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Security Brief

Syria’s Forgotten War Is a Pandemic Time Bomb

U.N. officials and humanitarian workers are bracing for the worst in crowded camps and conflict zones in Idlib.

Sanitation workers disinfect a camp for displaced Syrians next to the Idlib municipal stadium on April 9.
Sanitation workers disinfect a camp for displaced Syrians next to the Idlib municipal stadium on April 9. OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: How the pandemic could change the war in Syria, updates on a key U.S.-Russian nuclear arms treaty, and what to make of the Pentagon’s new policy chief.

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Syria’s Looming Pandemic Disaster

Idlib province, the last pocket of rebel-held territory in Syria, is already facing one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. There haven’t yet been any confirmed coronavirus cases in Idlib, but U.N. and other foreign officials fear that it’s only a matter of time. Humanitarian groups are bracing for the coronavirus to sweep into the province, where they fear it would spread like wildfire among displaced populations without access to adequate health care.

“Millions of people, whose lives have already been marked by suffering, live in camps, collective shelters and informal sites where social distancing and regular handwashing are luxuries,” Imran Riza, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a statement last week.

Fraying cease-fire. The cease-fire brokered by Turkey and Russia in Idlib province is shaky, with reports of clashes between Turkish forces and Syrian government forces backed by Moscow. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan this week accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of taking advantage of the world’s focus on coronavirus to ratchet up tensions in Idlib. “Should the regime, which has violated the cease-fire and other conditions of the agreement, continue in this way, it will pay a price with heavy losses,” said Erdogan.

Flurry of diplomacy. Donning protective face masks, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif met with Assad on Monday. And on Wednesday the Iranian, Russian, and Turkish foreign ministers held a video conference to hash out their differences over the conflict in Syria. It’s not clear if these conversations will strengthen the fragile cease-fire. Previous truces have collapsed quickly in Syria amid nine years of grueling war.

Worrying trend. Meanwhile, U.S. officials are concerned that the chaos sown by the pandemic could give the remnants of the Islamic State an opportunity to regroup in Syria. ISIS militants have already been credited with several attacks in southern Syria this month, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

What We’re Watching

Russia still complying with New START. Russia is still complying with the Obama-era New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, according to a State Department report obtained by Foreign Policy. However, the Trump administration is increasingly concerned about both Russia and China developing nuclear capabilities not covered by the 2010 agreement, according to the report. The news comes as the Trump administration weights whether to renew New START, which expires next year. Trump let another arms control pact with Russia, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, expire last year amid concerns over Russian violations.

Trump’s ship order puts Pentagon in a bind. Trump was quick to reverse an early Wednesday tweet instructing the U.S. Navy to sink and destroy any Iranian boats that harass American ships. But the missive left top Pentagon officials at a loss to explain what the president meant after a slew of dangerous encounters with Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) fast boats in the Persian Gulf last week. A U.S. official told Foreign Policy that they were not aware of any new orders to the Navy or Central Command, the military branch in the Middle East. U.S. ships still have the right of self-defense if they come under attack from Iran.

Iran looks to space. Iran has successfully launched a self-described military satellite, as confirmed by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Experts say the move is a significant boost to Iran’s ambitions in space, especially given reports that the elite IRGC oversaw the launch. “Tehran is dispensing with the fiction that it’s space program is purely civilian,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. “This means the IRGC has had a secret space flight program that is now entering public light.”

South Africa’s military to enforce lockdown. Governments around the world are increasingly relying on their militaries to help respond to the coronavirus pandemic. In South Africa, where President Cyril Ramaphosa announced this week that his government would deploy 70,000 troops to enforce lockdown measures. South Africa has one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, marked by mass arrests and police brutality. Although the strict measures are credited with drastically reducing the spread of the coronavirus, critics worry that the latest deployment will turn South Africa into a “military state.”

Spycraft in the age of contagion. Working from home isn’t easy for those handling classified materials. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the organization responsible for providing policymakers and the intelligence community with mapping data, will de-classify more of its work in order to help facilitate remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, C4ISRNet reports. The move is the latest example of how the U.S. intelligence community is trying to keep up its work under lockdown.

Movers and Shakers

The number-one Pentagon policy slot. U.S. President Donald Trump has tapped retired Army Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata—a frequent White House defender on cable news —to be the Pentagon’s next policy chief, Bloomberg reports. The pick to replace the fired Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood is likely to be controversial, even with Republicans in control of the Senate. Tata has defended Trump’s intervention in the war crimes case of Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher and written op-eds calling for the United States to send armed contractors to Afghanistan and Syria instead of U.S. troops.

The news ends weeks of speculation over who would replace Rood, an unpopular figure ousted in February months after warning against withholding military aid to Ukraine. Senior administration officials and military officers told Foreign Policy that Tata had a bad reputation on active duty. They have concerns that the retired general has no serious credentials for the job, other than supporting Trump.

“The new rule at the Pentagon for senior positions is political loyalty to the president,” one official said. “Qualifications don’t matter anymore as the White House seeks to remove all Mattis holdovers.”

New envoy to Belarus. Trump this week nominated a veteran career diplomat, Julie Fisher, to be the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus in over a decade. Under Trump, the United States has quietly warmed relations with Belarus, considered eastern Europe’s last autocratic state, to undercut its close partnership with Russia. Foreign Policy was first to report the move was coming in February.

Odds and Ends

Mattis the model? If former U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis gets tired of raking in cash by sitting on defense contractor executive boards, he can always go back into modeling. As Task and Purpose reports, in 2015 Mattis modeled a leather jacket for clothing line Kill Kapture, started by an Australian special forces veteran. The photos from the line’s marketing campaign are now making the rounds again. (The jacket can be yours, for the bargain basement price of $1,322.)

That’s it for today.

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Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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