The coronavirus pandemic has become one more piece at play on the complex chessboard of the Syrian conflict. Both internal and external parties to the conflict are using the crisis to increase or consolidate their political and military gains. Simultaneously, Syria’s fragmentation is severely hampering the pandemic response; conversely, the pandemic is further compounding Syria’s fragmentation. The result is still more suffering for the Syrian people, and no progress on drafting a sustainable political settlement to end the years-long war.
Nine years of conflict have destroyed Syria’s health infrastructure, and its institutional capacity to provide necessary medical care is practically nonexistent. The country is governed by three different entities: the Syrian government, the opposition Syrian Interim Government (backed by Turkey) in the northwest, and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the Kurdish-held northeast. Beyond the devastating human toll, the various parties to the conflict are using measures to combat the spread of the virus for their own political and military ends.
Nation-state actors are utilizing the pandemic to push for varying vested interests. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad—which until recently denied that Syria had any coronavirus cases—is working with some of its international backers to push for “normalization.” Leading the charge are China and Russia. With six other countries, including Venezuela and North Korea, they sent a letter to the United Nations secretary general asking that all U.S. and European sanctions against Syria be lifted as part of efforts to fight the spread of the virus. If granted, this would be a first step of a normalization of diplomatic ties and could open the door for reconstruction funding, conditional thus far on a sustainable political settlement. Regional governments such as the United Arab Emirates have used the pandemic to publicly issue high-profile calls to normalize relations with the Assad regime. These actors view potential rapprochement—erroneously—as a way to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran and unlock possible reconstruction opportunities (and related economic contracts) once the time comes.
In its own response to the virus, the Syrian regime has demonstrated that a security approach is the primary tool it has left with which to govern. To combat the pandemic, it has temporarily suspended mandatory conscription and cordoned off two affected areas, Mneen and Sayyida Zainab, much as the Chinese did with the hard-hit Wuhan Province, but without China’s accompanying surge of medical support. Sayyida Zaynab in particular is densely populated and houses a large number of Iranian militias. The Syrian government has also stopped public transport, locked down all but essential services, established night and weekend curfews, and banned internal movement between its various governorates. With the help of the World Health Organization, it also has set up quarantine zones in areas under government control. However, the economically crippled regime has stopped short of giving the financial support needed to keep the economy going and provide for Syria’s poor, an estimated 80 percent of the population by 2015 figures. Syrian citizens must still stand in long queues to purchase bread and other daily necessities.
In the northwest, myriad local actors are impeding an effective pandemic response. Turkey has closed off its national border with Syria and the borders around its enclave within Syria, and announced that it would curtail troop movements in its Syrian zones of operation, thus undermining its ability to provide emergency response and enforce security. Meanwhile, in Idlib, where close to 1 million people have been displaced, the virus has exacerbated the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe. Overcrowding in refugee tents is so acute that in some cases people take turns sleeping outside. Bombardments have destroyed close to eighty hospitals and medical facilities. Critically, humanitarian aid movement in and out of Idlib has been restricted as well. Internal competition between groups in Idlib mean that hardline jihadis continue to breach lockdown and public safety measures issued by Idlib’s main opposition forces.
In the northeast, the SDF-led administration has seized the opportunity to demonstrate its capacity to govern and take care of their populace, all while struggling to deal with the outbreak. It has closed the region’s borders to the rest of the country and imposed an internal lockdown and a ban on public gatherings. It also has called for urgent medical assistance to combat the virus, especially in the overcrowded Al Hol camp, home to more than 70,000 refugees including former Islamic State combatants and their families. Yet Syria’s fragmentation continues to impede a proper response. The World Health Organization is operating only in regime-held areas, in spite of calls urging them to provide more support to northeastern and northwestern Syria. At the same time, the central government in Syria has refused to set up coronavirus testing facilities in opposition-held areas and only recently agreed to set up a lab in the government-controlled part of Qamishli. Tests for suspected cases within SDF territory must be transported to Turkey.
Turkey is also continuing its policy of closing access roads and weaponizing access to water in its conflict with the Kurds in northeastern Syria. Access to these areas has become more difficult, and the denial of access to water by shutting off services at Al Kok pumping station means that essential hygiene directives to combat the crisis cannot be maintained. With borders to Turkey closed and thousands of prisoners to manage, the SDF’s only hope for obtaining support to combat the virus is the Syrian regime.
Looking ahead, a key question is what will happen if the outbreak in Syria becomes widespread and severe—an unfortunately plausible scenario, given the dire state of infrastructure after nine years of conflict. Would this lead to the regime’s normalization, thereby unlocking funding for reconstruction? At present, European Union countries continue to oppose normalizing relations with a regime accused of war crimes, but Syria’s regional neighbors may take a different approach. With the Americans and the Europeans preoccupied with the pandemic’s devastation in their own societies, regional states may move toward normalization. However, any regional business opportunities for Syrian reconstruction will be hindered by the U.S. passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which will come into effect at the end of June 2020. Under this legislation, entities providing support to the government of Syria, including significant engineering and construction services, would be sanctioned.
In the immediate term, an outbreak in Syria would prove disastrous for Syrians and their benefactors. And in the long term, a crumbling economy means that competition over scarce resources is likely to fuel future conflicts, opening the door for further instability in Syria.