Assad normalisation leaves Syrians in Rukban camp fearing future

Camp near Jordanian border has come under increased attack, with little aid coming in.

A Syrian refugee from the informal Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, walks in the rain, as she shelters a young child outside a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side on March 1, 2017.
Conditions in Rukban camp have deteriorated over the last few years, particularly since the border with Jordan was closed [File: Khalil Mazraawi/AFP]

In a makeshift settlement in the arid “no man’s land” between the Jordanian, Iraqi and Syrian borders, thousands of Syrians continue to live under siege.

Rukban camp is surrounded by Syrian government and Russian forces, who accuse its more than 8,000 residents of being “terrorists” and since 2019 have blocked United Nations aid from entering, forcing residents to survive off menial amounts of smuggled-in goods.

The recent tide of normalisation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has put the camp in an increasingly precarious position. The Syrian government was recently reinstated to the Arab League after it was suspended more than a decade ago, a move that will put an end to the country’s regional isolation.

“Any action that gives power to the regime or any form of changing control in a region, no matter how small, could be catastrophic for the area … It will shatter the hopes of the camp residents in achieving stability,” said General Fareed al-Qasim, a local Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, an armed opposition group that assists US forces stationed near the camp.

The attention al-Assad received in the aftermath of earthquakes in February was a catalyst for the Syrian president to revitalise ties with his estranged neighbours.

Since the earthquakes, Syria has seen multiple embassies reopen and has hosted diplomats from the regime’s former rival countries, including from Saudi Arabia, which was one of the principal backers of the opposition that rose up against al-Assad in 2011, but that has now been defeated in most of Syria.

Meanwhile, attacks have increased near the camp. In January, a health clinic critical for Rukban’s residents was hit in a drone attack – the first targeting civilian infrastructure.

Al-Qasim told Al Jazeera that although there were no casualties in the recent health clinic attack, two FSA personnel were injured and civilians and US military doctors were present at the site just hours before.

The general also noted that “anything is expected” from the Iran-backed groups he blamed for the attack, including another attack on civilian infrastructure in the camp.

“We are all really scared,” said 21-year-old Maryam, originally from Homs in western Syria, but who has been stuck in the camp for seven years. “We fear that something worse will happen… We fear losing our children, or our lives,” she told Al Jazeera.

A front group known as “Al-Warthoun”, with strong connections to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), claimed responsibility for the attack.

However, Iran’s United Nations ambassador wrote to the Security Council this month saying that Iran had “never been involved” in any attacks against the US in Syria or Iraq. The ambassador also called on the US to end its “illegal occupation” in Syria.

Deteriorating situation

The camp sits within a 55km (34-mile) “deconfliction zone” that surrounds the United States’s al-Tanf base, where the US trains partner forces against ISIL (ISIS) and disrupts the activities of Iranian-backed forces, which are deployed in close proximity to the desert outpost.

US forces patrol the deconfliction zone, alongside Syrian opposition forces, after a deal with Russia in 2016.

Outside the zone’s perimeter camp, residents are forced to return to regime-controlled territory, where they are often subject to arrest, torture, and enforced disappearance, according to Amnesty International.

The Syrian Emergency Taskforce (SETF), an organisation in direct contact with residents in Rukban, documented the deaths of two men who were killed under torture after they were arrested when they left the camp in October last year, according to SETF.

But inside the US-controlled zone, the humanitarian situation has been deteriorating. “The current situation in Rukban remains dire and continues to get worse,” Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of SETF, told Al Jazeera.

The camp faces severe shortages of staple food items and medical supplies, has barely any form of an education system, and lacks suitable housing that can withstand rain and windstorms.

The camp has had no shipments of flour for several months, and bread is extremely hard to come by, camp resident Maryam said.

She is the mother of two young girls and has a third child on the way. Without enough schools and teachers, children in the camp have now gone years without receiving a proper education.

“Of course I’m scared,” she said. “Who wouldn’t be scared that their children in the camp, they don’t know how to learn … How can we live normally and see our children and their futures ruined?”

Six months pregnant, Maryam said she also feared the day she will give birth because she does have proper medical care in the camp. “Our camp loses a lot of children because of the lack of treatment,” she said. “I am scared that when the child comes, he will be sick and he will die because of the lack of medicine”.

Drug trade booms

In recent years, the manufacturing and trafficking of Captagon, an amphetamine-type stimulant, has exploded in Syria, with the government turning the war-torn country into one of the world’s leading narcotics enterprises, according to the Carnegie Endowment.

The country hosts multiple sea and land smuggling routes to Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq that are critical to the lucrative drug and arms trade. Among these routes is the Baghdad-Damascus highway, which intersects the US-controlled zone surrounding Rukban camp.

Al-Qasim told Al Jazeera that his forces had seized approximately $3m worth of hashish, Captagon, and crystal meth being transported through and around the US-controlled zone in just the last six months.

Militia groups backed by Iran, a staunch al-Assad ally, have been critical for the transport and trade of the drugs manufactured in Syria, according to analysts. The groups viewed the US-controlled zone, including Rukban camp, as “a real thorn in their side”, commented Mustafa, from SETF.

Even as aggression has ramped up from inside and outside the “deconflict” zone, there continues to be no organised aid entering the camp, and the border with Jordan has largely been closed since 2016 for what the Jordanians deem to be security reasons.

The US, despite the proximity of the military base, continues to rely on the UN office in Damascus to organise humanitarian aid into the camp.

US forces based at al-Tanf were asked to comment on the reasons aid has not been delivered, but referred Al Jazeera to the US Department of State, who replied that the Syrian government and Russia had “repeatedly blocked aid shipments to Rukban”.

“[We] strongly support the UN’s efforts to negotiate,” a US Department of State spokesperson said.

However, Moustafa said that the UN was at “the mercy” of the al-Assad government and Russia. “If you’re relying on a process of bringing in aid into the camp and that process is at the mercy of the same people who are besieging the camp, then it’s obviously a failure,” Moustafa said.

“It’s time for USAID to declare that they have failed in providing direct aid [to the camp] … Because then we can actually look at what other options we have,” Moustafa said.

Meanwhile, the residents of Rukban will continue to wait in anguish.

“Only God knows how much we all suffer,” Maryam said. “We are the families [of Rukban] who are waiting for someone to look at us… So few people know about us. No one is helping us.”

Source: Al Jazeera