SARC aid trucks arrive at Rukban on Wednesday. Syrian Arab Red Crescent/AFP.
AMMAN: Over 100 trucks carrying humanitarian aid arrived to a distribution center at the remote Rukban camp on Wednesday evening, in a rare UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent joint convoy following months of harsh winter conditions at the settlement with few supplies.
The shipment included winter coats, sleeping bags and blankets as well as food, hygiene and other supplies, according to a purported UN distribution plan seen by Syria Direct, and a Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) statement that was released on Wednesday.
A video shared by Rukban media activist Emad Ghali on Wednesday afternoon showed “logistical crew” SUVs, emblazoned with UN and SARC logos, entering the camp several hours ahead of the supply trucks.
Aid is desperately needed, with a key desert smuggling route into the camp closed by Syrian government forces for a fourth consecutive month, according to residents.
Rukban, a temporary home to some 40,000 displaced people in Syria’s eastern desert, has endured months of devastating winter conditions.
Residents who spoke with Syria Direct last month said this winter has been their most difficult yet in the camp, as they face bitterly cold rain and dust storms with dwindling supplies.
At least eight young children have perished in the camp since mid-December due to the winter weather, according to UNICEF, including a baby who reportedly died within an hour of being born.
Prior to Wednesday’s aid convoy, humanitarian deliveries to Rukban had been limited to once-yearly events due to the camp’s location within a hotly disputed no-man’s-land along a stretch of the Syrian-Jordanian border, otherwise known as the “berm.”
Rukban’s residents, most of whom come from parts of rural Homs province once controlled by the Islamic State (IS), are trapped. Crossing into Jordan is only an option for those in need of specialized medical care at a UN-run border clinic in nearby Jordanian territory.
The desert area immediately surrounding the camp is part of a 55-kilometer “deconfliction zone” previously agreed upon by US and Russian forces. That area is nominally controlled by a US-backed rebel group operating out of the al-Tanf military base, which both the US and rebel fighters claim is a crucial part of a now-waning fight against IS.
But a surprise announcement in December by US President Donald Trump that American forces would withdraw from Syria raised concerns that US troops would also abandon al-Tanf.
Produce for sale in Rukban on Sunday, seen on the camp’s buy-and-sell page. The price for one kilo of tomatoes, cucumbers or onions is 500 Syrian lira ($1)—unaffordable for many displaced people in the camp, according to resident Ali al-Homsi.
Residents trapped in Rukban fear an exit could leave them vulnerable to oncoming Syrian government forces. Iranian-backed militias are also known to maintain a presence not far outside the 55km zone.
Small numbers of displaced Syrians in Rukban have made the journey home. In January, around 200 residents joined an uncoordinated convoy of trucks and open-back lorries to their original homes in Maheen, a small town in Homs province.
However, many more appear unwilling to take the risk. Displaced Syrians residing in the camp have long called for safe passage to opposition-held northern Syria, as living conditions inside the camp deteriorate. Young men in particular fear returning to their hometowns in rural Homs province, now back under government control. There, they worry they could face forced conscription into the Syrian army, or detention as a result of perceived pro-opposition sympathies.
“You could stay in the camp where the living conditions are difficult, or your fate is to be killed or detained at the hands of the regime,” Ali al-Homsi, a 27-year-old Rukban resident, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
Al-Homsi comes from Qaryatayn, a formerly multi-confessional town in rural Homs that endured two IS invasions and the exodus of its last Christian residents. Thousands of the town’s former Muslim residents fled successive IS and Syrian army assaults with many, like al-Homsi, ending up trapped in Rukban.
However, an especially bitter winter has left camp residents questioning how much longer they can survive in this isolated corner of Syria. Some appear to be considering their options.
The decision is a difficult one, according to al-Homsi.
“Only the elderly, those over the [military] reserves age and women can return to Qaryatayn,” which is now under government control.
“I, along with most of the young men [in Rukban], would rather go to the north,” al-Homsi said.
Gas canisters in Rukban in December, as seen on a camp buy-and-sell Facebook page.
Northwestern Syria, much of which is now under opposition or hardline Islamist control, is home to an estimated one million Syrians forcibly displaced from other parts of the country that were previously besieged by the government.
There had been talk of a potential evacuation convoy from Rukban northwards as early as September 2018, when the now-defunct local rebel faction Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn reportedly reached an agreement with Syrian government forces to bus its rebel fighters and several thousand civilians north to the city of Jarablus on the Syrian-Turkish border.
A source close to the opposition-run Jarablus Local Council in northern Syria also told Syria Direct at the time of a planned convoy from Rukban that local officials were planning a “temporary camp” in the area to receive the incoming displaced.
But the convoy never went through, for unclear reasons. Al-Homsi said his own name was on the list of Rukban residents hoping to join in.
“Now I’m looking for any way to get out to the north, but it’s not working,” he told Syria Direct. “There is a smuggling route to the north, but it’s very dangerous and costly.”
Meanwhile, Jordan, Russia and the US are quietly engaging in talks in Amman to “dismantle” the camp, an official Jordanian source told Syria Direct on Thursday.
Any timeline or exact details about the proposal were unclear, although the source insisted that Rukban “has to be de-established before [US] troops leave al-Tanf.”
Jordan hopes for an “agreement that would allow for those people [in Rukban] to safely go back to their towns and cities,” although trilateral talks have not included local camp officials based in Rukban, the source said.
Amman has long stated publicly that it views Rukban as a security threat. Following a series of IS-claimed bombing attacks near Rukban in recent years, a nearby border crossing into Jordan has been firmly closed and adjacent Jordanian territory declared a military zone.