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The Algerian crisis of March 2019

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Since last February 22, Algeria has been shaken by street demonstrations that occur almost simultaneously in all the 48 provinces of the country.

 Working on the assumption that the people’s anger is entirely spontaneous, its immediate origin is the announcement by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika  he wants to run for his fifth term, which should start following the elections scheduled for next April.

  President Bouteflika, who is over 80 years of age, is in very poor health. In fact, as far as we know, he is currently hospitalized in Geneva for treatment, probably as a result of the two strokes he suffered in 2013.

 Bouteflika, however, made his spokesman, Abdelghani Zaalane, state that the upcoming election will be held on a date to be set by the National Assembly.

  In any case, Bouteflika does not intend to serve until the end of his next presidential term, but will confine himself to setting, as President, the date of the new election.

 Moreover, the elderly and sick leader has promised the adoption by referendum of a new Constitution, partly already drafted, and a reform of the electoral law.

 The Presidency, however, is currently run by the Head of the intelligence Services and by the Chief of the Armed Forces, who really pull the strings of Algeria’ s political and economic transition.

 However, who is really ruling in Algeria while, in the electoral campaign,  Bouteflika keeps on showing his photos of twenty years ago and is never heard on the radio or on TV?

 The power of the traditional leader of the FLN, who has been President for twenty years, is now divided into three groups: the presidential and political power; the military and intelligence one, and finally – albeit  certainly not to be neglected – the branch of family and State affairs, as well as internal and international influence.

  The Armed Forces, however, still play a primary role and seem to have great autonomy.

 Over the last few years, President Bouteflika has tried to reduce their autonomy in favour of his business clan, to which not even the senior officers of the intelligence Services and of the Armed Forces are alien.

 The military take orders only from the President himself, where possible, but above all from his brother Said.

  In the Algerian political circles’ imagination, the latter still epitomizes the true eminence grise of the regime.

 It should be recalled that Abdelaziz Bouteflika was Foreign Minister several times from 1960 to 1970. In 1979 he voluntarily relinquished power after the death of Houari Boumedienne, of whom he had been private secretary. He finally settled abroad, at first in the United Arab Emirates (which, in fact, have played a significant role in Algeria’s current “transformation”) and later in Switzerland and France.

 Shortly after Boumedienne’s death, he was accused of embezzlement of State funds.

 In 1999, only upon the military’s request, he returned to Algeria to rule it, following the resignation of General Liamine Zeroual.

  The old FLN President, however, has always done everything to move the military leaders away from the real centre of power, namely business and intelligence.

  Moreover, Bouteflika amended the Constitution twice to increase his powers and, above all, he has brought to power a new class of businessmen, who depend only on him.

   As happens also in Western Europe, the political parties are now only the pale shadow of what they were in the past.

 Political aggregation is achieved with the traditional advertising-style systems commonly used also in the West, but there is a sort of fear and prestige of the Leader, namely Bouteflika, that still lingers within the crowds.

 Here the political parties include the traditional group of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its traditional ally –  the former Soviet-style single party, known as Rassemblement National Democratique- as well as the Islamists (we do not know yet whether “moderate” or not) of the Rassemblement de l’Espoir de l’Algerie, and various other small parties. There is also the old single union, namely UGTA.

 As already mentioned, one of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s first supporters is his brother Said, who is the official advisor to the Head of State.

 He is aged 61, but nobody knows his true role and personal power which, however, is presumably very strong.

Opponents say he is the only one who chooses Ministers, but also decides policies and carefully coordinates news on the media. He never granted interviews.

 Former Professor at the University of Algiers and trade unionist, Said has a wide network of very solid friendships, both in Algeria and abroad, including Italy.

 The other man at the core of Algerian power is Ahmed Gaid Salah.

 He is aged 79 and is both Armed Forces Chief of Staff and Deputy-Minister of Defense, considering that the role of Minister is officially played by the President of the Republic.

 He is considered Bouteflika’s lieutenant.

 He has certainly obtained personal advantages thanks to his current role, especially when, in September 2015, the elderly President marginalized  Mohamed Mediene, known as Toufik, the traditional Head of the Algerian intelligence Services he had led for 25 years in a row.

 Bouteflika had openly accused Toufik of incompetence but, in the logic of the elderly President, the sense of his removal is to fully and safely control all the Algerian military apparatus and subject it to his wishes, which are above all those of the lively Algerian business community.

