Coronavirus in Rojava: Facing a Pandemic Without a State

This article by Thomas McClure was first published by Novara Media on 4 May, 2020

Across the world, states are coming under pressure for their response to the coronavirus crisis. Some fail to adequately protect their citizens, some use Covid-19 as an excuse for authoritarian power-grabs, and some do both simultaneously.

Here in North and East Syria, the autonomous region more commonly known as Rojava, 4m Syrians;– Kurds, Arabs, Christians – live outside the limited protection and authoritarian control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Their stated aim is to build a new form of communal politics, outside the state. Consequently, the autonomous region faces isolation, embargo and the severing of aid on behalf of state powers unwilling to see their project succeed, leaving it searching for solutions outside those the United Nations and World Health Organization can offer.

Nine years of war, systematic targeting of health and water infrastructure by occupying Turkish forces, a lack of international recognition, and January’s closure of the only UN aid crossing into North and East Syria have left the region at extreme risk from coronavirus. With the WHO refusing to support it directly, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) is reliant on its own meagre resources and aid routed via the Assad government, little of which ever arrives to the north-east.

Pre-existing crisis.

The humanitarian situation is dire across Syria, and the north-east is no exception. 1.6m people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 600,000 internally displaced people. Local doctors are modelling a 10% death-rate in both the detention centers containing Isis fighters and the refugee camps – some containing Isis-linked families, others housing hundreds of thousands of Kurds displaced by successive Turkish invasions, as well as Arabs who have fled to the relative security of the north-east throughout the nine-year conflict.

The region’s 4m residents are reliant on a total capacity of just 40 ventilators and 35 ICU beds. Nine of the 11 public hospitals in North and East Syria have been damaged during the war, while a recent London School of Economics study found the regions under the AANES have the capability to handle just 460 coronavirus cases before being overrun.

WHO support.

The only way to accurately test for coronavirus is with polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test machines. The only PCR machines in North and East Syria were lost in October 2019, when Turkey invaded the Kurdish-majority city of Serê Kaniyê‎. The hospital was shelled and then seized as part of the operation, leaving it inaccessible and inoperable.

The WHO had required North and East Syria to send all test samples to the Syrian capital, Damascus, but neither the WHO nor the Syrian government were facilitating the process. On 2 April, testing in Damascus confirmed a case of Covid-19 that, the same day, gave the North and East Syria its first coronavirus death, yet both the Syrian government and WHO failed to communicate this information to the AANES until two weeks had elapsed, putting medical staff in danger and meaning health officials in the region could not take adequate precautions.

Via Turkey, the WHO has now provided test kits to Idlib, a city controlled by al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham (HTS), from where samples can be sent to Turkey for testing. It has also provided 1200 testing kits to regime-controlled areas. Due to its lack of recognised status, however, North and East Syria has no access to WHO-provided testing kits. With support from the Kurdistan regional government in Iraq, the AANES was finally able to privately acquire five PCR machines, and together with front-line tests like white blood cell tests and temperature checks, the AANES is now able to run a basic testing programme rather than relying solely on Damascus.

UN aid severed.

The WHO’s parent organisation, the UN, is beholden to the powerful states sitting on its security council. In January 2020, Russia – whose support for the Damascus regime means it refuses to countenance autonomy in the north-east – exercised its security council veto to close the only UN aid crossing into North and East Syria

This means all UN aid into Syria is now sent either into areas controlled by HTS, to factions under the control of the Turkish intelligence service, or 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 remains in areas loyal to the regime. Little to nothing ever arrives in the north-east.

One sole 20-tonne aid delivery via Damascus did make it to North and East Syria – but per WHO guidance, 89% of the delivery remained in a regime-controlled pocket in Qamishlo. The limited aid supplied to the AANES was made up of infant incubators and other supplies not related to coronavirus, with one doctor telling the Rojava Information Center that the supplies were “essentially useless”. Similarly, under Turkish pressure the Iraqi Kurdish regional government has also been preventing the purchase and transfer of coronavirus supplies into North and East Syria.

A recent report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 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 the decision, with one soon to close, while the health centre in the Hol camp is also severely affected.

Turkish attacks on water.

While the regime obstructs aid from the south, Turkey applies pressure from the north. Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Serê Kaniyê‎ and Tell Abyad was marked by shelling and airstrikes targeting health points and clinics, resulting in the loss of two key hospitals as Turkey seized control of AANES territory.

It also allowed Turkey to take control of the Allouk water station. Allouk is a critical piece of infrastructure, providing drinking water to between 650,000 and 1m+ people, including 65,000 internally displaced people and Isis-linked individuals in the Hol camp; internally displaced people in the Washokani and Aresha camps and ad-hoc settlements, including 80 schools in Hasekah; the largest detention facility for captured Isis fighters in the world, housing some 5000 combatants and the scene of a recent uprising; and the AANES’s main quarantine hospital.

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 although it has since been fixed under international mediation, Turkey has nonetheless cut the water flow to AANES areas five 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 electricity provision in Serê Kaniyê under international law, and moreover it is demanding far more power than is proportional to its needs. Most recently, on 2 April Turkish forces shelled the water pipe from Allouk to Hasekah, cutting off water for the fifth time.

Solutions outside the state.

With Russia, Turkey and the Damascus government all piling pressure on the autonomous regions, aided and abetted by the WHO and UN, the north-east is forced to pursue alternative solutions. On the one hand, its political demands are clear: direct provision of WHO test kits and other supplies, re-opening of Yaroubiah aid crossing, an end to Turkey’s manipulation of the water flow, and in the long term recognition of the north-east’s autonomy as part of a federal, democratic Syria.

In the short term, however, the region is once again forced to rely on its own strained resources. Multiple medical projects are underway to develop DIY,  locally-produced ventilators as a solution to the chronic shortages in this field; aid is being distributed on a family-by-family basis via the local communes which form the building blocks of the grassroots democratic system.

If the AANES’s vision of a federal Syria is realised, it will be a chance to spread these ideas in a world newly awakened to the need for local, communal living. For now, the administration must rely on these war-tested ideals as its best hope of keeping the population alive through the pandemic crisis.

Thomas McClure is a researcher at the Rojava Information Center.

  • This article is part two of a two-part feature on the current situation in North and East Syria. Read part one here.