March marked the lowest number of casualties in Syria in nine years of war. “Only 103” civilians were killed, half in air strikes and shelling and the rest in bombings, mines and assassinations. The drop in figures, which is not low at all by the standards of other countries, to half of what it was in February can be attributed to a number of reasons. It can be due to ending the pursuit of the “military victory” as much so as the concern over the spread of the novel coronavirus in devastated Syria:
1- Russian-Turkish ceasefire
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck the truce in Moscow on March 5. It put on hold regime plans, with Russian support, for a widescale offensive against the northwestern Idlib province that had led to the displacement of nearly one million people since December. The deal included setting up a safe zone along the Aleppo-Latakia highway and deploying Russian-Turkish patrols. The execution was not as easy as predicted because the patrols were met with local protests, forcing Ankara to mobilize its own patrols along the international highway. Damascus vowed to retaliate by launching a military offensive, citing Ankara’s lack of commitment to pledges, a threat that did not sit well with the Kremlin.
2- Russian intervention
A week after striking the Moscow deal, Putin dispatched Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu to Damascus to deliver a message to the Syrian leadership on the need to commit to the agreement and refrain from launching military operations in Idlib. With this move, Moscow was seeking to give Ankara more time to fulfill its pledges. Moreover, Putin believes that maintaining relations with Turkey is more important than the situation in Idlib, at least at the moment. This all does not mean that he will cease exerting pressure on Erdogan.
3- UN call for a ceasefire
UN chief Antonio Guterres had called for a global ceasefire as the world comes to grips with the coronavirus outbreak. His remarks were followed by a similar plea by UN special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, who urged Syrian parties to adopt a comprehensive and immediate truce so that attention can be focused on fighting the pandemic.
Syria is more vulnerable than other countries to the outbreak given the devastation caused by years of war and the decimation of its healthcare system. Realizing the danger, local and foreign powers are prioritizing the virus fight at the moment. Some foreign forces are, however, still trying to exploit the fragile truce to boost their military positions, see the ongoing Syrian, Turkish and Iranian reinforcements on all fronts, but at the same time, they are preoccupied by their own country’s fight against the outbreak. Shoigu underlined this point during his Damascus visit when he demanded that the regime seriously and transparently handle the outbreak. It was no coincidence that his office circulated a video of him undergoing a virus test on his flight back to Moscow.
Russia and the United States are still committed to a military deal that prevents their armies from clashing in the region east of the Euphrates River, an issue noted by Pedersen during a briefing before the UN Security Council just days ago. “I appreciate the fact that arrangements between key stakeholders in the northeast, including Russia, Turkey and the United States, as well as Syrian parties, also continue to broadly hold,” he said.
6- Local forces
The regime, Idlib factions and the autonomous Kurdish administration, have imposed curfews in areas under their control and suspended fighting as a preventive measure against the coronavirus. Pedersen noted this, saying: “The Syrian government has taken increasingly significant steps to counter COVID-19. Large parts of the country are now under varying degrees of curfew, with public spaces closed and healthcare systems preparing to the extent possible. Meanwhile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition and other de facto authorities in areas outside government control have also taken steps. Syrian civil society, including women-led organizations, are also mobilizing against this threat. I note these efforts and urge the Syrian government and all de facto authorities to be transparent in their reporting on how COVID-19 is affecting all Syrians.”
Despite these efforts, Pedersen warned that the situation could boil over. “In both the northeast and northwest, there is a real risk of hostilities resuming,” he told the council. “If that happened, the pre-existing dangers to civilians would be multiplied by the pandemic and the virus would spread like wildfire, with devastating effects for the Syrian people – humanitarian, societal and economic. It could rebound across international borders.”