By Meghan Bodette
Turkey’s occupation of Afrin, Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ain), and Gire Spî (Tel Abyad) is creating ideal conditions for the spread of coronavirus in Syria — with severe consequences for efforts to control the spread of the disease in a country already devastated by poverty and war.
Introducing the Disease
On May 9, 2020, the United Nations warned that “several” Turkish security personnel present in Afrin, northern Syria, had tested positive for coronavirus. This was the first credible report of likely cases in the area.
While concerning, the news was not unpredictable. Turkey has one of the worst outbreaks of the disease in the region. And while the border is closed to civilians, military personnel regularly move between Turkish territory and occupied areas of Syria adjacent to the border.
Despite potentially introducing coronavirus to Afrin, occupying forces have shown little interest in preventing its spread there. A report from Syria-based North Press Agency warned that armed groups in the area, which has been occupied by Turkish forces and allied Syrian National Army (SNA) militants since 2018, had taken virtually no measures to stop the spread of the disease.
“There are no health instructions, no awareness campaigns, no sterilization, as if we live on another planet,” a woman living in the city center of Afrin told North Press, noting that she had stopped wearing a mask and gloves due to harassment.
Population Transfers and Displacement
One of the primary goals of both Operation Olive Branch and Operation Peace Spring was to change the demographics of historically diverse areas with large Kurdish populations along Turkey’s border — a policy amounting to ethnic cleansing.
According to Turkish sources, hundreds of thousands of Syrians from other parts of the country — including some living as refugees in Turkey — have been moved into these areas since the occupation began. Many live in stolen homes and have taken possession of businesses and agricultural land left behind by their displaced owners.
Reports of continuing population transfers have surfaced as recently as this month. While already a violation of international law, such instances may now be contributing to the spread of coronavirus. Large numbers of people traveling between cities in close quarters without any testing, contact tracing, and quarantine measures is an ideal environment for the disease to spread.
Many of the original inhabitants of these regions are also at higher risk of coronavirus due to Turkish actions. While governments around the world urge their citizens to wash their hands and avoid close contact with others to slow the spread of the disease, hundreds of thousands of IDPs from Afrin, Serê Kaniyê, and Girê Spî shelter in crowded IDP camps without reliable electricity or running water.
In Shehba, where many Afrin IDPs live, a report from ANF News described conditions as harsh. A man living in a partially destroyed school building with about 14 other families told ANF that “about 60-70 people live in this school. The school is already in a very bad situation, and the Turkish state is attacking with mortars. We no longer know what to do against these attacks.”
Political Prisoners at Risk
On March 25, 2020, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on governments to take action to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in prisons — in particular focusing on sick and elderly prisoners and those jailed for political reasons.
“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” she advised.
Yet despite Bachelet’s statement, Turkish forces and affiliated militias have shown little indication that they will release the thousands of Syrians they have arbitrarily detained — nor end new detentions.
Since the first reported coronavirus cases hit Syria in March, occupying forces have kidnapped dozens of civilians for ransom, according to reports from various local monitors. Many are over the age of 65 — a group that is already at high risk for the disease. The prisons in which victims of these crimes are held are infamous for torture, overcrowding, and otherwise dismal conditions even without the threat of the virus.
Syrians jailed in Turkey face a similarly bleak fate. A recent Al-Monitor investigation found that dozens of Syrian citizens captured in Syria been illegally detained in Turkey. The report warned that many of them had likely been tortured, and at least one had been forced to appear in a video praising her captors despite mistreatment.
These Syrians face harsh sentences for “disrupting the unity and integrity of the state” and belonging to a “terrorist organization,” — charges under Turkish law that cannot be applied to Syrians for actions on Syrian territory. Like other political prisoners in Turkey held on similar charges, they are excluded from the country’s coronavirus relief package.
Destroying Livelihoods and Infrastructure
In addition to creating conditions ideal for the spread of disease among vulnerable Syrians, Turkey and its allied armed groups have threatened access to necessities like medical care, agricultural land, and clean water.
Turkey and the SNA have shown no hesitation in targeting medical facilities. The primary hospital in Afrin was targeted in a Turkish airstrike in March 2018. Afrin IDPs now depend on medical points and clinics set up by the Kurdish Red Crescent, whose workers have repeatedly been targeted across the region as well.
In Serê Kaniyê, the only PCR testing machines in the region, machines necessary for testing for coronavirus, were taken by armed groups when they seized the hospital, leaving the region without any testing abilities until new machines were provided by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Turkish-backed groups have cut the water flow from the Allouk Water Station near occupied Sere Kaniyê multiple times, blocking access to clean water for hundreds of thousands of people.
Human Rights Watch strongly condemned the water cuts, warning that Turkey was “compromising humanitarian agencies’ ability to prepare and protect vulnerable communities in the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Recently, shelling by Turkish forces or affiliated armed groups has caused crop fires in AANES territory. Similar crop fires, many attributed to ISIS, threatened the region’s agricultural output last year as well. With the local economy heavily based around agriculture, and an economic crisis already posing its own threats, losses in this sector would put many Syrians unable to put food on the table in the midst of the pandemic.
Weaponizing a Pandemic
By continuing policies already contrary to international law in the midst of a global pandemic, Turkey appears to be weaponizing the coronavirus crisis against Syrians who have few means to fight it.
Ethnic cleansing and mass displacement, mistreatment of political prisoners, and attacks on civilian resources have caused grave civilian suffering in North and East Syria on their own. When combined with a deadly disease with no known cure, they will likely bring new forms of misery and harm.