Despite talk of returns, displaced Syrians in Rukban remain ‘caught in the middle’ of closed borders and geopolitics

Pocket after pocket of opposition-held territory has fallen to the Syrian government and its allies over the past year in a grim cycle: sieges and bombardments turn to negotiations, before negotiations lead to bus evacuations toward Syria’s rebel-held north.

But in a remote corner of the country’s southeastern desert, one nominally opposition-controlled enclave has avoided that fate.

The makeshift tents and mud homes that make up Rukban camp are sprawled out across a no-man’s land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders known as the “berm,” part of a 55-kilometer demilitarized zone previously sketched out by Russia and the United States. A series of bombing attacks claimed by the Islamic State in recent years spurred Jordan to close a nearby border crossing to some 50,000 displaced Syrians camped out in the isolated desert settlement with scarce food, water and medicine.

To complicate things further, Tanf, a US-led coalition military base, sits just kilometers from the camp—ostensibly to serve as yet another outpost in the fight against the waning Islamic State.

“Rukban, Tanf and the 55km deconfliction zone surrounding them are subject to different laws of physics than many of these opposition-held enclaves that were subsumed by the Syrian government over the past year,” Sam Heller, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group, tells Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards.

And yet, there are hints that the situation for Rukban’s displaced could soon change, after years in near-total isolation.

A UN-run health clinic on the Jordanian side of the berm, closed recently amid claims that rebel groups in the area were restricting access across the border. Though now reopened, the controversy was followed by local faction Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn announcing plans to evacuate to Syria’s northwest alongside camp residents “who desire to do so.”

Since then, community leaders in Rukban have reportedly entered into talks with the Syrian government to facilitate reconciliations within the camp, ahead of possible returns to camp residents’ hometowns—mostly in government-held areas of rural Homs.

On October 2, an official Jordanian source told Syria Direct that the Jordanian government is “engaged in very serious conversation” with Russia regarding returns of displaced Syrians from Rukban.

But Rukban’s sensitive location between US-backed forces and Syrian government territory means any road home—or to the rebel-held north—is politically fraught.

“You have a deplorable humanitarian situation that is also bound up in some fairly tangled geopolitics,” Heller says. 

“That makes Rukban more difficult to resolve.”

Q: There's been a lot of talk recently about potential civilian evacuations or even returns from Rukban camp. First, Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn announced plans for an evacuation convoy to northern Syria, and then this week Rukban community leaders acknowledged that talks were underway with the Syrian government over some kind of reconciliation for camp residents. Why now?

The status of the residents of the Rukban camp—if you want to call it a camp—is a persistent and seemingly intractable problem. Jordan has made it exceedingly clear that it considers the camp [as] something inside Syria, that it is a Syrian problem. Meanwhile, we have various interested parties on the Syrian side of the border—including the Americans as part of the counter-ISIS coalition, as well as the Syrian government and its allies—who have proved unable to deliver, negotiate or arrange the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Rukban residents.

So you have tens of thousands of people who are marooned in this desert moonscape, that is not hospitable or livable by [any] normal standard, and who are not being served regularly with the sort of humanitarian aid that they need. So in the absence of more regular humanitarian access and delivery of assistance, the question becomes: "How do you get these people out?"

For a while now, I think there have been kind of persistent rumors circulating about negotiations and more speculative plans about relocating the camp and its residents, securing their safe exit to other parts of the country. So these latest steps seem more real. And at least one of these latest developments—this most recent meeting between camp notables and a representative of the Syrian government—seems as if it may lead in a [more] productive direction.

Q: Humanitarian conditions in Rukban have always been dire, and there have been some individual returns and reconciliations from the camp for quite some time as well. But this is the first time we are seeing organized efforts for return from within the camp itself. Are there indications as to why this is happening more quickly now compared with before?

I don't know if I would over-read some of this coincidence in timing, or even assume at this point that some of these more substantive developments are leading towards a solution.

[Of course], it would be totally understandable that residents of Rubkan, despairing of conditions in the camp as well as the possibility of receiving more regular aid, may be looking for a way out.

At the same time, you have what almost everyone agrees is a deplorable humanitarian situation that is also bound up in some fairly tangled geopolitics. That makes Rukban more difficult to resolve.

Certainly, Damascus and Russia regularly criticize the United States for effectively depriving Rukbans residents of humanitarian aid and, more dubiously, [allege] that the Americans are fostering ISIS elements inside the 55km deconfliction zone. They don't necessarily have a huge incentive to yield to the Americans and to subsidize what they consider an illegitimate and dangerous occupation of this section of the desert.

The Americans have, by this point I think, mostly given up on pressuring the Jordanian side to allow regular cross-border aid, but then [they’ve] also proven unable to find some alternative solution that would resolve the status of Rukban while allowing them to also maintain what they contend is a counter-ISIS foothold, but which seems more like an actual practice for leverage [over the Syrian government].