 At the core of the Algerian FLN power elite, there is also Athmane Tartag.

 He is the new Head of the intelligence Services. In the 1970s he trained for a long time at the KGB and in the 1990s he was a protagonist of Algeria’s very tough fight against jihadist terrorism.

 He is very close to Said Bouteflika.

 Nevertheless, the demonstrations throughout the country have now been reduced significantly by the current Prime Minister, Ahmed Ouhaya, who has spoken of “unknown sources” that allegedly fuel the street riots. Probably he is not entirely wrong.

 The fear of a new civil war, not necessarily linked to a new uprising of the “sword jihad”, troubles not only the ruling classes, but also the crowds in action. The latter do not absolutely want to go back to the 1990s and that was the spectre which, alone, stopped the possibility of an “Arab spring” in Algeria.

 It should be recalled that, at the beginning of the 1990s, the Algerian civil war – which was also the first mass evolution of jihad-exacted a toll of at least 200,000 deaths.

 For the Algerian crowds, in 2011 the only memory of those years avoided the “contagion” of the “Arab Springs” among the Muslim Brotherhood and the clumsy Western agents.

 The population and economic data, however, are currently similar to those found in the “democratic” propaganda machine of 2011: very strong corruption of the public apparata; widespread unemployment; a very high rate of youth unemployment and people’s poor aptitude for work.

 In fact, as early as the mass demonstrations of last February, the protesters’ demands have focused on stopping price increases – and in this case the  government has decided not to cut subsidies -and on protecting and increasing the now miserable salaries of the public sector (hence with a quasi-automatic recourse to the corruptive bakshish), as well as on finally finding a solution to the very severe housing emergency.

 The government, however, has no money.

 It still depends on oil remittances (to the tune of 65%), which obviously fall in time of low oil prices and OPEC restrictions. The government must also come to terms with an old Soviet-style bureaucracy. It still has a very extensive power on business and companies – a real longa manus –  but is in fact isolated from the new strategic and military equilibria of the Maghreb region, to which it reacts without being able to change them.

 Furthermore, the relative increase in oil prices – made possible almost exclusively by a decrease in the production of OPEC, of which Algeria is also a member – has certainly provided a small new channel of fresh liquidity to the Algerian government, but has also broken fiscal discipline and further increased public spending.

 Hence higher taxes on imported goods – as first economic measure implemented by the government -and relinquishment of the subsidy cuts introduced in 2017, as well as increases for investment and social spending.

  According to the Algerian General Accounting Office, however, rebus sic stantibus, the deficit should be redressed in 2023.

Furthermore, many customs duties have been levied on imports, which lead to an increase in prices. We should also consider the very poor success of the plans for economic diversification and for reducing “oil dependence”. Indeed, if anything, the Algerian authorities are trying to maximize profits from oil and natural gas and currently the GDP is growing thanks to the increase in public spending generated only by the increase in the oil price.

 However, what would be the real political alternatives to Bouteflika?  Probably for want of anyone better, the FLN has already crowned him, but it could not do otherwise. Prime Minister Ouyahia does not know where else to turn, although he is also the leader of the Rassemblement National Democratique.In particular, there is such a level of tension between the various powers within the clan and political affairs of Bouteflika and the Armed Forces that no true new national leader can emerge.

 Among the protesters in the streets, there is growing consensus for JilJedid, the “new generation” political party, but the possible candidates  also include Chabib Khelil, former Energy Minister and OPEC President, who has also the Moroccan citizenship, and is currently a powerful international consultant.

 Chabib Khelil has strong ties with the United States and a Palestinian wife with a US passport.

 This makeshis candidacy impossible, due to Algeria’s rules and regulations.

 Not to mention the judicial problems due to his old relations with SAIPEM.

 Another “new” candidate could also be Mouloud Hamrouche, a former “moderate” Prime Minister.

 Within the establishment’s natural strategy designed to fully support Bouteflika’s candidacy, we must also consider the recent ousting of the Police Chief, Abdelghani Hamel – who, at the time, was considered one of the most natural successors to Bouteflika – as a result of a drug trafficking case involving the powerful Algerian Police, that can rely on 200,000 men but – after the above mentioned reforms-is deprived of a reliable and stable Security Service.

 What doAlgeria’s current decision-makers fear? Obviously the “sword jihad”.

 We Europeans – and Italians, in particular – could add that the irrational disruption of Algeria relating to the “Arab springs” leads to a porous and uncontrollable Algerian coast, just as the danger of migration flows from Libya is slowly fading away and the migration flows from Tunisia have stabilized.

