The upward mobility of Aleppo’s Palestinians

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How a combination of factors elevated minorities to the top

To say that the Syrian Civil War has changed the fabric of the greater Aleppo metro area would be an understatement, yet one aspect of it that should receive more attention is the growing influence and evolving status of Aleppo’s Palestinians within Syrian loyalist society. Granted, Russian influence over the Liwa al Quds militia from Aleppo became the subject of discussion in 20161.“Russian influence evident in Palestinian militia in Syria” : Long War Journal after its role in combat operations in East Aleppo. But because of the way Syrian loyalist society is structured, battlefield success alone is no guarantee for networks and communities to be elevated within Syrian society. For example, despite successfully holding their areas at the front line with Idlib, the Hama National Defence Forces (NDF) remain relatively unknown, for now. By comparison, the Qomhana–based Tiger Forces, another group whose home community was almost completely overrun in the last major Hama offensive, remain well regarded.

Unlike other groups similar to the Hama based NDF previously mentioned, Palestinian armed groups have generally seen a rise in visibility and standing. Part of this is due to their larger size and willingness to deploy hundreds of kilometres away from their core areas to places like the deserts of Eastern Syria2.Photo of Liwa al Quds fighters in Deir ez-Zor : Liwa al Quds Facebook page. The Palestine Liberation Army (PLA), supported by Russian advisers, has deployed sizeable units under the command of its flag rank officers to Eastern Hama away from Palestinian communities 3.https://goo.gl/uWnQ1Ato fight against the local Islamic State (IS) pocket. The PLA as an organisation dates back to the formation of the armed wing of the PLO in 1964. In Syria, the PLA is made up of several units including numbered battalions and what are called recon forces. While this Syrian branch of the PLA still wear uniforms sporting distinct Palestinian insignia, they were considered even before the war as tied to the Syrian Arab Army and have remained so. 4. https://scontent.fsof2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t31.0-8/23737613_162076034391851_770590076091395954_o.jpg?oh=e5a2c77ee1d80fd38d3519f2fe6c4fd4&oe=5AF6A8CA 5. https://scontent.fsof2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/23621289_162076067725181_7724472441781090747_n.jpg?oh=c853b98772199392a00c3534694c752e&oe=5AF3DC7C As part of this deployment, significant efforts were made to further cement links between Damascus and the pro-Assad Palestinian groups. Russia has also spent some effort on fostering links with the Palestinian militias, as evidenced by Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov’s visit6.facebook.com/…6655437528/1471995352881317 : Liwa al Quds Facebook page to the commander of the Liwa al Quds. Something better-informed readers will take note of is that the two are accompanied by the local intelligence branch’s Brigadier General, whose presence suggests that the event is significant to a lot more of the local of the factions and organisations in both Aleppo and Syria as a whole. The intelligence branches themselves to this day retain a considerable if subtle and at times almost completely ignored influence within Syria and the communities they oversee. Due to its status, the Palestine Liberation Army and its high command also gets airtime via interviews and reports about it on Syrian state TV, and of late this has been supplemented with better weaponry for their units.

Palestinians and other Syrian minorities

Palestinians, however, are not unique in this situation. Other ethnic minorities in northern Syria have also gotten special benefits via forming tight-knit militias, but that alone cannot account for all the gains of the smaller ethnicities. Armenians retain cultural ties as a diaspora, and as a relatively smaller group they benefit from access to children’s camps in Armenia itself,7.https://www.facebook.com/pg/homenmen.scout/posts/?ref=page_internal :
Homenmen Scouts
and as a consequence access to extended family members.  These ties back to Armenia can be seen influencing the large Allepan Armenian community’s very supportive view of Russia’s role in the conflict, as seen by some of the images8.www.scontent.fsof2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/…/16819458_1417620201602964_6356855196490995191_o.jpg : Facebook photo carried on the Aleppo Scouts’ social media outreach. In this case, the remarkable thing is that they are being photographed with the North Caucasus military police but are tied to their outreach due to the support in the community for the Russian Federation. Not long ago the two ethnic groups were on opposite sides of the Armenian – Azerbaijan conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Similarly, the Circassian community has gained some prominence after forming a small unit of Circassians that mans part of the checkpoints protecting the key road between Hama and Aleppo city.9.https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/857033803579232256 : @vincebeshara 

There are further links that tie the Syrian Armenians to Russia, they fall within the same groups that gravitate around the Russian Orthodox Church. Armenians can be found frequenting the Syrian Christian Resistance, the Martyrs of St George Brigade and the Warriors of Christ’s Aleppo, which itself could be viewed as connected to the Forces of Rage. From there on these tend to overlap with groups like Russian Orthodox Army and Orthodox Alliance. 10.https://www.facebook.com/OrthodoxAlliance/ : Orthodox Alliance 11.https://www.facebook.com/Russian-Orthodox-Army-765066793540497/ : Russian Orthodox Army 12.https://www.facebook.com/pg/Christian-Resistance-616013505122628/posts/ : Christian Resistance 13.https://www.facebook.com/كتائب-الشهيد-مار-جورجيوس-الخضر-720686634715717/ : Martyrs of St. George Brigade

Compared to other groups, however, Palestinians in Aleppo have seen additional benefits which are not tied to one area. For example, after the battle of Aleppo, ownership of the Youth Housing Complex that is near the Handarat camp was handed over to Liwa al-Quds.14.https://www.facebook.com/Handarat.News.sy1/posts/1279794458743162 : Camp Handarat News The Handarat camp itself was a Palestinian majority community from before the war with over 6,000 registered Palestinians,  Palestinian majority communities in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are usually called camps. Even though they are decades old and made up of permanent buildings, the terminology comes from the initial inhabitants leaving their homes and is not a reference to internal displacement due to the Syrian Civil War. With this plot of land and its structures, the militia acquired a significant portion of real estate to administrate and profit off of, as loan and renting opportunities remain available in Syria even if the market is negatively affected by the war. Additionally, the intra-city train from Nairab to Aleppo has been restarted,15.https://goo.gl/aCi33S : Al – Nairab Camp News providing a much cheaper form of transport for the residents of the mostly Palestinian areas of the greater Aleppo metro area. Alongside those gains, there are also synergistic perks such as preferential internet tariffs offered by SyriaTel to card-carrying members of Liwa Al Quds.16.https://www.facebook.com/narab.sy1/posts/860153097480396 : Al – Nairab Camp News And finally, Handarat camp recently saw the installation of a 3G base station to expand wireless telephone and more importantly mobile internet services to the area.17.https://www.facebook.com/Handarat.News.sy1/videos/1474736182582321/ : Camp Handarat News

The advantages of UNRWA Aid

One of the most important benefits that helped elevate the Palestinians of Syria was a pre-existing one whose prominence grew as the war progressed. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) assistance program, which has been ongoing for over 50 years, spent in 2016 a total of 1.36 billion USD based on their yearly financial overview of unaudited operational spending data.18.https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/content/resources/2016_annual_operational_report_web.pdf : UNRWA Funding for Syria fell short of their targets, at 235 million USD being provided by donors out of a program-mandated 414 million. While the sum is not overtly large, given the scale of the overall economic downturn brought on by the war that is now in its 7th year, even this amount is considerable for Syria.

While in previous years the agency’s contribution to the Syrians in Aleppo might have been minor, in comparison to the current employment options available it is significant and offers financial, food and medical assistance to Palestinians. In terms of the actual monetary value of this assistance, it offers 25,000 SYP per quarter of direct financial assistance to Palestinians registered with the program,19.https://www.facebook.com/wnrwa/posts/1862950264019268 an increase over the previous quarter’s 16,500.20.https://www.facebook.com/narab.sy1/posts/890198314475874 There’s also supplementary financial aid in the form of family assistance and housing grants amounting to 33,000 and 12,500 SYP, respectively.21.https://goo.gl/hrSVLK : UNRWA Moreover, there are regular food distribution drives22.https://goo.gl/ehEotE :
Al – Nairab Camp News
throughout the area as well as schools23.https://www.facebook.com/narab.sy1/posts/868678693294503 : Al – Nairab Camp News and clinics run24.https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/syria/neirab-camp : UNRWA whose operational expenses are covered by the UNRWA program.

This has to be compared with the bleak career opportunities for Syrians in Aleppo, as the city remains largely without power25.https://www.nfac-sy.net/news/19125 and its sugar and textile industries that provided for it pre-war are now facing trouble even getting off the ground again. And in comparison the base income for registered Palestinians from UNRWA adds a considerable boost to their income to the point it’s somewhat comparable to Syrian state wages. Incentives also exist for Assad’s financial sector to help facilitate the agency’s disbursement of funds as the UNRWA program has no other choice but to buy SYP from the State as there are not a lot of entities with access to SYP in such quantities and it needs access to bank branches in Syria to reach recipients which again leads to pro-Assad entities as the financial sector remains under Damascus’ control. In essence, the financial aid that is paid out to registered Palestinians in Syria is a net USD surplus to Assad’s FX reserves due to the state-dominated banking system. A simple way to understand why this influx of foreign currency is important is to look at the goods that Syria is currently forced to import that include wheat, oil and even gas at times 26.http://alwatan.sy/archives/88898 but at the same time it no longer has products it can reliably export besides niche food items for expats living in Germany or other European countries.27.http://uk.businessinsider.com/r-made-in-syria-refugees-in-germany-drive-exports-from-home-2017-11 So that foreign currency coming into Syrian banks can be bought by the state using SYP and then be used to pay for these key imports. To dismiss allegations of pure favouritism on behalf of the agency, it must also be pointed out that this is a long-running program that had the same tasks of providing assistance, education and combating poverty in the Palestinian camps throughout the region, not just Syria. That being said, it also has to be understood that the program is quite open about its cooperation with Damascus. While it is a program that provides aid to struggling Palestinian communities to do so also means that it works within their established political networks and political alliances in the various countries — which in a conflict like Syria, has greater implications.

