(UNITED NATIONS) — Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that medical supplies to prevent and treat the new coronavirus are not reaching northeast Syria because of restrictions imposed by the Syrian government and the Kurdish regional government.
The international rights organization urged the U.N. Security Council to immediately adopt a resolution reopening the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq into the northeast. The crossing, which was used primarily to deliver medicine and medical supplies from the World Health Organization, was closed in January at the insistence of Russia.
Syrian Kurds established an autonomous zone in the northeast in 2012 and were U.S. partners on the ground in fighting the Islamic State extremist group. A Turkish offensive in October against Syrian Kurdish militants led the U.S. to abandon its Kurdish allies, leading to strong criticism of both Washington and Ankara.
Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director for Human Rights Watch, stressed at a video press briefing launching a report on aid restrictions hindering the COVID-19 response that “this is not a political question, it’s a humanitarian question, (and) very easy for the Security Council to move quickly.”
Gerry Simpson, the rights group’s crisis and conflict associate director, said: “Two million people are stuck in northeast Syria without the tools to tackle outbreaks of COVID-19.”
He said a man who died on April 2 in the northeast city of Qamishli was later diagnosed with COVID-19.
Human Rights Watch said authorities in Damascus have refused to collect some COVID-19 test samples from northeast Syria for testing, and it took two weeks before authorities in the northeast found out in mid-April about the first positive test from the man who died on April 2.
Simpson said there is a need for urgent action because there is no place for testing, next to no testing equipment, almost no personal protective equipment, and just 10 ventilators for adults and one for a child in the entire northeast region.
He said COVID-19 related aid is already in warehouses in Iraq “waiting to get in.”
The United Nations began cross-border aid deliveries in 2014 to get food, medicine and other humanitarian items to opposition-held areas of Syria. There had been four crossing points, two from Turkey to the mainly rebel-held northwest, one from Jordan to southern Syria and one from Iraq to the northeast.
But when it came to renewing the mandate for cross-border deliveries late last year, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said cross-border aid was meant to be a temporary response to the Syrian conflict and the situation on the ground had changed.
He said the Jordan crossing point hadn’t been used and the volume through the Iraqi crossing “is insignificant … and could be done from Syria” so only the Turkish crossing points were needed.
Using the threat of a veto, Russia forced the Security Council to maintain aid deliveries only from Turkey and end deliveries from Jordan and Iraq, a victory for its close ally Syria.
Human Rights Watch said that between March 31 and April 21 it interviewed 10 aid workers and officials from U.N. agencies and international non-governmental organizations operating in or supporting operations in northeast Syria about the obstacles they faced in responding to COVID-19.
The rights group said aid workers reported that the closure of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq has resulted in a $40 million shortfall for 2020 for non-governmental organizations depending on U.N. support for their operations in northeast Syria, including $30 million for health care, mostly to prevent and respond to COVID-19.
Despite some air shipments in March and April from Damascus to Qamishli, which is in a government-held area of the northeast, the rights group said “bureaucratic obstacles in Damascus are preventing aid agencies from transferring supplies to non-government-held parts of the region.”
And it said that since March 1, the Kurdish regional government has introduced restrictions that have severely limited the amount of aid that humanitarian organizations can take to northeast Syria.
Simpson said that in light of “the catastrophic effect of the end of U.N. supplies reaching northern Syria from northern Iraq,” the Security Council should act immediately to authorize the reopening of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing.