“I saw people eating plants that are usually only used to feed animals,” said one resident of a camp for displaced Syrians that sits in the shadow of an American military base but has been cut off from aid for years.
By Raja Abdulrahim
Refugees outside a United Nations-operated clinic near the Rukban camp in Syria in 2017. The organization’s aid shipments last reached the camp in 2019.
Credit: Khalil Mazraawi / Agence France-Presse — Getty Images.
Over the course of Syria’s long war, a remote desert camp for thousands of displaced people grew in the shadow of an American military base, just out of reach of Syrian government forces.
The Rukban camp, a few miles from the United States base at al-Tanf in southeastern Syria, ended up almost cut off from aid largely because of closed borders and a Syrian government policy to block almost all relief efforts for areas outside its control. That has left many of its 8,000 residents, who live in tents or mud homes, struggling to survive without sufficient food and health care.
One Syrian-American aid group worked for years to find a way to ease their plight. In recent days, the group has sent a first wave of critically needed supplies with the help of an obscure United States military provision known as the Denton Program. It lets American aid groups use available space on U.S. military cargo planes to transport humanitarian goods such as food and medical supplies to approved countries.
“There isn’t a door we haven’t tried to knock” in trying to get aid to the camp, said Mouaz Moustafa, the executive director of the aid group, the Syrian Emergency Task Force. “We have been screaming at the top of our lungs at everybody who has been complicit in the failure to deliver aid to these people stuck in the middle of the desert,” he added. “We have gone to the State Department and USAID and talked to the United Nations.”
A lack of aid led to humanitarian crisis.
Rukban sits in a U.S.-protected zone near where the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq meet. That puts it just beyond the reach of forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad, the authoritarian Syrian president, who are stationed at checkpoints right outside the protected area.
Mr. al-Assad’s government has referred to many of the camp's residents as “terrorists” — a term it uses for almost anyone opposed to his regime’s rule.
For several years, residents said, the only goods that have reached them have come through smugglers.
“I saw people eating plants that are usually only used to feed animals,” said Khaled al-Ali, a resident of Rukban since 2014. “Everything arrives to the camp via smuggling with no aid groups nor United Nations,” he added, saying the past month had been especially difficult.
The U.S. was criticized for not helping the Syrians.
The various forces operating around this remote corner of Syria — including the United States, the Syrian government and its Russian backers — have traded blame about the bleak situation in the camp.
Washington has come under criticism for not doing enough to help the camp’s residents, who live in an area entirely under United States control. Last year, some American lawmakers sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to address the humanitarian crisis at Rukban.
The United States, in turn, has blamed the Assad government for not allowing the United Nations to deliver aid. In remarks earlier this year, the American ambassador to the United Nations said he was “deeply concerned by the dire need for assistance in Rukban.”
Without Syrian government approval, no United Nations supplies can reach Rukban, either via the government-controlled capital, Damascus, or across the Jordanian border. The United Nations last managed to deliver aid in late 2019.
Displaced Syrians first arrived at the remote spot in 2014, settling into a zone between two berms that mark the border between Syria and Jordan. It was a few years after Syria’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising, which morphed into a multisided war that drew in foreign powers including Russia, Iran and the United States.
In 2016, the American military turned al-Tanf into a small outpost. It is on the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway — a vital link for forces backed by Syria’s ally Iran in a corridor that runs from the Iranian capital, Tehran, through Iraq and Syria to southern Lebanon.
The de facto protection provided by the American presence helped the camp population grow and at its height, some 70,000 people lived there. Since then, in large part because of the lack of aid, all but about 8,000 have left, said Jesse Marks, a senior advocate at Refugees International.
The aid group's plan was years in the making.
The Syrian Emergency Task Force spent years devising its relief mission.
It wanted to use the Denton Program, jointly run by United States government agencies including the State and Defense Departments. But when the task force applied for the program two years ago, Syria wasn’t on the list of approved countries. So the organization lobbied to have it added.
The Pentagon’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and South Asia, said on Tuesday that it had extended its support to the humanitarian aid effort by assisting with the transportation of “lifesaving aid” to the Rukban camp.
On Saturday, the first pallet of wheat seeds arrived at the al-Tanf base on a Chinook helicopter followed by nine more pallets on Monday with irrigation equipment and school supplies for the Rukban camp’s more than 1,000 children, according to the task force.
On Tuesday, the United States military handed over the pallets to the task force’s team inside the camp, said Mr. Moustafa, the executive director.
Approximately 900 United States soldiers remain in Syria, though the government will not say how many are at al-Tanf. Their operations in the country include training and arming local forces to fight remnants of the terrorist group Islamic State.
Some of the Syrian fighters they are training and equipping live with their families in Rukban, camp residents said.
The Pentagon did not respond to questions about why the United States itself had not delivered aid to the camp.
Robert Ford, a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and former American ambassador to Syria from 2010 to 2014, said that because the United States effectively controls the area around the camp, it was obliged under international law to ensure residents’ survival.
“The arguments that the American government has made that the U.S. presence is temporary does not absolve it from its immediate responsibility,” Mr. Ford said.
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