Coronavirus and Continued Conflict Push Syria Into Greater Chaos

The first quarter of 2020 saw a serious escalation of combat in Syria, albeit without much alteration in the political trends, and the arrival of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has exacerbated a fraught situation.

Under the Astana process, which began in late 2016, Turkey, Russia, and Iran were supposed to act as guarantors to freeze hostilities in Syria. Instead, Bashar al-Assad’s regime, backed by Russia and Iran, picked off each of the de-escalation zones seriatim. In September 2018, a renewed ceasefire commitment was worked out in Sochi, based on the new realities on-the-ground, to halt the pro-Assad coalition’s attack on the final insurgent-held pocket, Idlib, in northwest Syria (The National, September 19, 2018).

In mid-December 2019, the pro-Assad coalition attacked Idlib again. Within two months, 900,000 people had been displaced (United Nations, February 18). Despite the “observation posts” that Turkey has throughout Idlib, it seemed Ankara had no will to defend the province, even as 21 soldiers were killed by the pro-Assad coalition (The New Arab, February 10). [1] Then, on February 27, 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike (Rudaw, February 29). This could not be ignored. Within hours, Turkey used drones to clear the skies over Idlib and attacked Assad’s troops and the Shi’a militias controlled by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), including Lebanese Hezbollah. Turkey escalated the aerial campaign even further after midnight on February 29/March 1, when the deadline Ankara set for a regime withdrawal south to the “Sochi Line” expired.

Dubbed Spring Shield (Bahar Kalkani), Turkey’s operation inflicted an average of 50 confirmable fatalities on the Assad/Iranian forces per day until a new Turkey-Russia ceasefire was worked out on March 5 (Twitter.com/GregoryPWaters, March 7). The terms of the ceasefire did not reflect the leverage Turkey had built by demonstrating the essential hollowness of the pro-Assad coalition  (Daily Sabah, March 13).

Turkey essentially allowed the pro-Assad coalition to keep the gains from its December-February offensive, covering the south of the “Greater Idlib” pocket up to the M4 Highway that runs east-west from Aleppo city to the coast, including the crucial town of Saraqeb, where the M4 crosses with the M5 (running north-south from Aleppo to Damascus), which the Assad/Iran system also got to keep. The pro-Assad coalition is thus within easy striking distance of Idlib city when this ceasefire inevitably breaks down, and if the provincial capital is lost it might well unravel Turkey’s position in northern Syria altogether.

The options for Idlib, under nominal Turkish protection, but dominated by the al-Qaeda derivative, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), are few and ugly. HTS could evolve into a Hamas-like entity that the international community de facto deals with (Ahval, December 8, 2018). Turkey’s continued build-up suggests it will exert ever-increasing control in the remaining areas of northern Idlib, but it probably cannot displace HTS entirely (Twitter.com/OmerOzkizilcik, March 27).

Spring Shield has ended the pro-Assad coalition’s hopes of retaking all of Idlib at this moment, but it will try again. Perhaps the precedent of this operation means Turkey will hold its ground, but even if Turkey is in northern Syria for the long-term this is likely to co-exist with the consolidation of the Assad regime in the rest of Syria, including the east, since U.S. President Donald Trump remains determined to leave.

For now, it is HTS controlling the response to the coronavirus in Idlib, banning large gatherings—not that it had previously allowed them—and closing schools, though stopping short of preventing Friday prayers (Twitter.com/Elizrael, March 30). As in Afrin and northern Aleppo, the adjacent zones actually controlled by Turkey, in Idlib there are civil society groups like the “White Helmets” that try to deliver services, but there is a serious lack of medical resources and a vast population of internally displaced people (IDPs) packed into a small, often insanitary, territory. Idlib is additionally debilitated because of Assad’s and Russia’s deliberate destruction of a majority of the hospitals and killing hundreds of medical professionals (TRT, March 23).

