Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria

Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
1 / 7
Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
2 / 7
Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
3 / 7
Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
4 / 7
Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
5 / 7
Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
6 / 7
Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
7 / 7
Short Url
Updated 01 August 2020

Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria

Why coronavirus is a ticking bomb in war-ravaged northern Syria
  • People in Idlib and northeastern Syria see themselves as sitting ducks if infections begin to spread
  • Region is particularly vulnerable owing to dire humanitarian conditions and risk of further conflict

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: As the coronavirus pandemic cuts a wide and deadly swathe through the Middle East and Asia, people in war-torn areas are pretty much sitting ducks, waiting to contract the infection.

Nowhere are crisis-ravaged communities more exposed to the deadly virus than in large expanses of Syria, especially in the country’s northwest and northeast.

Northern Syria is particularly vulnerable owing to dire humanitarian conditions and the risk of further conflict, analysts told Arab News.

The northwestern governorate of Idlib and the mostly Kurdish-controlled northeast, the two remaining areas outside the Syrian regime’s control, now face an invisible enemy.

Syria confirmed its first case on March 23, after insisting for weeks that the virus had not reached the country.

The regime had been waging an aggressive military campaign to retake territory in Idlib. For the past several weeks fighting has abated, especially after Turkey, which backs several rebel groups, reached a cease-fire deal with Russia, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s main military backer.

The hundreds of thousands displaced by the fighting have sought shelter in already overcrowded displacement camps, where conditions make it impossible for residents to practice social distancing or self-isolation.

Out of Idlib’s 2 million-plus population, at least 900,000 were displaced by the latest round of fighting between the regime and rebels.

“About a million people are displaced, living in tents along the Turkish border,” said Mustafa Gurbuz, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC. “Social distancing is a luxury. There’s nothing called home, water shortage is pervasive, hygiene is impossible, and people are already suffering from poor health.” 

Under the circumstances, if a COVID-19 contagion infects only a few people, it could spread very quickly.

“Only a few cases could result in an explosive outbreak. If the fragile cease-fire derails, a renewed conflict may cause more displacement, which could lead to further spread of COVID-19,” Gurbuz said, referring to the March truce that brought the fighting in Idlib to a halt.

The UN has called for a cease-fire across all of Syria so that efforts can be focused on preventing a major outbreak, which could affect the lives of millions of people living in deplorable and unsanitary conditions across the country.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, said Idlib is too disorganized and poorly equipped to handle an epidemic.

“There’s no coherent government, just a gaggle of militias half-heartedly strung together by a system of councils,” he said, adding that Idlib sorely lacks staff, medical facilities and medicine to cope with the likely effects of any significant outbreak.

Hundreds of thousands of people live cheek by jowl with each other in tent camps and decrepit buildings.

“Old people, who are most at risk of dying or falling very ill from the virus, are mixed up with children and have no way of isolating themselves for protection,” Lund said.




A policeman wearing a mask as a means of protection against the cononavirus Covid-19, directs the traffic at an intersection in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli. (AFP)

Furthermore, many people in Idlib have no access to clean or hot water, or necessities such as soap that can help prevent the spread of the virus.

To compound the crisis, the regime’s Russian-backed air campaign in Idlib saw repeated bombing of hospitals and health facilities, which has crippled the local health infrastructure and rendered it incapable of handling any outbreak.

When it comes to a COVID-19 outbreak, Idlib’s fears and vulnerabilities are mirrored by those of northeast Syria, most of which is controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The news of the first death here — in a hospital in the city of Qamishli, which is under the regime’s authority — drew a strong reaction from the Kurdish Red Crescent and the SDF-backed Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) on Friday.

The Red Crescent lamented the “high risk of a large spread of the virus” due to the announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) of “the positive result after 15 days of the case.”

Joshua Landis, director of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, describes the area as “a ticking time bomb for the coronavirus.”

