Simultaneous War on Two Fronts: How Effective is Syria’s Counter Pandemic Policy?

Despite the colossal cost of being over nine years into a conflict which has ravaged the country and hit hard its fragile economy and infrastructure, Syria’s lockdown policy and other protective measures in order to contain the COVID-19 pandemic have been remarkably successful.

Snapshot of Syria’s Coronavirus Cases

The last few days have seen the sharpest rise in COVID-19 registered cases in Syria so far. All 106 cases are among Syrian expats returning mainly from Kuwait and  other Arab Gulf, except for one from Russia and 2 from the Sudan. Earlier on,  Iran, Lebanon and Europe were the first caseshad originated. Yesterday and today have witnessed the highest number of new cases, 47 in all, most were among some 250 Syrian expats returning from Kuwait, bringing the figure of confirmed cases to 106 including 41 recoveries and 4 deaths. Last week Syrian health authorities lifted the lockdown it had imposed on the last area of Sayyida Zaynab, some 15 miles south of the capital Damascus. This area includes the Shiites’ holiest shrine with hundreds of thousands of religious pilgrims every year, mainly from Iraq and Iran Today, Syrian authorities have lifted the overnight curfew as well as travel restrictions between cities, which had been  imposed since 28 March. Moreover, a freeze on repatriating Syrian expats worldwide has been enforced as a precautionary measure to control the spread of the pandemic.

The COVID-19 Pandemic and the Conflict’s Frontlines

Despite relative calm during the past couple of months due to the truce reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Moscow last March regarding hostilities in Idlib  — and circumstances surrounding the counter pandemic measures  — a number of military breaches have occurred. These have been mainly in the southern province of Daraa, next to the borders with Jordan as well as in rural Idlib which has registered a number of attacks against Syrian army positions and security posts. The fighting has killed dozens on both sides and the situation continues to be that of cautious calm.

The emphasis of the Syrian government efforts has largely shifted towards containing and combating the COVID-19 pandemic even before the first coronavirus case was registered in the country late March. At least seven Syrian doctors working abroad, in the USA, Italy and Arab Gulf countries have passed away after being infected with the virus. The first confirmed case of coronavirus in the Kurdish-held northeastern province of Syria was found by World Health Organisation last April after samples were tested in the capital Damascus. A 53-year old man died at Qamishli National Hospital on April 2 after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Syria has a limited number of qualified COVID-19 test centers in four major cities and test kits, despite emergency kits donated mainly by China and Russia to aid health authorities in their daunting tasks. Figures regarding cases in areas out of government control  — mainly provincial Idlib as well as small parts of Aleppo rural areas  — are not totally clear. Al Nusra terrorist organisation and pro-Turkish militias such as the TIS (Turkistan Islamic Party) which consists of thousands of hardline terrorists fighting the Syrian government with direct Turkish military support.

Ignoring Common Threats: Main Actors in Syria Conflict Pursue Own Agendas

The COVID-19 crisis appears to have failed to muster collaborative efforts of main regional actors and international powers involved in the Syrian conflict, around a common humanitarian cause and a common purpose, with the war dynamics hampering to a large extent the Syrian government’s quick and effective response to the pandemic nationwide.

However, the partial lockdown and other measures imposed throughout the country have so far fended off a catastrophic spread of the coronavirus, as Syria continues its tireless efforts to repatriate its citizens worldwide wishing to come back home. Tens of thousands of Syrian nationals including students studying abroad are still stranded due to sanctions and relevant restrictions on Syrian flights in many countries including the EU.

A limited number of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian expats working mainly in oil-rich Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have at long last managed to make it home, into quarantine or isolation centers before recovered patients are being released. The fact that many of those nations had severed diplomatic ties with Syria at the outset of the conflict, make the hard life of expats there even much harder. The USA claims to have finally eased up some sanctions and restrictions regarding equipment and material used in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria, while calls on the Europeans to prioritize helping fight the pandemic in all areas of Syria and re-engage in diplomacy towards a peaceful settlement of the conflict and the prevention of military escalation among involved parties appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

With the rapidly rising cost of living, badly hit economy, continued threat of terrorism and worsening living standards after nearly a decade of conflict and US-led collective punitive sanctions against their country, Syrians who celebrate the end of the fasting month of Ramadan this week with Eid al Fitr are fastening their belts for the worst. This is in anticipation of Trump’s Caesar Act due next month. They are raising their hands to the sky with the popular phrase here: “Syria is protected by Allah.” Nowadays, this belief seems more credible and viable than ever before.