The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) reported on Monday that Syrian opposition groups are blaming Iranian militia forces for spreading the Wuhan virus through Syria.
The opposition accused the Syrian government of concealing both the extent of the virus outbreak and the role played by Iranian forces in spreading it.
MEMRI noted that the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad has “repeatedly denied that there were any coronavirus cases in Syria” until it officially recognized its very first case on March 22. Opposition groups say the virus has been spreading across the country, especially “in the east, where pro-Iran militias are deployed.”
Opposition groups making the claim include the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has been widely quoted by Western media throughout the Syrian civil war:
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
The opposition claims Assad officials, including members of the health ministry and doctors, have been instructed not to discuss coronavirus cases in public. The Syrian state security apparatus was instructed to treat unauthorized public statements about the epidemic as a threat to national security that would “spread chaos and panic at a time when we are at war.” At least one prominent doctor has allegedly been murdered by the regime to silence him.
Most disturbingly, the opposition says regime forces are trying to prevent the epidemic from spreading by putting suspected coronavirus patients to death using overdoses of anesthesia.
Some opposition activists accuse the state security apparatus of planning to deliberately unleash the coronavirus in Syria’s infamous prisons to kill off some of the population and “register all those they tortured to death in the past as coronavirus deaths.” Human rights activists have launched an online campaign called “Save the Prisoners from Assad’s Coronavirus” to thwart such deadly schemes.
“It seems that the Syrian regime sees the glass half full with regard to the death of innocent people — because those who die save the Syrian government their wages, their space on [public] transportation, their crust of bread, and their share of oxygen,” one opposition columnist wrote.
Assad’s critics say his Russian partners are savvy enough to keep their troops away from the Iranians, but the regime is not only keen to avoid panic and conceal a humanitarian catastrophe, but also eager to prevent blame from settling on the Iranians or the Shiite branch of Islam, which spread the coronavirus through pilgrimages to holy cities and shrines. The regime prefers to send a message that Syria has very few coronavirus cases because the government is under Allah’s protection.
Pro-government media countered these claims by insisting the Assad regime feels strong responsibility for the lives of its citizens (those who survived the civil war and have not fled to refugee camps, anyway) and has no good reason to lie about the extent of the epidemic because a huge scandal would erupt when the lies were exposed.
One pro-regime columnist proudly boasted that Syria is “immune to this global pandemic” thanks to Assad’s leadership, denouncing those who argue otherwise as harboring “evil goals” to “stop the cycle of everyday life, spread chaos, and force quarantine on Syria.”
The Syrian health ministry claims the country’s first coronavirus fatality occurred on Sunday and the total number of infections in the country has risen to ten. Very few people who are not directly employed by the Assad regime believe either of these claims is accurate. Instead, the United Nations fears a coronavirus “calamity” due to Syria’s small number of fully functional hospitals, widespread hunger, ongoing conflict, and crowded refugee camps. The Assad regime shut down a vital border crossing from Iraq in January because it did not want food and medical aid to reach rebel groups.
“The virus has the potential to have a devastating impact on vulnerable communities across the country. Syria’s health services are extremely fragile. Only around half of its hospitals and primary health care centers were fully functional at the end of last year,” U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said on Monday, describing Syria’s ten admitted cases as merely “the tip of the iceberg.”