memri
March 30, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1507

Syrian Opposition Websites: The Iranian Militias Are The Main Vector For Mass COVID-19 Infections In Syria – And The Syrian Regime Is Keeping It A Secret

March 30, 2020 | By O. Peri
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1507

As COVID-19 spread across the Middle East, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad continued to assert until recently that it had not reached Syria. Only on March 22, 2020 was the first case in the country announced.[1]

However, Syrian opposition websites stated that the virus had arrived in Syria many days, even weeks, earlier, and that the regime was intentionally hiding the large number of cases in the country. These websites said that the main vector for the disease's spread in Syria was the pro-Iran militias coming in from Iran and Iraq, where the disease is rampant. They also said that the Syrian regime was concealing the number of those with the disease, warning medical staff not to reveal the numbers, and even killing off infected patients. At the same time, opposition elements expressed fears that the regime would say that oppositionists tortured to death in its prisons had died of COVID-19 instead.

The Syrian regime responded by saying that the only reliable information about the virus was on Syrian Health Ministry websites. Articles in the Syrian government press rejected the opposition's claims about regime concealment of the actual numbers of COVID-19 patients in the country and called for trusting the state and not believing elements trying to foment fear in society.


Syrian regime: "There is no coronavirus in Syria" (Source: Al-Arab, London, March 15, 2020)

This report will review Syrian opposition reports on the spread of COVID-19 in Syria.

Opposition Elements: The Virus Is Spreading Among Iranian IRGC Members, Pro-Iran Militias Stationed In Syria

While the Syrian regime repeatedly denied that there were any coronavirus cases in Syria, Syrian opposition websites reported that the disease was spreading across the country, particularly in the east where pro-Iran militias are deployed, which have many non-Syrian members.

For example, the Euphrates Eye Facebook page reported on March 13 that the virus was spreading among members of the Iranian militia in the city of Al-Bukamal in eastern Deir Al-Zour province, and that there were over 100 cases of it already.[2] A subsequent report, on March 15, stated that 31 members of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Deir Al-Zour city had been infected, of whom 16 had been transferred to Iran and 15 remained in local hospitals. Many cases were also reported among Hizbullah members in the city.[3] On March 14, the Deirezzor24.net news outlet reported on the first death in the city, that of an elderly woman, and added that Syrian commanders had ordered their soldiers in the city not to shake hands with IRGC members and to keep away from them.[4]

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the disease had also spread in Al-Mayadeen in eastern Deir Al-Zour province and that there were 15 cases among the Iran loyalist militias – 11 Iranians and four Iraqis.[5]

According to the Saudi Elaph website, Iran has decided to wage secret biological warfare against the Syrian rebels and the international anti-ISIS coalition in eastern Syria by sending fighters infected with COVID-19 to the front and also spreading the disease among the residents of Al-Bukamal.[6]

According to other reports, the virus had spread to other regions of Syria as well. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on March 22 that there were cases in Damascus, Tartus, Latakia, and Homs provinces, and that a nurse from one of those districts had died of it.[7]

The opposition-affiliated Syrian journalist Ziad Al-Rayes stated that the Al-Saida Zainab area in Damascus, a Shi'ite pilgrimage site attracting many Iranians and Iraqis, was the first region in Syria to be infected. He added that the current number of cases in the country was "large and frightening, because the virus is spreading in military bases where Iranian militias are stationed, such as the Al-Sha'irat airport [in Homs province], the Hama military airfield, and Aleppo international airport."[8]

Opposition: The Regime Is Placing A News Blackout On The High Number Of Cases – And Warning Doctors Not To Reveal This

Many of the opposition reports stated that the Syrian regime was aware of the situation but was deliberately concealing it  from the public. In this context, opposition journalist Nizar Nayouf noted in a March 8 post on his Facebook page that the Syrian national security bureau had circulated a top-secret memorandum, beginning in early March, warning recipients not to talk about COVID-19 cases in Syria lest this matter "very negatively impact the organization and activity of the security, military, administrative, and economic institutions and spread chaos and panic at a time when we are at war." Nayouf added that he had been told by a doctor at the Tishrin military hospital in Damascus that there were over 3,000 cases of COVID-19 in the country, mostly in Latakia, Tartus, and Damascus provinces, and that 520 people from these areas had already died of it.[9]

Similarly, medical sources told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that they had received "very firm orders" from the Syrian regime to keep the number of cases secret and to refrain from discussing the spread of the virus in the country.[10] Another Syrian medical source told the Zamanalwsl.net opposition website that there are cases in isolation in the public hospitals in Latakia and that there is a full news blackout on reporting about their condition.[11] Yet another medical source confirmed that there are cases in the cities of Al-Mayadeen, Al-Bukamal, and Deir Al-Zour, but stressed that the could not say so openly for fear of arrest. He added that this was being kept secret and that the Syrian security apparatuses were warning people to say nothing about it.[12] Also, on March 12, regime-affiliated social media accounts reported that Dr. 'Amad Taher Isma'il, head of the radiology department at Al-Bassel Hospital in the town of Al-Qardaha, had died of unknown causes, but several opposition activists said that he had been murdered for saying that there are coronavirus cases in Syria.[13]

