The areas in north and north east Syria, currently referred to as being under “Kurdish" control, are sometimes called Rojava, more officially referred to as the Democratic Self Administration (DSA) area. This administration is lead under strong influences from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mainly Kurdish, but also some Arab and Assyrian forces that came together, with support from the US-led coalition, to combat ISIS in those areas.
Compared to the widely contested legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the chaotic governance situation in areas outside its control in the northwest, DSA rule arguably enjoys wider support by the local population. Their political legitimacy will always be contested, of course, but in terms of the organisation and governance of public services, the Kurdish administration has displayed a pragmatism in the management of civilian life that contributes to its popularity amongst residents. The political arrangement they have held with the Assad regime, which has kept them from being subject to the same military offensives that the northwest faces, has helped them achieve their popularity.
However, in coronavirus times, what was once appreciated as a flexible political compromise, is today viewed as a serious threat to the lives of millions. The seemingly ad-hoc division or sharing of authority between DSA and Assad regime in those areas has been quite crippling to DSA attempts to enforce an affective quarantine or any other preventative measure. The administration meanwhile continues to struggle to keep afloat.
For example, tasks and mandate in the health sector remain randomly divided between the regime’s health administration and that of the DSA, with the former never missing a chance to undermine the latter’s authority. There are still “pockets" of regime controlled areas inside DSA territories. Sometimes they are as small as a few neighbourhoods within a city, but it gets more serious with the Qamishli airport and other border crossings under a regime control that refuses to abide by DSA sanitary measures.
According to DSA officials, this was the reason behind the newly discovered COVID-19 positive cases in the city of Al Hasakeh. It is now taken as a given in Syria that the virus entered the country through flights and exchanges with Iran in regime held areas. The Assad regime’s refusal to cooperate with the DSA’s quarantine measures in the facilities they control, enabled potentially infected travelers to go unchecked.
The situation reached its peak on the 17th of April, when the DSA discovered the regime, and the World Health Organization (WHO) under its influence, had withheld information from it about a COVID-19 positive case that died in a regime controlled hospital in the DSA controlled city of Qamishli on the 2nd of April. The WHO had not provided the DSA with any testing tools and followed regime priorities in its distribution of aid. This meant that DSA area samples had to be sent across the country to Damascus for analysis. The deceased patient had been admitted to the hospital on the 27th of March, the sample sent on the 29th, but he died on the 2nd of April, the day the regime announced a new death due to coronavirus in Syrian territories, without indicating which one it was. By the time the DSA had discovered this, the window to control the deceased’s contacts had passed, and, later in April, two more cases were confirmed in the same city he had originated from. This time it was thanks to testing tools sent to the DSA from neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan that they were able to confirm the case locally. Despite DSA issuing a statement holding WHO responsible for the spread of the pandemic in their areas, the global organisation has made no comment on the issue, and is yet to provide testing kits to them.
Regime politicisation of international aid did not start with this pandemic, but seems to be increasing with time. Earlier this year, Russia vetoed a Security Council decision to renew cross-border aid to areas outside of regime control, limiting them to crossings at Turkish borders. This has left the DSA stuck between the Assad regime and a hostile Turkish government, after the Al Yaroubiyah crossing with Iraq was closed for UN aid supplies. This is very bad news for the zone which has the weakest medical infrastructure in the country. Despite holding the national oil reserve, decades of negligence on end has resulted in a clear under-development respect to other areas. Of the estimated 325 ICU ventilators available in all of Syria, less than 30 ICU beds are in this area, with only 10 ventilators and just one pediatric ventilator, for a population of about 4 million. About one million are displaced, often living in precarious housing arrangements, and no less than 100,000 live in ill-equipped refugee and displacement camps. During the past few months, Turkey has been intermittently cutting off the water supplies to those camps, further complicating compliance with preventative hygiene measures. Social distancing is already a lost cause in the densely populated camps, the most famous of which is the Al Hol camp near the Iraqi border. The camp was originally constructed to take in 10,000 inhabitants, but it currently holds over 65,000 women and children. The majority of inhabitants are family members of former ISIS fighters, with some female militants among them, which makes many international organisations reluctant to provide humanitarian aid there. Although the majority is under 50 years of age, and about two thirds are children, diseases such as pneumonia and tuberculosis are very common among a population that has been living in the sandy desert since 2016. Only about 10,000 of those residents are foreign nationals, while the rest are roughly split between Syrian and Iraqi nationalities. Efforts to expatriate foreigners back to their home countries had already been beyond DSA’s control, and an extremely slow and complex process even before the pandemic.
Given the dire situation, the DSA had attempted to be as vigilant as it could with what it does control. Lockdown was announced on the same day on which the regime had finally officially acknowledged the first coronavirus death in the country, on March the 23rd, after over a month of flat denial. Schools and Universities were halted, only essential shops allowed to open, military drafting frozen, and travel into or out of the area prohibited, save some urgent cases. Disinfection campaigns to public spaces were initiated, and a few mistakes were also committed in the efforts to calm down a panicking population. For example, in late march, the DSA’s health administration announced in a press conference that it is manufacturing its own COVID-19 testing machine, reassuring people that it provides results in under a minute. The fact that the detection percentage of said test ranged from 80-85% at best, resulted in the announcement being met with much local ridicule, and demands to withdraw the announcement and save face were raised.
After a near decade of war and destruction, the already impoverished area struggles with many economic challenges. Most people don’t have stable income and depend on daily labor work. With the lockdown many now depend on direct aid items to meet basic nutrition needs, a situation the DSA might not be able to sustain for long. With the political and security instability, many now worry that wide-spread hunger might prove more dangerous than the pandemic.