A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

Special A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians
Syria’s cholera outbreak has affected the country’s poorest people. (AFP)
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Updated 03 November 2022

A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians
  • WHO believes the current outbreak was caused by the public consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates
  • Syria’s health infrastructure has crumbled as a result of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage

DUBAI/QAMISHLI, Syria: After more than 11 years of war, destruction, displacement and hunger, Syrians now face a new horror: Cholera. The disease, caused by contaminated food and water, has spread across several parts of the country in recent months and has already claimed lives.

Cholera, which has been largely eliminated in the developed world, causes diarrhea and vomiting, leading to rapid dehydration, which can kill within hours without prompt treatment. The number of cases in Syria has been steadily on the rise since the summer.

The World Health Organization recorded 24,614 infections and 81 deaths between August to the end of October, with Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasakah witnessing the highest concentrations, while camps for the internally displaced have reported 65 cases.

A child suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

Parts of Syria, especially the far-flung governorates, have been facing a water crisis since most water and sewerage infrastructure was destroyed as a result of the civil war that erupted in 2011.

WHO believes the current outbreak was likely caused by the consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates River. Drought, the overpumping of groundwater, and new dams built upstream in Turkey have reduced the once mighty river to a trickle.

Falling water levels have created swamps and stagnant pools along the riverbanks, where raw sewage and other contaminants have collected and festered — the ideal conditions for water- and mosquito-borne diseases to develop.

Jwan Mustafa, co-chair of the Health Board of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), said the first case of cholera was recorded in the region in September, spreading from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa and later to Hasakah further to the north.

“Our recent statistics based on rapid testing confirm 15,000 cases and 30 deaths,” Mustafa told Arab News. “The pollution in the Euphrates River has been the main cause of plenty of prior viruses and diseases. And now cholera.

“People in the area rely on the river to drink, water their plants and for agriculture. The area by the river is considered the breadbasket of northeast Syria. When Hasakah faces a drought, it relies on the Euphrates’ water, which spells disaster for the governorate.

“We’ve started taking measures to attempt to contain the spread of the disease. Groups have been tasked with adding chlorine to water tanks in attempt to purify them.”

Syrians in Deir Ezzor are forced to use contaminated sections of the Euphrates River for drinking water and irrigation. (AFP)

Authorities are encouraging the public in cholera hotspots to first boil their water before drinking, cooking or watering their crops, to treat water tanks, pipes and other vessels with chlorine, and to regularly wash their hands and sanitize surfaces. 

However, given Syria’s crumbling infrastructure, the flight of skilled workers abroad and shortages of basic chemicals and equipment, even these simple preventative measures are difficult to implement. 

“The deterioration of the infrastructure has greatly impacted the health sector,” said Mustafa. “We struggle to contain diseases because we lack the resources and expertise. A simple virus can very easily become an epidemic in the region. We are short on laboratories and medications.”

Syria’s health infrastructure has suffered under a devastating mix of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage. Throughout the civil war, the regime of Bashar Assad has systematically destroyed hospitals in rebel-held areas in defiance of international humanitarian law.


• Some 29 countries have reported cholera outbreaks since January of this year.

• Afghanistan, Pakistan and Haiti are among those affected besides Syria and Lebanon.

• UNICEF urgently needs $40.5 million to expand its emergency cholera response in Syria and Lebanon alone.

• The money will support health, water, hygiene and sanitation, risk communication and community engagement.

Meanwhile, deliveries of foreign aid to areas beyond the regime’s control have been deliberately blocked or diverted.

Since June 2021, when regime ally Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution allowing eastern Syria to continue receiving cross-border support via Iraq, all UN aid to the region must first pass through Damascus.

This has resulted in severe shortages of medical supplies, poor coordination between health authorities, and limited testing capacity in eastern Syria.

For the people of Raqqa, the outbreak of cholera is only the latest in a litany of crises they are forced to face alone.

A woman suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

“The Syrian regime is not helping. People are already feeling haggard and depressed from the daily struggles brought on by the war,” Ahmad, a community activist in Raqqa who declined to give his full name, told Arab News.

“We know we are in trouble, but we also know help will not come from the Syrian regime. We know aid will not come locally or internationally. People do not care anymore. The cholera doesn’t faze us. We’ve been dying from war, chemical weapons and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We often muse how our lives have become Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book: ‘Love in the time of cholera,’” he added.

“Cholera doesn’t know borders and lines of control, and spreads along population movements,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)

In response to the cholera outbreak, Doctors Without Borders, in cooperation with local health officials in Raqqa, has established a local treatment center and two outpatient clinics in the AANES.

