Syria is one of the countries to which the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been transmitted. International and local reports have indicated that the epidemic is spreading in the country at an accelerating pace, resulting in infection figures that exceed the ones officially announced. This comes amidst warnings by international organizations against the serious implications that the epidemic would have, considering that the war has exhausted the country and destroyed its health and economic capabilities.
The spread of the virus in Syria raises a series of questions regarding the impact of this development on the Syrian interior, the geopolitical projects associated with this country over the long years of conflict, and the other possible consequences within the Syrian scene in general.
The threat of the virus spread in Syria
International organizations have repeatedly warned against the threat of the spread of corona epidemic in Syrian territories. The United Nations (UN), through political affairs chief Rosemary DiCarlo, has warned of a potentially devastating impact of the pandemic spread in Syria, particularly in Idlib province. Rachel Sider, an advisor to the Norwegian Refugee Council, said that Syria will be the country most vulnerable to this epidemic globally in view of the deteriorating conditions in many of the Syrian cities whose system of basic health services and infrastructure have been destroyed.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the disease will spread in Syrian territories by next May. In a phone interview with the CNN on March 19th, the head of the WHO team for the prevention of infectious diseases Abdul Naseer Abu Baker expected an “explosion in the number of cases in countries with weak health observation systems”.
The current split of the country between three administrations (regime-controlled areas, areas controlled by the opposition with Turkish presence, and areas of the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and US presence) constitutes an obstacle to the possibility of developing unified strategies to deal with the threats of the epidemic, despite the overlaps between them and the mobility of individuals.
Fragility of the health structure
Syrian provinces lack the necessary capabilities to respond to the challenges raised by coronavirus. Even before the war, the country’s health system has been suffering from several problems. A portion of its citizens would resort to neighbouring countries (Jordan and Lebanon) to access treatment and medicine. During the war, the health system and infrastructure have further deteriorated in Syria. The country presently lacks the financial resources necessary to renew and equip this structure to counter the corona epidemic.
UN data indicate that by the end of December 2019, only 64 percent of hospitals and 52 percent of primary health care centres throughout Syria were fully operational. Nearly 70 percent of staff in the Syrian health sector quit their jobs. Consequently, the international organization estimates that Syria lacks the capability to counter any epidemic.
According to a UN internal estimate and a research prepared by the Conflict Research Programme of the London School of Economics published towards the end of last March, the maximum capacity of hospitals for corona infections that can be treated in Syria is estimated at 6,500 cases, 325 of which would have access to treatment in intensive care beds equipped with ventilators. According to the same report, “once the number of cases passes this estimated threshold of 6,500, the healthcare system is likely to collapse, with rationing decisions needing to be made, and the overall mortality rate likely to increase by at least an additional 5 percentage points among infected people”.
In northern Syria, the situation appeared to be catastrophic even before the advent of the epidemic. In a small geographical area, namely Idlib and the triangle of Aleppo, Hama and Lattakia countrysides, more than 3.5 million people are concentrated, more than one million of which have been displaced by the recent fighting and currently live in tents with poor hygiene in terms of water and disinfectants. The New York Times quoted doctors in northern Syria as estimating that “a million people in Idlib Province could contract the virus, that 100,000 to 120,000 could die, and that 10,000 will need the help of ventilators”, while only 150 ventilators are currently available.
The situation is not different in areas east of the Euphrates where Kurds, Americans and Turks share control over the area that lacks the necessary health structure and where the Kurdish Autonomous Administration and Turkey take turns in cutting water and electricity supplies. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has warned that hundreds of thousands of people in northeast Syria are at increased risk of contracting corona due to the interruption of water supplies.
The corona epidemic places the Syrian economy, which is exhausted by war and embargo, at the threshold of collapse. The value of the lira has declined dramatically, which exerts an additional pressure on the purchasing power of Syrians. Poverty rates exceeded 80 percent while the prices of commodities and foodstuff in Syria increased erratically. Some commodities increased by almost 100 percent while others increased by nearly 50 percent.
Some reports refer to the depletion of the reserves of wheat and flour in a country where bread is an essential foodstuff. The markets seem exhausted amidst panic over the shortage of essential materials and the inability to buy and store supplies as the majority live on a daily income in an environment where more than 50 percent of the labour force are unemployed.
