Thousands of Syrians stuck in desert camp
Beirut – Tens of thousands of Syrians stranded in a desert camp near the Jordanian border are at risk of starvation amid dwindling supplies and the approach of winter, while regional powers trade blame over who is responsible for this latest humanitarian catastrophe in Syria’s civil war.
Desperately needed aid deliveries to the besieged Rukban camp have repeatedly failed or been postponed, including a U.N. convoy which was supposed to go in last week but has now been indefinitely delayed.
The camp is home to around 45,000 people, many of them women and children, who are camped out in the open desert. At least four people have died in the past month, due to malnutrition and lack of medical care.
Sand storms and heavy rains in recent weeks have left Rukban’s tattered tents and clay houses in even worse shape. Imad Ghali, a camp resident, said this isn’t the first time Rukban has been promised aid and not received it.
“It’s like telling someone dying of thirst to wait for the rain,” said Ghali. “How long are we going to wait?”
People started gathering in Rukban three years ago, fleeing Islamic State militants and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, Russia and Syria. Jordan sealed its border and stopped regular aid deliveries in 2016 after a cross-border IS attack that killed seven Jordanian soldiers.
The last aid delivery from Jordan was in January, leaving the camp’s residents dependent on goods largely smuggled from government-held areas. The situation sharply deteriorated after the Syrian government blocked supply routes last month following a botched reconciliation deal with rebel groups in the area, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Russia, a close ally of the Syrian government, has blamed the U.S. for the deterioration of the situation in Rukban, which is within a 20-square-mile “deconfliction zone” set up by U.S. forces in the nearby Tanf military base.
“The inability of the US side to live up to its commitment to provide security in the 55-kilometer area around its base in Tanf stopped the convoy from going,” Lt. Gen. Vladimir Savchenko said last week, adding that the area around Tanf has “a large number of armed and uncontrolled militants who can stage any manner of provocation” and endanger aid workers.
The U.S.-led coalition has denied such allegations.
“Any talk of the coalition holding up the process is simply misinformation and others deflecting off themselves,” U.S. military spokesman Col. Sean Ryan said in an email.
On Oct. 20, , the White House envoy to the coalition, Brett McGurk, said the Syrian government and Russia are using Rukban as an excuse to question the U.S. presence in the area.
“The question is for the regime and Russians. Do they really want to help these people or use them as something to come after us?” he asked, after stressing the U.S. was going to stay in the Tanf base. He spoke at a security conference in Bahrain last week.
Jordan, which at one point used cranes to drop aid for Syrians struck in Rukban, said it will not shoulder responsibility for this latest episode.
“Rukban is Syrian people on Syrian territory, so it is the responsibility of the Syrian government and the U.N. and the international community,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.
He added, however, that Jordan will continue to provide water to Rukban and access to a Jordanian clinic for those in need.
“The camp’s location has pushed the warring sides to use it as a way to pressure each other, while simultaneously neglecting the camp,” said Rami Abdulrahman, who heads the Observatory.
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