However, maintaining adequate food hygiene and access to clean drinking water has become increasingly difficult for most Syrians since the onset of the economic crisis and the currency collapse of 2019, which were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the spiraling price of food and fuel since the outbreak of war in Ukraine earlier this year.

According to the World Food Programme, the average price of food items in Syria has risen 532 percent since 2020. As a result, some 12 million people still living in Syria are now considered food insecure.

“Goods have become unattainable,” said Ahmad. “Talk on the street is that death is the best escape. And it will come, if not from cholera or COVID-19, then from hunger.”

A Syrian boy carries a bucket of water at the Sahlah Al-Banat camp for displaced people in the countryside of Raqa, in northern Syria. (AFP)

Conditions in neighboring Lebanon, where millions of Syrians have sought refuge in crowded camps since the outbreak of civil war, are not much better.

Already grappling with its own unprecedented economic crisis, which has thrown 80 percent of its citizens into poverty and left its infrastructure in tatters, Lebanon has also recorded cases of cholera.

Firass Abiad, Lebanon’s health minister, confirmed on Tuesday that the country had recorded 17 cholera deaths and 93 hospitalizations nationwide, including cases in the capital Beirut.

The government is trying to secure 600,000 vaccine doses for the most vulnerable, including prisoners, frontline workers and refugees residing in cramped and often squalid camps.

For most Syrians and Lebanese, who must foot their own medical bills amid rising prices and shattered health infrastructure, the omens are not good.

“I don’t even know where to start. If I get infected I don’t know if I can afford or even have a hospital bed ready for me,” Lina, a Lebanese citizen living in Akkar, a poverty-stricken area of northern Lebanon, told Arab News.

“Life has become unbearably difficult. But, at the end of the day, it’s just another way to die.”

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate
Updated 47 min 39 sec ago

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate

Israeli President arrives in UAE for Abu Dhabi Space Debate
  • Israeli president among 300 high-ranking personalities attending the event

DUBAI: Israeli president Isaac Herzog has arrived in the UAE Monday to attend the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, state news agency (WAM) reported.

Herzog was welcomed by the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the Presidential Airport in Abu Dhabi.

The Israeli president will be among 300 high-ranking personalities and decision makers attending the first edition of the Abu Dhabi Space Debate, which opened on Monday.

The two-day event will discuss the space industry’s most pressing challenges and factors to drive the new space economy.

Iran-backed hackers stage phishing campaign against activists, journalists: HRW

Iran-backed hackers stage phishing campaign against activists, journalists: HRW
Updated 05 December 2022

Iran-backed hackers stage phishing campaign against activists, journalists: HRW

Iran-backed hackers stage phishing campaign against activists, journalists: HRW
  • Espionage group linked to IRGC gains access to emails of 3 victims

LONDON: Iran-backed hackers have staged a targeted campaign against more than a dozen high-profile human rights activists, journalists, academics and government officials, Human Rights Watch said.

The organization found that a coordinated phishing attack had been launched by an Iran-linked hacking entity known as APT42, believed to be a cyberespionage group.

The HRW report said that two of its employees were targeted, alongside 18 other people, resulting in the hacking of emails belonging to three individuals.

APT42 gained access to the emails, cloud storage, calendars and contacts of a US newspaper correspondent based in the Middle East, a Gulf-based women’s rights activist as well as a refugee advocate in Lebanon.

HRW said that the phishing attack was launched via WhatsApp, with 15 of the targets receiving suspicious messages between September and November this year.

The message, disguised as a conference invitation, allowed APT42 to gain access to the Google accounts of the three victims after they were invited to enter their two-factor authentication details on false pretenses.

Iran has long engaged in phishing attempts as part of its cyberwarfare strategy.

Since 2010, hackers and espionage groups linked to the regime in Tehran have successfully hacked and leaked the data of government, military and business targets around the world.

In September, APT42 members were sanctioned by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department.

Google as well as cybersecurity businesses Recorded Future and Proofpoint have said that APT42 operates on behalf of Iranian authorities.

Earlier this year, cybersecurity company Mandiant said that the group’s activities were directed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

APT42 uses sophisticated social engineering strategies in disguising phishing attempts, HRW said.

In gaining the trust of victims, APT42 members use the real information of conference organizers to create fake accounts and contact high-profile activists and officials.

Previous attacks have seen the group impersonate members of the Munich Security Conference and the G20 Think 20 Summit in Saudi Arabia to contact targets and launch phishing attacks.

