The Islamic State’s attack on the Yarmouk refugee camp caused an uproar, raising many a question about the roles of various stakeholders in that battle. How could the Syrian regime allow ISIS to get so close to Damascus—the camp being a mere eight kilometers away? What is the position of the Nusra Front, which usually opposes ISIS, on the attack? And what is the position of Palestinians on everything that is happening in Yarmouk?

To many, there appears to be no logic in the course of events in Yarmouk. Matters remain blurry and are cause for concern, especially for the residents of the camp. The fact is that, in the ongoing conflict in Syria, it is the reality on the battlefield rather than theoretical reasoning that is imposing itself. Here it is worthwhile to review the past positions of the concerned parties in Yarmouk in regard to each other, to help elucidate, to some extent, the current course of events.

Lina Khatib
Khatib was director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Previously, she was the co-founding head of the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.
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First, the regime’s position on Yarmouk. Following an attempt to remain neutral on the sidelines of the Syrian revolution, Hamas leaders in Damascus found themselves in an awkward situation, due to the Syrian regime’s clear suppression of the revolution, and to Qatar’s anti-regime stance. The Palestinian factions in Syria levied harsh criticism on the regime, which allowed the latter to use the Yarmouk refugee camp as a model to illustrate the harsh lessons Assad would teach all those who tried to counter him. The regime besieged the camp, starved its people, and is now eliminating those who remain, under the pretext of dropping barrel bombs on ISIS following its attack on the camp. Clearly, the regime does not care for the Palestinians inside the camp, and is ready to sacrifice them in order to achieve its political goals—namely the elimination of all forms of opposition—while claiming to combat terrorism.

Second, the Palestinian factions’ position towards the regime.  Following the Syrian regime’s siege and suppression of Yarmouk, Palestinians inside the camp formed armed movements opposed to the regime, most of them Islamist. Shortly after, these groups became supporters of the Nusra Front and of other Islamist groups that have sprouted in Syria as a result of Assad’s atrocities and the inability of the moderate opposition to overcome the regime. Consequently, there is no unified position among the various Palestinian factions; some Palestinians even joined ISIS later. This is why we now find some Palestinians supporting ISIS in Yarmouk, having facilitated the group’s takeover of the camp by acting as sleeper cells, whereas most Palestinians do not support ISIS. The Syrian regime attempted to exploit this confusion with a divide-and-conquer tactic. It tried to attract some Palestinian factions to fight at its side, while others continued to fight both ISIS and the regime at once. The success of this polarization would have resulted in the overall weakening of the Palestinian position against the regime.

Third, the position of the Nusra Front on ISIS. As is the case for the Palestinians, the Nusra Front now does not have a unified position on the ground, even if its leaders clearly oppose the Assad regime. The Nusra Front began as an Islamist movement opposing the regime, but after the emergence of ISIS—which claimed to represent the “true face” of al-Qaeda and follow Osama bin Laden’s approach—there was great confusion in the ranks of all Islamist movements in Syria (and even among their external financiers). This prompted many factions to abandon the Nusra Front and back ISIS. Some of these factions are located in the south of Syria, and if they have not all pledged outright allegiance to ISIS, they nonetheless played the part of sleeper cells that have helped ISIS in its attempt to expand southward. These factions are still fighting in the battles of Yarmouk, which has put leaders of the Nusra front in an awkward position. Indeed, this confusion has led many people to erroneously conclude that the entire Nusra Front supports ISIS, while in truth, the two organizations are political rivals who have avoided a military confrontation. This is why the Nusra Front groups who in reality oppose ISIS have not intervened against ISIS in Yarmouk. Any major confrontation between the two would spread across Syria. This is neither in the interest of ISIS, which is focusing its efforts on creating its “caliphate,” nor is it in the interest of the Nusra Front, which is focused on fighting the regime.

Fourth, the regime’s position on ISIS. Here lies the greatest confusion, with the regime always clamoring what a formidable foe ISIS is. But if ISIS is a foe of Assad, it remains a friendly foe. To begin with, the regime has allowed ISIS to exist because it enabled Assad to portray the Syrian revolution as a terrorist conspiracy. And so the regime flung open its prison doors, freeing jihadists, and ignored their movements inside Syria. The regime even became one of ISIS’ customers when it took control of oil wells in the northeast of the country. Until now, the regime is still buying oil from ISIS, and negotiating with it to secure resources and services in ISIS-controlled areas.

Assad believed that ISIS could be the right tool to fight the moderate opposition. He facilitated the group’s movements in many parts of Syria, whenever the aim behind those movements was for ISIS to attack the Free Syrian Army. For example, when ISIS entered the Qalamoun area, the regime kept the roads open for ISIS, and avoided confrontation with the group. Here, we return to the importance of the reality of the Syrian situation. In Qalamoun, the regular Syrian army was faced with major challenges on the ground, and had to seek the help of Hezbollah and the National Defense Forces to confront the Free Syrian Army in the region. Therefore the indirect use of ISIS was tactical, not strategic—the regime believes that, in the end, it can eliminate ISIS when its existence is no longer necessary—that is, when the moderate Syrian opposition loses the war against the regime. This pragmatism towards ISIS explains why it was allowed to control the Yarmouk camp while the regime stood by and watched.

Despite its ferocious attacks against the regime’s military bases last summer, such as on Tabaqa airport, ISIS has greatly reduced its operations against Assad forces, and is focusing its efforts on fighting the opposition, such as the recent bombings that targeted the “Shamiyah Front” in Aleppo. ISIS has understood that the regime needs it to prove its credibility, and that its presence on the outskirts of Damascus does not worry Assad.

What is currently of more concern to Assad is that in the southern regions—which are only a hundred kilometers away from Yarmouk, and are desirable areas for ISIS to extend its influence in—the opposition has started establishing and strengthening its presence in the face of the regime.  The regime tried to prevent this, with Hezbollah and Iranian backing two months ago, but the operation was not successful.  The regime is now running out of options. With the opposition scoring victories against the regime in the south, Islamist groups opposed to the regime strengthening their positions in the north, and with Assad’s regime weaker than ever before, ISIS for Assad has become the lesser of evils.

This article was originally published in Arabic by Al-Hayat.