For instance, on March 29 Turkey and its armed proxies, which occupy part of northeast Syria since launching an invasion last October, cut off water supplies to the area by shutting down the Allouk water station, on which 460,000 people depend.

If these supplies are indefinitely withheld, hundreds of thousands of local inhabitants could fall prey to coronavirus for much the same reason that makes many civilians in northwest Syria vulnerable.

“Tensions are extremely high as six armies are in a standoff: The Turkish Army, the Syrian Army, the SDF, the US Army, along with Russian and Iranian forces stationed in the region, not to mention the many proxy militias, which have their own agendas,” Landis said. “This makes getting aid to the region or coordinating policy impossible.”

The medical infrastructure in northeast Syria, which was at best primitive even before the uprising began in 2011, has been devastated by years of conflict.

The SDF began to enforce a lockdown on March 23 in an attempt to contain any spread of the virus.

However, it sorely lacks testing kits for detecting COVID-19 cases and determining which individuals or areas might have the virus and need to be strictly quarantined.

The US-led anti-Daesh coalition has partially addressed the issue through the supply of $1.2 million worth of medical supplies to help the NES, but that is unlikely to be even nearly enough.




Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) disinfect a mosque in the city of al-Bab in the north of Aleppo province on March 24, 2020, as part of protective measures against COVID-19 coronavirus disease. (AFP)

In December, Russia and China used their veto power to prevent the UN Security Council from renewing permission for the delivery of aid to northern Syria from neighboring countries, in a move denounced as “callous” by Amnesty International, the human-rights advocacy group.

As a result, up to 400,000 medical items that would otherwise have been delivered to northeast Syria were left stuck in trucks in neighboring Iraq.

The Syrian regime, likely as part of a bid to pressure the SDF, has also prevented the flow of aid through Damascus.

The WHO says it has provided Syria with at least 1,200 testing kits, but the NES says Damascus has failed to provide protective equipment and artificial respirators.

This leaves the NES in a bind and more vulnerable to any outbreak given its heavy reliance on aid from the UN and NGOs, especially for the region’s displaced-persons camps and overcrowded prisons.

In the absence of a resumption of the flow of UN aid or unhindered passage of medical supplies through Damascus to NGOs, the meager resources of the NES are bound to become overwhelmed quickly in the event of an outbreak.

A coronavirus contagion in northeast Syria could also pose a very severe security threat to the region and possibly beyond.

“Some 10,000 Daesh fighters, along with close to 70,000 Daesh family members, are held in tight quarters, where social distancing is impossible,” said Landis.

At the very least, the situation in northern Syria is a big cause for concern as the pandemic causes havoc throughout the Middle East.

What is certain is that the pain and suffering of the war-weary people of Idlib and northeast Syria are unlikely to end anytime soon.


Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit

Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit
Updated 58 min 38 sec ago

Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit

Deals signed during Egyptian PM’s Libya visit
  • During Mostafa Madbouly’s visit, several agreements were signed between the two governments, most notably on the establishment of power stations in Libya
  • Libya is considered a natural extension of the Egyptian market, due to the geographical proximity and long history of trade exchange and cooperation between the two countries

CAIRO: Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, accompanied by a team of ministers, visited Tripoli on Tuesday to discuss economic and political cooperation with the Libyan Government of National Unity.

It followed instructions from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is planning a visit to Libya.

During Madbouly’s visit, several agreements were signed between the two governments, most notably on the establishment of power stations in Libya to strengthen its energy networks.

Libya is considered a natural extension of the Egyptian market, due to the geographical proximity and long history of trade exchange and cooperation between the two countries.

Egyptian companies are awaiting government decisions regarding participation in the reconstruction of Libya, which they hope will produce new opportunities in a renewed market.

According to local sources, Madbouly’s visit is focussed on investments in the country, Egyptian labor issues and the reopening of diplomatic missions.

Last month, El-Sisi discussed with the head of the Libyan Presidential Council, Mohamed Al-Menfi, prospects for enhanced cooperation between the two countries.

