WASHINGTON - Pleas by the predominantly Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria for more help to contain a possible coronavirus outbreak and a resurgent Islamic State are being heard, even if some of the requested aid has been slow in arriving.
The region, home to tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced persons — many of them crowded into packed detention camps since the defeat of Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate — has been gripped by fear as the virus has spread around the world.
Disease and sickness are already common, but humanitarian groups and officials say the coronavirus pandemic has sparked outright panic, even blaming a riot at a prison holding captured IS fighters on concerns about the pandemic.
While there has yet to be a confirmed case of coronavirus at the camps or in the prisons, U.S. officials say they understand the need to act quickly.
“We're working desperately and urgently to find ways to get assistance to the northeast,” a senior State Department official told reporters Wednesday.
“There has been no significant outbreak so far,” the official added, admitting that was unlikely to last.
"It's one thing that does cross the lines of conflict, disease," the official said. "It will get into the northeast. It will get into the northwest.”
Already, the U.S. has sent $1.2 million in medical supplies and other assistance to the coalition-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, hoping that will help mitigate the spread of the virus and also reinforce security at a series of prisons holding about 10,000 captured IS fighters.
However, officials with the SDF’s political wing say that what has arrived is far short of what is needed.
“Whatever we got, it is not enough and not sufficient,” Sinam Mohamad, the U.S. representative for the Syrian Democratic Council, said during a videoconference Wednesday.
“We expect the U.S. to give us assistance, but so far, the assistance that we are getting is only to control ISIS,” she said.
Some steps taken
Mohamad said the SDC has made efforts to sterilize detention camps like al-Hol, which holds about 65,000 IS women and children, and has run education campaigns as well.
But in such cramped and often hostile conditions, “we are not able to have all the [health] precautions,” she said.
Aid from other sources, such as the United Nations, has also had a hard time reaching northeast Syria.
Both the SDC and the U.S. accuse Russia of blocking a convoy in January. And the SDC says it is still waiting for some of the coronavirus test kits given to the Syrian government in Damascus to reach medical officials.
“How many of these come to our region? Nothing. Zero,” Mohamad said.
There have also been allegations that the government in Damascus has refused to test samples for suspected coronavirus cases sent from the autonomous administration.
Asked about the allegation, the WHO told VOA there had been a delay in collecting samples, but that rapid response teams were now ready.
“The epidemiological surveillance team in al-Hasakah governorate would be on call and ready to collect the sample from the suspected case at the entrance of the camp,” the WHO’s Inas Hamam said in an email.
“The health workers there are highly prepared to carry out investigation measures about possible coronavirus infections and able to provide the necessary help based on the outcome,” she added.
The U.S., however, remains skeptical, calling help from the government of Bashar al-Assad “unlikely.”
Effect on IS
In the meantime, there are indications the coronavirus pandemic may be affecting IS itself.
“We have not seen any significant expansion of their activities — that is, their attacks, their intimidation of local officials and populations — since COVID-19,” the State Department official said.
The official cautioned that IS still seems intent on “waiting out” the U.S. and its partners in Syria and Iraq.