On Thursday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported that several cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the regime-held governorates of Damascus, Homs, Latakia, and Tartus. The SOHR also says that some of these patients have died. Moreover, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a US-based doctor and founder of MedGlobal, estimates that there are at least 2,400 cases of coronavirus in Syria, and that over 400 people have died.
Likewise, in Syria's eastern Deir al Zour, where the regime and its Iranian allies still maintain significant presence, at least one person has reportedly died from coronavirus. The pro-opposition outlet Deir al Zour 24 also reported that another infected individual from the governorate sought medical assistance in Damascus' Tishreen hospital and is now quarantined therein. Though these details remain unconfirmed.
Pro-opposition outlets, including the aforementioned Deir al Zour 24 and SY24, have reported that regime troops, as well as Russian forces, have taken preventative measures in recent days. For instance, Deir al Zour 24 reports that regime commanders have allegedly banned hand-to-hand contact and to engage in social distancing with Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) soldiers.
While SY24 has reported that Russian troops are currently monitoring and checking regime soldiers in Deir al Zour for any coronavirus symptoms. And outside of the region, Pakistan has blamed several cases of coronavirus in its country on returnees from Syria. It is unclear who exactly the 'returnees' were, though it is worth mentioning that the IRGC's Pakistani proxy, Liwa Zaynabioun, does play an outsized role inside Syria.
Despite all of this, the Assad regime has been insistent that the country is coronavirus-free. This line has been maintained even though the government has taken several preventative steps to limit the spread of the virus. For example, schools in government-held areas of Syria are to be closed until April 2, the parliamentary elections were pushed back to May 20, and most public events have been halted. It has also been reported that work hours have also been cut to 40%.
And although denying the presence of the virus, the Assad regime has also announced the creation of quarantine centers, with "two in each [regime-held] governorate."
Preventative measures outside of regime control
In areas outside of regime-held territory, local governments in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the east and by Hay'at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Idlib have also taken several steps to attempt to limit the spread of the virus in those areas.
For instance, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (or Rojava, the government of SDF-held areas) announced that large gatherings are prohibited, schools are closed until further notice, and border crossings are closed for those who do not live in SDF territory (among other measures).
In Idlib, HTS itself has not addressed the virus or any measures taken to contain it inside the governorate. However, the HTS-backed Salvation Government has started a public awareness campaign to help stop the spread. Released as an infographic on Telegram (and likely in real life), the infographic details various methods of basic hygiene such as telling people to wash their hands or cover their faces when they sneeze or cough. While an HTS-affiliated Qur'anic school in Idlib has also closed for two weeks.
Additionally, the 'Liberated North Doctors Syndicate,' an independent medical union conglomerate composed various local medical outfits and doctors around Idlib called on local councils near the borders of regime-held areas of Aleppo to limit crossings into Idlib - though Dr. Muhammad Waleed Tamer of the Syndicate told Al Jazeera that Idlib has not yet seen its first case of the virus.
Mirroring parts of the Syndicate's written statement, Dr. Tamer does state that Syria, especially Aleppo and Idlib, does face a significant challenge with the spread of coronavirus via Iranian troops and their allies in the area. Though others, like Dr. Zaher Sahloul, have stated that Idlib may be relatively safe due to its insulation to the outside world.
Given that Syrians do travel to Iran (and other areas of the region that are also struggling with the virus) and that there is a significant Iranian presence inside the country, it is possible that this could potentially exacerbate any spread of coronavirus. This is especially true in Aleppo and Deir al Zour, where a large Iranian presence could trigger mass outbreaks of the virus.
Regardless, a severe outbreak of COVID-19 in Syria would be a major humanitarian disaster. It is unclear if regime-held hospitals or its medical infrastructure could sustain large numbers of infected, while this is doubly true for those hospitals outside of regime control. And given the regime's (and Russia's) strategy of bombing hospitals, this does not help the situation.
This is to say nothing about the various refugee and IDP camps scattered across northern Syria, where overcrowding and lack of basic necessities will only complicate the situation further.