What does the future hold for Palestinians in Aleppo

As the war progresses, Western Aleppo’s prospects continue to fall short of Damascus’ promises, as can be seen from testimonials on the prices for using amps, this refers to power generators that people pay to provide their homes with electricity.28.https://www.facebook.com/AleppoNews.sy3/posts/1738741409753278 : Aleppo News However, the Palestinian minority in the eastern outskirts of the city appear to be gaining ground through a combination of military contributions, establishing liaison links with Russia and with the assistance provided by existing aid programs that now offer a substitute for the salaries and services that Damascus is struggling to provide. In some ways, the Palestinian community in Eastern Aleppo has grown into a state within the state; a city-state entity that seems more prosperous than its surroundings and cannot be easily dismantled, but also one that still needs the expanded infrastructure of Syria which remains under the control of Assad and his Baath-dominated state institutions.

Stanimir Dobrev

Stanimir Dobrev is a writer for the International Review, he has a BSc in Computer Science and has attended a Masters Degree class in Innovation and Technology from Sheffield University. He has ample experience working with clinical trials and telecom operations on multiple levels and his primary work focus is business process optimisation and enterprise software solution integration. Organisational structures fascinate him, bar the dysfunctional ones which infuriate him.

References   [ + ]

1. “Russian influence evident in Palestinian militia in Syria” : Long War Journal
2. Photo of Liwa al Quds fighters in Deir ez-Zor : Liwa al Quds Facebook page
3. https://goo.gl/uWnQ1A
4. https://scontent.fsof2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t31.0-8/23737613_162076034391851_770590076091395954_o.jpg?oh=e5a2c77ee1d80fd38d3519f2fe6c4fd4&oe=5AF6A8CA
5. https://scontent.fsof2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/v/t1.0-9/23621289_162076067725181_7724472441781090747_n.jpg?oh=c853b98772199392a00c3534694c752e&oe=5AF3DC7C
6. facebook.com/…6655437528/1471995352881317 : Liwa al Quds Facebook page
7. https://www.facebook.com/pg/homenmen.scout/posts/?ref=page_internal :
Homenmen Scouts
8. www.scontent.fsof2-1.fna.fbcdn.net/…/16819458_1417620201602964_6356855196490995191_o.jpg : Facebook photo
9. https://twitter.com/vincebeshara/status/857033803579232256 : @vincebeshara
10. https://www.facebook.com/OrthodoxAlliance/ : Orthodox Alliance
11. https://www.facebook.com/Russian-Orthodox-Army-765066793540497/ : Russian Orthodox Army
12. https://www.facebook.com/pg/Christian-Resistance-616013505122628/posts/ : Christian Resistance
13. https://www.facebook.com/كتائب-الشهيد-مار-جورجيوس-الخضر-720686634715717/ : Martyrs of St. George Brigade
14. https://www.facebook.com/Handarat.News.sy1/posts/1279794458743162 : Camp Handarat News
15. https://goo.gl/aCi33S : Al – Nairab Camp News
16. https://www.facebook.com/narab.sy1/posts/860153097480396 : Al – Nairab Camp News
17. https://www.facebook.com/Handarat.News.sy1/videos/1474736182582321/ : Camp Handarat News
18. https://www.unrwa.org/sites/default/files/content/resources/2016_annual_operational_report_web.pdf : UNRWA
19. https://www.facebook.com/wnrwa/posts/1862950264019268
20. https://www.facebook.com/narab.sy1/posts/890198314475874
21. https://goo.gl/hrSVLK : UNRWA
22. https://goo.gl/ehEotE :
Al – Nairab Camp News
23. https://www.facebook.com/narab.sy1/posts/868678693294503 : Al – Nairab Camp News
24. https://www.unrwa.org/where-we-work/syria/neirab-camp : UNRWA
25. https://www.nfac-sy.net/news/19125
26. http://alwatan.sy/archives/88898
27. http://uk.businessinsider.com/r-made-in-syria-refugees-in-germany-drive-exports-from-home-2017-11
28. https://www.facebook.com/AleppoNews.sy3/posts/1738741409753278 : Aleppo News