 Algeria is also deeply concerned about the tribal, jihadist and military instability that emerged in Mali during the elections held there between last July and August.

 The Algerian decision-makers are also worried about the great instability in Libya – currently a major problem for its military decision-makers – and obviously in Tunisia.

 With specific reference to Libya, Algeria is a clear, open and very helpful supporter of Al-Sarraj’s GNA, while its intelligence Services, which know the sub-Saharan deserts very well, are endeavouring for peace between the militias and the non-jihadist tribes of Fezzan, so as to later achieve the goal of a unified Libya.

 Shortly before the arrival of Haftar, who currently holds about 80% of the Libyan territory from the South.

 Nevertheless, apart from the recent amnesty for the local jihadists, which led to the surrender of about 88 militants of the “holy war”, all the Algerian military operations in Sahel are of scarce political relevance – and this is a very severe matter.

 Currently the Algerian Armed Forces can rely on 147,000 people – all well trained even in the desert -and on a total number of 460,000 reservists.

 It should also be recalled that, despite the economic crisis, Algeria spends 10 billion US dollars a year on weapons and, between 2012 and 2016, its military spending increased by 277%, almost all (80%) used to purchase Russian weapons.

 Algeria is still the fifth largest importer of weapons in the world and the third largest buyer of Russian weapons.

 It is also worth recalling that, although currently Algeria is not a place for migrant transit to Europe, there are still very active old routes from sub-Saharan Africa up to Tamanrasset and then leading to Morocco, Libya and Tunisia.

 Currently the only chance for avoiding the rehabilitation of the Algerian coasts for the transit of migrants heading to the EU and, above all, to Italy, is solely the Algerian authorities’ very firm will to repress these flows.

If this is no longer the case, we will soon have a powerful and effective alternative for the new transit of illegal migration flows from the Maghreb region to Italy and to the other European and Mediterranean ports.

 Algeria, in fact, has long been gathering its many irregular migrants and directing them, manu militari, towards Mali and Niger.

 There are some agreements between Algeria and the Sahel countries, but there have also been tensions, since Algeria has often imposed its pace and its weapons on sub-Saharan Africa, even with some clashes with Mali’s and Niger’s forces.

 Hence there is great fear that insecurity – now endemic in the Maghreb region – spreads also to the wide Algerian territory, the greatest true strategic driver of Bouteflika’s current management.

 The Algerian regime is certainly not wrong in assessing the facts in this way.

 The Kingdom of Morocco has denounced the fact that some months ago Algeria had the Iranian support in its old fight against the Polisario Front, with the subsequent closure of the Tehran diplomatic representative office last May.

 Even before the Algerian independence, the Polisario Front has been one of the souls of the FLN foreign policy.

 This is a sign that now the Algerian (and Moroccan) issue is at the core of the link between the jihad and the overt operations in all the internal areas of the two countries – and hence of their connection with the Sahel region.

 Nevertheless, there is still another issue on the table that is much more important than it may appear at first sight, i.e. the joint candidacy of Morocco and Algeria to host the 2030 FIFA World Cup.

 Another very great bet on the internal security of Bouteflika’s regime – and of Mohammed VI, who is very focused on this event to make his Alawite Kingdom rise to world fame.

 In all likelihood, however, the great global forces that disrupted Tunisia, at first, and then Egypt and Libya – thus making those old, but basically stable regimes an unbalanced system, largely porous from the South – are caring precisely about Algeria, which has all the characteristics to interest the global propaganda for world democracy: an old and sick leader – almost an absolute leader – an old protectionist and oil-based system, to be possibly made available to other OPEC countries; an internal demographic bomb and a major crisis preventing the young people and the new elites from finding opportunities in the Northern developed countries.

 A political-propaganda paradigm that is now very well tested, although ever more dangerous.

  The perfect scenario for an “old vs. young people” fight – as already seen in the US and French propaganda – or even a possible platform for internal liberalization, probably with the usual “moderate Islamists” who enter the political game, also because – just to use again the old-fashioned standards of Western propaganda -the blame for the sole presence of the sword jihad in the Maghreb region is to be laid on the “reactionary” governments’ “repression”.

 As already noted, with a view to facing the economic crisis and the lack of investment, the current Algerian regime has implemented a short-term expansionary fiscal policy, which has led to high inflation and only enables the government to buy for time, without being able to solve the central issues of State economy and the relationship between bureaucracy, political power, oil revenues and industrial transformation.

