Displaced youth sift through rubbish at the Rukban camp in southeast Syria, November 2019 (Amad Ghaly)

Displaced civilians in the Rukban camp in southeast Syria, defying a Russian-regime siege and pressure to return to unsafe areas, are now facing pro-Assad assaults.

Pro-Assad units attacked anti-Assad fighters who protect the camp on Sunday, inside a 55-km “deconfliction zone” around Rukban and the US base at Tanf in eastern Syria near the Iraq border.

Sources inside Rukban told EA WorldView that one member of the rebel faction Maghaweir al-Thowra was killed. He was named as Mubarak al-Musaitif.

Maghaweir al-Thowra fighters confirmed the news and said pro-Assad troops were slain in the clash. EA’s sources said the rebels captured a regime observation post.

The anti-Assad fighters claimed that the attackers were part of an Iran-backed militia and that “Russia has conducted airstrikes outside of the 55 km deconfliction zone”.

Russia-Regime v. Besieged Civilians

Rukban, a barren area near the Jordanian border, once had more than 50,000 residents. They fled homes in central Syria amid Islamic States attacks.

The Assad regime, backed by Russia, cut off the main road into Rukban in autumn 2018 and has allowed only three UN aid convoys in more than two years.

Moscow bolstered the siege with propaganda claiming that “terrorists” were holding the residents hostage, and convened a series of talks with camp leaders seeking the removal of all civilians.

Amid the pressure, the camp’s population has fallen to about 13,000 residents, about 70% of them women and children. But those remaining have steadfastly refused to leave despite critical shortages of food, medicine, and essential supplies.

They cite the risk of returning to regime-held Homs Province with intimidation, forced conscription, and loss of property. Hundreds of men have been detained for questioning, and several have been killed.

See also Syria Daily, Dec 15: Activists — Regime Seizes 174 of Rukban Camp’s Men

The Choice for Rukban’s Besieged: Starve or Risk Detention by Regime

The US military has supported Maghaweir al-Thowra in the fight against the Islamic State. However, wary of confrontation with Moscow, the Americans have refused to provide assistance to Rukban’s civilians.

The American command for Operation Inherent Resolve circulated Maghaweir Al-Thowra’s declaration that “coalition forces” would respond to the pro-Assad attacks — but confined its own statement to a focus on the Islamic State.

Spokesman Maj. Johnny Walker said, “We are closely monitoring reported hostilities around the 55km de-confliction zone in southern Syria. We are coordinating with our partners, the Maghaweir al-Thowra, and using de-confliction protocols to ensure the safety of our forces.”

Neither Russian State media nor Assad regime outlets mentioned the clash and the fatalities.

Two weeks ago, the Assad regime’s Municipal Management and Ecology Minister denied the repression and arrests of Rukban’s civilians if they return to regime areas.

Hussein Makhlouf insisted that the reports of detentions and intimidation “are aimed solely at discrediting the SAR government and further delaying the operation to disband Rukban”.