Syria & COVID-19

Syria & Covid-19: Regional Impact, Geopolitical Consequences

A UICCS Report - May 2020

What happens if a global pandemic spreads to a country that has already been torn apart by civil war? And how does such an event impact the global geopolitical situation? UICCS looked to find answers to these questions by studying the case of Syria, where the spread of Covid-19 has further complicated the continued conflict in the country. The resulting findings are compiled in an opinionated editorial concerning the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, and in video summarizing the geopolitical consequences.

This video created by Alexander Hoppenbrouwers discusses the potential geopolitical consequences associated with the Covid-19 crisis in Syria. 


COVID-19: A New Threat to the Syrian Humanitarian Crisis

An opinionated editorial by: Zach Frazer, Laura Birbalaitė, Cosme Mesquita da Cunha, and Leonard Van Lembergen
(Literature list is part of the upcoming report)

A Ticking Bomb in a War-Torn Syria

In a conflict already characterized by volatility, the Coronavirus has added an additional element of unpredictability to the Syrian Civil War. Nine years of perpetual violence have led to the cumulative loss of gross domestic product of $226 billion, as well as 70% of the population living below the poverty line (UNHCR, 2018). These factors have only increased the vulnerability of Syria to the effects of the Coronavirus, and two key threats caused by the pandemic look likely to be realized within the ongoing civil war.        

Firstly, continued warfare between the al-Assad government and opposition forces in the north-western governorate of Idlib has led to the formation of mass displacement camps within the region. These camps contain more than 900,000 displaced Syrians and are characterized by their ‘deplorable and unsanitary living conditions’ (Iddon, 2020). While outbreaks of the Coronavirus within Northern Syria have not yet appeared, the overcrowded nature of these camps has made social distancing impossible, and the displaced population especially vulnerable to a major outbreak. With limited access to COVID-19 testing kits and healthcare infrastructure and hospitals within Idlib incapacitated due to being targeted and bombed (Islamic Relief, 2020), projections have been made that an outbreak in Idlib could lead to as many as 100,000 deaths in the region (Sevinclidir, 2020). While the UN has helped facilitate a short-term cease-fire in Syria to contain the Coronavirus in Northern Syria, the cease-fire is likely to be impermanent; and the outbreak of future conflict only amplifies the likelihood of a future outbreak (Bowen, 2020).


”With limited access to COVID-19 testing kits and healthcare infrastructure and hospitals within Idlib incapacitated due to being targeted and bombed (…) projections have been made that an outbreak in Idlib could lead to as many as 100,000 deaths in the region”


The Coronavirus has also raised questions over the reconstruction of Syria. With Idlib existing as the last rebel-held stronghold within Syria, regional conflict between the Syrian government and opposition forces looks set to come to an end, attention has turned to the cost of restoring Syria (Shatz, 2019). With Al-Assad predicting that Syria’s reconstruction will cost between $250 and $400 billion (Daher, 2019), the question of who will pay to rebuild Syria has been raised. The United States, France, and Germany, as well as other Western allies, have refused, stating there will be ‘no reconstruction without a political transition’ within Syria (Calamur, 2019). Allies in Russia and Iran both have an interest in maintaining their regional influence within Syria, however, these states are unable to take on the economic costs of reconstruction; both of which have widespread sanctions placed upon them by the rest of the international community. COVID-19 has made the situation even more unmanageable, with states now focused on combating domestic outbreaks of the pandemic, and in conjunction with the volatile nature of the global economic climate, are unlikely to invest in the rebuilding of a post-war Syria. Even if the Syrian Civil War comes to a close, a reconstruction of Syria supported by the international community within the immediate future looks to be unfeasible.

With the Syrian Civil War unlikely to come to a swift resolution, the future looks bleak for the Syrian populace, as the ongoing Coronavirus looks set to exacerbate one of the ‘worst humanitarian tragedies in history’ (Carey, 2019).

