The Coronavirus crisis in North East Syria

The Coronavirus crisis in NE Syria could become a catastrophe. Nine years of war and the systematic targeting of health and water infrastructure by occupying Turkish forces, lack of international recognition and the closure of the only UN aid crossing into North and East Syria in January of this year have left the autonomous region at extreme risk from coronavirus. With the WHO refusing to support it directly, the autonomous administration is reliant on its own meagre resources and aid routed via the Assad government, little of which, ever arrive at the north-east.

Limited aid seriously reducing NE Syria’s ability to combat Coronavirus

It is not just Turkey and the Assad regime which have imposed an effective embargo on the autonomous regions. In January 2020, Russia exercised its veto at the UN Security Council to close the only UN aid crossing into North and East Syria.

This means all UN aid into Syria is now sent into areas controlled by al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham, factions under the control of the Turkish intelligence service, or directly to the Assad regime. The autonomous administration is forced to try and access UN aid via Damascus, but the reality is that most aid sent to Damascus lines the pockets of those close to the Assad regime, or remains in areas loyal to the regime. Little or nothing ever arrives at the autonomous administration of North and East Syria (AANES), seriously compromising its ability to handle the coronavirus crisis in NE Syria.

A recent report by UN agency OCHA indicated this decision will seriously reduce North and East Syria’s ability to combat coronavirus.

Seven health centres in Raqqa are facing severe shortages of medicines and supplies as a direct result of this decision, with 1 soon to close, while the health centre in Hol Camp is also severely affected.

Testing machines destroyed by Turkish forces

There are no confirmed cases of corona in North and East Syria, but that is likely only because there is not a single PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing machine in the whole region. The only functioning test machines were lost in October 2019, when Turkey invaded the Kurdish-majority city of Sere Kaniye, shelling its hospital as part of an operation which left the only testing laboratory in North and East Syria inaccessible and inoperable. Throughout the region, nine out of eleven public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed during the war against ISIS and the invasion by Turkish backed forces.With coronavirus spreading throughout Syria from Deir-ez-Zor to Damascus, and suspected cases already in quarantine in Qamishlo, Manbij and elsewhere, the virus is expected to rapidly spread through the north-east in the coming days and weeks.

Between Damascus and al-Qaeda

The WHO has provided test kits in Idlib, controlled by al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham: from here, they can send samples to Turkey for testing. The WHO has also provided 1200 testing kits to regime-controlled areas. But due to its lack of recognized status, North and East Syria has no access to any WHO provided testing kits.

The AANES has been forced to rely on stop-gap solutions like repurposed malaria tests and temperature checks. These give only an inaccurate picture of the patient’s condition.

The WHO requires them to send all tests to Damascus, then on to the WHO for confirmation, then back to NE Syria. This takes about a week even when Damascus is playing ball, and less than 20 cases have been tested so far. In practice, this system is useless.

Turkey targets the supply of water

While the regime obstructs aid from the south, Turkey applies pressure from the north. Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad took out two hospitals and many more health points and clinics – but it also allowed them to take control of Allouk water station. Allouk is a critical piece of infrastructure, providing drinking water to at least half a million people in the cities of Hasekah, Til Temir, Sheddadi and Hol, among others; 65,000 IDPs and ISIS-linked individuals in Hol Camp; internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Washokani and Aresha camps, including those displaced by the Turkish invasion; the largest detention facility for ISIS fighters in North and East Syria; and North and East Syria’s main quarantine hospital.

Turkey’s war crimes

Turkey launched an airstrike against Allouk on day one of its invasion, putting it out of service. Now Turkey is in control of the water station, and though it has been fixed under international mediation, Turkey regularly cuts the water flow to the AANES areas to apply political pressure on the administration – it has cut it off four times in the last month, each time demanding the AANES send more and more electricity into and pay for repairs in the areas Turkey occupied in 2019. As the occupying power, Turkey is responsible for meeting the need for electricity in Sere Kaniye, and moreover it is demanding far more power than is proportional to its needs.

Severing water supply to civilians as a weapon of war is a war crime, whatever the circumstances. When that water is feeding populations at immense risk of coronavirus – 10% of people in the prisons and camps, where tuberculosis is running rampant, are currently projected to die in the pandemic – the coronavirus crisis is NE Syria is likely to cost a great number of innocent lives.

One ventilator per 100,000 people

The AANES is doing the best it can to prepare. A state of emergency has been declared, schools, public events and unnecessary travel shut down, and quarantine wards established in key hospitals.

But given the circumstances outlined here, the AANES health authorities can only do so much. They have only 40 ventilators to serve a population of millions, including only three to support the hundreds of thousands of Kurdish IDPs living under especially harsh isolation in the Shebha region.  A University College London study of Syria’s capacity to handle coronavirus found that across the three former Syrian regions which make up today’s NE Syria, there is the capacity to deal with only 460 cases – 360 in Hasekah region, 100 in Raqqa region and none at all in Deir-ez-Zor region. This is nowhere near enough. Sanitary supplies, hospital beds and trained staff are all in desperately short supply as well. Quarantined cases are likely to be placed in outdoor tents due to lack of space. As such, doctors will be left to make difficult decisions about who will live and who will die.

How to stop a humanitarian disaster

In terms of short-term aid, the best option is to donate to the Kurdish Red Crescent.In terms of political changes which could alleviate this situation, authorities in North and East Syria are calling for:

  1. World Health Organisation to provide test kits
    Work with the AANES to provide test kits, PCR machines, ventilators etc. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is the West’s best partner in Syria and is struggling to care for millions of vulnerable people, IDPs and ISIS detainees.
  2. Open the UN aid crossing
    The UN aid crossing at Yaroubiah was closed in January, cutting NE Syria off from UN aid and forcing it to rely on aid routed via Damascus, little of which, ever arrives in the north-east.
  3. Stop Turkey using water as a weapon of war
    Turkey to immediately cease cutting off the water flow from Allouk water station and leaving 100s of 1000s without access to clean drinking water, as this constitutes a war crime

How you can help

By Rojava Information Center

Rojava Information Center (RIC) is an independent, volunteer-staffed organisation based in North East Syria. RIC has assisted reporters and researchers from all leading international newspapers, websites and news sources with their work.