Free Syria Army fighters in Saraqeb 370 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS / Handout)
The capture by Syrian rebel forces of a Palestinian refugee camp in the south of Damascus is significant in that it is another gain for the opposition in the capital, Israeli experts said on Tuesday.
"It is another tactical development that taken together with other developments makes for a dramatic change [for the rebels] because it is another neighborhood in Damascus," Professor Eyal Zisser, who heads the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, told The Jerusalem Post.
According to Zisser, the rebel gains inside the capital are a sign that this is the beginning of the end for Syrian President Bashar Assad. However, it is unlikely that his regime will collapse quickly.
“That end can take a long time to come,” Zisser added.
Brig.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Brom, an expert on Syria and the Palestinians at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said that Palestinian support for Assad had waned well before the latest violence in Yarmouk.
“The Palestinians are Sunnis and have been sympathetic to the opposition,” Brom said.
The Syrian conflict has split Sunni loyalties, with Hezbollah following its patron Iran in backing Assad. In July, pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq Alawsat reported that the leadership of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad had left Syria for Iran but still remained on good terms with the Assad regime.
However, Palestinian Sunni terror group Hamas closed its offices in Damascus earlier this year, announcing in February that they were turning against the Alawite Assad and instead supporting the Sunni rebels.
In October, Syrian rebels announced they had begun arming sympathetic Palestinians, who would form a group called the Liwa al-Asifa (Storm Brigade) to fight against the PFLP-GC and take its Yarmouk stronghold.
The PFLP-GC have accused the Liwa al-Asifa of trying to stir up trouble within the Palestinian refugee community in Yarmouk, while Syrian rebels have accused the PFLP-GC of stifling Palestinian dissent against Assad.
Last month, PFLP-GC sources said that Liwa al-Asifa fighters had critically injured a senior PFLP-GC leader and killed four others in an car bombing attack in Yarmouk.
Now, with Yarmouk fallen to the rebels, PFLP-GC fighters are also starting to defect and join the opposition forces, Reuters reported on Monday, citing Palestinian sources.
Many of the defections came on Saturday, the same day that PFLP-GC leader Ahmed Jibril fled the Yarmouk camp with his son, the sources said.
Like Zisser, Brom believes that if the Syrian rebels’ claim of taking the Yarmouk camp is true, it is significant only in that it is another gain for the opposition within Damascus, and not because it is a Palestinian area.
“The fact that it is a Palestinian [area] does not in itself make any difference,” Brom said.
In the wake of the escalating violence in Yarmouk, thousands of Palestinian refugees have flooded into Lebanon.
A source from Lebanon’s General Directorate of General Security told The Daily Star newspaper that over 2,200 refugees – 80 percent of whom are Palestinian – have crossed into Lebanon in recent days.
Around 1,200 refugees arrived over the weekend, and a further 1,400 entered via the Masnaa border crossing in east Lebanon. Of those, about 400 have returned to Syria, the source said.
The flood of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon, however, has raised concerns about a lack of resources to cope with the influx. Beirut has recently launched a $178 million plan to deal with a maximum of 130,000 refugees from Syria.
Lebanese Social Affairs Minister Wael Abu Faour told The Daily Star that he expected even more Palestinian refugees to flee to Lebanon.
Abu Faour said Lebanon “cannot turn down refugees seeking shelter in the country” but that more resources were needed, and called on the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine to provide aid for Palestinians fleeing Syria.
The call came after Lebanon’s health minister said on Monday that doctors had diagnosed several cases of tuberculosis among the Syrian refugee population.
Despite the increased numbers of Palestinian refugees heading for Lebanon, Zisser said the new influx was not likely to destabilize the country.
“The number of refugees at this stage is still limited,” he said.