 For Algeria oil and natural gas still account for 97% of total exports, two thirds of State revenues and one third of GDP.

 These figures date back to 2014, but today data is only slightly different.

 The quantity of oil and gas reserves, however, does not bode well.

Oil experts talk about twenty years of reserves still possible for oil and fifty for natural gas.

 It should be noted, however, that Algeria’s foreign debt still accounts for a mere 2% of GDP.

 Hence probably Bouteflika and his successors want to keep things as they are and, in the future, start modernization by resorting to debt and foreign investment, with two additional years of debt fiscal spending and then a massive sale of Algeria’s public debt securities, which could finance again both the currency status quo, held artificially too high, and public spending in subsidies and bureaucratic jobs for young people.

 However, the demographic bomb – the trigger of the “Arab Spring” old crises – is one of the first aspects to study.

 Also from the anthropological and cultural viewpoints. The young people, also in the West, aredéracinés, without the memory of what happened to the FLN to make it reach that point.

 Currently five sevenths of the Algerian population is below 21 years of age.

 In 2019,for the Algerian young protesters, “democracy” is not the fight against France and the pied noirs, possibly helped by ENI and the USSR, but only a decent job and food every day.

 Hence crowds easy to manipulate, who probably Elias Canetti, in his extraordinary book Crowds and Power, would have defined “incited crowds”.

 Currently, the Muslim Brotherhood that has always been at the origin of  “Arab springs” – also for induction and interferences from abroad – is particularly active in Algeria.

 Hence the classic paradigm of the quasi-spontaneous people’s rebellion is ready, but probably Bouteflika will agree-albeit only after his fifth reelection (probable because his regime is seen as a factor of stable economic and civil growth) – on a new name, although always representing the old elites. A new leader that will build new and good relations with China (which has reduced its oil and gas purchases), but above all with Japan and the EU, which could really change the whole production formula of future Algeria, by changing and expanding the terms of economic trade between Algeria and the European Union.

 Provided said leader will have the necessary skills and strength, attitudes about which I am doubtful.

Advisory Board Co-chair Honoris Causa Professor Giancarlo Elia Valori is an eminent Italian economist and businessman. He holds prestigious academic distinctions and national orders. Mr. Valori has lectured on international affairs and economics at the world’s leading universities such as Peking University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Yeshiva University in New York. He currently chairs “International World Group”, he is also the honorary president of Huawei Italy, economic adviser to the Chinese giant HNA Group. In 1992 he was appointed Officier de la Légion d’Honneur de la République Francaise, with this motivation: “A man who can see across borders to understand the world” and in 2002 he received the title “Honorable” of the Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France. “

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Erdogan’s Calamitous Authoritarianism

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Turkey’s President Erdogan is becoming ever more dangerous as he continues to ravage his own country and destabilize scores of states in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa, while cozying up to the West’s foremost advisories. Sadly, there seems to be no appetite for most EU member states to challenge Erdogan and put him on notice that he can no longer pursue his authoritarianism at home and his adventurous meddling abroad with impunity.

To understand the severity of Erdogan’s actions and ambitions and their dire implications, it suffices to quote Ahmet Davutoglu, formerly one of Erdogan’s closest associates who served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and subsequently Prime Minister. Following his forced resignation in May 2016 he stated “I will sustain my faithful relationship with our president until my last breath. No one has ever heard — and will ever hear — a single word against our president come from my mouth.”

Yet on October 12, Davutoglu declared “Erdogan left his friends who struggled and fought with him in exchange for the symbols of ancient Turkey, and he is trying to hold us back now…. You yourself [Erdogan] are the calamity. The biggest calamity that befell this people is the regime that turned the country into a disastrous family business.”

The stunning departure of Davutoglu from his earlier statement shows how desperate conditions have become, and echoed how far and how dangerously Erdogan has gone. Erdogan has inflicted a great calamity on his own people, and his blind ambition outside Turkey is destabilizing many countries while dangerously undermining Turkey’s and its Western allies’ national security and strategic interests.

A brief synopsis of Erdogan’s criminal domestic practices and his foreign misadventures tell the whole story.

Domestically, he incarcerated tens of thousands of innocent citizens on bogus charges, including hundreds of journalists. Meanwhile he is pressuring the courts to send people to prison for insulting him, as no one can even express their thoughts about this ruthlessness. Internationally, Erdogan ordered Turkish intelligence operatives to kill or smuggle back to the country Turkish citizens affiliated with the Gülen movement.

