People remain trapped, living under daily threat of shellings and bombs, in a small enclave in North and East Syria known as Shehba. Turkish bombs regularly fall. A thin trickle of aid gets in, heavily taxed. One small field hospital serves its crowded residents. Almost no news comes out. Little is known about the wellbeing of its 240,000 people. Shehba is in peril, and the international community is not paying attention.
The world has come to know the people of North and East Syria from their heroic fight against Daesh, their progressive and democratic values, bringing stability and safety to Syria, and most recently the sudden and brutal Turkish-led attacks against them in October 2019. However, Shehba remains a region that is governed by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) that is often overlooked by the international community.
This region, centered around the town of Tal Rifaat, directly borders the Afrin Region, a majority-Kurdish enclave that was seized by Turkey through a violent military operation from January 2018 through March 2018. As this conflict progressed, more and more of Afrin’s Kurdish population fled as refugees to the Shehba pocket.
Out of the nearly 300,000 people living in Afrin prior to the Turkish offensive, at least half have fled to Shehba as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Many are living in makeshift camps with limited resources at their disposal. Previously, the Shehba region had a population of just 90,000 residents. Now over 240,000 people are crowded within the region, under daily threat.
This massive influx of refugees has led to the enclave being pushed to its absolute limits, as they are subject to frequent attacks by the Turkish military and their jihadist proxies against the region, as well as an embargo by the Assad regime.
Since Afrin was fully occupied by the Turkish military and their proxies, attacks against Shehba have been more frequent than in any other part of the AANES region. This has largely consisted of shelling along the line between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and pro-Turkish forces, but has led to more significant attacks as well — such as the May 2019 attacks when Turkish-backed militias called the “Syrian National Army” attempted to capture several villages in the region, including Mar’anaz and al-Malikiyah. They were ultimately repelled by SDF forces, but these attacks have led to tragic civilian and military casualties, significant property damage, pressure on local medical facilities, and constant fear of a full-blown offensive for Shehba’s inhabitants and IDPs, many of whom have already fled one Turkish military offensive.
The embargo of the Ba’athist Assad regime has put extra pressure on Shehba, and makes the situation even worse. Both civilians and aid workers (including doctors from Aleppo) are forced to pay taxes at regime-controlled checkpoints that surround Shehba’s borders with regime-controlled territory, with some taxes reported as high as 7 million Syrian lira. Fuel is also not allowed into the region by the regime, and tax on fuel shipments from the North and East Syria can be as high as 3 million lira. Furthermore, even ambulances aren’t allowed into the region (unless they belong to the regime). Shehba has no adequate medical care as a result. Scores of people have died from preventable causes, due to this lack of basic healthcare.
This issue has been exacerbated by the emergence of COVID-19. As of September 2020, there were 52 active COVID-19 cases in Shehba. The actual number is estimated to be far higher, as there is no access to COVID-19 test kits. There is only one field hospital-sized medical facility of any sort in Shehba, with approximately 50 beds and no specialized staff or proper medical supplies to treat hundreds of thousands of people who live in the region.
Despite international attention largely having moved away from the Syrian conflict in 2020, the suffering of the people of Shehba has deepened, worsened by the introduction of COVID-19 into the region. The international community, including western powers, have exacerbated the suffering of the people of Shehba and Afrin. For example, Turkey has directly attacked the region. Russia has used the people of North and East Syria for its own political games with the Turkish government. At best, they have ignored the plight of Syrians living under the AANES west of the Euphrates, as in the case of the US and British, simply because their troops are not present there.
As long as the regime and Turkish-backed groups continue to use violence and politicize humanitarian aid, as well as civilian suffering, and the rest of the international community continues to ignore it, the horrific cheapening of Syrian lives will continue as it has for the past decade, regardless of whether they are Kurdish, Arab, Syriac, Yazidi, or others. The Syrian people deserve basic human dignity and survival without concern for their ethnicity or faith.