With a limited capacity to treat just 6500 COVID-19 cases at one time, the Syrian health infrastructure is not equipped to handle any major outbreak of the virus. Since the announcement of the first case on March 22nd, the regime authority has implemented a number of measures to control its potential spread among the most populated cities. First, it has closed all its land borders with neighboring countries, and second, it has implemented a partial curfew and recently prohibited the movement of populations between provinces.
Nonetheless, the measures implemented by the Syrian regime will most likely fail to prevent a humanitarian crisis from happening. The news of the pandemic has triggered a considerable increase in prices of commodities on the market and has also accelerated the declining value of the Syrian pound. Moreover, since 2013, Damascus has largely relied on both Iran and Russia for imports of wheat and pharmaceuticals. The continuation of this trade could be highly impacted if the two countries face their own challenges at home.
To address these difficulties, the regime authorities have announced the allocation of SYP 100 billion fund to support the continuity of food production and medical supplies. Whether this fund will suffice to lessen the impact of any possible outbreak or not, is a question that only time can answer. However, another reality remains undisputable, the regime’s capacity to consolidate its authority will halt and dissatisfaction among the loyalist population will increase. Consequently, local communities’ sense of autonomy will increase, triggering new dynamics and challenging the order set by the regime. Such attempts will be perceived by the regime as a threat to its own power networks and could further worsen its relationship with its constituency.
Meanwhile, in northeastern Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) will exploit Turkey’s intervention by containing the pandemic at home, consolidating its legitimacy, both internally and internationally. On the domestic front, the administration will attempt to carry out an exemplary plan to counter the pandemic and to demonstrate leadership in response to its threat. In addition to re-enforcing the health sector, it will most probably exercise stronger control over the market and regulate basic commodity prices. Internationally, it will accelerate its talks with the Syrian Kurdish National Council (KNC) and try to achieve reconciliation before the summer. Such an agreement could lead to the inclusion of some of the KNC figures in the PYD-led administration but could also threaten its integrity since some of its members will most likely refrain from concluding any deal with the PYD.
Isolated from their surroundings, US soldiers are relatively safe from contracting the virus while serving in Syria. Nonetheless, a complete US withdrawal from Syria is possible if the situation worsens at home or in the Middle East at large. If for one reason or another the USA retreats before a ‘final’ settlement is reached with Damascus on the future of the Autonomous Administration, Russia will seize this opportunity to cement an agreement in favor of the regime.
Finally, in Idlib, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Salvation Government’s legitimacy will be strongly tested. The Russian-Turkish agreement poses a considerable threat to their authority in the region, and the economic and health ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic now create new challenges for the group. Unable to react to the increasing local demands, the HTS governance model might not survive and may witness collapses, especially in the most densely populated areas. The current cease fire is holding, primarily thanks to the Russian and Turkish entente, but if for some reason HTS decides to alleviate some of the mounting pressure on its organization by attacking the regime forces, Russia will lift all restrictions on the regime to retaliate and to advance on northern Idlib.
Meanwhile, the regime control over the M4 and M5 highways will consolidate over the next few weeks with the help and assistance of the Turkish Armed Forces which enforce discipline over its local allies. The local population dependency on Turkey will increase, and the presence of Turkish NGOs will further entrench in the area. Syrian NGOs financed by the UN and the international community will come under increasing pressure from the local population, and with no extra funds being channeled to respond to the pandemic or its economic impact, the local population could turn hostile towards them, mainly out of frustration.