November 30, 2020 | Policy Brief

American Advocates Open Pharmacy for Displaced Syrians Deprived of Aid by Assad Regime

November 30, 2020 | Policy Brief

American Advocates Open Pharmacy for Displaced Syrians Deprived of Aid by Assad Regime

The Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), an American non-profit organization, announced the opening last week of a no-cost pharmacy in the al-Rukban camp for displaced Syrians. The camp hosts 10,000 to 12,000 residents, who have received no UN aid deliveries since September 2019 because of obstruction by Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Rukban occupies a stretch of barren desert in eastern Syria adjacent to the border with Jordan. Until March of this year, camp residents had access to a UN-run health clinic in Jordan, which suspended operations because of COVID-19. Rukban also lies within the 55-kilometer radius of the deconfliction zone surrounding the garrison of about 200 U.S. troops in al-Tanf, a strategic town astride the main road from Damascus to Baghdad.

The American presence prevents attacks against Rukban, whether by Russian and Assad regime forces or remnants of the Islamic State. Some camp residents are part of a U.S. partner force, Maghawir al-Thawra, that conducts operations against the Islamic State.

At its peak, the camp had an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 residents, many of whom fled Russian airstrikes elsewhere in Homs province. The Assad regime has starved out much of the population, a tactic it has employed throughout the war. Still, thousands remain in Rukban because those who leave face internment and conscription after they return to regime-controlled territory.

The SETF pharmacy will distribute its supplies free of charge on the basis of need, the organization’s executive director, Mouaz Moustafa, told FDD. It will prioritize medications for children as well as baby formula and diapers. It will also stock some medical devices for adults, such as blood pressure monitors. While there are several nurses in the camp who can make diagnoses, the pharmacy also plans to facilitate telemedicine consultations to bolster diagnostic capabilities.

A separate effort is underway to re-open the abandoned clinic on the Jordanian side of the border. Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based pulmonologist who serves as the president of Medglobal, a U.S.-based medical charity that provides care in disaster regions, has proposed to the State Department that his organization run the clinic. The proposal’s success may depend on whether the State Department is willing and able to persuade the Jordanians to open the clinic and let volunteers serve there.

According to Sahloul, the residents of al-Rukban suffer from “chronic diseases, asthma and other respiratory diseases, in addition to a lack of reproductive and maternal healthcare.” A physician with appropriate supplies could diagnose and treat these conditions.

While Assad and Russia have an obligation under humanitarian law to let UN convoys reach Rukban from Damascus, the United States could deliver aid itself. However, Ambassador James Jeffrey, the outgoing U.S. special representative for Syria, has been adamant in his insistence that the United States will not take responsibility for providing aid while Assad deliberately blocks UN shipments. In addition, Jeffrey said last July, “If we feed them, it will look like we are going to stay there forever.”

Jordan could also allow the United Nations to deliver aid via Amman, but refuses to do so. The country has already taken in more than a million Syrian refugees and fears that any opening to Rukban would result in pressure to take in the camp’s residents. Amman has even begun forcibly deporting Syrian refugees to Rukban.

The U.S. government should publicly challenge Russia and the Assad regime to stop their blockade of Rukban, even if any change is unlikely. Washington should also quietly pressure Amman to allow aid to reach the camp via Jordanian territory, while providing assurances this will not lead to additional refugee flows. Both governments should also support the swift re-opening of the clinic that closed in March; private donors clearly stand ready to provide supplies and personnel. The U.S. government should treat Rukban not as a burden, but as an opportunity to demonstrate that American leadership can relieve the hardship deliberately inflicted by Assad and Russia.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Patrick McAnally is an intern. For more analysis from David, Patrick, and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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