As of 29 March 2020, 19 countries have reported laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the MENA region. Iran was the first country reporting a confirmed case in the region in February and is now carrying the heaviest toll of this pandemic with 85% of cases and 94% of deaths in the region.
In Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, the case fatality ratio is higher than 6 percent, suggesting that the number of infected cases is potentially underestimated due to testing access and patients’ journey. Efforts are geared towards limiting onward transmission by applying lockdowns, social distancing and the closure of schools.
While the pandemic is unfolding and the different containment and lockdown measures are being put in place by all countries of the MENA region, negative impacts on the societies and the economies are visible, ranging from a rapid slowdown of economic activities, to the disruption of basic social services, essential for children, especially affecting the most vulnerable.
Across the Region, Governments are putting in place, adjusting or expanding social protection measures in support of vulnerable families, especially those living on limited and unpredictable incomes, the sources of which the confinement situations have rendered more unreliable.
All 20 countries of the region closed their education institutions, affecting the whole student population of the region, estimated at around 110 million children, approximately 6 million children in pre-primary education, 75 million children in basic education, 15 million children in upper secondary education, and 15 million children in tertiary education, also including 1.3 million Syrian refugees enrolled in formal and non-formal education in the five neighbouring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt).
This is in addition to the 15 million children who were already out-of-school throughout the region prior to the Covid-19 epidemic. Seven countries in MENA are already progressively implementing distant learning solutions, including online learning or TV learning. In addition to the risk of deprivation of learning opportunities for children not having access to internet or media, many children are also losing access to school feeding programs. Services for children with disability and child protection services are likely to be affected by measures imposing physical distancing. In a period of confinement measures, the risk for children of being victim of violence is expected to further increase or intensify in a region where levels of exposure to violence, especially domestic violence, have been extremely high prior to the pandemic (80% in average in MENA). Health services are progressively mobilized for the COVID-19 response, affecting maternal and child health care. This trend applies to all countries, but at various degrees.
New dynamic trends in Syria
Following the civil war, and the Assad’s repression, the Arab League has suspended Syria’s membership in November 2011. However, several Arab states are currently looking to restore bilateral relation with Assad after his forces made decisive gains in the conflict.
Supported by Russia, Iran and the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, Assad’s forces control more than 70 percent of Syria and the president has repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country.
Syria received a support from the United Arab Emirates on march the 27th, with Abu Dhabi’s crown prince vowing to « stand » by Damascus during the coronavirus pandemic.
« I discussed with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad updates on Covid-19, » Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (MBZ) said on Twitter.
The Syrian President also welcomed the cooperation with UAE during this difficult time. The phone call between the two leaders is the first of its kind since the armed conflict in Syria started in 2011.
The UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus in 2018, after seven years of severane of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
The decision prompted Bahrain to announce it too would restore its diplomatic mission, while the Arab League said it was studying the possibility of restoring Syria’s membership.
Although Moscow intensified its contacts with the UAE during the Syrian-Turkish clashes of February and March, Russia clearly demonstrated that Ankara is a significant partner. Iran’s actions, in turn, have long been quietly met by Russia with various countermeasures. They included personnel transformations within the Syrian army, efforts to centralize control over militias and restraining pro-Iranian groups both in Syria’s southwest and northwest.
Al Modon, a Lebanese periodical, has reported that Russian commanders in Syria decided to turn the situation related to the coronavirus epidemic in Iran to their benefit by starting to filter out pro-Iranian forces fighting on the side of the Syrian Arab Army. The Russian command allegedly imposed a rule requiring deployment of Syrian army formations loyal to Russia separately from pro-Iranian forces. These precautions were introduced in order to prevent infection among the soldiers that, in some way or another, come into contact with the Iranian “Shiite international forces” and local militias affiliated with Tehran.
It should be noted that such isolation, if true, could be imposed only in select areas, involving certain groups — the 5th Special Mission Forces Division, also known as “Tiger Forces,” under the command of Syrian Brig. Gen. Suhail al-Hassan and Russian special forces’ patronage, and brigades of the pro-Russian 5th Corps. It is widely known that numerous local militias affiliated with Iran, collectively called the Local Defense Forces, are included in the regime’s army, and a number of Shiite international forces such as Liwa al-Imam Hussein (Lions of Hussein Brigade) and the Liwa Sayyaf al-Mahdi (Lions of the Warriors of the Mahdi Brigade) are integrated into Syrian Maj. Gen. Maher al-Assad’s 4th Division.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently discussed the coronavirus pandemic and Idlib in Damascus with the Syrian president. A source in the Russian military told on condition of anonymity that the presence of Adm. Igor Kostyukov — head of the Russian armed forces’ General Staff’s main intelligence department — in the Shoigu-Assad meeting could in part be read as a Russian intention to maintain the agreement with Turkey over Idlib just as Ankara is preparing a limited counterterrorist operation to restructure opposition groups.
“The discussion had indeed addressed the events at the eastern bank of Euphrates; however, it was also related to the pandemic issue,” the source said.