Security in the northeast “Rojava” zone that the United States oversees has been deteriorating, largely for political reasons. The United States is embedded with the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the politico-legal cover used by the terrorist-designated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) (see Terrorism Monitor, June 14, 2019). The pressure exerted by the United States on the PKK to create a more inclusive, sustainable governance structure in the Arab-majority areas of Syria it had captured from Islamic State (IS) was not going well (AlJazeera, October 12, 2019). After Trump ordered the pull-out in December 2018, even this minimal pressure on the PKK evaporated.

Omar Abu Layla, the executive director of Deir Ezzor 24, a local reporting outlet, described the situation in eastern Syria as a “time bomb”, and that was before the coronavirus. The virus is “a horrific danger, especially with the presence of the Iranians in the western Euphrates regions”, who are believed to have introduced it into the area, “and the indifference of the Assad regime”. “Indifference” might be to understate the issue: the Assad regime sees political advantages in the spread of the virus into Rojava.  [2]

Mazen Hassoun, a journalist from Raqqa, describes a similar situation in his home area, emphasising that apart from the malevolent games played by the regime and the PKK’s missteps— while the PKK has initiated a public information campaign and taken economic steps, its overnight curfew is not effective as a social distancing measure since people do not go out at that time anyway—there is a simple lack of resources, from testing kits to ventilators. There are no testing kits, and maybe three-dozen ventilators in Rojava. Hassoun says that to the best of his knowledge, the United States has not sent additional equipment. [3] This is partly an unintended consequence of the PKK playing down the scale of the crisis to avoid affecting the situation with coalition troops, fearing that they would begin isolating themselves or that Trump would pull them out altogether and leave the PKK vulnerable (Twitter.com/Mzahem_Alsaloum, April 1).

IS has capitalized on the coronavirus crisis, staging two prison riots in late March in Rojava that led to a number of escapes (Rudaw, March 31). Prison breaks were one of the key factors in IS’ previous revival.

The IRGC, which plays a decisive command role in the Assad system, was likely the vector in bringing the coronavirus to the west of Syria too, and passing it on to both the regime forces and the Russians (Kavkaz Centre, March 5). [4] The regime’s obfuscation makes reliable information difficult to obtain, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has proven to be as compromised in Syria as it has in China.

In early March, WHO dismissed news of coronavirus spread in Syria as “misinformation,” relying on Assad’s notoriously mendacious health ministry. WHO has insisted on sending all aid to Damascus, essentially ensuring that Idlib and Rojava do not receive the help they need (WHO, March 5; Al-Jumhuriya, March 26). Damascus finally admitted its first COVID-19 case on March 22 (Anadolu, March 22). There are now ten confirmed infections and one death, which the United Nations says is the “tip of the iceberg” (Anadolu, March 30).

The Assad regime has instituted a travel ban—between cities and across borders—and a 6PM to 6AM curfew, which has the same limitations as the one in Rojava (SANA, March 24; Al-Modon, March 23). Also, like in Rojava, resources are a problem for the regime. There are 325 intensive care unit (ICU) beds with ventilators in Syria, able to cope with about 6,500 COVID-19 cases (LSE, March 19).

With the economy in free fall long before the virus hit and now essentially paused, the mass-demobilization of reservists announced on March 29 raises serious questions about the capacity of the Assad regime, always short of manpower, to maintain order (The New Arab, January 11; Youm7, March 29). Perhaps the increasingly-overt restoration of Assad’s relations with the United Arab Emirates will fill some of the gaps in the Assad system (Twitter.com/Presidency_Sy, March 27). But, depending on how far the virus has spread during the period of denialism, it might be a moot point.

Notes

[1] The pro-Assad coalition killed eight Turkish soldiers on 2 February; five on the 10th; two on the 20th; one on the 22nd; two on the 25th; and three in the morning of 27 February before the mass-casualty attack in the evening.

[2] Author interview, March 30, 2020

[3] Author interview, March 30, 2020

[4]   Sam Dagher, Assad or We Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria (2019), pp. 323-324.

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