The result is that Rukban residents are caught in the middle. And if they want to get out of this circumstance, then they'd probably need to arrange that themselves.


Rukban residents demand humanitarian aid in June. Photo courtesy of Rukban Camp.

Q: You've written before that a-Tanf is being used as a kind of leverage over Damascus. But can you explain what exactly you mean by that, and what that looks like in practice?

A-Tanf and the surrounding 55km deconfliction [zone] blocks the a-Tanf-Rutbah border crossing to Iraq, which kind of deprives Syria and its allies of more direct access between Syria and Iraq and further disrupts Syria’s economic reintegration into its regional surroundings. I think, per the operative theory now within the US government, [this] ups the pressure on Damascus to agree to political concessions in the various manifestations of the political process.

The Americans, to my knowledge, are not using a-Tanf as a sort of staging ground or operations base for anything beyond the 55km zone, but just by sitting there... they are depriving or denying it to Damascus and its allies. Then, or at least as the theory goes, this area can be employed as effective leverage and something to be traded at an unspecified point. It’s a similar logic to the continuing, or what seems likely to be a continuing, US presence east of the Euphrates...which again doesn't seem likely to translate into proactive steps but rather to have the Americans effectively sit there until Damascus and its allies become more reconciliatory.

Q: Going back to these evacuations from Rukban, why do you think Damascus would agree to a large-scale evacuation or reconciliation of civilians from the camp? What would they stand to gain, if anything?

I think we'll have to wait and see how some of these reconciliation efforts proceed. To my knowledge, you've had [previously] the exit of small numbers of camp residents, in dribs and drabs, but without a major organized, negotiated framework. This latest set of terms that was signed by Rukban notables, and apparently communicated to Damascus via their envoy, seems more ambitious potentially—but it also doesn't seem necessarily out of step with the "reconciliation agreements" that Damascus has concluded elsewhere and by which it has reintegrated Syrians into the Damascus-led system.

It's tough to know if this is how Damascus is necessarily thinking about this, but certainly by establishing these lines of communication and relationships with Rukban's residentswho exist under the auspices of the US-led coalition, within this sphere of protectionthen it would seem to weaken the Americans' justification for continuing to hold this territory and keep it outside of a “whole Syria.”

Q: One of the biggest criticisms of coalition forces at a-Tanf is that they haven't been able to secure cross-border aid deliveries to Rukban. Why do you think the coalition and UN appear to have given up on convincing Jordan to deliver aid, since it seems like the easiest solution?

I have been told before that the US-backed Maghawir a-Thawra does distribute some aid to residents in limited quantities. [Even then], it sounds like it would certainly be insufficient for the total population of the camp.

The clearest and most direct means of accessing the camp and delivering aid would be across the Jordanian border. But since the car bomb that struck the Jordanian military post in summer 2016...when Jordan [subsequently] hardened its line on cross-border access, it has become clear that for the Jordanians, this is an almost entirely unyielding [stance].

[Ed.: In June 2016, the Islamic State claimed a car bomb attack on a Jordanian military outpost along the Syrian border that killed seven Jordanian soldiers. In response, the Jordanian government sealed a nearby border crossing to Rukban residents, save those in need of medical care at the UN-run clinic that opened the following year.]

They have real and apparently reasonable concerns about the population of the camp and extremist infiltration. [And] they are apparently concerned that they will somehow be assigned responsibility for this camp, and so Jordan has taken a hard and uncompromising stance and said the camp is a Syrian problem inside Syria.

With the exception of some isolated and one-off cross-border aid deliveries, and the continued delivery of water and access to the UN's medical point on a limited basis, the Jordanians have said that this is Syrian territory that needs to be served from Syria via Damascusdespite all of the obvious and so-far insurmountable political hurdles that that entails.

My understanding is that from the American perspective, Jordan tends to be a good and responsive ally, but then occasionally there are issues on which the Jordanians feel strongly enough that they are not amicable to compromise. This is an area on which I think the Americans and others have given up on convincing the Jordanians. 

Q: Over the past couple years, we've seen pro-government retaking areas of opposition-held Syria, bit by bit, pocket by pocket. Why has Rukban been an exception?

Rukban, a-Tanf and the 55km deconfliction zone surrounding them [are] subject to different laws of physics than many of these opposition-held enclaves that were subsumed by the Syrian government over the past yearmostly by virtue of the US presence on the ground, which, in turn, translates to this umbrella of air protection overhead.

Since the Syrian government and its allies advanced east last year, and the negotiation of this deconfliction parameter, it has seemed essentially inviolable andas was established early onwill be enforced with American military power against either the Syrian government or allied forces that attempt to enter it. I think it's basically implausible that this area could come under a real military attack or be challenged in that sense.

But obviously it has all these other intersecting political vulnerabilities that Russia seems to have identified, and then used, both to deflect attention from Damascus' deprivation of what had been opposition enclaves within in its core territory and then also to embarrass the Americans and their Jordanian allies.

This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.