A Pandemic-driven Springboard for a Rising Russia

The Russian Federation with Putin running the show is seizing the opportunities that came with the COVID-19 crisis. Particularly, the ones allowing for an exercise of its (or his) power in Syria and further establish the Russian dominance in the Middle East. Although hit hard by the virus, Russia managed to act out on the global stage to further support the Syrian government amidst the crisis: the Russian authorities urged the UN and other governments to lift unilateral sanctions against the Syrian government.  According to the Russian UN ambassador, instead of continuing the harmful pre-pandemic activities directed at the Syrian statehood, it is better to “rather focus on engaging humanitarian agencies in a constructive dialogue” with Syria (Foreign Policy, 2020, May 1). The call, however, was rejected by the United Nations.

In addition to the global representation, Russia is helping Syria fight the virus and is shipping medical gear and staff, which is crucially needed due to the aforementioned bombing of hospitals which resulted in a critical shortage of hospital beds. Nevertheless, Russia prefers aiding Syria without the Western support as the UN health agency’s efforts to reopen the critical crossing point along the border of Syria-Iraq at Yarouba in order to support the Syrians in the battle against the virus were vetoed by Russia (Foreign Policy, 2020, May 1). Strategically, however, Putin welcomes and encourages other Arab countries to get involved in aiding Syria, as was offered by the UAE, and even called upon more Arab countries to follow the example (Syrian Observer, April, 10). Such clever outmanoeuvring of the West once again helps Putin move further away from Westers influence in the region and come closer to the Arab states in his quest for power in the Middle East.

However, as the pandemic is evolving, not all Arab countries are warming up toward the Russians. As Russia is increasing its presence and dominance in Syria, the competition with Iran is growing. According to Haid Haid, a research fellow at King’s College in London, “The competition between Iran and Russia is one of the main reasons behind the instability in Dera’a. Iran’s allies are trying to destabilise areas controlled by Russian-backed factions in order to consolidate their control” (The Financial Times, 2020). The growing violence in the southwestern city in Syria, which is being controlled by the Russian military police, is a problem for the Russian authorities that are increasingly frustrated with president al-Assad. A former Russian ambassador noticed that the Russian government is growing impatient with the inability or reluctance of the regime to develop a functional system to mitigate corruption and crime (PressTV, 2020). In spite of the criticism of al-Assad’s regime, Russia’s interests in Syria remain clear as it takes the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to secure and, perhaps, increase its dominance in the country. However, as Iran is facing dire consequences of the current pandemic domestically, will the country be able to hold its back in the competition against Russia? Or, as Russian sources warn; as the weakest party to the conflict, will it resort to escalating the situation in Syria?


”In spite of the criticism of al-Assad’s regime, Russia’s interests in Syria remain clear as it takes the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to secure and, perhaps, increase its dominance in the country.”


A New Obstacle for Turkish Military Aims in the Syrian Conflict

Turkey’s position in the Syrian conflict in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is defined by several different factors. Firstly, its internal situation is unstable. Turkey itself has been badly hit by the virus. With 127 659 confirmed cases on May 4th, 2020, Turkey is the most infected country outside of Europe and the United States. (Worldometers, 2020) It also finds itself in a dire economic situation, with a weak currency, a high government debt, a growing unemployment, and because of the crisis, a high risk of inflation in the near future. Furthermore, the presence and burden of 3.7 million refugees within its borders has been a source of growing political unrest. This means that, before considering any move in Syria, Turkey will have to settle these domestic issues.                                                                                                                               

Secondly, the coronavirus has been relatively silent in Syria until now – the low amount of cases probably partly due to a lack of testing. However, in the likely event of a serious outbreak in the region, during which the virus behaves in Syria as it has elsewhere, the situation is bound to turn into a grave humanitarian tragedy. If Turkey decides to act at any point in this current situation, not only would they encounter the same military resistance as before – the whole international community would be in outrage and highly condemn Turkish President Erdogan’s actions.