Furthermore, the Damascusv.com website stated that at Al-Mujtahed government hospital in Damascus, patients suspected of being infected with coronavirus were being deliberately put to death, by anesthesia overdose.[14]

Even after the regime reported on one verified case in the country, the opposition websites continued to report on much higher numbers of cases, and deaths. On March 24, Euphrates Eye reported on 10 deaths and 60 new cases in Damascus, most of them from the Al-Saida Zainab and Al-Dhiabia areas.[15]

Against this backdrop, Mouzon Morshed, oppositionist and columnist for Zamanalwsl.net, criticized the regime's handling of the coronavirus crisis. She wrote: "At the [Lebanon-Syria] border, Lebanese authorities discovered cases of coronavirus coming from Syria; Pakistan discovered [on its soil] cases from Syria; Iran discovered by accident that most of its troops in Syria were infected with coronavirus; and the Russians are keeping their troops away from the Iranian soldiers for fear that the disease will spread [to them]. Despite all this, 'Syria, whom Allah protects,' remains clean of this selective virus that infects according to nationality and does not come close to Syrians...

"Far away from the official sources, completely different news and leaks emerge from within [Syria]. Thus, it was reported that the Syrian regime assassinated Dr. 'Amad Taher Isma'il, radiology department head at Al-Bassel Hospital in Al-Qardaha, because he declared that there were many cases of the virus in Syria. It is reported that the virus has spread extensively within Syria, particularly among the Assad forces due to their direct contact with the Iranian fighters who recently returned from a pilgrimage to the [Iranian holy] city of Qom. In addition, it was reported that the president of the Syrian regime is keeping himself and his family away from any contact that would risk infection, and that he cares not whether the virus infects the rest of the [Syrian] people...

"The Syrian patient will die without knowing that what killed him was not the disease but the regime's negligence, unwillingness to deal with the disease, and lack of all sense of responsibility to the citizens who were accidentally saved from its long war... It seems that the Syrian regime sees the glass half full with regard to the death of innocent people – because those who die save he Syrian government their wages, their space on [public] transportation, their crust of bread, and their share of oxygen..." [16]

In Opposition, Fear That Regime Will Use COVID-19 Crisis To Explain Deaths Of Imprisoned Oppositionists

Along with claiming that the Assad regime is concealing the facts about COVID-19 in Syria, opposition elements expressed apprehension that the regime would cite the pandemic as the cause of death for prisoners tortured to death in its prisons. On March 22, President Al-Assad issued a mass pardon to reduce crowding in the prisons because of the disease, but it applied only to criminals, not oppositionists and rebels.[17]

Mustafa Sejari, head of the political bureau of the Liwa Al-Mu'tasim opposition faction, tweeted that the Syrian intelligence apparatuses were circulating stories about the spread of the virus in prisons and warned that they could "bring the pandemic into the prisons in order to register all those they tortured to death in the past as coronavirus deaths."[18] 

Likewise, Judge ‘Abdallah Hamadi told the opposition website Orientnews that the Syrian intelligence agencies see the virus as an opportunity to explain prisoners' deaths and thus evade accusations of torturing them to death.[19]

The president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Anas Al-‘Abdah,  voiced a similar concern in a letter to the president of the Red Cross International Committee, Peter Maurer, warning that if COVID-19 reaches Syrian prisons, “the regime may exploit [this] to eliminate prisoners.”[20]  

At the same time, Syrian human rights activists launched an information campaign, under the hashtag "Save The Prisoners From Assad's Coronavirus," calling for freeing prisoners from Syrian regime prisons in light of the spread of the disease. The campaign also warned that the regime might, inter alia, take advantage of it to eliminate thousands of them – particularly political prisoners.[21]

Another campaign, launched on the website Secure.avaaz.org, which promotes global activism on various issues, called on the UN and on humanitarian organizations to obligate the Syrian regime to release prisoners of conscience in light of the epidemic and thus to prevent a humanitarian crisis.[22]

Opposition: Assad And Iran Are Worse Than COVID-19

Some anti-regime activists took advantage of the crisis to castigate the regime and its ally Iran. For example, Fateh Hasson, commander of the Tahrir Watan faction, tweeted: "The coronavirus would need to kill 5% of the world's population to reach the level of Bashar Al-Assad, who killed one million of [the Syrian population of] 23 million. No virus is as deadly as the 'Bashar germ.'"[23]


Fateh Hasson's tweet: "No virus is as deadly as the 'Bashar germ'"

In another tweet, Hasson wrote: “The coronavirus epidemic does not kill children, the Assad regime kills them. The coronavirus epidemic does not rape women, the Assad regime rapes them. The coronavirus epidemic does not drive families [from their homes], the Assad regime does so. The coronavirus epidemic releases prisoners, [while] the Assad regime arrests them.” [24]

Additionally, in the city of Deraa in southern Syria, anti-regime Syrians sprayed graffiti on walls stating that Iran and the Shi'ites were more dangerous than the coronavirus.[25]


"The coronavirus is preferable to the Shi'a"; "Quarantine the Iranians who brought us the coronavirus" March 21, 2020. 


