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AMMAN - Observers say the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is using the coronavirus crisis to exploit prevention measures to consolidate its control. Syria's health ministry has so far reported 59 cases of COVID-19, with three deaths, accounting only for people in areas under Assad's control. But Western intelligence officials believe the official tally is far too low. Concerns are growing that the pandemic could devastate crowded displacement camps and conflict-ridden regions in Syria's northwest and northeast.
Sandy Alkoutami and Khulood Fahim, junior fellows at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, are tracking the Assad government's response to COVID-19. From what they have seen, they say the coronavirus may be killing Syrians, but it seems to have boosted the government's control by creating political openings for Bashar al-Assad. Sandy Alkoutami tells VOA that the Syrian regime has practiced misinformation and intimidation over COVID-19 from the start.
"It sought to control and severely limit the amount of information about the virus in the country, the reporting, and the number of cases confirmed," said Alkoutami. "Even with the increase of cases from Iran, which has a very close relationship with Syrians in the country as well as the regime, the Assad regime continued to deny any cases. It threatened hospitals and doctors that cited coronavirus cases. It deployed members of the secret police in hospitals across regime-held territories to control and oversee the narratives of coronavirus discussions and cases across hospitals."
Alkoutami and Fahim report a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm uncovered that Syrian authorities have planted spyware in citizens' cell phones through a coronavirus prevention application. This new application, called "Covid19," is a digital thermometer that serves as a decoy while the encrypted AndoServer malware spies on the user.
"There are a trove of malicious apps that are embedded with spyware that secretly spy on the users. One has a fake thermometer embedded in it. It's just a disguise while the malware is secretly spying on users. It points to the regime's ability to infiltrate various spaces, not just physical and hospital ones, but also the cyberspace in a time of crisis," said Alkoutami.
Syria's government controls the country's biggest cities and says it has imposed several preventative measures to combat the virus including a night-time curfew, restricted travel between provinces, shut schools and universities, and banned gatherings at mosques and other public events. Only 64 percent of public hospitals are fully functioning and there is a shortage of trained staff, according to the World Health Organization. Syria's health ministry says it is taking needed measures "to guarantee health security of the citizens and curb the infections."
Meanwhile, areas outside of Assad's control in the northwest and northeast are vulnerable.
Medics in in Idlib told the Washington, D.C.-based group, Refugees International, that they will be ill-prepared to handle a severe outbreak among the three million Syrians sheltering in the country's last rebel-held area where the regime has bombed hospitals. Kurds in the northeast have set up a 120-bed hospital and carried out very limited COVID-19 and antibody testing, but fears remain over a lack of medical supplies where there are overcrowded displacement camps.