El-Sisi stressed Egypt’s full and absolute support for the new executive authority in Libya in all fields and for its success in holding general elections at the end of the year.

He said Egypt was fully prepared to provide its expertise to the Libyan government to help restore its national institutions, especially security and police forces, to achieve greater stability.

Since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, Egypt has promoted political settlement by hosting the warring factions in key meetings.


Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria
Updated 20 April 2021

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria

Chemical weapons watchdog weighs measures against Syria
  • OPCW members are proposing to strip Syria of its rights at the agency in response to findings government forces used poison gas
  • U.N. director at Human Rights Watch hopes the move will encourage countries to prosecute individuals for criminal responsibility

AMSTERDAM: Members of the global chemical weapons watchdog considered a proposal on Tuesday to strip Syria of its rights at the Hague-based agency in response to findings that government forces repeatedly used poison gas.
A draft document, a copy of which was reviewed by Reuters, was circulated among the 193 members at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
It was proposed by 46 nations, including the United States, Britain and France.
Syria and its military ally Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons in the decade-old conflict, which has turned the once-technical agency into a flashpoint between rival political forces and deadlocked the UN Security Council.
The Russian and Syrian delegations at the OPCW did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The draft decision, which must win a two-thirds majority of members attending and voting during a meeting of the OPCW’s governing Conference of States Parties this week, proposes revoking voting rights and banning Damascus from holding any offices within the OPCW.
The draft, which could be put to a vote on Wednesday, said the ongoing use “establishes that the Syrian Arab Republic failed to declare and destroy all of its chemical weapons” after joining the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.
Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch, hopes the move will encourage countries to prosecute individuals for criminal responsibility.
“While this may be largely symbolic, it’s an important step toward holding the Syrian leadership accountable for their war crimes while confronting the biggest compliance crisis that parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention have ever faced,” he said.
Several investigations at the United Nations and by the OPCW’s special Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) concluded that Syrian government forces used the nerve agent sarin and chlorine barrel bombs, in attacks between 2015 and 2018 that investigators said killed or injured thousands.
Last week, the OPCW’s IIT concluded there were “reasonable grounds to believe” that Syria’s air force dropped a chlorine bomb on a residential neighborhood in the rebel-controlled Idlib region in February 2018. Syria dismissed the findings.


Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'

Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'
Updated 20 April 2021

Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'

Jordan's public prosecution ends investigation into 'recent events threatening security'
  • The results of the investigation for those involved ‘constituted a clear threat to the security and stability of the kingdom’

LONDON: An investigation into recent events that threatened to undermine Jordan’s security and stability has ended, the kingdom’s public prosecution said on Tuesday.
Brig. Gen. Hazem Al-Majali said: “The Public Prosecution of the State Security Court has completed its investigations relating to the events that the kingdom was exposed to recently.”
On April 5, Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi announced that more than a dozen individuals had been arrested on charges of undermining the security of the state.
“It became clear from the investigation that it contained different and varied roles and facts for those involved, which would have constituted a clear threat to the security and stability of the kingdom,” Brig. Gen. Al-Majali added.
He also said the State Security Prosecution is working on completing the final stages of the investigation and the legal procedures required to refer them to the State Security Court,” Jordanian news agency Petra reported.


Egypt fires top railway official after deadly train crashes

People gather by an overturned train carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt's central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
People gather by an overturned train carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt's central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 20 April 2021

Egypt fires top railway official after deadly train crashes

People gather by an overturned train carriage at the scene of a railway accident in the city of Toukh in Egypt's central Nile Delta province of Qalyubiya on April 18, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Raslan, who headed the railway authority since July 2018, was replaced Mustafa Abuel-Makarm
  • Country has seen three accidents in less than a month that left at least 29 people dead, some 320 injured

CAIRO: Egypt’s transportation minister on Tuesday said he sacked the country’s top railway official, following three train accidents in less than a month that left at least 29 people dead and some 320 injured.
The firing of Asharf Raslan, head of the railway authority, was part of a wide ranging overhaul of the rundown railway system's leadership amid public outcry over repeated train crashes.
Raslan, who headed the railway authority since July 2018, was replaced Mustafa Abuel-Makarm, the office of Transportation Minister Kamal el-Wazir said in a statement.
The changes included the main departments of the railway authority that manages train traffic in the Arab world’s most populous country.