He added that prospects of new Turkish-Russian tactical cooperation in this field may be dependent on the territorial exchange in the Tel Rifaat area in the north of Aleppo province. This de-escalation zone was created in 2017 and has been viewed by Moscow and Ankara as a territory for potential co-patrolling. Some reports suggest that the Kurdish forces have already informed local commanders and their relatives that they have to leave the city as soon as possible and move to other areas to the east of the Euphrates.
Hints for a new plan involving seizing oil-rich areas currently controlled by the Americans east of the Euphrates were voiced by the Turkish government in early March. At the time Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered to work with Russia in the region to “help Syria, devastated by the war, to get back on its feet.”
“It is only natural that groups of military advisers and special forces personnel would face a security issue during the pandemic, considering the threats in central and eastern Syria created by [air connections] with Iran and Shiite pilgrims traveling back and forth,” the Russian military source said.
It is noteworthy that maintenance of new agreements between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin depends on stability in Idlib; at the same time, a number of key areas around towns such as Saraqeb and Kafranbel are mostly controlled by pro-Iranian militias. The effect of the coronavirus further complicates the dilemma Tehran has been facing since the murder of the influential Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, on how to unite its proxy forces in the region.
Shoigu’s visit to Damascus took place several days before Syria officially admitted its first case of coronavirus infection; afterward, several military ambulances were noticed on the Russian Dvinitsa-50 ship heading to the Syrian port of Tartus. As of March 31, Syria had officially reported 10 COVID-19 cases and two deaths.
Nevertheless, the separation of professional soldiers from pro-Iranian formations is not a brand-new measure taken during the Syrian campaign. After the missile strikes conducted by the United States, the UK and France on Syrian facilities in April 2018, the Syrian air forces chief command requested that Iranian forces and allied Shiite militias limit the number of Syrian military airports and hangars where they operate. Though Tehran prefers to deploy its military facilities near Russian bases and strongholds in order to protect them from Israeli air attacks, the facilities that Iran disguises as economic projects are placed a considerable distance from Russian forces due to competition with Moscow.
US presence threatened in Syria
Another U.S. military convoy has been forced to retreat from an area in Syria’s northeastern province of Hasakah after local residents, in coordination with government forces, prevented the foreign forces from passing through the community. Local sources, requesting not to be named, reported that a U.S. convoy of five armored vehicles was forced to turn around and head back in the direction it came from on Tuesday afternoon after locals of the village of Hamu and Syrian troops blocked the road and prevented its movement.
No injuries were reported. According to Press TV, on March 27, Syrian army soldiers and angry local residents had forced a U.S. military convoy to retreat from the same village. Two days earlier, a U.S. military convoy was forced to retreat from an area in the same Syrian province after government forces blocked its way and groups of local residents, upset with their presence in the region, threw stones at the American troops. Syria’s official news agency, SANA reported at the time that Syrian army soldiers stopped the American convoy, consisting of 11 armored vehicles, as it tried to make its way through the village of Hamu in the al-Qamishli countryside of Hasakah province.
Meanwhile, Syrian media say the United States has dispatched truckloads of military and logistical equipment to the country’s northeastern province of Hasakah as Washington and some of its regional allies keep vying with one another to seize oil reserves and plunder natural resources in the war-battered country.
Local sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Syria’s official news agency SANA that a convoy of 35 trucks crossed the Waleed border crossing on Monday and headed toward U.S. positions in the Jazira region of the province. The sources added that the majority of the equipment was sent to a base that American troops have set up at Kharab al-Jeer Airport in al-Malikiyah district.
The report comes only a day after the Arabic-language Enab Baladi weekly newspaper, citing a video published by the local North Press news agency, reported that the so-called U.S.-led military coalition purportedly formed to fight the Daesh terrorist group had airdropped military and logistical equipment to an area close to al-Omar oil field in Syria’s eastern countryside of Dayr al-Zawr. The report noted that the operation took place late on Saturday. In late October 2019, Washington reversed an earlier decision to pull out all of its troops from northeastern Syria, announcing the deployment of about 500 soldiers to the oil fields controlled by Kurdish forces in the Arab country. The Pentagon claimed that the move was aimed at protecting the fields and facilities from possible attacks by Daesh. That claim came although U.S. President Donald Trump had earlier suggested that Washington sought economic interests in controlling the oil fields. U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper also threatened that the U.S. troops deployed to the fields would use “military force” against any party that might seek to challenge control of the sites, even if it were Syrian government forces or their Russian allies. Syria, which has not authorized American military presence in its territory, has said the U.S. is “plundering” the country’s oil. On December 18, 2019, China’s special envoy for Syria said the United States’ pretext for extending its military presence in the Arab country, namely to protect Syrian oil fields, was untenable.
What happens now?
It will take more than a nationwide cease-fire to prevent a covid-19 disaster in Syria. The WHO hopefully will be able to coordinate a response with government and nonstate groups that addresses all of Syria’s medical needs, despite the country’s geographic and political fragmentation, deteriorating health-care infrastructure and lack of government resources.
However, the pandemic and the global mobilisation it requires could precipitate the departure of US-led troops from Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
This in turn could create a vacuum in which the Islamic State jihadist group, still reeling from the demise of its « caliphate » a year ago, could seek to step up its attacks