Thirdly, Turkey is neither in the right diplomatic position nor does it have the military capacity for a decisive offensive in Syria. Turkey finds itself without true, stable allies. It has an ambiguous but broken relationship with the United States, and American troops have withdrawn from the conflict; it has a tense and uncertain relationship with the European Union, the refugees remaining a point of deep disagreement between the two, and the EU refusing to offer military support to Turkey in Northern Syria. Lastly, the fragile ceasefire it has agreed upon with Russia in early March only came after Turkey suffered military losses from a Russia-backed Syrian government offensive, and it would be delusional of Turkey to risk a direct military confrontation with Russia.  On top of that, Damascus has started to cooperate with the Libyan National Army, which is fighting the Turkish-backed Libyan administration in Tripoli, and that could represent yet another obstacle for Turkish military operations.

One option Turkey might have is to rearrange its cards in Idlib and enforce a new structure of the Syrian opposition factions under one military umbrella, under authority of the Turkish army. This would allow Turkey to control the whole area from the M4 to the Turkish border in collaboration with this unified army of militias and to transform its section of the security corridor along the M4 into a new roadblock for the Syrian army, once the highway is reopened. Apart from this, Turkey’s struggle against the virus, its fragile economy and its unstable diplomatic situation do not give Turkey many opportunities in the conflict in the near future. 


Projections for a Post-Pandemic Syria

So, what does the future of the Syrian conflict hold? How are the actors involved in the civil war using the current COVID-19 pandemic to their advantage? Whilst most actors benefit from the ravaging virus in some way, some are poised to gain more than others. The war in Syria is not yet won, leaving room for continued influence by countries such as Russia, Turkey and Iran. It is true that Bashar al-Assad has regained control over most of Syria, yet he has not won the conflict; he has merely survived it.      

The geographical territory that he has inherited is destroyed and divided. In the north, Turkey finds itself trespassing and trying to hold onto its power over a mutual border meant to keep Syrian and Turkish Kurds separated. In the west, Hezbollah – a militant group funded by Iran – controls large parts of Lebanon and is seeking an ever-increasing voice in Syrian governance. Ultimately, their desire for increased influence can be traced back to Iran’s tentacle-like approach to Middle Eastern politics. The biggest sway, however, must come from the Russian plains, in the form of Vladimir Putin. Their involvement in the conflict has proven to pay off, allowing for the return of Cold War-esque control.

Turkey’s involvement in the conflict is set to decrease as it is being hit by COVID-19 on a similar level as the EU or U.S. Combined with a dwindling economy, an alliance structure that is not in Turkey’s favour and a lack of support from the EU, Ankara is bound to lose control over its influence. As Syrian-funded rebels in Libya seek to overthrow the Turkish-backed government, Turkey will have to divert more resources to that region, further chipping away at their influence in Syria.       


”The war in Syria is not yet won, leaving room for continued influence by countries such as Russia, Turkey and Iran. It is true that Bashar al-Assad has regained control over most of Syria, yet he has not won the conflict; he has merely survived it.”


Russia readies itself to use Turkey’s fate and COVID’s rise as a stepping stone to secure not only regional, but also global power. Using its veto at the UN, Moscow meanwhile seems bent on ending all cross-border humanitarian assistance, forcing aid to be funnelled through Damascus. As ceasefires are being called for, all parties are gathering for a fight over Idlib. With roughly 20 percent of the Syrian population in the tiny northern province, a humanitarian disaster is ready to break out – followed by a sharp increase in extremism.                                                                 

The ten-year civilian conflict has led to unseen levels of death and destruction. Rebuilding the country will cost as much as $400 billion, yet little help is to be expected from those who gained most influence in the region. Russia’s economy followed oil prices to the bottom, and Turkey’s was never strong to begin with. Assad will be looking at China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ to get the country back on track. What he seems to forget is that rebuilding infrastructure is not the same as rebuilding a society. The latter, however, he never seemed to care much for.