Iraqi Kurdistan rejects NGO accusations of blocking aid to Syrian Kurds

The government of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is responding with anger to relief organizations' claims that it is blocking aid to the northeast Syria as COVID-19 rages, with officials saying it has "bent over backward" to help.

al-monitor Trucks loaded with goods coming from Syria are seen at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossing in Fish Khabur, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Ari Jalal.

Apr 22, 2020

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq has reacted angrily to claims by international relief agencies that it is blocking aid to the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, saying they are untrue.

The first public volley came from Medecins Sans Frontiers, the French non-governmental organization known as Doctors without Borders in English that has a long record of helping Kurds on both sides of the border. In a tweet, it urged authorities in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and northeast Syria “to facilitate timely access for humanitarian organizations, including for humanitarian cargo and international staff to travel to and enter into both countries." Adding the hashtag #COVID-19, the group continued that "its response “remains limited so long as timely access is not granted.”

Since January, the Semalka/Fish Khabur crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan has become the sole entry point for aid to northeast Syria after UN deliveries from Iraq via the Yaroubiyah crossing further south were blocked by Russian and Chinese vetoes at the UN Security Council in December. In a further setback, aid transfers were recently disrupted by flooding in the Khabur stream, a Tigris tributary that separates Semalka and Fish Khabur. 

Some 40% of the northeast’s medical provisions had come in via Yaroubiyah.

As a result of Moscow and Beijing's actions, the UN can no longer transport any aid via Iraq to northeast Syria and has to operate through the central government in Damascus, leaving the burden on nongovernmental organizations operating outside the UN system to deliver assistance via Iraqi Kurdistan. As such, MSF’s critiques are being perceived by Iraqi Kurdish officials as solely targeting the KRG.

A senior KRG official told Al-Monitor, “These organizations know all too well that over the years, the only access for humanitarian assistance to northeast Syria is through the KRG. We never created obstacles; to the contrary, we provided all the logistical assistance as well.”

The official pointed to two COVID-19 testing units gifted by the Iraqi Kurdistan Region's president, Nechirvan Barzani, delivered to the Syrian Kurds on April 10 in response to an appeal by the latter’s autonomous administration.

The gift prompted an effusive response from Mazlum Kobane, the commander of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which provides security for the north and east of Syria.

“Thanks and appreciation for the president of the Kurdistan region, Kak Nechirvan Barzani, for his quick and kind response,” he tweeted. “Kak” means brother in Kurdish.

An official source in northeast Syria speaking to Al-Monitor not for attribution said, “We are not responsible for the NGO reports and the KRG is still facilitating humanitarian aid to our areas. We have good relations.” He did not elaborate.

The claims come at a particularly delicate moment as the KRG in tandem with the United States is helping broker talks between rival Kurdish groups in northeast Syria while simultaneously upgrading its own fractious ties with the autonomous administration in northeast Syria in the face of Turkish objections.

Members of the Syrian Kurdish opposition united under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) met with officials from the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) yesterday for the first time since 2014 in the town of Qamishli, an official source confirmed. The PYD is the most powerful political grouping in northeast Syria and part of the autonomous administration. The KNC and the PYD have been at loggerheads ever since an agreement brokered by Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani collapsed amid mutual recriminations and Turkish meddling.

Ankara is bent on sowing divisions among the Syrian Kurds — insurance,  as it sees things, to prevent them from evolving under US protection into another Iraqi Kurdistan. Any discord between the KRG and the autonomous administration could jeopardize the talks, fragile as they are. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the talks “will continue,” but gave no further details.

The Syrian Kurdish-run area announced its first COVID-19 fatality on April 17 and accused the World Health Organization of being responsible for the virus’ spread.

“We are going through difficult times with this virus and have controlled all our borders with Turkey, Iraq and even along internal lines in Iraq proper,” the Iraqi Kurdish official said on strict condition of anonymity. “We cannot make exceptions with Syria. Any back and forth of personnel has to meet the health criteria of tests and quarantine.”

A recent briefing prepared by nongovernmental staff working in northern and eastern Syria that was seen by Al-Monitor laid out in detail some of the complaints MSF alluded to. It said the KRG “continues to prevent aid agencies from crossing into North and East Syria, as well as preventing humanitarian actors from purchasing supplies in the KRG.” The briefing continues, “The KRG has banned humanitarian actors from purchasing personal protective equipment and other supplies in Erbil and elsewhere if they are to be transported to North and East Syria, while it has also closed the only border crossing into the northeast, preventing the movement of NGO staff, supplies and other humanitarian actors.”

Responding to the claims, the KRG official said, “As for the procurement of supplies … we don’t produce medical supplies, they are all imported. We therefore cannot drain our own markets for export by NGOs.”

The official continued, “Back in January, the Chinese consulate in Erbil purchased over 200,000 masks from the local market to be taken back to China. We kindly asked them not to do so and so they donated them back to our Health Ministry.

“We also have our own public health concerns to take care of. A system is in place to allow passage for aid and to not to leave it to the whims of the NGOs to come and go as they wish.”

In an April 1 letter addressed to the UN deputy special representative and humanitarian coordinator in Baghdad, Marta Ruedas, that was seen by Al-Monitor, KRG Interior Minister Rebar Ahmed agreed to “facilitate the limited border crossing for humanitarian personnel and assistance purposes into northeastern Syria and also all emergency and medical evacuations of humanitarian staff into the Kurdistan Region,” provided they complied with a number of conditions. They include obeying the KRG’s COVID-19 guidelines on quarantine and self-isolation. In the letter, the KRG also said it would cover medical and quarantine expenses for humanitarian staff.

“We’ve bent over backward,” the KRG official said.

The KRG has imposed strict lockdown measures since February to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, which according to official figures has claimed four lives in the Iraqi Kurdish region so far. Schools, shopping malls and restaurants will remain shut until further review on May 2.

The area borders Iran, where the death toll from COVID-19 has been among the highest in the Middle East with 5,391 dying from the disease. Deaths across Iraq stood at 83, according to official figures.

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