AMMAN: Last week, Russian state-run media published a curious offer.
US diplomats were reportedly invited to come sit down with Russian military officers and Syrian officials to discuss the fate of Rukban, a long-stranded remote displacement camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border.
There were no details in the announcement on where the supposed meeting would take place, or even if American officials had been notified ahead of time.
Either way, that meeting went ahead on Tuesday. Photos shared by state-run outlet Russia Today appeared to show uniformed Russian and Syrian officials sitting around an arrangement of plastic tables under a canvas tent in the desert.
An agenda for the meeting, seen by Syria Direct, included discussions between representatives from the Syrian army and security agencies, Russian reconciliation officials and representatives from Rukban itself.
A Russian military official, quoted in pro-opposition media reports Tuesday, meanwhile claimed the organizers “invited US diplomats present in Jordan and representatives of US forces present in al-Tanf to attend the meeting.” However, they added that the invitation “was rejected.”
Ahmad a-Zgheira, a member of Rukban’s local camp-run administration, told Syria Direct on Tuesday morning that a “delegation from Rukban [was] attending” the meetings.
A statement released on Tuesday by the UN in Syria welcomed “all efforts to find durable solutions for the people of Rukban,” as well as “dialogue with all relevant parties, to further clarify the return and relocation process.”
The statement did not explicitly mention Tuesday’s meeting, although a UN spokesperson confirmed that representatives from UNHCR, UNOCHA and the UN envoy to Syria's office attended.
For months, some 41,000 displaced Syrians inside Rukban have been caught in limbo as international powers navigate a complex stand-off over the future of a camp long-defined by its neglected, isolated position in the desert. The impasse pits Russia and the Syrian government on one side with the United States on the other, as Jordan and the UN attempt to oversee the process from the sidelines.
Rukban sits within a barren no-man’s-land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders known as the “berm.” The roughly 55-kilometer corner of desert surrounding the berm is nominally controlled by rebel forces backed by the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition, which operates from the al-Tanf military base just a few kilometers east of the camp.
Outside this 55km zone lie vast swathes of territory held by the Syrian government. There, pro-government forces—as well as allied Iranian and other militias—maintain a continued presence.
Each side blames the other for Rukban’s prolonged isolation and, until now, there has been scant sign of compromise—despite growing pressure from Russia in particular to push for a conclusion.
Often negotiated in distant meeting rooms, the momentum to find an answer has only seemed to grow in recent months.
Tuesday’s meeting is the latest manoeuvre in what has often been a puzzling, and intentionally opaque, diplomatic process to decide the fate of Rukban. It has involved closed-door meetings in Amman and widespread confusion over Russian-established “humanitarian corridors” now stationed around the camp—with little information available over how the international powers involved hope to solve the “question” of Rukban.
What was once a strip of empty desert in a region of Syria known as the Badia is now a sprawl of mud and cinder block homes built by displaced families fleeing the advances of IS militants after 2013.
Many were originally hoping to make it into Jordan for safety, via a now-closed border crossing in the desert, until an IS-claimed car bombing nearby in mid-2016 led to the total closure of the border.
The surrounding areas on both sides of the border became tightly patrolled military zones, with the Jordanian side closed to all but exceptional medical cases.
Today, Rukban residents live trapped in the squalid desert settlement, where conditions often depend on infrequent aid deliveries.
Those conditions took a rapid turn for the worse late last year as a series of desert smuggling routes that once provided the camp with vital supplies of food and medicine were suddenly cut off. Only precious few items still make it through, and at drastically increased prices, camp residents told Syria Direct in recent months.
Basic medical and humanitarian items, including baby formula, are in desperately short supply. At least 12 young children have died as a result of winter cold and preventable diseases since January.
Two infants—one-week-old Fatima and two-week-old Omar—died in the space of just one day earlier this month due to a lack of medical supplies, camp residents told Syria Direct at the time.
It is perhaps unsurprising that few people want to remain in this barren corner of Syria. And yet the routes out are far from easy.
In mid-February, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced plans to oversee “humanitarian corridors” to facilitate the safe transfer of an unknown number of Rukban residents to their hometowns, in what are now government-held areas of Homs province.
According to the Russian announcement, checkpoints on the outskirts of Rukban were to be established days later to “meet, receive, distribute and provide necessary assistance to internally displaced persons” who wished to leave the camp.
But only a small number of families have trickled out of Rukban towards nearby government-held territory since the opening of the Russian “humanitarian corridors” last month.
‘Inaccurate’ numbers of returnees
Imad Ghali, a media activist inside Rukban, claimed that the corridors have changed little on the ground.
“Despite the opening of the Russian crossings [last month], it’s still the same old system for leaving that’s been in place for months,” he told Syria Direct, with displaced Syrians coordinating reconciliation with government authorities on an individual basis before heading home across the desert.
Given the individual basis of returns, documenting them is difficult.
In one indication of just how difficult it is to gather reliable information, Syria Direct sought out numbers of recent returns over the past several days. One source inside Rukban said 15 families, another said 186 individuals. Another count suggested the number was as high as 500 returnees.
“All the numbers are inaccurate,” Mahmoud al-Hamili, a spokesperson for the camp’s civil administration, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “How are [camp officials] supposed to gather accurate statistics on the number of people planning to leave within a 15-square-kilometer area?”
“[Camp authorities] aren’t supported by either local or international bodies,” he added. “Unfortunately they don’t have the means to do that kind of documentation.”
Meanwhile, armed factions within the 55km zone surrounding Rukban claim they have no responsibility for civilian matters within the camp itself.
“[The factions] have no involvement—it’s the local council and civil administration in the camp who are responsible for reporting on behalf of civilians,” said Saeed Saif from the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade, a rebel faction based within the 55-km zone.
Even more difficult is assuaging the intentions of displaced Syrians who are effectively trapped in the desert by the geo-political interests surrounding them.
During a recent humanitarian aid delivery to the camp by the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), UN aid workers conducted an intentions survey meant to understand where families in Rubkan would be willing to return to.
Ninety-five percent of participants inside Rukban expressed a desire to go home, with 83 percent wanting to return to their “areas of origin”—however, “all residents surveyed...expressed concerns relating to their safety and security at the destination,” according to a UN document seen by Syria Direct.
‘The case of Rukban is international’
And it’s that point in particular that stands in the way of returns—the fundamentals on the ground have not changed.
Russian and Syrian state media have since trumpeted the survey as proof that US-backed forces in the nearby al-Tanf garrison are the ones to blame for the ongoing stand-off at Rukban.
In statements to reporters earlier this month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed American-backed forces at al-Tanf were holding displaced Syrians “in the camp against their will.”
"The fact that people are not allowed to leave [the camp] and are held hostage makes one suggest that the US needs this camp to continue justifying its illegitimate presence there," Lavrov added.
Saeed Saif from the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade, on the other hand, argued that the “Russians are trying to show the positive side of their presence in Syria,” while the Syrian government “looks for a political victory and the return of [displaced Syrians] to their homes in a way that benefits them.”
“The case of Rukban is an international one,” he added.
According to Century Foundation analyst and fellow Aron Lund, “there’s a lot of noise about Rukban in the media [with] much of it—or all of it—coming from Russia and Syria.”
However, he added, many displaced Syrians in Rukban likely want to go home—but according to particular guarantees.
“There must be a lot of people in the camp who would like to go home if they knew that they could do it safely,” he told Syria Direct, citing fears among camp residents of arrest by pro-government forces or conscription into the Syrian army.
“Whether Russia can give those guarantees or whether the Syrian government can give those guarantees, or wants to—that’s a different story.”
Additional reporting by Tom Rollins.