Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Damascus canceled meeting with PLO over Yarmouk crisis: sources
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An image released by the Syrian state news agency SANA on April 7, 2015, shows Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (C-R) meeting with a PLO delegation in Damascus. (AFP Photo/HO/SANA)

An image released by the Syrian state news agency SANA on April 7, 2015, shows Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad (C-R) meeting with a PLO delegation in Damascus. (AFP Photo/HO/SANA)

Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat—The Syrian government decided to cancel a scheduled meeting with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) due to the latter’s stance on the assault on the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk as well as the PLO’s recent efforts to free two Swedish nationals captured by extremists in Syria, sources have told Asharq Al-Awsat.

A delegation from the PLO was due to arrive in Damascus on Monday to discuss the situation in Yarmouk, but the Syrian government announced it was canceling the meeting late on Sunday evening.

The camp, a well-established suburb of Damascus where Palestinian refugees have settled, saw fierce fighting earlier this month between extremist groups led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and a number of Palestinian rivals.

On Friday, two Swedish citizens held in Syria by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front for over 17 months were freed after what Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström called “crucial” intervention by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is also chairman of the PLO.

The Syrian government told the PLO it was canceling the meeting due to its officials being “busy” at the present time, and did not set another date to reschedule, but the sources, who requested anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat Damascus has been angered by some of the recent positions taken by the Palestinian organization.

Ahmed Majdalani, President Abbas’s representative in Damascus and a member of the PLO’s executive committee, told the BBC on April 9 that some Palestinian armed groups would conduct joint operations with Syrian government forces to expel ISIS and other extremist groups from Yarmouk.

On April 13, Majdalani told Asharq Al-Awsat the situation in the camp was outside the control of the PLO and suggested the only solution to the crisis lay in military intervention by Syrian government forces.

However, in a later statement, the PLO strenuously denied it supported a military intervention by Bashar Al-Assad’s forces. Sources told Asharq Al-Awsat this statement was “personally requested” by Abbas himself.

Later statements issued by the organization reiterated the PLO’s rejection of military intervention in the camp, and also announced it would be sending a delegation to Damascus on Monday to discuss the situation with the Syrian government.

That delegation would have included Majdalani as well as the Palestinian ambassador to Syria, Mahmoud Al-Khalidi.

Wasel Abu Yousef, a senior official from the PLO, told Asharq Al-Awsat earlier this month the delegation was aiming to discuss alternatives to a military solution to relieve the suffering in the camp.

The situation in Yarmouk appears to have calmed since mid-April when Palestinian factions including the Hamas-linked Aknaf Bayt Al-Maqdis pushed fighters from other rival extremist groups like ISIS out of the camp.

The camp, which forms an entry point into Damascus—which has been largely shielded from the worst fighting in the country—has been targeted by both Syrian government forces and extremist groups since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) has said the recent fighting has worsened the already dire humanitarian situation in Yarmouk, putting more than 18,000 Palestinian refugees, including 3,500 children, at grave risk due to lack of access to basic provisions such as food, water and healthcare.