READ MORE

At least 11 people were killed and nearly 100 injured in a train accident in Egypt on Sunday. Click here for more.

The overhaul was designed to “inject a number of competent professionals” amid efforts to upgrade the poorly-maintained network.
The changes came after a passenger train derailed Sunday north of Cairo, killing at least 11 people and injuring at least 98 others. That followed another train crash in the Nile Delta province of Sharqia last week that left 15 people wounded.
After Sunday’s crash, President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi announced the establishment of an official commission to investigate its causes. Prosecutors also launched their own probe.
On March 25, two passenger trains collided in the southern province of Sohag, killing at least 18 people and injuring 200 others, including children. Prosecutors blamed gross negligence by railway employees for that crash.
The country’s railway system, one of the world's oldest, has a history of badly maintained equipment and poor management.

READ MORE

Saudi Arabia said on Sunday it expresses its deep sorrow for the train accident north of the Egyptian capital Cairo. Click here for more.

The government says it has launched a broad renovation and modernization initiative, buying train cars and other equipment from European and U.S. manufacturers to automate the system and develop a domestic railcar industry.
El-Sissi said in March 2018 that the government needs about 250 billion Egyptian pounds, or $14.1 billion, to overhaul the run-down rail system.
Hundreds of train accidents are reported every year. In February 2019 an unmanned locomotive slammed into a barrier inside Cairo’s main Ramses railway station, causing a huge explosion and a fire that killed at least 25 people. That crash prompted the then-transportation minister to resign.
In August 2017, two passenger trains collided just outside the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, killing 43 people. In 2016, at least 51 people were killed when two commuter trains collided near Cairo.
Egypt’s deadliest train crash was in 2002, when over 300 people were killed after a fire broke out in an overnight train traveling from Cairo to southern Egypt.


Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests

Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests
Updated 20 April 2021

Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests

Turkey seeks jail terms for 97 over student protests
  • Indictment says suspects defied ban on rallies imposed to combat coronavirus pandemic
  • Prosecutors seeking 6 months to 3 years in jail for suspects' participation in unlawful rallies

ISTANBUL: Turkish prosecutors on Tuesday demanded jail terms for 97 people who joined student protests against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s appointment of a party loyalist as a top university’s rector.
According to Anadolu state news agency, the indictment said the suspects defied a ban on rallies imposed as part of measures to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
Prosecutors are seeking jail terms from six months to three years because of the suspects’ non-compliance with a law on “unarmed participation in unlawful rallies and refusal to disperse despite the warnings,” Anadolu said.
No date was given for the first hearing.
The protest movement — the biggest to rattle Erdogan’s rule in years — kicked off when the Turkish leader appointed longstanding ruling party member Melih Bulu as rector of Bogazici University at the start of the year.
The rallies began inside the campus grounds before spreading to the streets of Istanbul and other big cities with the backing of government opponents and supporters of broader LGBT rights.
The indictment specifically refers to a February 1 protest in Istanbul in which several groups defied police warnings and rallied outside the university’s locked gate.
Police roughly rounded up 108 people that day.
Ninety-seven of them were later released and a probe was launched against them by the prosecutor’s office, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors are conducting separate inquiries against the 11 remaining people, one of whom is underage.
The student demonstrations had echoes of 2013 protests that sprang up against plans to demolish an Istanbul park before spreading nationally and posing the first big political dilemma for Erdogan.
He has compared student protesters to “terrorists” and the rector at the root of the demonstrations has refused to give in to demands to step down.