A medic checks the body temperature of a passenger, as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, upon her arrival by bus in Syria's Kurdish area from Iraqi Kurdistan via the Semalka border crossing in northeastern Syria on March 1, 2020. (Delil Souleiman/AFP via Getty Images)

Isolation Has Advantages

But poor health care, relations with Assad, prompt coronavirus fears in northeast Syria

Fears of a coronavirus outbreak are beginning in the isolated Kurdish-led statelet in northeast Syria, despite there not being any reported cases.

One Kurdish journalist said a lack of health care infrastructure and trust in the government in Damascus along with the presence of Iranian militias are driving concerns that there will be a major outbreak.

“The fear is due to the lack of developed health facilities and the lack of trust in the Syrian regime,” Rezhan Hassan, a freelance journalist in the city of Qamishli, told The Media Line. “There are many infections on the coast and in the capital where Iranian militias are.”

Northeast Syria has an autonomous government based in Qamishli and led by the Kurdish political party the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The area is largely Kurdish with Christian, Arab and Turkmen populations as well. The PYD’s paramilitary force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), leads the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fights ISIS. Many Kurds refer to the area as Rojava and its official name is the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES).

Northeast Syria first declared autonomy from Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government in 2014 after the YPG fought and won battles against ISIS, receiving US-backing soon after.

Northeast Syria controls its own border with the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and has a government based on a communalist ideology separate from the Assad government, with which the YPG has mixed relations. The YPG has both worked with and fought Syrian government forces during the civil war. Government forces control parts of otherwise NES-controlled Qamishli and Hasakah, including the airport in Qamishli.

Neighboring Turkey considers the YPG an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey and thus a terrorist organization, and attacked the YPG in October.

Amid the wars against ISIS and Turkey, a lack of development, and limited relations with Damascus, people say there is a risk of a corona outbreak in the region. Qamishli residents began taking preventative measures after reports of infections in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to Hassan.

“People started wearing surgical masks and stopped shaking hands,” said Hassan. “Traffic in markets also halved.”

“Many people confine themselves to their homes and family visits have largely stopped due to fear of the virus.”

Northeast Syria has also suffered from fuel and food shortages throughout the war. At present, markets in Qamishli are well-stocked but the prices of masks and sterilizers have gone up significantly, according to Hassan.

“I went to the markets and merchants confirmed there is no fear of food interruptions because trade continues,” he said. “But the prices of disinfectants and masks have quadrupled.”

Hassan is not alone in his thinking. Thomas McClure is a researcher at the Rojava Information Center, a research center in Qamishli that uses the Kurdish name for northeast Syria. He said the region lacks the healthcare infrastructure to contain the virus and that an outbreak could soon come.

“A lot of illnesses can’t be dealt with because they don’t have the proper equipment,” McClure told The Media Line. “I think it’s only a matter of time.”

McClure said people are mostly going about their social business as usual. The region also is not experiencing the panic over toilet paper seen in the West due to the use of a water hose for bathroom hygiene in Syria – as in much of the Middle East.

Rojava’s complicated relationship with the Assad government puts people at risk for the coronavirus, according to McClure. The testing for the coronavirus in northeast Syria is limited to a temperature-taking device. People need to go to Damascus for a proper test, which poses issues.

“This is not possible for anyone wanted by the regime, which is a lot of people here,” said McClure. “It’s not possible for young men, many of whom are wanted for military service.”

Syria has mandatory conscription for males, which is a major reason Syrian men have fled government areas.

McClure also echoed Hassan’s concerns of Iranian militias bringing the virus to northeast Syria.

“It’s known to have spread in the south of the country with the coming and going of Iran militias,” he said.

Reports in Syrian state media deny there are any coronavirus infections in the country.

Northeast Syria suffered from years of neglect in terms of development before the civil war, leading to a less-than-advanced healthcare system. The region’s resources were further strained by the war with Turkey in October and the January closure for humanitarian aid of the border with Iraq at Al Yarubiyah, according to United Nations Security Council Resolution 2504.

This route allowed humanitarian organizations to bypass Damascus and deliver supplies to northeast Syria directly. Now, aid must enter northeast Syria through Damascus, which could lead to delays or supplies not coming at all, according to McClure.

“Aid from Damascus tends to stay with the regime or in their areas,” he said.

The region’s border with Turkey is also not open due to the Turkey-YPG conflict, further cutting it off from supply routes.

NES authorities have taken several actions to protect people from an outbreak thus far. They closed schools and the border with Iraq. They also started a disinfecting and cleaning campaign, which both McClure and Hassan said they witnessed.

It is possible that northeast Syria’s political and geographic isolation has slowed the arrival of the coronavirus.

“I guess also it delayed the virus here. The region being under blockade has bought some time,” said McClure.

Bassam Ishak is the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, the SDF’s political wing, in the US and is one of the prominent Syriac Christian leaders from the area. He also said the lack of an open border with Turkey may be preventing infections that would have otherwise come from there.

“In a sense, now it helps actually, with fewer ways for coronavirus to make it to our region from Turkey,” Ishak told The Media Line.

However, the region needs significant medical aid quickly from the international community and the US. Bashak said there were no reported cases but the only test they could do is one for temperature.

“We are in urgent need of testing kits,” said Bashak. “So we need help from the US in this area.”

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