WASHINGTON - The coronavirus pandemic has increased tensions between the Syrian government and Kurdish groups in the war-torn country.
The Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northeast Syria has accused the central government in Damascus of obstructing its efforts to fight the virus.
Local officials said that the Syrian government has not committed to implementing certain measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading around the country.
“We had an initial agreement with the regime to suspend all flights between Damascus and Qamishli [in the northeast] until further notice,” said Raperin Hasan, co-chair of the health commission at the autonomous administration in northeast Syria.
“But they keep sending flights without testing suspected passengers for the virus,” she told VOA in a phone interview from Qamishli.
So far, no coronavirus cases have been reported in northeast Syria, but, Hasan said, “the Syrian regime would be responsible for any cases in our region.”
Manal Mohammed, another health official in northeast Syria, told Rudaw TV on Monday that local authorities “have already quarantined about 70 people who have recently arrived from Damascus and have shown symptoms of COVID-19.”
As of Wednesday, Syrian authorities have reported 29 confirmed cases of the coronavirus across the country, including two deaths.
Health experts believe the number of suspected COVID-19 patients in Syria could be much higher because the country has limited resources to test people for the virus.
Since the eruption of the country’s civil war in 2011, Kurdish forces have been in control of most areas in northeast Syria. They have also been an effective U.S. partner in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
The U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has put the latter at odds with Damascus, which accuses the Kurdish-led forces of using American backing to seek secession from Syria. Kurdish officials deny such allegations.
“The Syrian regime doesn’t recognize our administration,” Hasan said, charging that “the regime is striving to spread panic among our people at these difficult times and undermine our efforts to prevent the coronavirus from spreading here.”
But a source close to the Syrian government in Damascus, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA that “the government of President Bashar al-Assad has no intention to turn this health crisis into a political dispute with anyone.”
“With limited resources, the government is trying its best to provide essential services to all Syrians as we are struggling to contain the spread of coronavirus,” the source added.
Exacerbating the crisis
Experts say the Syrian government has exacerbated the coronavirus crisis in Syria by not taking proper measures to fulfill its health obligations to its citizens across the country.
“The bitter reality is that the regime does not take basic responsibility for aiding the people anywhere in Syria,” said Seth Frantzman, a Middle East expert who closely follows developments in Syria.
“In eastern Syria it has an obligation to provide health care and access to the U.N. and WHO and tests for the virus. It continues to pay lip service to Syria’s ‘sovereignty’ while not providing the basic needs to those under its control,” he told VOA.
As most of the international aid, especially from the United Nations and the World Health Organization, currently goes through Damascus, local officials in northeast Syria accuse the Syrian government of blocking needed aid from reaching their region.
Analyst Frantzman says that areas of eastern Syria need immediate support from the international community, since communities are still recovering from the war on IS and a recent Turkish-led offensive against Kurdish forces.
Nearly a decade of war has largely damaged Syria’s health care system, raising fears among U.N. officials that millions of displaced people will be more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus.
The U.N. has called for a nationwide cease-fire in Syria to focus on combating the virus. It has also called on all warring sides in Syria to release political prisoners as the potential spread of the coronavirus in Syrian prisons remains high.
The SDF is holding about 10,000 IS fighters, most of whom were captured following the military defeat of the terror group in March 2019.
The U.S.-led coalition said it recently had delivered $1.2 million in medical supplies and other assistance to the SDF with the aim of helping local authorities to reduce the spread of the virus in IS prisons and among the local populations as well.
Last weekend, the local administration in northeast Syria announced that it had also received two advanced PCR testing machines as assistance from the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. They said this would help them test more people for the coronavirus.