At the beginning of this month, pro-Assad journalist Rafiq Lutf wrote on Twitter that he had discovered many people infected with the coronavirus in Syria. He said that that he appealed to the Ministry of Health to investigate and reveal the exact number of cases, but because the ministry “remains silent, I have warned that I will not be silent for long.” Lutf then said that there had been at least 400 deaths from the virus in Lattakia, Tartous and Damascus, with at least 2,000 other cases. He put this down to the regime’s lack of action: “The Ministry of Health and even the government did not take any preventive measures other than keeping silent.”
Lutf’s last tweet was on 9 March, when he suddenly realised his precarious situation and announced that, “I will not speak Corona any more [,] I wish everyone safe[ty.] Good luck to our valiant army in Idlib.” Since then, his Twitter and Facebook accounts have been unused, a stark contrast to his previously regular updates. This week, Syria has admitted that one person has died from the virus, a woman who had recently returned to the country from an overseas trip. The lack of honesty on the part of the regime in Damascus is clearly fatal on a large scale, but it didn’t have to be this way.
The coronavirus has swept across the world bringing entire nations to a standstill and grounding international airlines. British supermarkets have witnessed unprecedented panic buying and fights over sought-after items, while US gun shops have had queues outside with customers stocking up on weapons and ammunition in preparation for the apocalypse, presumably. Self-isolation and working from home is the new norm for most people in those countries which are in “lockdown”.
Countries across the Middle East have also taken drastic but necessary measures to curb the spread of the virus. From travel bans to the closure of public spaces and even the cancellation of congregational prayers, they have been remarkably proactive in combatting the pandemic.
There are outliers, though. Iran has served as a lesson to its neighbours, with the number of infections at a minimal level in February but rising sharply ever since. At the time of writing, the country has over 20,600 cases with more than 1,500 people dying; it is one of the worst affected countries since the outbreak began in China last year.
Conspiracy theories abound regarding the origin of the virus. China and Iran said it was created by the US to decimate their nations; Donald Trump has called it a “Chinese” virus; some religious people call it a punishment from God; for others it is a global plan by governments to subjugate their people and limit freedom; and there are even those who say that Iranian general Qassem Soleimani’s assassination was the catalyst as he was the glue holding the world together.
Regardless of whether the virus is indeed a biological weapon or authentically natural, the fact is that Middle Eastern nations such as Iran and Syria – and to some extent Egypt – have been covering up the severity of the outbreak. This has not only been detrimental to their citizens and placed a massive burden on their already precarious healthcare systems, but also recalls the Middle East’s long history of disinformation and miscommunication which have led to failure in countless situations.
Examples of these failures include the wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973. Amongst the contributing factors in the defeats of the Arab countries – the over-emphasis on centralisation, the strategic miscalculations and disunity between the Egyptian commanders – one of the most fatal turned out to be the cover ups and distortion of intelligence in order to save face. When Israeli forces were crossing Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula intending to rout Egyptian forces, for example, Egyptian officers in the field did not pass on the facts and concealed vital information. Senior commanders misjudged the situation fatally as a result.
Another example was the disagreement between Egyptian General Saad El-Shazly and Chief of Staff Ismail Ali. When El-Shazly spoke against the decision to secure strategic passes deep inside Sinai to push the Israelis back due to Israel’s dominant air cover, Ali and President Anwar Sadat ignored his advice and insisted on doing exactly what the Israelis expected them to do. The result was a staggering loss for the Egyptian army. Yet again, a political decision took precedence over military expertise, primarily due to the lack of reliable information and accountability to take the steps to prevent such a blunder. It was 1982 before Israel handed Sinai back to the Egyptians.
Just as disinformation has been the downfall of Arab military campaigns over the past hundred years or so, it could also lead to the decimation of the Arab populations and healthcare systems, a major hindrance to the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib — no bad thing — or the spread of the coronavirus unchecked among displaced Syrians in the province. The relative inaction of the Syrian government, and its counterpart in Egypt for that matter, may serve the interests of the regimes in Damascus and Cairo, but it will be devastating for the civilians in both countries.
If Syria is indeed covering up the very existence of the virus within the population and Egypt is downplaying the number of infected patients as has been claimed, then it is further evidence that neither has learnt the lessons of their historic military defeats and humiliations at the hands of Israel. Trust and honesty are essential in any command structure, military or civilian. When either or both are absent, the effects can be catastrophic. In Syria and Egypt, it will be ordinary people paying the price for the regimes’ cover ups.
Muhammad Hussein, political analyst on Middle Eastern affairs, primarily focusing on the regions of the Gulf, Iran, Syria and Turkey, as well as their relation to Western foreign policy.
The article was originally published on The Middle East Monitor.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.