Coronavirus: The secret spreaders of Covid-19 fuelling the pandemic in the Middle East

The rumours quickly spread among the Syrian fighters in Libya. A group of mercenaries recently hired by the internationally recognised Libyan government were in hospital with serious chest infections.

Panic rippled through the ranks that it was the deadly coronavirus. No measures had been taken when they started their long trip from northern Syria via Turkey to Tripoli. No one had self-isolated, worn a mask or had a test.

“We tried to find out more information but couldn’t,” said one fighter, among an estimated 6,000 Syrians employed to aid Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which is backed by Turkey.

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He said his commanders were tightlipped about the incident. The GNA denied the rumours in a statement to The Independent. Instead its officials have blamed their foes – the forces of renegade general Khalifa Haftar – of spreading Covid-19 through their very own foreign mercenaries.

“There are no precautions taken here for fighters, it’s like coronavirus doesn’t exist,” the fighter lamented.

Wars have ravaged healthcare systems across the Middle East and North Africa, leaving a few countries excessively susceptible to outbreaks of Covid-19. But world health officials are now worried about a new secret spreader of the infection: combatants.

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Over the past few months, as the pandemic swept across the globe, swathes of soldiers, fighters and mercenaries from countries such as Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq have been deployed to frontlines across the region, despite the proven fact that their cross-border journeys break international lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Little to no care has been taken fully to mitigate this potentially devastating transmission of the infection even though many of these countries are among the most at risk of the pandemic. The secretive nature of their movement makes contact tracing impossible.

Officials from the World Health Organisation and other United Nations bodies have all sounded the alarm, telling The Independent that with such little information and testing, there is absolutely no way to accurately measure what damage could have been done. They say local efforts to stamp out the disease will undoubtedly be undermined by the continued international movement of troops, prolonging and deepening existing outbreaks and even creating new clusters.

“Clearly you want to control public health measures at border crossings, airports and ports,” said Richard Brennan, acting regional emergency director for WHO’s eastern Mediterranean regional office. “Ideally, you’d be screening people and enforcing quarantines.

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“There is already little capacity to do that in many places like Libya. Now there are armed groups coming in, without screening, no quarantining and no tracking in the country. This is exactly the kind of the way the disease can spread unchecked.”

He said it was a challenge across the region, worsened by the fact that combatants then moved around the countries they’d travelled to.

Libya, meanwhile, has morphed into the world’s newest proxy war with a massive influx of combatants in to the country despite coronavirus lockdowns.

Libya’s faultlines (The Independent)

UN investigators, those across Libya and Syria as well as the fighters themselves, estimate that well over 10,000 Syrians fighters have travelled to fight on both sides of Libya’s conflict since January. That deployment accelerated through the spring just like Covid-19 gripped the world.

Thousands of Syrians from opposition areas sent to fight for the GNA have travelled through Turkey, a country with one of the worst outbreaks in the region. Turkey has received more than 190,000 Covid-19 cases and 5,000 deaths. A brand new brigade of Syrian fighters reportedly arrived just the other day, according to sources in Syria and Libya.

UN investigators, meanwhile, say at least 2,000 Syrians from pro-regime areas have already been hired via Russian organizations to fight for General Haftar in the east of the country. The Independent surely could track a surge in recruitment of Syrian mercenaries to General Haftar’s ranks as late as mid-May in the middle of the pandemic. Forces allegedly continue to be recruited this week.

On Wednesday, Libya’s National Centre for Disease Control announced its biggest daily increase yet in coronavirus infections and deaths. Nearly 700 cases have now been counted, and 18 deaths.

But without proper contact tracing and tests, it is impossible to confirm the true rate of the outbreak in Libya or whether there exists a link between the flood of foreign troops and the spike in cases.

There has already been little capacity to do that in many places like Libya. Now you can find armed groups coming in, without screening, no quarantining and no tracking in the country, this really is the kind of the way the disease can spread unchecked

Richard Brennan, WHO emergency director

However, UN officials have warned the cross-border movement of combatants poses a substantial risk for the country where hospitals have already been bombed, and there are shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators and Covid-19 tests.

“Our view is that Libya has not reached the peak of the threat of the coronavirus,” Stephanie Williams, deputy chief of the UN’s support mission in Libya (Unsmil) told The Independent. “There’s not enough testing. There is minimal containment. Yet there are continuing flights into Libya.”

She asked: “As both parties [in the war] are flying in fighters into Libya, there’s no transparency on the preventive measures in this scenario. Are they being quarantined before they’re being provided for the front lines?”

Health officials have expressed similar concerns about foreign troops visiting fight in other parts of the region, including in Syria’s own deeply complex civil war.

