Across all of Syria’s fragmented territories, the coronavirus pandemic is running unchecked. Weak governance, competing authorities, and a deepening economic crisis continue to hamper the country’s response to a severely underreported pandemic. A scaling down in the intensity of the conflict has not improved the pandemic response. Rather, Syria finds itself suffering through a globe-spanning winter wave of growing caseloads.
Throughout Syria, coronavirus infections are skyrocketing as different parties to the conflict continue to instrumentalize the response to advance their own respective agendas, straining the governance capacities of authorities across the country. In addition, the pandemic has added further challenges to the already halting diplomatic efforts to negotiate an end to the war.
Misdirection and Misinformation in Assad’s Pandemic Response
In areas held by the Syrian government, the UN and other sources suggest significant underreporting about the scale of infection rates by President Bashar al-Assad and his administration across its territory, with widespread community transmission. The lack of an adequate response, including dramatically insufficient testing and a lack of personal protective equipment, are compounding the problem for healthcare workers and citizens alike. Medical practitioners have resorted to trying to treat coronavirus patients virtually. Further compounding Syrians’ suffering, already dire economic conditions have deteriorated even more, with a dramatic devaluation of the Syrian pound and more widespread food insecurity affecting around 46 percent of Syrians as of April 2020.
Even as infection rates are increasing exponentially in Assad-held territories, the government is using misinformation to direct attention away from its incapacity to govern or handle the crisis. Regime-associated media outlets have been complicit in promoting the government line on the pandemic and lauding Russian, Iranian, and Chinese efforts to combat the pandemic and provide humanitarian support. These outlets have also echoed the government line in instrumentalizing the pandemic, blaming the spread of the virus on American injustice and the economic and political sanctions against the Syrian regime.
At the same time, in some instances, the pandemic is forcing the Assad regime to unwillingly acquiesce to local dissent. Compliance in regime-held areas usually requires harsh security measures to enforce central edicts. However, diminished regime resources, weak enforcement, and increasing popular discontent have opened the door for local leaders to challenge central authorities. In one recent incident, a local notable in the region of Suwayda ordered schools in his area to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19, despite assurances from central authorities that the pandemic is under control. In response, the regional office of the Ministry of Education threatened to sue.
A War by Other Means in the Rest of Syria
Meanwhile, in places outside of regime control in northeastern Syria, there is a war by other means being waged. In these Kurdish self-administered zones, access to basic infrastructure, particularly water and electricity, is being instrumentalized by parties to the conflict. Disruptions to the Alouk water station—reportedly by the Turkish-linked Syrian National Army—have repeatedly cut off water supplies to the 460,000 residents of al-Hasakah and other urban centers, including the al-Hol and Areesh refugee camps. These disruptions have raised significant concerns over sanitation amid the pandemic.
Turkey has responded with claims that the Kurdish self-administration is to blame for the water crisis because it denied the area electricity needed to power the water station. Further compounding local residents’ misery, restrictions that the conflict’s different parties have imposed on cross-border aid have also hampered the delivery of humanitarian aid to the region.
Against this backdrop, a military war of attrition is ongoing between the self-administration authorities, the Syrian regime, and Turkish forces, all striving to expand and consolidate territorial and other gains. Military buildups continue along most conflict borders with occasional outbreaks of fighting.
The capacity of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to respond to the pandemic in self-administered areas is further hamstrung by the lack of cooperation with the Syrian government. While the SDF has been able to implement lockdown measures in areas under its control—including a recent lockdown of the courts—the refusal of residents in regime-held pockets or authorities at regime-held border crossings to abide by these measures has undermined their effectiveness at controlling the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, northwestern Syria, which also falls outside the Assad regime’s control, witnessed a tenfold increase in coronavirus infections between August and September. All told, confirmed positive cases nationwide climbed by more than 150 percent from September 20 to October 20. Even though a shaky ceasefire means that area hospitals are no longer being bombed, medical facilities are gravely overwhelmed. These worsening conditions have persisted even though eight nonstate armed groups came together with the support of the nongovernmental organization Geneva Call to issue a unified commitment to pandemic response measures. The UN Security Council, under pressure from the Russian delegation, closed one of two humanitarian access points into Syria, further hampering aid deliveries to northwestern Syria. The UN’s response to conditions in Syria is also being hampered by internal bickering, acquiescence to the Syrian regime’s demands, and competition between UN agencies among other challenges.
Beyond its public health toll, the pandemic has had consequences for international diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian war as well. In August, UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen planned to convene the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee in Geneva; according to U.S. officials, Assad had agreed to participate in the round of talks. But the session had to be postponed when coronavirus infections were reported among participating delegates. The committee’s meetings resumed recently with some signs of progress.
In this broader context, the coronavirus pandemic is amplifying the disastrous impact of nine years of conflict on the Syrian people with no clear end in sight. Without a proper international coordination mechanism to deliver aid and more concerted diplomatic efforts to end the war, this misery will only deepen, boding greater instability ahead.