory it controlled,” Anwar Abdel Hadi, who heads the Palestine Liberation Organization in Damascus, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

Estimates provided to both AFP and Newsweek suggest that the Islamic State has between 2,000 and 3,000 fighters in Yarmouk and the nearby area. Al Nusrah is believed to have far fewer fighters in the camp, perhaps only a few hundred. Local witnesses also told Newsweek that both sides are beheading their jihadist rivals during the vicious conflict.

Should the Islamic State be victorious, Baghdadi’s men will have a new safe haven in Damascus. On April 20, Amaq released a short video documenting the areas of Yarmouk that have fallen under the Islamic State’s control. The images, some of which are included below, show a sparsely populated area ravaged by war.

Screenshots from Amaq News Agency video inside Yarmouk refugee camp:

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Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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