Residents of the Rukban camp protest conditions and a regime siege, southeast Syria, October 10, 2018 (Omar a-Shawi)
Russia and the Assad regime are threatening the forced removal of displaced Syrians from the Rukban camp in southeast Syria.
Moscow and the regime have tried for months to dismantle the camp in barren territory near the Jordanian border. They want more than 40,000 residents to return to home areas, from which the displaced fled in 2015 amid Islamic State attacks.
A joint statement released Wednesday by Russia’s Ministry of Defence said Russian and regime forces have prepared buses to move the residents so they can “start new lives”.
But many of the displaced have said they fear detentions, forced conscription, and harassment if they return. They are also uncertain of the status of their property after more than three years.
Residents have expressed a preference to go to the opposition-controlled portion of northwest Syria, but talks involving Russia, Jordan, and the US have failed to produce any proposal.
Last week Russia declared “humanitarian corridors”, but no one showed up at the two checkpoints with Russian military police and Syrian aid personnel. The Defense Ministry then lied that “militants” were preventing any depatures.
The regime has cut off routes to Rukban and allowed only two aid deliveries in 13 months. Shortages of food, medicine, and essential supplies have caused the deaths of dozens of residents, with the UN saying thousands of children are at risk.
Last week camp elders sought an end to a siege, but they were rebuffed. Pro-opposition outlets said Russian officers insisted young men leaving Rukban must face conscription into the Assad regime’s army.
Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzya then told the Security Council on Tuesday that planning of aid is a waste of time.
Nebenzya said an “evacuation…must begin to be implemented in short order, without wasting time on planning new convoys that only highlight disregard for international humanitarian law in that part of Syria”.
The ambassador said residents could go “to the regions that they themselves choose”, but then appeared to point to return to home areas by alleging that a survey carried out by UN officers in Rukban showed 80% want to go back to regime control.
In fact, while more than 90% in the survey — carried out during a rare aid delivery in early February — said they want to leave Rukban, the respondents all cited the fear of detentions, conscription, blocking of access to their property, and infringement of their rights and security.
Demanding US Withdrawal
On Wednesday, Russia and the regime again linked Rukban to a demand for US withdrawal from eastern Syria, with the closure of the American base at Tanf near the Iraqi border.
“We…call on the United States, whose military units are on Syrian territory illegally, to leave the country,” their statement said.
Rukban is within a 55-km (34-mile) security zone around Tanf. The US military have refrained from breaking the siege, apparently to avoid any confrontation with Russia.
Donald Trump ordered a withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops in December. However, the Pentagon and US officials pushed back. Washington said last week that Tanf will remain open with at least 200 American personnel.