The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad has sought to take advantage of the ongoing coronavirus crisis. Several developments since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic shows that its optimism in this regard may be well founded.
In early March, the regime imposed measures to curb a potential spread of the coronavirus. These included curfews as well as the suspension of foreign travel and movement between Syrian cities. At the same time, the authorities were denying the coronavirus had reached Syria. This was despite the fact that there is much interaction between Syria and Iran, the disease’s regional epicenter, and claims by countries that individuals arriving from Syria were infected.
The regime did restrict the movement of citizens in and out of Sayyida Zeinab, a Damascus suburb that is home to thousands of Iran-backed militias. However, reports indicated that Iranian combatants were still entering Syria, which relies so heavily on Iran for military assistance that it could not institute measures to isolate Iranians. Until now the Syrian regime has reported 45 cases, although independent sources suggest the real number may be far higher.
Internally, the regime appears to be exploiting prevention measures to consolidate its control. A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm uncovered that the authorities have planted spyware in citizens’ cell phones through a coronavirus prevention application. This new application, called “Covid19,” is a digital thermometer that serves as a decoy while the encrypted AndoServer malware spies on the user. It is believed the application is the work of the state-sponsored Syrian Electronic Army, which has conducted regime-supported hacking operations.
Hospitals and testing centers have also been closely watched by the regime’s security apparatus. Syrian intelligence forces are deployed in facilities across the country to monitor staff, patients, as well as any signs of new coronavirus cases, whether they come from hospitals or are self-reported. Despite the World Health Organization’s concerns about a viral outbreak in the country, the government has only one testing lab, located in Damascus. While this can be attributed to a lack of testing resources, it may also represent a deliberate move by the authorities to centralize virus activities and narratives.
Russia has also used the coronavirus outbreak to cement its position in Syria. It recently sent medical equipment to Damascus, and at the United Nations Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that Damascus serve as the sole administrator of coronavirus response measures. By stepping up its assistance efforts, Russia is bolstering its regional standing. Furthermore, Putin has long pressed for a smaller Iranian presence in Syria. In fact Russian commanders have used the coronavirus crisis to separate Syrian forces, specifically Russian-supported units, from Iranian militias. Such separation gives Russia the upper-hand on the ground, furthering Putin’s goal of imposing greater Russian military control over Syria at Iran’s expense.
Regionally, the coronavirus seems to be setting the foundations for a thawing of relations between Syria and a number of Arab states. Despite the Arab League’s suspension of Syria’s membership in November 2011, several states, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt have since softened their stances. Prompted by the rise of extremist groups, Iran’s growing influence, Russia’s involvement, and indications of the Assad regime’s impending “victory” over Syria’s opposition, Arab states have taken incremental steps toward restoring relations.
On March 27, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE called Assad to discuss the pandemic and affirmed his country’s support for Syria. He cited the humanitarian nature of the crisis and its global reach as outweighing any “political issues” the UAE had with Syria. The coronavirus thus presented some Arab leaders with a pressing justification for the restoration of ties. Such a gesture from the UAE, which enjoys a powerful position regionally, could be instrumental as Syria begins to find its way back into the Arab League.
The coronavirus crisis may also benefit Syria internationally. The United Nations has called for a lifting of sanctions on Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and Zimbabwe to allow access to humanitarian assistance and facilitate an effective coronavirus response. This would constitute a relief from punitive measures for the Assad regime, allowing it to entrench its rule, even if obstacles remain to a broader thawing of relations. Indeed, in April the UN’s Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons accused the Syrian regime of having carried out chemical weapons attacks against civilians. At the same time a German court held the first trial of a Syrian officer charged with torturing prisoners.
A complete normalization of relations between Syria and the international community may not necessarily come in the near future, especially as Bashar al-Assad himself faces growing public scrutiny. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has created openings for the regime, and for Russia, to reinforce their power on the ground in Syria. That likely means that a wider acceptance of the regime’s continuing rule may not be as far away as it once was.