As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, the government led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has not admitted there are any cases in Syria even though it has announced the shutdown of the country.
Despite its denials, the threat of the new coronavirus has impacted military and political operations in Syria, suspending all fighting and political activities.
One week ago, the war was still raging in northern Syria, killing dozens and displacing thousands every day. Russian-Turkish relations and Turkish-US relations were tense, an agreed ceasefire between Russia and Turkey earlier this month had failed, and the killing continued.
The Covid-19 outbreak then emerged and shut things down: the fighting stopped; the battlefronts were frozen; the fighters mostly returned to their barracks; and the Russians all but suspended their air strikes.
The political track also ground to a halt, and the Constitutional Committee charged with drafting a new constitution and meetings between Russia and Turkey on northern Syria were cancelled. The deadly virus thus succeeded in pausing the war.
Turkey had been trying to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib after months of bombardment by the Syrian regime and its supporters, which had killed hundreds and displaced thousands of Syrians to the border with Turkey in deplorable humanitarian conditions.
However, Ankara failed in its negotiations with Moscow.
Since Syria has become the home of Iran-backed militias, the likelihood of a Covid-19 outbreak is high. However, the regime continues to deny the presence of any cases and has said it has started to test for the virus across the country.
So far, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has received a report of only one new coronavirus infection in Syria even though there is an outbreak in all the countries surrounding it. There is also video footage of quarantine areas in Syria, most likely housing coronavirus patients.
Rick Brennan, the WHO regional director, said his organisation would this week begin testing for Covid-19 in northwest Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian opposition. Brennan said he was “very concerned” about the virus infecting an area where the war destroyed the healthcare system a long time ago.
Northern Syria, where the new coronavirus has brought a forced truce, has not reported any cases because it is almost entirely isolated. There is no passage to areas under regime control, and the roads connecting it to Turkey are closed. There is no transportation to the outside world, making it by default a quarantine zone, something that could be a blessing for the millions living there.
The Syrian government claims that the results of the tests carried out by government health labs have been negative. “Syria has stamped out all the terrorists and germs in Syria,” the minister of health commented, in a reference to the armed opposition groups and Covid-19.
However, early on Russian commanders in Syria issued orders banning Russian officers and soldiers from meeting their Syrian or Iranian counterparts until further notice.
A central emergency taskforce has been formed to monitor any outbreak and the readiness of health institutions in Syria, prepare quarantines for suspected cases, and provide trained medical staff.
It is establishing Covid-19 testing labs at government health facilities, training staff on diagnosis, supplying border checkpoints with electronic temperature devices to test travellers, and providing travellers with forms that ask for their personal and contact information.
The Syrian opposition, however, says that none of this will work because the country’s financial, medical and logistical capabilities are weak, and the government cannot do a fraction of what it has proclaimed.
If there is an outbreak in areas under opposition control, it will be catastrophic because they are home to some three million refugees who live in tents. These areas are not equipped to withstand an outbreak since the healthcare system is decimated and there is no staff or funding.
In recent weeks, many Iranians have travelled to and from Syria to visit holy sites, as well as Iranian forces deployed there along with their families. Although Iran has reported thousands of Covid-19 cases and thousands of deaths, it was the last country that Syria suspended flights to.
The Syrian regime has not stopped thousands of Iranians coming to Syria, with the opposition charging that this is because Iran pulls the strings in Syria.
Between the government’s secrecy and the people’s ignorance of what is occurring around them in this war-torn country, there are conflicting reports of Covid-19 cases in Syria that could mean disaster because of the country’s tattered healthcare sector.
There are also conflicting reports as to whether the regime and Russia will uphold the truce, or whether they will continue fighting to force the opposition, and in turn Turkey, to surrender the idea of controlling the international highways in northwest Syria.
On social media, the Syrian people have been speaking of their suffering as they watch loved ones die. Some one million people have been killed, according to unofficial figures, leaving two million orphaned children, according to the UN.
Many Syrian people say Covid-19 will not be as cruel as the regime, but will be just another way to take the lives of Syrians who are already dying every day.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly