Syria's doctors warn of health crisis in Idlib after donors cut funding

International donors cut funding after an Al Qaeda-linked group seized the province

Syrian children slide on the collapsed roof of a school which was hit by bombardment in the district of Jisr al-Shughur, in the west of the mostly rebel-held Idlib province, on January 30, 2019.  / AFP / Ibrahim YASOUF
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Doctors in Syria’s Idlib have warned that medical care for an estimated 3 million people is at risk after foreign governments cut funding to the province after it was taken over by a militant group with links to Al Qaeda.

Last month Hayat Tahrir Al Sham – a Syrian rebel group dominated by Al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate – drove Free Syrian Army fighters from Idlib and parts of the Aleppo countryside. Most of the international community, including the US, Turkey, and Europe consider HTS a terrorist organisation. Concern about aid money being diverted to the group caused a number of major international donors to cut funding to northern Syria.

“Time is ticking for our supplies to run out,” said Mohammad Feras Al Jonde, a doctor who heads the medical administration in opposition-held Syria, warning that dozens of hospitals were at risk of closure.

The amount of funding cut runs into the tens of millions of dollars. The German Agency for international Cooperation (GIZ) announced last month it had ceased activities in Syria “owing to recent political developments”.

The EU has halted  €57 million (Dh327 million) of funding for longer-term services projects in north west Syria, “following the recent developments in Idlib”.

“These funds were subsequently suspended as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham is a listed terrorist organisation,” said an EU spokesperson. “In line with the EU Counter Terrorism Strategy, the Commission has the obligation to take all necessary measures in order to avoid any funds being diverted to such groups.”

Dr Al Jonde said that until recently, that foreign funding supported 500 staff in medical facilities across northern Syria. “We have more than 37 medical facilities, among them five hospitals, three physical therapy centres, and medical clinics across Idlib and Aleppo”.

He estimated that within two months, they could run out of resources. “After the funding cut, our fuel which runs hospitals and medical facilities will no longer be available, including medicines and vaccines.

“Our facilities will function for approximately two months before we’ll run out of resources, apart from the voluntary work of our staff.”

The population of Idlib is swollen with displaced from across Syria and is estimated to be around 3 million people. In tattered camps and crowded towns across the province, displaced Syrians say they fear the consequences of the funding cuts.

Jamal Al Sabsabi, a teacher living in Jisr Al Shoghour in western Idlib, said without medical treatment his wife would lose her leg to gangrene. “If the treatment stops my wife situation will get worse, we’re unable to afford the treatment or medicine.”

Healthcare is not the only service affected by the cuts. Funding for education programmes has also been affected. Rania Alrefe, a 31-year-old teacher in Jisr Al Shoghour said at least 14,000 students would soon lose their teachers, who will be unable to continue working without their salaries. “Most of the students have already lost a few years away from school due to the war, and now even in exile, they won’t be able to carry on with their future,” she said.

More than 1000 teachers are currently working voluntarily, said Mohamed Qadour, the head of the educational council in Jisr Al Shoghour. “More than 70 schools across the city face complete shutdown,” he said. “The funding cut has come in the middle of the educational year, and will enormously harm students and teachers.”

The United Kingdom is now focusing on providing urgent humanitarian assistance to northern Syria, announcing additional aid of £32 million (Dh151 million) in September, after ending support for longer term stability projects including the Free Syria police force and Access to Justice and Community Service programme in August.

“The UK continues to fund the UN and NGOs to provide food, education, healthcare, cash grants and other lifesaving assistance to support civilians in need in northwest Syria,” a spokesperson for the UK’s Department for International Development said. “We have extensive controls in place to ensure that our aid reaches those who need it and that it does not benefit extremists or terrorist groups.”

Last May, the United States withdrew all funding from northwest Syria, cutting tens of millions of dollars from previous efforts to stabilise local regions. Northern Syria was the first part of the country where the US cut all but humanitarian aid. In August, the administration of US President Donald Trump announced it had decided against spending $230 million (Dh844 million) set aside for stabilising Syria.