Abir Ghattas, information security director at HRW, said: “Iran’s state-backed hackers are aggressively using sophisticated social engineering and credential harvesting tactics to access sensitive information and contacts held by Middle East-focused researchers and civil society groups.

“This significantly increases the risks that journalists and human rights defenders face in Iran and elsewhere in the region.”

She added: “In a Middle East region rife with surveillance threats for activists, it’s essential for digital security researchers to not only publish and promote findings, but also prioritize the protection of the region’s embattled activists, journalists and civil society leaders.”

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment
Updated 05 December 2022

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment

Iran morality police status unclear after ‘closure’ comment
  • Iran’s chief prosecutor Mohamed Jafar Montazeri earlier said the morality police ‘had been closed’

CAIRO: An Iranian lawmaker said Sunday that Iran’s government is “paying attention to the people’s real demands,” state media reported, a day after a top official suggested that the country’s morality police whose conduct helped trigger months of protests has been shut down.
The role of the morality police, which enforces veiling laws, came under scrutiny after a detainee, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, died in its custody in mid-September. Amini had been held for allegedly violating the Islamic Republic’s strict dress codes. Her death unleashed a wave of unrest that has grown into calls for the downfall of Iran’s clerical rulers.
Iran’s chief prosecutor Mohamed Jafar Montazeri said on Saturday the morality police “had been closed,” the semi-official news agency ISNA reported. The agency did not provide details, and state media hasn’t reported such a purported decision.
In a report carried by ISNA on Sunday, lawmaker Nezamoddin Mousavi signaled a less confrontational approach toward the protests.
“Both the administration and parliament insisted that paying attention to the people’s demand that is mainly economic is the best way for achieving stability and confronting the riots,” he said, following a closed meeting with several senior Iranian officials, including President Ebrahim Raisi.
Mousavi did not address the reported closure of the morality police.
The Associated Press has been unable to confirm the current status of the force, established in 2005 with the task of arresting people who violate the country’s Islamic dress code.
Since September, there has been a reported decline in the number of morality police officers across Iranian cities and an increase in women walking in public without headscarves, contrary to Iranian law.
Montazeri, the chief prosecutor, provided no further details about the future of the morality police or if its closure was nationwide and permanent. However he added that Iran’s judiciary will ‘‘continue to monitor behavior at the community level.’’
In a report by ISNA on Friday, Montazeri was quoted as saying that the government was reviewing the mandatory hijab law. “We are working fast on the issue of hijab and we are doing our best to come up with a thoughtful solution to deal with this phenomenon that hurts everyone’s heart,” said Montazeri, without offering details.
Saturday’s announcement could signal an attempt to appease the public and find a way to end the protests in which, according to rights groups, at least 470 people were killed. More than 18,000 people have been arrested in the protests and the violent security force crackdown that followed, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group monitoring the demonstrations.
Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, said Montazeri’s statement about closing the morality police could be an attempt to pacify domestic unrest without making real concessions to protesters.
‘‘The secular middle class loathes the organization (morality police) for restricting personal freedoms,” said Alfoneh. On the other hand, the “underprivileged and socially conservative class resents how they conveniently keep away from enforcing the hijab legislation” in wealthier areas of Iran’s cities.
When asked about Montazeri’s statement, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian gave no direct answer. ‘‘Be sure that in Iran, within the framework of democracy and freedom, which very clearly exists in Iran, everything is going very well,’’ Amirabdollahian said, speaking during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia.
The anti-government demonstrations, now in their third month, have shown no sign of stopping despite a violent crackdown. Protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women continue to play a leading role in the protests, stripping off the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.
After the outbreak of the protests, the Iranian government hadn’t appeared willing to heed the protesters’ demands. It has continued to crack down on protesters, including sentencing at least seven arrested protesters to death. Authorities continue to blame the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence.
But in recent days, Iranian state media platforms seemed to be adopting a more conciliatory tone, expressing a desire to engage with the problems of the Iranian people.

