A renewed offensive south of Damascus by Syrian government forces is putting a beleaguered Palestinian refugee camp at risk. Tom Rollins reports from Beirut.
Mountains on the horizon, cypress trees in the foreground. A pillar of grayish smoke rises up from the countryside, then the delayed rumble of the explosion.
This is the view from Khan Eshieh, a Palestinian refugee camp located in the flat farmlands and forests less than 30 kilometers south-west of Damascus, home to at least 9,000 Palestinian refugees and around 1,000 Syrian internally displaced persons (IDPs) according to UNRWA, the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees.
Syrian government forces recently launched a renewed ground and air offensive against rebels in Western Ghouta in the Damascus countryside, once again raising concerns about the fate of at least 10,000 civilians living in Khan Eshieh. Pro-government outlets report that Syrian army units had taken Deir Khabiyeh, a long-strategic town on the outskirts of Khan Eshieh, following the latest offensive.
During at least two weeks of intensified barrel bombings, shelling and airstrikes by Syrian and Russian forces, Khan Eshieh has repeatedly been hit. Several civilians have died, including children.
Imad al-Muslimani from, a local councilman and media activist, claimed that despite the fact the camp is "completely civilian," air strikes have repeatedly hit civilian infrastructure including schools, hospitals and housing.
"The camp is still about 12 kilometers away from the military operations, and yet we've been surprised that the camp has been targeted recently," he told DW, pointing to day-in day-out shelling and airstrikes that have resulted in the closure of a hospital and a suspension of educational services.
As the fighting intensifies, the situation for those in the refugee camp is becoming increasingly untenable
UNRWA said recently that at least 23 Palestinian refugees had been killed in and around Khan Eshieh in the past three months, "while those injured are often not able to receive required health services and medicine."
This is largely because, since 2013, Khan Eshieh has experienced siege conditions that restrict civilian access to food, medical supplies and basic goods in nearby towns as well as UNRWA assistance centers. The fall of Deir Khabiyeh suggests that is about to get worse.
'Road of death'
Siege Watch, a joint initiative by Dutch NGO PAX and the US-based Syria Institute, stated in its latest report that Khan Eshieh has been "partially besieged by Syrian government forces for more than two years, with a dangerous rural farm road to the nearby town of Al-Zakiya serving as the sole lifeline for thousands of remaining residents."
Intensified bombardments by Russian and Syrian forces had deteriorated conditions in the camp, and "intermittently made the Zakiya road impassable, effectively besieging the area although the road has not been physically blocked by ground forces," Siege Watch added.
Military sources recently told Syrian state media that the strikes are aimed at "destroying terrorist positions" in the area of Khan Eshieh. A range of nominally Free Syrian Army (FSA), Islamist and jihadist rebel factions are fighting in the countryside around the camp, including Ahrar al-Sham, Ajnad al-Sham and a reportedly smaller number of fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra).
Activists and community leaders maintain that there is no military presence inside the camp itself, pointing to a visit recently by representatives from the neighboring Kisweh Local Council, which is under government control, to survey conditions inside the camp.
"A regime delegation entered the camp and they saw that there were no gunmen or anything…because this is a camp for Palestinian refugees," said Rafeeq Hadi, an activist from Khan Eshieh who now lives in Beirut. "There was a decision inside the camp to forbid military forces to be based among civilians…and there's consensus with the opposition forces on this. They musn't enter the camp," he told DW.
Since the forced evacuation of several thousand civilians and about a thousand rebel fighters from the symbolic opposition-controlled city of Daraya at the end of August, government forces have been putting pressure on other rebel pockets around rural Damascus.
Douma in Eastern Ghouta, an opposition-controlled area to the eastof Damascus, home to some 400,000 civilians, has been bombarded on a near-daily basis. A stand-off in Moadamiyeh, close to Daraya, has seen aid deliveries either blocked or tampered with at nearby pro-government checkpoints.
Some observers suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be pursuing a strategy that aims to clear-out rebel pockets in the areas where the Syrian government is militarily strongest - particularly around Damascus and Homs.
Fabrice Balanche, an expert on Syria's political geography at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told DW that the Syrian government has a "clear military strategy to keep Damascus, defend Damascus and clear Damascus of all the rebels."
However, as the bombing continues, the future for well over 10,000 civilians in Khan Eshieh has never been further in doubt.
UNRWA is concerned that the siege of Khan Eshieh could lead to scenes similar to what happened at Yarmouk camp
"Khan Eshieh is the closest camp [to Palestine] and, for Palestinians, it is our gate for return," Hadi said. "This is why the camp has resisted in a way different to other Palestinian camps [in Syria]; there's solidarity and integration between its inhabitants," including refugees and more recent IDPs, "and people are still resisting because there's been no decision that they leave."
In the meantime, Khan Eshieh is tense; watching, waiting.
"Unfortunately, a siege has now been imposed on Khan Eshieh camp," said Muslimani on Monday. Since the fall of Deir Khabiyeh "people are terrified of what's happened. The siege impacts everyone."