In recent weeks, North and East Syria has been struck with an outbreak of cholera. The situation is serious enough that international bodies including the United Nations have sounded the alarm. The fact that the virulent, water-borne disease is capable of claiming victims in the year 2022 should in itself be cause for pause – the very notion of a cholera outbreak initially sounds like something from a bygone age. We are familiar with it as a disease which, in the nineteenth century, tore its way through the working classes of Victorian London and the outlying regions of the British empire alike, and was in due course brought under control by modern sanitary provisions.
But why is this? Why is a disease whose very name has a vaguely Victorian ring to our ears resurgent in a modern-day nation? The answer is, of course, that imperialism has metastasized and slunk out of sight, but it has never changed its spots. There is a cholera outbreak in North and East Syria because the region is kept isolated, underfunded and maltreated by international bodies, foreign states and local powers.
Several factors have contributed to the ongoing health crisis in NES. In particular, the region suffers from Turkey’s obstruction of water flow, meaning locals are forced to rely on unsafe and unhygienic water sources.
We need only look back to the example of the coronavirus pandemic. Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Sere Kaniye and Tel Abyad took out two hospitals and many more health points and clinics – and also allowed them to take control of Allouk water station. Allouk is a critical piece of infrastructure, providing drinking water to at least 650,000 and likely over a million people in the cities of Hasekah, Til Temir, Sheddadi and Hol, among others; 65,000 internally displaced persons and ISIS-linked individuals in the Hol Camp; IDPs in Washokani and Aresha camps, including those displaced by the Turkish invasion; the largest detention facility for ISIS fighters in the world, housing some 5,000 fighters and the scene of a recent uprising; and NES’ main quarantine hospital.
Turkey launched an airstrike against Allouk on day one of its invasion, putting it out of service. Now Turkey is in control of the water station, and though it has been fixed under international mediation, Turkey regularly cuts the water flow to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) in order to apply political pressure on the administration. Moreover, Turkey has been systematically pumping away water from the Euphrates river, depriving hundreds of thousands of NES residents of an adequate supply of water for agriculture, domestic purposes or basic sustenance. In such circumstances it is hardly surprising that cholera can flourish.
Moreover, the region is cut off from basic medical aid. In January 2020, Russia exercised its veto at the UN Security Council to close the only UN aid crossing into NES. This means all UN aid into Syria is now sent into areas controlled by al-Qaeda off- shoot Hayat Tahrir-al-Sham, factions under the control of the Turkish intelligence service, or directly to the Assad regime.
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is forced to try and access UN aid via Damascus, but the reality is that most aid sent to Damascus lines the pockets of those close to the Assad regime, or remains in areas loyal to the regime. Little or nothing ever arrives to the AANES. A report by UN agency OCHA indicated this decision seriously reduced NES’ ability to combat coronavirus. Then as now, the region is cut off from the bodies and agencies with the competency to combat the outbreak of the deadly diarrheal illness.
This combines with the general embargo placed upon the region to leave it in a situation whereby it can hardly be expected to cope with an outbreak of a virulent and deadly disease like cholera. The region had literally no ventilators when coronavirus broke out, and it is no more equipped to deal with cholera now. Hiding behind the veneer of humanitarian benevolence, the West continues to condemn NES to its fate. The only solution to the fresh epidemic is opening up the region by granting it diplomatic recognition, and letting the region’s embattled medical corps receive support from the rest of the world.
Robin Fleming is an American researcher who worked with the Rojava Information Centre, and focuses on North and East Syria.