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Prisoners of desert

Syrian refugees in the Rukban camp have remained hostages of US geostrategic interests

Prisoners of desert

"We came here in 2014 hoping to stay here for a week or two until it becomes safe again in Palmyra. But weeks turned into months, months turned into years. Our only desire is to leave this place as soon as possible. There is an impression that we are being punished for our desire to survive," said 18-years old Ruqayya, who together with her parents has spent many years in the Rukban refugee camp. About 40,000 people who are in need of almost everything, water, food, cloths, and medicines, have found refuge here. People are exhausted and low-spirited, many of them fear that will remain in there forever.

This cursed place is a 15 square kilometers part of the desert between Syria, Jordan and Iraq near the Iraqi border crossing Al-Tanf/Al-Waleed. In 2014, Syrian refugees from Palmyra and districts eastwards Homs rushed to Jordan in search for refuge, but they found the border to be closed for them. Not knowing where to go further, people stayed in the desert. There was no water, housing, and electricity there. There were no schools or hospitals. Refugees built some temporary huts from what they had at hand. Winters in a dessert are bitterly cold. No wood can be found. People gathered and burnt rubbish, plastic bottles, and cardboard boxes to keep warm.

The Rukban refugee camp soon drew the attention of armed groups. Militants of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (both terrorists organizations are banned in Russia) suffering a defeat from the Syrian army and its allies, Russia and Iran, began to move their families there. Militants swiftly launched a smuggling business taking control over existing and creating new routes of smuggling goods through the Jordanian border. However, borders had never been a barrier for them, but if a refugee wanted to leave the camp, for example to visit a doctor in Jordan, he was to pay for the "transfer" quite a lot of money. Deliveries of smuggled food to the camp also cost a lot, and people were to give their life savings for them. Many refugees having no opportunity to get a job were forced to join militants' ranks. Militants paid people who joined them US dollars, which allowed refugees to somehow feed their families.

In early 2016, special units of the US-led "anti-ISIL alliance" occupied the Syrian border post Al-Tanf and deployed an American military base there. A 55-kilometer "buffer zone" was set up, and the Rukban refugee camp became a part of the district occupied by the US army. Training camps of illegal armed groups were nearby. Every attempt of the Syrian governmental army and its allies to approach this district was thwarted by accurate American fire. The Al-Tanf base hosts the headquarters of the anti-Syrian Revolutionary Commando Army. Two hundred American special operations officers from the "anti-ISIL alliance" train and support this "army." Special operations officers of other NATO countries are also stationed there.

According to official statements, the task of this "new army" is to counter the "Islamic State." But in fact militants units reinforced with male recruits from the Rukban camp are becoming a core of new armed formations created with the support of US to fight against the legitimate Syrian government.

The American base Al-Tanf surrounded by the buffer zone is controlling the border crossing between Syria and Iraq. An important transport route, the M2 highway running from the east to the west and connecting Baghdad and Damascus, lies there. In 2005-2006, about 1.5 million Iraqis crossed this border checkpoint trying to escape the war in their native country unleashed as a result of the illegal US intervention. When the war in Syria started in 2011 this highway was used to deliver personnel, weapons and ammunition from Iraq and Iran that supported the legitimate government of al-Assad. At the same time smugglers routes ran from the south to the north through the desert near Al-Tanf that Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries used to support armed groups fighting in Syria against governmental troops.

Amidst this complicated geostrategic standoff, Israel many times stated its interests demanding that in order to protect it the US should remain on the Syrian-Iraqi border and block the land corridor between Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. Thus, the occupation of Syria's Al-Tanf border crossing is a part of the American-Israeli plan of coordinating efforts in the region. The US itself has many times reiterated it. For example, in February 2019, the journal Foreign Policy reported that "in order to ensure peace" in Syria 400 American soldiers would remain there, "approximately 200 in northeastern Syria... and 200 more at the Al-Tanf base at the border with Jordan". As far as the latter is concerned, it deals exactly with American-Israeli accords.

It's getting obvious given these facts that refugees in the Rukban camp are hostages of geostrategic interests of the US and its Western allies, including Israel. The US alleges that it is protecting people and that is why it cannot give up its military base. But in fact refugees are just a pretext for disguising the Americans' geostrategic goal which is to block land communication between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. Apparently, direct communication through the Al-Tanf border crossing is important not only from a military but also from a peaceful perspective. It may promote the development of international trade flows and passenger communication, which seems to fall short of Washington's plans.

The Rukban camp has lived under the laws of war for many years. International humanitarian organizations have kept away from the refugee camp. Moreover, a part of the camp is situated on the "no one's" land adjacent to the Jordanian border. Jordan doesn't allow crossing the border in either direction. Even representatives of the World Food Program had to use a crane to deliver goods to the Syrian territory.

The first humanitarian convoy reached the Rukban refugee camp only in late 2018 after lengthy negotiations. The convoy brought hope that the future of the hostages may change.

Things started to move thanks to Russia's decisive actions. Russia demanded at a high international level to close the Rukban camp and prevent a humanitarian disaster. The UN Refugee Agency has long insisted on giving the hostages an opportunity to return to their homes, and finally such a chance has appeared. It hasn't taken long for the conflicting sides to react. The US has ignored the initiative and using militants under its control is de-facto trying to block the humanitarian corridor for refugees opened by Russian military police.

Having got the order "not to let anyone" from the Americans, militants first of all "raised stakes" – they are demanding the "toll" of $100 per an adult and $30 per a child to let them go. Moreover, radical groups are shelling the de-escalation zone and leaving the camp may cost life. Meanwhile, Rukban itself is sunk in a real humanitarian disaster. Air temperature is nearing 40 degrees Celsius. There is no fresh water. Every second person suffers from serious chronic diseases. The tuberculosis epidemic is evolving. Ten people die daily from dehydration and diseases.

However, the hostages feel up to leaving that place. Hundreds of people leave the camp daily. The Syrian Arab Red Crescent has organized special gathering posts where refugees are given medical assistance, water, food, and cloths. Refugees are dispatched by bus through Palmyra to Homs. Evacuated males are interrogated and their possible connections to militants of the Islamic State and other terrorist groups are established.

Officially, more than 13,000 people have left Rukban by now. About 30,000 hostages have remained in the camp. Let them have strength to survive the captivity...

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