In the opposition-controlled northern areas, people lack sustainable economic resources. They depend on declining international aid as Syria is no longer on the priority list of international organizations. This exposes millions of displaced people and refugees to real health threats due to their weak immune systems as a result of years of malnutrition and poverty.
Economic experts expect a weak impact of the epidemic crisis on the Syrian macroeconomy due to the interruption of the production cycle and economic operations because of the war years. Yet the crisis has aggravated the living conditions of Syrians due to the closure of crossings with neighbouring countries which used to secure a significant portion of people’s needs. The crisis also warns of the interruption of Iranian and Russian assistance, especially in terms of oil and wheat, as the two countries are preoccupied with combating the epidemic.
The continuity of the present conditions would certainly have extremely serious economic implications in the short run. It will also pave the way for large-scale and severe economic crises in the upcoming period, particularly on the social stability front with the emergence of indications of the outbreak of chaos in different parts of Syria as a result of the escalating health and economic crises.
Poor international response
Most countries of the world are preoccupied with countering the corona epidemic and almost inwardly-oriented. During the remotely-held meeting of its members at the end of last March, the Security Council simply agreed to ensure a cessation of hostilities in Syria and achieve the calmness necessary to combat the virus. The Un Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen reiterated their call for a ceasefire under the circumstances.
Apart from those calls, it is unlikely that any of the intervening and contending parties in Syria will take any initiative to help the Syrian people counter the corona epidemic. Russia has simply dispatched some equipment needed to ensure the safety of its soldiers. Iran has built a hospital in Damascus and another in Deir ez-Zor to treat its militiamen who are said to have introduced the virus into the Syrian interior. Based in the east of the Euphrates, Turkey and the US do not seem to be interested in taking any serious initiative in this context. Turkey has simply sent manuals to raise awareness of the risks of contracting the coronavirus.
Despite the attempts by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Chinese allies to exploit the epidemic to lift the sanctions imposed on it, their calls have so far not received a clear response, particularly that Syria imports medical equipment and antibiotics from China and India and does not need a lifting of the sanctions to import those materials.
Geopolitical implications and possible scenarios
So far, the corona epidemic crisis does not seem to have clear implications for the activity of actors on the Syrian scene. Areas in east Euphrates witness the arrival of US and Russian reinforcements and the construction of new positions, Turkey continues to introduce its armoured vehicles and soldiers into Syria, and Iran mobilizes more of its militiamen in the countrysides of Aleppo and Idlib.
Interestingly, the US newspaper New York Times has reported Israeli sources as saying that according to Mossad estimates, Iran, which struggles with its own coronavirus crisis, no longer represents an immediate security threat to Israel despite the emergence of reports that refer to the recruitment by Iran of thousands of citizens of south Syria in its militias during the last two months.
While it is unlikely that the locations and positions of actors in the Syrian crisis have been affected at this stage, which is evidenced by the continued implementation of their programmes and plans without clear modifications, it is difficult to judge the activity of those parties in the long run amidst the continuing economic decline of all actors (including Turkey and the US) and the decline of oil prices for Russia and Iran. Besides, those parties are still under the pressure created by the spread of the epidemic among their populations. This leaves the door open for several possibilities in terms of their activities in the Syrian arena.
Consequently, the following three possible scenarios could be constructed for the overall Syrian scene in the upcoming stage:
First scenario: cessation of military operations on all fronts and the decline of chances of fighting, especially in light of the large-scale spread of the epidemic among Iranian militiamen, self-isolation by the Russians away from the militias, and the inward orientation of the Syrian regime to protect its fragile security amidst widespread discontent in its areas of control.
Second scenario: resort by Russia to re-activation of the small Constitutional Committee, albeit as an attempt to show good intentions toward the international community and in support of lifting the sanctions on the regime.
Third scenario: terrorist ISIS organization would resume its activities on a wider scale and the situation in Syria would be mixed up once more. The organization has described coronavirus as the “Crusaders’ worst nightmare”. Perhaps it regards the implications of the virus spread as favourable conditions to re-intensify its military activity and attacks on several fronts in the Syrian interior.
Mohamad Kawas | 27 May 2020
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EPC | 17 May 2020