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

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

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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.


Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect

Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect
Updated 12 min 29 sec ago

Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect

Greece arrests Moroccan Daesh suspect
  • Greek police sources told AFP the 28-year-old man was arrested in Thessaloniki
  • Morocco's MAP news agency said he was detained on Tuesday for alleged involvement in terror actions

RABAT: Greek security services have arrested a Moroccan suspected of belonging to Daesh in Syria who had appeared in one of their propaganda videos, police and security sources said Thursday.
Greek police sources told AFP the 28-year-old man was arrested in Thessaloniki on the basis of an international warrant issued in 2017 by Rabat, and that a decision would be taken on his possible extradition to Morocco.
Morocco’s MAP news agency, quoting a security source, said he was detained on Tuesday for alleged involvement in the planning of “terrorist” actions in Morocco.
The suspect, known as Abu Mohamed Al-Fateh, had joined the extremist group in Syria in 2014 and held “positions of responsibility,” it said.
He had appeared in a video showing the body of a Syrian fighter being mutilated.
About 1,600 Moroccans joined extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya, of whom 137 were killed, according to official figures in Morocco.


Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
Updated 29 July 2021

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three

Forest fires rage near Turkish resorts, killing three
  • At least 122 people have also been injured in the fires
  • President Erdogan announced that an arson investigation has already been initiated

ANKARA: Three people were reported dead Thursday and more than 100 injured as thousands of firefighters battled huge blazes spreading across the Mediterranean resort regions of Turkey’s southern coast.
Officials also launched an investigation into suspicions the fires that broke out Wednesday in four locations to the east of the tourist hotspot Antalya were the result of arson.
Turkey’s disaster and emergencies office said three people were killed — including an 82-year-old who lived alone — and 122 injured by the fires.
“Treatment of 58 of our citizens continues,” it was quoted as saying by the Anadolu state news agency.
The fires first emerged across a sparsely populated region about 75 kilometers (45 miles) east of Antalya — a resort especially popular with Russian and other eastern European tourists.
But they were creeping closer Thursday to sandy beaches dotted with hotels and resorts.
Images on social media and Turkish TV showed residents jumping out of their cars and running for their lives through smoke-filled streets lit up by orange flames.
The heavy clouds of smoke turned the sky dark orange over a beachfront hotel complex in the town of Manavgat.
Agriculture Minister Bekir Pakdemirli said a hotel was also being evacuated near the tourist city of Bodrum — some 300 kilometers west of Antalya — as new fires broke out across the southern coast.
Pakdemirli said 150 cows and thousands of sheep and goats had perished in the flames.

The fires were raging with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and wind gusts of 50 kilometers (30 miles) an hour.
But Antalya mayor Muhittin Bocek said he suspected foul play because the fires started in four locations at once.
“This suggests an arson attack, but we do not have clear information about that at this stage,” Bocek said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said an investigation had already been launched.
The Russian embassy said Moscow had sent three giant firefighting aircraft to dump fire retardant on the burning forests to contain the flames.
More than 4,000 Turkish firefighters had been dispatched across the region to help contain the damage and search for people needing help.
They rescued 10 people on Thursday who were stranded on a boat in a lake that was surrounded by burning forest.
“All of the state’s means have been mobilized,” Environment Minister Murat Kurum said. “All our teams are in the field.”


Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
Updated 46 min 9 sec ago

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria

Syrian rebels attack army outposts in southern Syria
  • This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago
  • The widespread attacks at army outposts near the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic

AMMAN: Syrian rebels waged a spate of mortar attacks on Syrian army checkpoints in the southern province of Daraa, rebels, residents and the army said on Thursday.
This is the biggest flare-up of violence since government forces retook the restive region three years ago.
The widespread attacks at army outposts near the Damascus-Daraa highway leading to the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic at the main gateway for goods from Lebanon and Syria to the Gulf.
Multiple army checkpoints around key towns and villages from the town of Nawa north of the province to Muzarib near the border with Jordan were also seized, they said.
The army has sent reinforcements from its elite Fourth Division, run by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s brother Maher, senior military defectors said, confirming army leaks.
The attacks came after the army launched a dawn operation against the rebel-held old quarter of the city of Daraa, where peaceful protests against decades of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011 and were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.
The army has sought to reassert its control after the collapse of talks earlier this week to get local elders and former rebels to allow the army to extend its control inside the old quarter, known as Daraa al Balad.
The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of the strategic province that borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights to the west in the summer of 2018.
Russian-brokered deals at the time forced rebels to hand over heavy weapons and return state institutions in the enclave but kept away the army from entering their neighborhoods.
“The rebels have waged a counter offensive after the army operation against Daraa whose intensity has taken the regime by surprise,” said Zaid al Rayes, a political opposition figure in touch with local groups in Daraa.
State media said terrorists had fired at the main hospital in Daraa and the army had evacuated hundreds of fleeing families from rebel held neighborhoods.
Thousands of former rebels had chosen to stay with their families rather than head to remaining rebel-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas had gathered.
The province saw a widespread boycott of last May’s polls that extended Assad’s presidency in what officials saw as a defiance of state authority.
Western intelligence sources say growing dissent is aggravated by the presence of Iranian-backed local militias who now hold sway and act with impunity since the central government is too weak to impose its authority on the area.


Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
Updated 29 July 2021

Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors to target defense workers

A fake Facebook page that was controlled by an Iranian hacker, according to reports. (Screenshot)
  • They sent “flirtatious” videos to build rapport and later delivered malware to targets’ devices
  • It is unclear whether any sensitive information was stolen

LONDON: A group of Iranian hackers posed as aerobics instructors from Liverpool, UK, and sent flirtatious messages in an attempt to steal sensitive information from defense and aerospace industry personnel.

The hackers’ false identities were exposed by Facebook and the cybersecurity company Proofpoint, which said the operation proves the effort that Iran is putting into targeting individuals of interest.

The hackers have been identified as part of the TA456 group, which also goes by the name of Tortoiseshell — a group widely believed to be aligned with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Proofpoint described the group as “one of the most determined Iranian-aligned threat actors” that it tracks, due to tactics of spending months or years building up a relationship with targets across various platforms, as well as its “general persistence.”

The operatives created fake Facebook, Instagram and email accounts for a woman named Marcella Flores. She was depicted as a smiling, tanned and dark-haired Spanish woman working as a fitness instructor in Liverpool. They created a fake education and work history for her.

Proofpoint said that Flores would target people who publicly identified themselves as employees at defence contractors on social media accounts, befriending them before starting up a conversation.

In one case, she sent the target benign messages and photographs, as well as a “flirtatious” video to build a rapport, before later sending a link to a dietary survey but that in fact contained a malware download that would steal usernames, passwords and other data.

Proofpoint did not say whether the attacks were successful, but if they were, the stolen information could be used to gain access to larger aerospace companies that the original target was a subsidiary or contractor for.

Facebook banned her account and that of several others earlier this month, saying that they were all fake online personas created by the Iranian operatives to “conduct espionage operations across the internet.”

Facebook said: “Our investigation found them targeting military personnel and companies in the defence and aerospace industries primarily in the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK and Europe.”

When the comprehensive campaign was revealed, Amin Sabeti, an expert in Iranian cyber-operations, told Arab News that the strategy — which he dubs “social engineering” hacking — is a go-to tactic for Iranian operatives, or those working on behalf of the state.

“It’s the same pattern that Iranian state-backed hackers have been following for years,” he said.

Sabeti explained that they rely on manipulating targets into providing sensitive information or account details that can then be exploited for their gain — and, since they are operating from Iranian soil, “they have the consent of the regime.”

Sabeti said: “It’s easy, cheap, there’s plausible deniability and it works, it’s effective.”


Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
Updated 29 July 2021

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO

Delta variant drives Mideast virus surge: WHO
  • WHO said the highly transmissible strain has been recorded in 15 out of the region’s 22 countries
  • Tunisia has been struggling to contain the outbreak

CAIRO: The World Health Organization said Thursday the Delta variant has led to a "surge" in coronavirus outbreaks triggering a "fourth wave" in the Eastern Mediterranean region, where vaccination rates remain low.
The global health body said the highly transmissible strain, first detected in India, has been recorded in 15 out of the 22 countries of the region under its purview, stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
"The circulation of the Delta variant is fuelling the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths in an increasing number of countries in WHO's Eastern Mediterranean Region," it said in a statement.
"Most of the new cases and hospitalised patients are unvaccinated people. We are now in the fourth wave of Covid-19 across the region," said Ahmed al-Mandhari, director of WHO's Eastern Mediterranean region.
Infections have increased by 55 percent, and deaths by 15 percent, in the last month compared to the month before. More than 310,000 case and 3,500 deaths have been recorded weekly.
Countries such as Tunisia, which has suffered the biggest number of Covid-19 deaths in North Africa, have been struggling to contain the outbreak.
Critical shortages of oxygen tanks and intensive care beds have stretched the capacities of healthcare systems regionally.
WHO noted the rapid spread of the Delta variant was quickly making it "the dominant strain" in the region.
According to a recent paper in the journal Virological, the amount of virus found in the first tests of patients with the Delta variant was 1,000 times higher than patients in the first wave of the virus in 2020, greatly increasing its contagiousness.

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