He regularly cracks down on Turkey’s Kurdish minority, preventing them from living a normal life in accordance with their culture, language, and traditions, even though they have been and continue to be loyal Turkish citizens. There is no solution to the conflict except political, as former Foreign Minister Ali Babacan adamantly stated on October 20: “… a solution [to the Kurdish issue] will be political and we will defend democracy persistently.”

Erdogan refuses to accept the law of the sea convention that gives countries, including Cyprus, the right to an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) for energy exploration, while threatening the use of force against Greece, another NATO member no less. He openly sent a research ship to the region for oil and gas deposits, which EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called “extremely worrying.”

He invaded Syria with Trump’s blessing to prevent the Syrian Kurds from establishing autonomous rule, under the pretext of fighting the PKK and the YPG (the Syrian Kurdish militia that fought side-by-side the US, and whom Erdogan falsely accuses of being a terrorist group).

He is sending weapons to the Sunni in northern Lebanon while setting up a branch of the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) in the country—a practice Erdogan has used often to gain a broader foothold in countries where it has an interest.

While the Turkish economy is in tatters, he is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in the Balkans, flooding countries with Turkish imams to spread his Islamic gospel and to ensure their place in his neo-Ottoman orbit. Criticizing Erdogan’s economic leadership, Babacan put it succinctly when he said this month that “It is not possible in Turkey for the economic or financial system to continue, or political legitimacy hold up.”

Erdogan is corrupt to the bone. He conveniently appointed his son-in-law as Finance Minister, which allows him to hoard tens of millions of dollars, as Davutoglu slyly pointed out: “The only accusation against me…is the transfer of land to an educational institution over which I have no personal rights and which I cannot leave to my daughter, my son, my son-in-law or my daughter-in-law.”

Erdogan is backing Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia (backed by Iran) over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inhabited by ethnic Armenians and has been the subject of dispute for over 30 years.

He is exploiting Libya’s civil strife by providing the Government of National Accord (GNA) with drones and military equipment to help Tripoli gain the upper hand in its battle against Khalifa Haftar’s forces. Former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis said in February 2020 that “The unclear Turkish foreign policy by Erdogan may put Turkey in grave danger due to this expansion towards Libya.”

He is meddling in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an effort to prevent them from settling their dispute unless Israel meets Palestinian demands. He granted several Hamas officials Turkish citizenship to spite Israel, even though Hamas openly calls for Israel’s destruction.

He betrayed NATO by buying the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, which seriously compromises the alliance’s technology and intelligence.

He is destabilizing many countries, including Somalia, Qatar, Libya, and Syria, by dispatching military forces and hardware while violating the air space of other countries like Iraq, Cyprus, and Greece. Yakis said Turkey is engaging in a “highly daring bet where the risks of failure are enormous.”

Erdogan supports extremist Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and an assortment of jihadists, including ISIS, knowing full well that these groups are sworn enemies of the West—yet he uses them as a tool to promote his wicked Islamic agenda.

He regularly blackmails EU members, threatening to flood Europe with Syria refugees unless they support his foreign escapades such as his invasion of Syria, and provide him with billions in financial aid to cope with the Syrian refugees.

The question is how much more evidence does the EU need to act? A close look at Erdogan’s conduct clearly illuminates his ultimate ambition to restore much of the Ottoman Empire’s influence over the countries that were once under its control.

Erdogan is dangerous. He has cited Hitler as an example of an effective executive presidential system, and may seek to acquire nuclear weapons. It’s time for the EU to wake up and take Erdogan’s long-term agenda seriously, and take severe punitive measures to arrest his potentially calamitous behavior. Sadly, the EU has convinced itself that from a geostrategic perspective Turkey is critically important, which Erdogan is masterfully exploiting.

The EU must be prepared take a stand against Erdogan, with or without the US. Let’s hope, though, that Joe Biden will be the next president and together with the EU warn Erdogan that his days of authoritarianism and foreign adventurism are over.

The views expressed are those of the author.

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Syrian Refugees Have Become A Tool Of Duplicitous Politics

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Syrian refugees in Rukban camp

Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the issue of Syrian refugees and internally displace has been the subject of countless articles and reports with international humanitarian organizations and countries involved in the Syrian conflict shifting responsibility for the plight of migrants.

