The Politics of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Syria

“Local Voices at a Crossroads” is an article series in which local actors of everyday peace share their insights into the fragilities and resilience of their societies in the face of conflict. Grassroots societies lie at the crossroads between local realities and national peacebuilding policies and practices. The series therefore aims to accelerate action at the local level by strengthening the voices of civil society at the policy level. “Local Voices at a Crossroads” is hosted by the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (CSPPS) and emerged from a collaboration with the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP*), based at the University of Edinburgh. This post was originally published on CSPPS.

In our previous story “Towards a greater role of the civil society in conflict settlements in Syria after Covid-19”, we reflected on the major challenges to the nature and missions of civil society operating in Syrian opposition-held areas during the COVID-19 crisis. In Idlib and Aleppo governorates, the local civil society has become the de-facto substitute to the governmental authority. It has also used the pandemic as a leverage to institutionalise and coordinate its response to the virus and to protect the most vulnerable civilian populations. In this blog, we look back over the events that brought the local civil society in northwest Syria to the forefront of crisis mitigation during the pandemic.

Fragmented governance and humanitarian neutrality

Opposition-held areas in northwest Syria are not under the same authority and governmental system. In September 2013, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces (SNC), which aims at replacing the government of Bashar al-Assad, established an Interim Government for Syria. This was designed as a representative body in charge of project implementation with the international community and service provision in the areas under the control of the Syrian opposition. Following a series of military offensives in northern Syria (2016-2019), Turkey gained great influence over the Interim government, which it designated as the political institution of reference. The Interim government largely failed its purpose due to political and military fragmentation, lack of representativeness and funding, and the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (the latter being the main funder of SNC).

Two years after the establishment of the Interim government, the victory of a coalition of opposition armed groups in Idlib governorate prompted a rapprochement between the governor of Idlib and radical Islamist groups, such al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. Although disengaged from governmental activities, in September 2017, al-Nusra Front (merged into the coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) and other opposition groups created the Salvation government as a second de facto alternative government in opposition-held areas. A campaign to remove local political representatives and military commanders affiliated to radical Islamists groups in Idlib governorate ensued, as well as fierce competition between the Interim and Salvation governments.

The two opposition governmental bodies were established as channels to attract funds and gain international recognition. Yet, both failed to provide services and stand out as legitimate representatives of Syrian communities living in opposition-held areas. As a result, the international community chose to coordinate with decentralized institutions, local councils, and local civil society to reach grassroots communities and implement humanitarian and development programmes in the war-torn country. Beside local political institutions, Idlib Health Directorate (IHD) is a key partner of the international community in northwest Syria. It was initially established in May 2013 to fill the gap in the medical sector after Syrian governmental medical institutions stopped providing medical services in opposition-held areas. IHD gained political independence from the Interim and Salvation governments to carry out its mission and has since worked in collaboration with main international donors.

Political Competition over the COVID-19 File

Covid-19 officially hit opposition-held areas on July 9, 2020, almost four months after the virus reached Syria. The pandemic immediately became a political issue. The neutrality and jurisdiction of IHD was questioned by the two opposition governments. On the one hand, the Interim government tried to convince IHD that it should be in charge of the COVID-19 response. The Interim government argued that, opposed to the IHD, it benefitted from medical supplies, distribution capacity and political legitimacy. Similarly, the Salvation government sought to become the key partner of the international community in an attempt to secure international recognition and gain legitimacy. The Salvation government argued that the areas under its control in Idlib governorate are home for highly vulnerable populations, including a number of Internationally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camps, and should therefore receive priority support. In addition to negotiating with the IHD, both governments went to important health Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), such as the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), to promote their own agenda.

Political competition over the COVID-19 file transcended the borders of Syrian opposition-held areas. In line with his official stance, President Bashar al-Assad claimed sovereignty and monopoly over the COVID-19 response across the whole country, including the areas which were effectively not under the control of his government. This narrative implied that the Syrian government must manage all border crossings, including the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa crossings with Turkey. Bashar al-Assad’s key ally, Russia, supported the policy by submitting a text to the members of the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) to keep closed border crossings with Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan, thereby preventing aid from being delivered to opposition-held areas. While the proposal was rejected, Russia used its veto as a permanent member of the UNSC to counter the renewal of a mechanism to bring life-saving humanitarian aid into Syria. Eventually, and after a lobbying campaign led by Germany, Great Britain, and France, one single border crossing out of four remained opened to allow humanitarian deliveries from Turkey.

Inheriting the COVID-19 File

The international community refused to choose between the official Syrian government on the one hand, and de facto opposition governments on the other. Instead, it decided that politics should not interfere in the COVID-19 response and endorsed the local civil society, mainly the Syrian Civil Defense, as the key actor to mitigate the impact of the pandemic in Syrian opposition-held areas. As explained by several activists and humanitarian workers, the choice of the international community carried an important message: political bodies were discredited in Syria, both inside and outside opposition-held areas.

Local civil society in northwest Syrian is not a mere de-facto substitute to governmental authorities’ failure to deliver services and meet the needs of local populations. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, local civil society was endorsed by the international community as an alternative to political bodies and a neutral actor to provide relief and protect grassroots civil communities. As a direct consequence, local civil society gained legitimacy and confidence both inside and outside Syria. Our next story will dig into the details of the new status of local civil society, exploring its role in social cohesion and trust building in Syrian opposition-held areas.

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About the Authors

Article written by Juline Beaujouan, Eyas Ghreiz and Abdulah El hafi

Juline Beaujouan is a Research Associate with the Political Settlements Research Programme (PSRP), based at the University of Edinburgh, where she researches local conflict management and trust-building in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria. Juline received her Ph.D from Durham University where she was awarded the al-Sabah doctoral fellowship and acted as a member of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI). Juline is the co-editor and contributor to the volume Syrian Crisis, Syrian Refugees – Voices from Jordan and Lebanon, and co-author of Islam, IS and the Fragmented State: The Challenges of Political Islam in the MENA Region.

Eyas Ghreiz is a researcher and consultant in areas of human rights and development. Ghreiz is also a Master student in International Development, specialising in conflict, security and development, at the University of Birmingham, UK. Ghreiz has over eight years of working experience with international NGOs, and UN bodies in Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Yemen. He has published several articles in both Arabic and English and contributed to the book Syrian Crisis, Syrian Refugees: Voices from Jordan and Lebanon, published by Palgrave Macmillan in both English and Turkish, and will be published in Arabic soon.

Abdulah El hafi co-founded and managed the Unified Relief Office in Eastern Ghouta and sat on the board of directors for two years. In 2013, he was a founding member of the Civil Defense in Eastern Ghouta in Rif Damascus. From 2014 to 2019, Abdulah worked as a coordinator and field manager for several programs funded by the British DFID and USAID. He also delivers trainings in the field of good governance and capacity building for several local organizations, teams and councils in Rif Damascus, Idlib, and northern Aleppo governorates. Currently, Abdulah is working as the manager of the Local Administrative Councils Unit (LACU).

*The Political Settlements Research Programme is a partner of the Covid Collective. The Collective brings together the expertise of UK and Southern-based research partner organisations and offers a rapid social science research response to inform decision-making on some of the most pressing Covid-19 related development challenges. The PSRP and Covid Collective are supported by the UK FCDO.