The world’s richest and most powerful states have been overwhelmed by coronavirus (COVID-19), with coffins lining the streets of European towns and martial law imposed from China to France.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) [in the region commonly known as Rojava], which cares for millions of civilians with less money and resources than virtually any state on the face of the planet, is on the verge of an even greater catastrophe.
North and East Syria cannot count on any of the protections or aid offered to state actors, due to its lack of international recognition, and has been placed under an effective embargo by Russia and Turkey, severing vital aid flows. A dire humanitarian situation is being compounded by deliberate political choices, leaving North and East Syria on the cusp of disaster as coronavirus sweeps through the Middle East.
No UN aid
It is not just Turkey and the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime, both intent on the destruction of the multi-ethnic democracy in North and East Syria, which have imposed an effective embargo on the autonomous regions. In January, Russia exercised its veto at the United Nations 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, extremist factions under the control of the Turkish intelligence service, or it is sent directly to the Assad regime. The AANES is forced to try to 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 to no aid ever arrives to the Autonomous Administration.
No testing machines
The impact of this decision is felt from the testing stage on. There are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 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 last year, when Turkey invaded the Kurdish-majority city of Sere Kaniye, shelling its hospital. This left the only testing laboratory in North and East Syria inaccessible and inoperable.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided testing facilities in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham. Damascus also has testing laboratories. However, thanks to the UN decision, North and East Syria is being denied access. As such, AANES is reliant on stop-gap solutions like repurposed malaria tests and temperature checks, which give an inaccurate picture of the patient’s condition.
However, with COVID-19 spreading throughout Syria, from Deir-ez-Zor to Damascus, thanks to the Iranian militias which run amok through regime-controlled areas, high-tech tests are now needed to show that North and East Syria is about to be swept by the deadly disease.
While the Assad regime obstructs aid from the south, Turkey applies even crueller pressure from the north. Turkey has cut off drinking water to a large number of cities, camps and civilian populations.
Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad took out two hospitals and many more health points and clinics and allowed them to take control of Allouk water station.
The Allouk water station is a critical piece of infrastructure, providing drinking water to: at least half a million people in the cities of Hasekah, Til Temir, Sheddadi, Hol, and others; about 65,000 internally displaced persons and ISIS-linked individuals in Hol Camp; internationally displaced persons 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 launched an airstrike against the Allouk water station on day one of its invasion, putting it out of service. Now, Turkey is in control of the water supply, and though it has been fixed under international mediation, Turkey regularly cuts the water flow to the AANES areas in order to apply political pressure. On March 21, they cut off water flow completely for the third time in a month, demanding that the AANES supply the Turkish occupying forces with ever-increasing amounts of electricity.
Severing the 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 COVID-19 – 10% of people in the prisons and camps, where tuberculosis is running rampant, are currently projected to die in the pandemic – it is likely to cost a great number of innocent lives.
A handful of ventilators
Trapped between Damascus’ greed, Turkish aggression, and UN indifference, 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.
However, given the circumstances, 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 internally displaced persons living under especially harsh isolation in the Shehba region. This is nowhere near enough.
Sanitary supplies, hospital beds, and trained staff are all in desperately short supply as well. As such, doctors will be left to make difficult decisions about who will live and who will die.
However, the real life-threatening decisions are not being taken in North and East Syria’s understaffed, over-crowded hospitals. Rather, it is Ankara, Damascus and Brussels that are condemning millions of ordinary people in North and East Syria to fear, isolation and early graves.
[Abridged from the Syrian Democratic Times.]