The most notorious example of human suffering put against political games is the Rukban refugee camp located in eastern Syria inside the 55-km zone around Al-Tanf base controlled by the U.S. and its proxies.

According to official information, more than 50,000 people, mostly women and children, currently live in the camp. This is a huge number comparable to the population of a small town. The Syrian government, aware of the plight of people in Rukban, has repeatedly urged Washington to open a humanitarian corridor so that everyone can safely return home. However, all such proposals were ignored by the American side. U.S. also refuse to provide the camp with first aid items. Neighbouring Jordan is inactive, too, despite Rukban being the largest of dozens other temporary detention centres in Syria, where people eke out a meager existence.

At the same time, the problem is not only refugee camps. Syria has been at war for a decade. The country’s economy has suffered greatly over this period, and many cities have been practically grazed to the ground. Moreover, the global coronavirus epidemic didn’t spare Syria and drained the already weakened economy even more. However, Damascus’ attempts of post-war reconstruction and economic recovery were undermined by multiple packages of severe sanctions imposed by the U.S. At the same time, U.S.-based human rights monitors and humanitarian organizations continue to weep over the Syrian citizens’ misery.

The situation is the same for those refugees who stay in camps abroad, especially in countries bordering on Syria, particularly Jordan and Turkey. Ankara has been using Syrian citizens as a leverage against the European states in pursuit of political benefits for a long time. No one pays attention to the lives of people who are used as a change coin in big politics. This is equally true for Rukban where refugees are held in inhuman conditions and not allowed to return to their homeland. In those rare exceptions that they are able to leave, refugees have to pay large sums of money that most of those living in camp are not able to come by.

It’s hard to predict how long the Syrian conflict will go on and when – or if – the American military will leave the Al-Tanf base. One thing can be said for sure: the kind of criminal inaction and disregard for humanitarian catastrophe witnessed in refugee camps is a humiliating failure of modern diplomacy and an unforgivable mistake for the international community. People shouldn’t be a tool in the games of politicians.

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Is Syria Ready For Second Wave Of COVID-19?

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©UNICEF/Delil Souleiman

Despite a relative calm that has been holding on the front lines of the Syrian conflict since the beginning of the year, Syria had to face other equally – if not more – serious challenges. The spread of COVID-19 virus in the wake of a general economic collapse and a health care system battered by nine years of war threatened Syria with a death toll as a high as that of resumed military confrontation. However, the actual scale of the infection rate turned out to be less than it was expected considering the circumstances.

Although Syria did not have much in resources to mobilize, unlike some other countries that were slow to enforce restrictions or ignored them altogether, the Syrian authorities did not waste time to introduce basic measures that, as it became obvious in hindsight, proved to be the most effective. A quarantine was instituted in the areas controlled by the government, all transportation between the provinces was suspended, schools and universities were temporarily closed and face masks were made obligatory in public spaces.

As a result, official data puts the number of people infected with COVID-19 in the government areas at modest 4,457 while 192 people died of the infection. In turn, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria announced that 1,998 people contracted the virus. The data on the infection rate in the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib and Aleppo is incomplete, but the latest number is 1,072. Compared to the neighboring Turkey with  9,000 of deaths of COVID-19, Syria seems to be doing relatively well.

Tackling the virus put the already embattled health care system under enormous strain. Syrian doctors are dealing with an acute shortage of medicines and equipment, and even hospital beds are in short supply. Over 60 medical workers who treated COVID-19 patients died.

The situation is worsened even further by the economic hardships, not least due to the sanctions imposed on Syria by the U.S. and the European states. Syrian hospitals are unable to procure modern equipment necessary for adequate treatment of COVID-19, most importantly test kits and ventilators.

The economic collapse exposed and aggravated many vulnerabilities that could have been easily treated under more favorable circumstances. A grim, yet fitting example: long queues in front of bakeries selling bread at subsidised prices, that put people under the risk of catching the virus. Many Syrians are simply unable to avoid risking their health in these queues, as an average income is no longer enough to provide for a family.

Moreover, despite a nation-wide information campaign conducted with the goal of spreading awareness about means of protections against COVID-19 like social distancing and mask-wearing, for many Syrians the disease is still stigmatized, and those who contracted it are often too ashamed to go to a hospital or even confess to their friends. As consequence, a substantial number of cases goes unreported.

With the second wave of COVID-19 in sight, it is of utmost importance that the work of health care professionals is supported, not subverted by the citizens. Otherwise Syria – and the world – may pay too high a price.

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