' “That’s the point, with Rukban. It’s a black hole. Nothing gets out of it. No info, no nothing.” - Simone Jeger, independent humanitarian adviser.
By the middle of 2014, the Assad régime had displaced 6.5 million Syrians inside the country alone. 2.5 million more had registered as refugees in neighboring countries. A series of sweeping offensives and sieges in Homs suddenly threatened to displace hundreds of thousands more.
And they did. Families ran in droves to the Jordanian border, fleeing an onslaught of warplanes, artillery shells, and marauding régime coalition forces.
Today, the number of dead Syrians is nearly unfathomable and effectively uncountable: indeed, since 2014, even the United Nations (UN) has stopped trying. Those who have not succumbed to the horrors of war carry on, forced towards a life in the increasingly remote and inhospitable regions of the Syrian badiyat, or an existence marred by xenophobia and repression on the far shores of Europe.
These stories serve as a testament, not to the horrors of war, but the Assad régime’s almost unimaginable brutality. International law has always been irrelevant to the equation of Syria, and indeed, all our commonly agreed upon norms have been set adrift by a tide of war intended to wrest control of the country by burning it to the ground.
Faced with an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees, Jordan’s already heavily subsidized economy abruptly reached a tipping point. For years, thousands of refugee children had been wandering the streets of Amman, peddling water bottles during school hours to support their families. Tens of thousands more were still trapped in Syria, making final decisions as to whether they should stay in Syria and face potential death or leave their homeland behind for Jordan’s uncertainty and the intensely inhospitable nature of the Jordanian mukhabarat, or intelligence services.
During this period, most fled southward and eastward towards the Rukban border crossing — a sparsely manned outpost less than 10km from the Iraqi-Jordanian border. Then, in July of 2014, citing security concerns over recent SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) attacks on the border checkpoint by ISIS militants, Jordan formally closed the Rukban border crossing – leaving thousands stranded.
The Islamic State did indeed maintain some presence in the far eastern expanse of what they had declared to be “Wilayat Homs,” using their foothold in the area to facilitate cross-border transfers of goods and forces from Iraq to Syria and vice versa. And by late 2015, a clearly US-funded force comprised of Southern Front rebels and operating with the name جيش مغاوير الثورة (transliterated as Jaysh Mughaweir at-Thawra, or the “Army of Revolutionary Commandos”) emerged in the area as an opposing element to regional ISIS militants. It would take two more years for a physical US Armed Forces garrison (near Jabal at-Tanaf, roughly 10km to the northeast) to establish its presence in the region, officially operating as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Obama administration’s war on ISIS.
Since Jordan shuttered the border, Rukban has swelled in size, eventually reaching a peak of around 75,000-100,000 residents* from roughly 2017 to 2018. But due to death, forcible displacement, and sporadic repatriation efforts spearheaded by the Assad régime’s mukhabarat, the camp population has dwindled slowly in the years since. Recent estimations from mainstream sources have placed the population of Rukban camp at around 10,000 people, but this appears to be an underestimation: at current, internal sources say, there are likely upwards of 20,000 people living in the camp, with around 3,500 families comprising between 5 and 10 members each.
In the north, the threat of the Assad régime looms heavy over Rukban’s residents. The régime is logistically overstretched and prefers to invest money in various “reconstruction” projects appealing to foreign interest, so this territory sees few actual patrols by régime forces. Moreover, the US and US-backed forces’ physical presence at the Tanf base, less than 10km away from Rukban camp, serves as a further deterrent for régime patrols. The United States and Jaysh Mughaweir at-Thawra have positioned themselves as the de facto operating party within the 55km deconfliction zone established during the base’s inauguration in early 2016.
While infrastructural support in the camp has been sporadic, the US Armed Forces garrison at Tanf base has been a crucial facilitating element in recent efforts to establish essential services in Rukban, including emergency provision cesarean sections to pregnant women in the camp. The goodwill of the US government is also still needed to move forward on critical projects, including efforts by the Chicago-based humanitarian NGO MedGlobal to staff a newly built health clinic that currently sits empty and unusable, without any doctors.
In the center exists an effectively ungoverned territory, often referred to as a “no man’s land.” This area comprises the neigborhood for the bulk of Rukban’s inhabitants. Roughly as many Rukbanis live near the northern berm as the southern berm, and as the conflict has progressed, the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have utilized various pathways to distribute goods into Rukban camp. However, most goods today come from the north, either via piecemeal UN / SARC structures hubbed out of Damascus or via informal networks.
To the south lies Jordan, A barren desert country with sparse natural resources and an economy heavily reliant on foreign aid. Initial surges of displacement sent a shockwave through the Jordanian economy and drove millions of Syrian refugees into Amman’s streets and the tents of Zaatari. This logic led to the country’s ostensibly pragmatic and apparently malicious decision in 2014 to shutter the southern berm, leaving Rukbanis trapped between two impossible circumstances: an impassable border and a labyrinth of dungeons leading only to torture and death.'