WJC ANALYSIS – The Palestinians and the Syrian conflict
By Pinhas Inbari, WJC
A growing number of signs point to the fact that rival factions in Syria are ready for an agreement, including the regime of Bashar al-Assad. While it is too early to tell if these efforts will bear fruit, the mere recognition of the need for an agreement has implications on Syria and its neighbors in the Middle East, notably the Palestinians.
Both the Assad regime and its Russian allies have come to the realization that the battle has been lost and that a survival campaign presents the only recourse to the regime facing a growing budget depletion, needed to keep up the war effort, and the potential advent of al-Qaeda to power with access to chemical weapons. The main obstacle remains the opposition’s staunch refusal to allow Assad to hang on to the presidency even during a transitional phase, instead of standing trial for crimes against humanity.
In the meantime, al-Qaeda has been slowly taking over the revolutionary effort in Syria. While the West has been keen to support the Muslim Brotherhood’s factions in Syria in order to keep al-Qaeda out, the Brotherhood has endorsed it and thus disqualified itself as an alternative to Assad in the eyes of the West. Accordingly, the prospects of an agreement are dim, despite the round-the-clock consultations on the subject. However, any solution to the Syrian conundrum will directly affect the Palestinians.
The war in Syria has wreaked destruction on many Palestinian refugee camps, with serious damage to the ‘capital’ of Palestinian life in Syria – the Yarmuk refugee camp. The destruction has immediate implications on the Palestinian right of return – a main tenet of the PLO. With no refugee camps to preserve the refugee status of the Palestinians waiting for the great day of return to Palestine, the PLO loses its very raison d’être.
The PLO’s rival, Hamas, also views the situation in Syria as disastrous to the Palestinians. Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya described the loss of Yarmuk as the ‘second Nakba’. While the first Nakba created the refugee problem, the second Nakba has robbed the refugees of a chance to return.
To make matters worse, the leading al-Qaeda force in Syria, Jabhat a-Nusra li-Ahl al-Sham(‘Rescue Front for the People of Greater Syria’) – has overtaken the camp and established a Tansiqia, or coordination committee, as part of the Syrian revolution, telling both the PLO and Hamas that the Palestinians in Syria are now part of the country.
Their banner reads “One blood – one homeland” and shows the flags of Palestine and revolutionary Syria intertwined, thereby annexing the camp under the slogan of the Syrian revolution. By overtaking of the Yarmuk camp, al-Qaeda confiscated the cause of the refugees and the liberation of Palestine from both the PLO and Hamas and embedded the issue into the “Sham” framework of Greater Syria, which includes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.
The PLO has found itself in a precarious situation where it needed to carefully calculate each move regarding the refugee camps. No real condemnation came out of Ramallah in response to the massacres that took place in the camp during the battle, in which Assad’s air strikes targeted civilians inside public places and a mosque. The only one, aside from Hamas, to publish an immediate condemnation was Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. However, after initially depicting the Syrian attack as a “war crime”, he softened the languages to “crime” in order to preserve the option of negotiating with the Assad regime so as to keep the camp outside the Nusra forces’ sphere of influence.
The PLO’s hesitance to brand the mass killings of Palestinians by Assad’s forces as “massacres” or “war crimes” have eroded its moral reliability among ordinary Palestinians and may prove to be an obstacle in the drive to sue Israel for war crimes, as envisioned by the Palestinian successful bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations.