As Syria enters the 10th year of the conflict in the country, the situation looks bleak. Idlib is on the verge of falling to the regime, stopped only by a tenuous ceasefire, while in some countries the re-legitimisation of the Assad regime is slowly underway. In addition to the death, despair, destruction and displacement that the Syrian people have faced over the past 9 years, it now seems that there is a new threat in the coronavirus pandemic.
As if Assad’s barrel bombs and jails aren’t enough to kill people, coronavirus (Covid19) is said to have taken hold in Syria, although this is denied by the regime which cannot, of course, be trusted. There have been reports of an outbreak due to the influx of Iranian Shia pilgrims as well as the thousands of militia fighters who have entered the country to support the Syrian army. The latter has lost tens of thousands of troops due either to defections in the early years of the uprising or to the fighting against the opposition and the Free Syrian Army.
The virus arrived in Syria from Iran amidst official silence from the regime in Damascus about the cases that are under investigation. And despite the fact that there have been suspected Iranian patients who were transferred to Al-Mujtahid Hospital in the capital and were immediately quarantined by the health authorities, the regime has denied that any such cases exist.
Iran is the second most coronavirus-affected state in the world and the ease of access to Syria from Iran means that it is likely that the disease is spreading. It is said that there could be up to 2,400 hidden Covid19 cases. It is foolish to expect the regime to admit that this is the case; Assad is dependent on Iranian militias on the ground and the visits of pilgrims from Iran contribute to his re-legitimisation strategy in front of the world. A regime that has denied any crime committed against its people will not suddenly admit a public health cover-up. Ironically, all the states surrounding Syria have declared that they have confirmed cases of coronavirus: Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Israel.
Furthermore, Pakistani health officials said on 10th March that at least five of their country’s cases originated from patients travelling to Pakistan from Syria. As of now, though, the Syrian government still insists that Syria is coronavirus-free.
There have been indications that hospital doctors in Damascus have been detained for leaking information about the disease and its subsequent cover-up. It is common for dictatorships and authoritarian states to restrict news to their citizens heavily, particularly in times of crisis; Syria is no exception. Governments should look after their citizens, not harm them. If truth be told, under the Assad regime the social contract has been skewed. Laws are draconian and unjust and any minor infringement brings undue pain and punishment. It is deeply ironic that even though Bashar Al-Assad is a medical professional he cannot look after his own people.
Syria is being ravaged by war; the last thing it needs is an unfolding pandemic and public health crisis. It is not enough for this to be described as a scandal; it is a crime against humanity.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.