"The real protection [from the virus] is to purge the Shi'a from the beloved Syria"

Responses In Articles In Government Dailies: The Health Minister Has No Interest In Concealing Information

Against the backdrop of the opposition's claims, the Syrian Health Ministry called on citizens "not to engage in rumormongering and not to pass on unreliable information in order to spark panic and fear, but to get information only from reliable sources."[26]

Articles in the Syrian government press called on the public to trust the measures being taken by the regime to tackle the crisis, and not to be drawn into circulating rumors that the virus is spreading in the country. For example, columnist Bassel Ma'lah wrote in the Al-Thawra daily:

"It is not logical that the Health Ministry would be concealing or keeping secret information about infections – what would its interest be in doing so, particularly when it comes to a disease that is striking most of the countries in the world and is not overlooking the largest and most powerful of them[?]... Let us trust the Syrian state, that has always proven to be responsible to its citizens in practical terms, and let us stand with it. This is particularly so because awareness and taking preventative measures is the most significant factor in avoiding becoming infected with this disease, which has proven to be beyond the power of many countries, and has begun to threaten the entire world."[27]

Another Al-Thawra columnist, Isra Al-Samak, wrote in her column: "Among those with evil goals and biased channels, some are trying to arouse fears so as to stop the cycle of everyday life, spread chaos, and force quarantine on Syria, to add to the economic siege, in order to exacerbate the situation [in the country]. We will fight this by taking additional preventative steps and by adhering to the health guidelines issued by the relevant bodies. Thus, we will be a country immune to this global pandemic, as we have withstood all the harsh conditions we have undergone..."[28]

 

* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] Sana.sy, March 22, 2020. Syrian Health Minister Nizar Yazigi said that the patient was a 20-year-old woman who had arrived from abroad but did not say where she had come from or whether she was a Syrian national (Sana.sy). On March 29 the Syrian regime reported nine confirmed cases of the virus, and also announced the first death from the virus  (Sana.sy, March 29, 2020). Beginning mid-March, the regime began to implement a series of gradual measures aimed at preventing the virus from spreading, such as postponing parliamentary elections by a month, closing schools for several weeks, cancelling sports events, suspending most government ministry activity, and closing most businesses (Sana.sy, March 12, 14, 21, 28, 2020). Likewise, on March 22, when the first case was announced, all fights into and out of Syria were cancelled, border crossings were closed, many prisoners were freed from prison, and a curfew was imposed (Facebook.com/radioshamfm, March 22, 2020).

[2] Facebook.com/euphrateseye, March 13, 2020.

[3] Facebook.com/euphrateseye, March 15, 2020.

[4] Deirezzor24.net, March 14, 2020.

[5] Syriahr.com, March 22, 2020.

[6] Elaph.com, March 27, 2020.

[7] Syriahr.com, March 22, 2020.

[8] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 16, 2020.

[9] Facebook.com/n.nayouf, March 8, 2020.

[10] Syriahr.com, March 10, 2020.

[11] Zamanalwsl.net, March 16, 2020.

[12] Eqtsad.net, March 10, 2020.

[13] Facebook.com/QERDAHAJOURNAL, March 12, 2020; Shaam.org, March 12, 2020.

[14] Damascusv.com, March 10, 2020.

 [15]Facebook.com/euphrateseye, March 24, 2020.  

[16] Zamanwsl.net, March 14, 2020.

[17] Sana.sy, March 22, 2020.

[18] Twitter.com/MustafaSejari, March 21, 2020.

[19] Orient-news.net, March 22, 2020.

[20] Etilaf.org, March 25, 2020.

[21] Orient-news.net, March 23, 2020.

[22] Secure.avaaz.org, March 24, 2020.

[23] Twitter.com/fatehhasson, March 13, 2020.

[24] Twitter.com/fatehhasson, March 27, 2020.

[25] Facebook.com/groups/Horan.Free.League, March 22, 2020.

[26] Sana.sy, March 26, 2020.

[27] Al-Thawra (Syria), March 9, 2020.

[28] Al-Thawra (Syria), March 14, 2020.

 

Share this Report:

SUPPORT MEMRI'S FIGHT AGAINST

EXTREMISM - 2020 SPRING CAMPAIGN