The poor and isolated region of eastern Syria, where US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces defeated ISIS in 2019, is facing a new crisis. It lacks an ability to test for coronavirus and does not have the hospital capacity to deal with such a new crisis.
Last October, the US left part of eastern Syria and enabled its NATO-ally Turkey to bomb and attack peaceful Kurdish, Arab and Christian communities. Some 200,000 people were forced to flee, and Turkey and Russia signed a deal to partition part of the area.
Now, the remaining area, the size of Jordan, is in need of basic medical support.
Despite efforts to secure a way to test for coronavirus, the international community and the Syrian regime have denied the region the right to healthcare, the health board of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria told North Press this week.
The UN and WHO, maintaining that eastern Syria is not a state and therefore cannot be dealt with directly, has isolated millions of people from healthcare services. Syrians are expected to approach Damascus, even if they cannot reach the Syrian capital. The only test center is in Damascus, a local doctor told media outlets, adding: “It’s hard for us to send samples to the Syrian government areas.”
Eastern Syria is a victim of history. In 2013, it was attacked and ravaged by ISIS, which made its capital of the caliphate in Raqqa. The global jihadist organization attacked Syrian rebel groups and the Kurdish minority, massacring Christians and enslaving Yazidis. The Kurdish groups formed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and in 2014 were able to prevent ISIS from conquering cities such as Kobane.
The US, which began fighting ISIS in 2014 as part of the global coalition, aided the Kurds and eventually helped to create the Syrian Democratric Forces. But the SDF was cut off from the rest of Syria. Armed by the US, it liberated Raqqa from ISIS in 2017 and eventually defeated ISIS in 2019 with backing from the coalition.
Turkey opposes the SDF, saying it is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party. Turkey invaded Kurdish areas of Syria beginning in 2018, forcing Kurds to flee – regardless of whether those Kurds were engaged in the terrorism that Turkey accused them of.
US officials assured them there would be no attacks on Turkey from eastern Syria and even created a security mechanism and patrols last summer. But Turkey, which prefers to work with Russia and Iran in Syria, attacked eastern Syria in October, forcing the US to withdraw.
US President Donald Trump decided to keep several hundred US troops in eastern Syria to protect oil facilities. America and the international community also demanded that the SDF continue detaining tens of thousands of suspected ISIS members and their families.
European countries will not take back thousands of their ISIS-supporting citizens who are now detained in eastern Syria. They have told the SDF not to release the detainees or turn them over to the Syrian regime.
Likewise, the US and other countries demand that the SDF remain isolated and not work with the Syrian regime and not receive any international support from the UN.
Now, in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, the international community is trying to make sure the region has no access to healthcare or tests for the virus. Turkey has blockaded the region, continuing to cut off water and other resources.
The autonomous region has had to close schools and its few border crossings, according to the Rojava Information Center. It also faces an embargo from Damascus, Turkey and the UN, the center said in a statement.
In addition, the 70,000 inhabitants of al-Hol refugee camp, where internally displaced people and some ISIS families are stuck, face a looming crisis. They are under quarantine. As countries cut back on flights and travel and the EU closes its border, there are concerns about what comes next. Iraq is already under siege by coronavirus cases from neighboring Iran.
US authorities, who once promised to stabilize eastern Syria, have reportedly done nothing to transport test kits for residents of Hasaka, Raqqa and other areas. Washington is more focused on sanctioning Iran than actually aiding the families of those who helped defeat ISIS or who were once victimized by them.
As long as the SDF continues guarding ISIS prisoners, while their families fear the virus, they will be supported. If they become casualties of the virus, that is apparently collateral damage.
The US is concerned about protecting its own soldiers from the virus and does not appear to have contingencies in place for locals. Other elements of the US government that might have provided aid have been withdrawn from eastern Syria due to changes made last year.
Near the Euphrates River across from the Syrian regime-run cities of Deir ez-Zur and Al-Bukamal, there is concern Iranian agents and pro-Iranian militias have brought the virus from Tehran. They could spread it to the vulnerable people east of the river.
There were six infections at one hospital in Al Mayadeen across the river from eastern Syria, Omar Abu Layla of Deir Ezzor 24 reported. Four of those infected are Iraqi and two are Iranian. Deir Ezzor 24 is seeking to raise awareness in the local communities about the danger of the virus and the presence of Iran’s militias.
“In the time that Iran is exporting coronavirus and chaos to Syria and other countries in the Middle East, the US can regain the hearts of the people by positive intervention in providing support to counter coronavirus,” Abu Layla wrote on March 17.
As the international community looks inward, and the EU, US and other states close their borders, eastern Syria appears to have been largely abandoned during the global pandemic. Turkey and other states have already indicated they cannot do much for Syrian refugees either. It appears the World Health Organization may be trying to do more in Idlib and other areas of Syria while blockading eastern Syria.
Even those who may oppose the SDF still wonder about their healthcare needs. Orders to close the schools have been discussed by local churches. The Syriac Church said it advised people to stay at home; local gatherings have been cancelled. The priests will continue to pray for the people as the pandemic spreads globally.
The poor region, recovering from ISIS attacks and Turkey’s invasion, does not have enough ventilators in hospitals. There are only an estimated 150 of them for two million people, according to one reported. Hospitals in Qamishli, Hasakah, Manbij and other areas require support. The region appears to be heading toward a healthcare catastrophe.