Iranian city shops shut after strike call, judiciary blames ‘rioters’

Iranian city shops shut after strike call, judiciary blames ‘rioters’
Updated 05 December 2022

Iranian city shops shut after strike call, judiciary blames ‘rioters’

Iranian city shops shut after strike call, judiciary blames ‘rioters’
  • 1500tasvir Twitter account shared videos of shut stores in key commercial areas like Tehran’s Bazaar
  • Amusement park in Tehran was earlier closed because its operators were not wearing the hijab properly

DUBAI:  Iranian shops shut their doors in several cities on Monday, following calls for a three-day nationwide general strike from protesters seeking the fall of clerical rulers, with the head of the judiciary blaming “rioters” for threatening shopkeepers.
Iran has been rocked by nationwide unrest following the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini on Sept. 16 in police custody, posing one of the strongest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.
Amini was arrested by Iran’s morality police for flouting the strict hijab policy, which requires women to dress modestly and wear headscarfs.
The semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Monday that an amusement park at a Tehran shopping center was closed by the judiciary because its operators were not wearing the hijab properly.
The reformist-leaning Hammihan newspaper said that morality police had increased their presence in cities outside Tehran, where the force has been less active over recent weeks.
Iran’s public prosecutor on Saturday was cited by the semi-official Iranian Labour News Agency as saying that the morality police had been disbanded. But there was no confirmation from the Interior Ministry and state media said the public prosecutor was not responsible for overseeing the force.
Last week, Vice President for Women’s Affairs Ensieh Khazali said that the hijab was part of the Islamic Republic’s general law and that it guaranteed women’s social movement and security.
In the shop protests, 1500tasvir, a Twitter account with 380,000 followers focused on the protests, shared videos on Monday of shut stores in key commercial areas, such as Tehran’s Bazaar, and other large cities such as Karaj, Isfahan, Mashhad, Tabriz, and Shiraz.
Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.
The head of Iran’s judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, said that “rioters” were threatening shopkeepers to close their businesses and added they would be swiftly dealt with by the judiciary and security bodies. Ejei added that protesters condemned to death would soon be executed.
The Revolutionary Guards issued a statement praising the judiciary and calling on it to swiftly and decisively issue a judgment against “defendants accused of crimes against the security of the nation and Islam.”
Security forces would show no mercy toward “rioters, thugs, terrorists,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted the guards as saying.
Witnesses speaking to Reuters said riot police and the Basij militia had been heavily deployed in central Tehran.
The semi-official Fars news agency confirmed that a jewelry shop belonging to former Iranian football legend Ali Daei was sealed by authorities, following its decision to close down for the three days of the general strike.
Similar footage by 1500tasvir and other activist accounts was shared of closed shops in smaller cities like Bojnourd, Kerman, Sabzevar, Ilam, Ardabil and Lahijan.
Kurdish Iranian rights group Hengaw also reported that 19 cities had joined the general strike movement in western Iran, where most of the country’s Kurdish population live.
Hundreds of people have been killed in the unrest since the death of Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was detained by the morality police for flouting hijab rules.

Sudan military, civilians sign framework agreement to resolve political deadlock

Sudan military, civilians sign framework agreement to resolve political deadlock
Updated 05 December 2022

Sudan military, civilians sign framework agreement to resolve political deadlock

Sudan military, civilians sign framework agreement to resolve political deadlock
  • Framework agreement to adopt a ‘balanced’ foreign policy

CAIRO: Sudanese political parties signed a framework deal on Monday that provides for a two-year civilian-led transition towards elections and would end a standoff triggered by a coup in October 2021.

The deal — the first of at least two planned accords — was signed by Sudan’s ruling generals, Abdel-Fattah el-Burhan and Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, and the leaders from Sudan’s largest pro-democracy group, Forces of Freedom and Change, at the Khartoum’s Republican Palace.

The framework agreement puts an emphasis on a unified professional national army and will be committed to criminalize military coups, the parties said at the ceremony. 

The framework agreement will also adopt a “balanced” foreign policy that serves the interests of Sudan. 

It also set the transitional period at two years from the moment a prime minister is appointed. The agreement will expand the powers of the prime minister during the transitional period. 

Sudan has been gripped in a deep political crisis since a coup a year ago. Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan seized power in October 2021, derailing a rocky transition to civilian rule that had started after the 2019 ouster of veteran autocrat Omar al-Bashir.

The past year has seen near-weekly protests and street clashes that have claimed 120 lives, a spiralling economic crisis and a rise in ethnic violence in several remote regions.

Divisions among civilian groups have deepened since the coup, with some urging a deal with the military while others insist on "no partnership, no negotiation".

The announced deal was negotiated in the presence of officials from the United Nations, African Union, the regional IGAD bloc and Western diplomats.

It is based on a proposal by the Sudanese Bar Association, said a statement by the main civilian bloc, the Forces for Freedom and Change, which was ousted in the coup.

In a first phase, "the framework agreement lays the groundwork for establishing a transitional civilian authority," said the FFC.

– with AFP and AP