Lawmakers urge US action on Syria’s crisis-hit Rukban camp

Syrian refugee patients from the makeshift Rukban camp, which lies in no-man's-land off the border between Syria and Jordan in the remote northeast, queue up to visit a UN-operated medical clinic immediately on the Jordanian-side for checkups, on March 1, 2017. Conditions in the Rukban camp deteriorated sharply after Jordan sealed the border almost a year prior, following a cross-border jihadist attack that killed seven Jordanian border guards in June 2016. / AFP PHOTO / KHALIL MAZRAAWI (Photo credit should read KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP via Getty Images)

The Biden administration faces congressional pressure to help desperate civilians stranded in the Syrian camp near Jordan.

A group of lawmakers has urged the Biden administration to address a humanitarian crisis unfolding near a US military outpost in Syria, according to a congressional letter obtained by Al-Monitor.

Food, clean water and medicine are running scarce at Rukban camp, a tented settlement housing thousands of internally displaced civilians who fled the country’s protracted conflict and are now stranded in a no man’s land in Syria’s southeastern desert.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government and its main ally Russia have blocked humanitarian convoys from crossing regime-held territory into the camp. The last truckloads of UN aid deliveries reached Rukban in February 2019.

“We do not have a moment to waste,” four lawmakers led by Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) wrote Friday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power.

“With the Assad regime and Russia preventing aid from reaching the camp, and deteriorating support from the US and UN, the residents of Rukban fear this is their last call for help,” said Reps. Newman, Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), and Andre Carson (D-Ind.).

US troops are stationed some 10 miles from the camp at the al-Tanf garrison. But past administrations have refused to take advantage of their proximity to deliver much-needed direct assistance to Rukban. Washington’s former Syria envoy James Jeffrey suggested doing so would commit the United States to an indefinite humanitarian operation.

In their letter to Blinken and Power, the lawmakers argue that the United States has obligations under international law to help the civilians, whose camp is situated within a “deconfliction zone” maintained by US troops. Experts including former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford have also made that case.

Why it matters:  No one will take responsibility for feeding the encampment. The Biden administration has said that increasing humanitarian access is among its top Syria priorities, but that it’s up to Damascus and Moscow to ensure aid reaches Rukban.

There’s little reason to think either government is interested in helping. Russia, Assad’s veto-wielding patron on the UN Security Council, has already gutted the UN’s cross-border mechanism for delivering aid to opposition-controlled Syria. The war in Ukraine could doom any remaining prospects for US-Russia diplomatic cooperation on Syria.

What’s next:  Residents of Rukban and their advocates in Washington have called on the US military to provide regular aid deliveries or at the very least help evacuate the camp’s remaining population to areas outside of Syrian regime control.

For now, they must choose between life in the squalid settlement or returning to government-held areas where monitoring groups warn they face arrest and even death. The living conditions in the desert settlement are so dire that many have chosen the latter.

Know more:  Read how the pandemic impacted the camp and why residents have pinned their hopes for intervention on Biden.