Coronavirus: Syrian regime sees pandemic as blessing in disguise

Hope for political gains to consolidate Bashar Al Assad’s rule could be dashed if the contagion becomes unmanageable

Prisoners held by the Syrian government reunite with relatives during a prisoner exchange between the Syrian government and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in the countryside of the rebel-held Idlib province on May 17, 2019.  / AFP / OMAR HAJ KADOUR
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Since the first coronavirus cases were recorded in the Middle East in late January, the Syrian regime has sold its grip on security as a barrier against the spread of contagion.

Health Minister Nizar Yazigi recommended reliance on the military, saying the army destroyed “many microbes” in Syria, and that the country's first virus infection case was only announced on March 22.

The authorities said their records showed fewer than 20 cases in total, including two deaths. But doctors in Damascus said the death toll may be much higher, as scores of fatalities were being recorded as pneumonia.

The state news agency praised security forces for imposing curfews, and highlighted the sealing of Saida Zainab district of Damascus, a hub for dozens of Shiite militias from Lebanon, Iraq and beyond who are linked to Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The Syrian government is aiming to capitalise politically on the virus, making it clear that a pervasive security apparatus guaranteed containment and that “illegitimate” sanctions against the government were behind any shortcomings in the system. Externally, it sees opportunities to break its international isolation since its crackdown on the 2011 revolt.

Citing a “dangerous escalation represented by the coronavirus,” the foreign ministry renewed its calls for an end to US and European sanctions, a major obstacle to international rehabilitation and reconstruction funds.

The official narrative about the source of the virus pointed to Shiite pilgrims, presenting the Alawite-dominated regime as not beholden to Tehran, which is another impediment towards its re-admission to the Arab League.

But, domestically, the political picture may not remain positive as the outbreak continues. Support for the regime is held together by complex societal dynamics affected by the war that coronavirus could send further into flux.

Covid-19 – a threat to power

If coronavirus hits Alawite concentrations in Damascus and the coast, it could undermine the consolidation of President Bashar Al Assad’s rule, a consolidation ushered in by the Russian intervention of September 2015.

This has depended on regaining territory, which Russian airpower and Iranian militias largely delivered to Mr Al Assad, and promises of reconstruction and economic revival, mainly to his Alawite core.

The epidemic arrived in Syria as the economy in regime areas was being hit hard by financial meltdown in Lebanon, a main source of dollars.

The virus damaged chances for economic recovery or the international reconstruction aid Russia has been pushing for in the last three years. Shortages of fuel and basic food supplies worsened.

The Syrian lira is trading at around 1,300 liras to the US dollar, compared with 630 before bans on bank withdrawals and dollar transfers were imposed in Lebanon in November.

Footage circulating among loyalists showed government employees in Damascus packing a state-owned bank and swarming automatic teller machines to collect their salaries.

Crowds surrounded a bread truck, and voice messages exchanged on WhatsApp groups mocked a “particularly strong cold season this year” that is killing Syrians en masse.

Last week, Mark Lowcock, a senior humanitarian official at the United Nations, described Syria’s official coronavirus case tally as “tip of the iceberg”.

The regime’s military said it took “wholesale” measures to prevent infection among its ranks. At 140,000 troops, the army is half the size it was on the eve of the March 2011 revolt against five decades of Assad family rule.

An officer working in intelligence gathering for the opposition, who defected from the regime's army, told The National that troops suspected of exposure to the coronavirus were being sent home.

But the regime’s command has no control over high-risk Shiite militias who interact with the troops and their Iranian supervisors, he said.

“Many on leave have simply stayed home, afraid to return to their units,” the officer said. “The more the virus spreads, the more the regime’s manpower will be sapped”.

In an apparent message to loyalists that they will not be sacrificed, this month’s isolation of Saida Zainab was combined with official media reports on health risks posed by Shiite incomers.

The pro-regime channels relayed comments by the World Health Organisation's representative in Damascus that Syria was vulnerable because of an influx of pilgrims, who mostly came from Lebanon, Iran and Iraq to visit Shiite shrines in Damascus.

Syrian activist Sadiq Abbara, who tracks regime media, said the quarantine of Saida Zainab was nominal, since the militias were not under Syrian regime command and were deployed elsewhere in Damascus.

“Assad is trying to tell his supporters that he will not endanger them despite his reliance on Iran and that his repression capabilities are as savage as ever,” Mr Abbara said from exile in Germany.

FILE - In this Aug. 22, 2015 file photo, a Muslim Brotherhood member waves his hand from a defendants cage in a courtroom in Torah prison, southern Cairo, Egypt. In some cells in Iran, Egypt, Syria and other countries in the Middle East, prisoners are crammed in by the dozens, with little access to hygiene or medical care. So if one infection gets in, the novel coronavirus could run rampant. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)
'If the regime comes under any real pressure to reveal the fate of whoever it liquidated in Sednaya, it will simply say the coronavirus,' said activist Sadiq Abbara.

Syria's prisoners of conscience face bleak odds

Human rights campaigners fear that the coronavirus will help the authorities bury the fate of thousands of Syrians who have disappeared since the outbreak of the revolt.

Mr Abbara said the regime could settle the civil records of more than 100,000 civilians who its security forces detained or abducted in the last nine years by blaming the epidemic for their disappearance.

Peaceful demonstrations against five decades of Assad family rule erupted in March 2011. The authorities responded by killing thousands of unarmed people, contributing significantly to the militarisation of the revolt and the onset of the civil war.

The detainee issue has been irksome for the regime, with the inclusion of their cause in Security Council resolutions, and the UN continuing to demand access to detainees despite almost a decade of refusal.

On the day the regime announced the first coronavirus case, it issued an amnesty. But it covered mostly criminals in jail for non-politically related offences, Syrian lawyers said.

I would not be surprised if the regime is not intentionally infecting the prison with the coronavirus right now
Sadiq Abbara, activist

Last week, Al Alam television, Iran’s main media outlet in Arabic, reported on the self-isolation of Sednaya, a mainly Christian town region north of Damascus. A large jail, the Sednaya military prison, is located on the outskirts of the town. It has become notorious because of activist reports of torture and mass hangings there.

Shining the spotlight on the potential coronavirus contagion inside Sednaya, which holds at least 5,000 prisoners, deflects from the health dangers in Shiite ghettos but also bodes ill for the prisoners, Mr Abbara said.

“If the regime comes under any real pressure to reveal the fate of whoever it liquidated in Sednaya, it will simply say the coronavirus,” he said.

Many Syrian health professionals doubted that the authorities could have contained the coronavirus had the pandemic occurred prior to 2011.

Syria’s public health system, like the rest of the bureaucracy, was decrepit and riddled with corruption before the revolt, which would have hampered any institutionalised response.

The regime was looking towards a post-coronavirus future, while having limited means to control the human toll on its core support base.

Many Alawite loyalists perished defending the Syrian leader because of sectarian convictions and because they believed he was better than a Sunni political ascendency. Those who survived have lost family members in the civil war – the price for the perceived survival of the sect.

Now, a possible wave of death caused by coronavirus will put severe stress on a government running out of excuses to address its own inefficiencies.