Syria’s Revenge on the World Will Be a Second Wave of Coronavirus

The pandemic will soon magnify the threats festering in the Middle East’s longest-running war.

Syrian children try improvised gas masks
Children try improvised gas masks in their home in Binnish in Syria's rebel-held northern Idlib province as part of preparations for any upcoming raids on Sept. 12, 2018. MUHAMMAD HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past week there has been a spate of articles about the threat of COVID-19 to the world’s refugees and internally displaced people. Life for these unfortunate souls under even less challenging circumstances is horrifying. Now, it is downright terrifying. Many refugees and the internally displaced lack even basic medical care, much less the kind of equipment necessary to deal with the novel coronavirus and its associated illness, COVID-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) and governments are aware of the problem, but with much of the world overwhelmed by the infection rate and lethality of this new virus, help to the most vulnerable is barely a trickle.

Of all the places in the Middle East where people are suffering, the Syrian province of Idlib—a giant refugee camp of sorts—is perhaps the most worrying. Not only is the coronavirus a threat to the people there, but, like the Syrian conflict itself, it is a threat to the Middle East and well beyond. The virus does not respect travel bans, closed borders, and a cessation of trade. The grave reality is that if and when COVID-19 sweeps through Idlib, it will likely prolong the suffering of Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Turks, Iranians, Russians, and Europeans.

In order to understand the immensity of the coronavirus threat to and from Idlib, it is important to remember how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—along with his Russian and Iranian patrons—has conducted his bloody campaign to defeat his regime’s opponents. He has used indiscriminate bombing, chemical weapons, and starvation. The people who survived this barbarism either fled to Idlib because it was a place that the regime did not control, or were shipped there by Assad as a condition of their surrender. In Idlib, the helpless found themselves among a variety of anti-Assad militias and extremists, the most well-known group being Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Assad and Russian generals had been itching for a fight in Idlib through much of 2016, but in May 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani agreed to a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib, forestalling an attack.

By mid-2019, the Syrians and Russians had had enough and began their long-delayed effort to capture Idlib. At the time of the assault, the province had 3 million inhabitants—double the prewar number—a large percentage of whom are children. Only the Turkish military intervention called Operation Spring Shield spared the civilians of Idlib from Assad’s bullets, Putin’s bombs, and the militias that the late Iranian commander Qassem Suleimani dispatched to Syria from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other far-flung places, but not before about a million of those civilians fled toward the Turkish-Syrian border, where they remain, stuck and no place to go. On top of this, they now have something else to fear: COVID-19.

Even though Syria has reported just five cases of the disease at time of writing, it is hard to believe that the outbreak will not come to Idlib. It most likely already has. The sources of infection are not hard to imagine—they include Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps personnel, Turkish troops, Russian pilots, European journalists, and aid workers from anywhere. When the outbreak accelerates and becomes obvious, it will be horrific. With threadbare medical care—the Syrians and their Russian allies have deliberately targeted hospitals in the area—the WHO and the Turks are doing what they can. Some COVID-19 test kits have been made available in Idlib, which are then sent back to Turkey for analysis, but not enough. How long this trickle can be sustained is an open question, as Turkey has begun to experience a steep increase in infection rates that will tax its own health care system. As articles in the Washington Post and the New York Times have made clear, in addition to the damage that Assad, the Russians, and the Iranians have already wrought, COVID-19 will kill many innocent people in Idlib.

If the likely humanitarian disaster (on top of the one Assad and his allies have already created) was not upsetting enough, it should be clear to anyone that the COVID-19 outbreak will not only rip through the poor and desperate people of Idlib, but will likely spread beyond the province. No doubt governments around the world, including Syria’s neighbors, are now taking prudent action to stem the coronavirus onslaught by banning flights, closing borders, suspending trade, and enforcing curfews and shutdowns. Yet containment failed in Italy, Spain, France, the United States, and China (before Wuhan was put on a draconian lockdown that continues). There is nothing like any of these measures in northwestern Syria and unlikely to be any. It is a war zone, after all. It is thus hard to imagine that the virus has not already slipped the borders of Idlib into Turkey, the rest of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iran. The Idlib outbreak will compound the problems these countries are already having dealing with a highly infectious and deadly virus. (What country is, except South Korea?)

This is not just a disaster for Idlib’s direct neighbors, however. Syria is relatively close to Europe, by way of Turkey. Even as the Europeans have taken increasingly draconian (but necessary) measures to reduce the rate of infection, the problem of transmission by asymptomatic carriers remains. Even as travel becomes severely limited and crossing borders more difficult, seemingly healthy diplomats, global health experts, border agents, cargo pilots, soldiers, and virtually anyone who can still move around during this global pandemic because of their specialized knowledge, skills, or function can spread the virus. Imagine, then, that in an effort to ensure the duration of Idlib’s current cease-fire or to provide much needed relief to the area, a diplomat, aid worker, or truck driver becomes infected, but doesn’t become feverish, does not have aches and pains, doesn’t lose his or her sense of smell, and has no cough, but returns to Iskenderun, Brussels, Geneva, or New York. This is the way that Idlib may compound the global coronavirus crisis, despite the many efforts to manage it.

The almost decadelong conflict in Syria has already destroyed large parts of that country, contributed to instability in the region, and altered politics in Europe. Now it threatens to compound these problems through the dire threat that is the novel coronavirus. In a normal world, great powers would marshal the resources necessary to meet the challenge, leading a global effort of expertise, technology, money, and materiel to save lives everywhere, including in Syria. In reality, the United States and China are busy sniping at each other over responsibility for the pandemic. With no leaders among them, presidents, kings, prime ministers, and generals around the world will likely stand aside—as they have done throughout Syria’s descent into violence—and watch COVID-19 explode all over Idlib and ultimately their own countries. As a result of this inaction, they will bear moral responsibility for deaths in Syria, the Middle East, and Europe that did not have to happen.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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