Turkey has deployed troops to opposition-held areas of Syria since 2016 to back rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Iran, Russia and Iranian-backed paramilitary groups from Lebanon and Iraq.

Thousands of Turkish troops, police, municipal officials, and employees of the government and charities cross in and out of Syria each day. Rahmi Dogan, the governor of the southern province of Hatay, admitted at the start of the month that 140 soldiers and cops working in the opposition-held Syrian cities of Afrin and Idlib, had contracted the coronavirus.

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The news, reported in both Turkish and Syrian media, has sparked panic among Syrian residents and fighters in the Idlib and western Aleppo area, where there exists a woeful lack of personal protective equipment, ventilators and just one testing machine for the four million those who live there. Many civilians are displaced from other areas of Syria and so live in overcrowded, unhygienic camps, leaving them particularly at risk of the infection.

The Turkish authorities have maintained they immediately isolated and evacuated those in northern Syria who contracted the coronavirus. They promised to minimise troop movement in the operation zone.

But within the war-ravaged area, Syrian residents say vulnerable families have no use of healthcare and are also keeping their distance from Turkish soldiers.

“We are afraid of transmission of Covid-19, the virus can only have come to the north of Syria when the Turkish units switch shifts,” said Mohamed Abdullah, one Syrian rebel. “There were cases detected in Afrin and Mastuma camp.”

A medical team requires a swab from the child to try for coronavirus at a medical clinic in Tripoli, Libya (Reuters)

Meanwhile, in regime-held areas of Deir Ezzor to the east, there have been multiple unconfirmed reports about outbreaks of Covid-19 among forces that hail from Iran and Iraq, two countries that are struggling to stamp out huge outbreaks.

Daniel al-Furati, who’s from Deir Ezzor, said over the last couple of months crossings with Iraq “remain entirely open” for Iranian and Iraqi militiamen that are fighting on the side of the Syrian regimen.

“Those groups came into contact with the local pro-government brigades,” that he said. “They are infected and transmit the coronavirus to the population there.”

Deir Ezzor 24, a nearby activist collective, also reported this phenomenon. They accused Assad’s forces of enforcing a “media blackout” on the origins of Covid-19 infections there.

Without testing it’s again impossible to confirm. The Syrian regimen has denied outbreaks in the eastern border area.

Far from addressing public health concerns of combatants flowing in and out of warzones all through the pandemic, belligerents are trading accusations over the spreading of the coronavirus.

Libyan health officials in Tripoli have repeatedly accused Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) of spreading the virus through its mercenaries, which according to the United States Africa Command and UN investigators include 2,000 Russians, 2,000 Syrians and 2,000 Sudanese.

GNA health ministry spokesperson Ameen al-Hashimi told The Independent that the authorities had been apprehensively following dozens of flights allegedly carrying Syrian and perhaps Russian mercenaries from Syria to east Libya this season.

“When we contacted the health authorities in the east they said that their troops were not subject to any health analyses or quarantines and were sent directly to the frontlines in west Libya, which poses a danger to citizens,” Mr Hashimi said.

He said sources in the east had also told them several foreign nationals including Russians and Syrians have been isolated over the last few months with Covid-19 symptoms.

The LAAF, which vehemently denies having foreign fighters among its ranks, threw similar accusations at the GNA, saying it was “ironic” that the Tripoli government was complaining about the coronavirus.

“We are worried about the virus among the Syrian mercenaries the GNA has deployed,” one LAAF spokesman told The Independent. He said that they had received reports of at the least 17 Syrian mercenaries being hospitalised with the virus two months ago, echoing rumours The Independent had been told.

The tidal surge of forces has not abated. Sources in northern Syria told The Independent that hundreds of Syrian fighters had crossed into Turkey ready to be sent to Tripoli for the GNA in the coming days – despite a recently available surge in coronavirus in Turkey over the last few weeks.

Syrian fighters already in Libya said there is regular backwards and forwards between the two countries as brigades were sent home and fresh recruits were brought over in a kind of “changing of the guard”. This was also reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claimed as many as 1,800 have arrived in Turkey to endure military training ready to fly to Libya while 2,600 have returned to Syria from Libya this month alone.

“No one cares about coronavirus here,” said one Syrian mercenary in west Libya. “We had no lockdown, no measures in place, no masks, no testing, no hand sanitisers. It’s like it didn’t happen.”

While anyone can spread coronavirus, Covid-19 symptoms tend to most badly afflict the elderly and the infirm, while mostly sparing the young athletic men in their 20s and 30s who make up the bulk of warriors in combat zones.

Another asked about coronavirus measures was sanguine.

“It isn’t something we are thinking about,” he said. “We are more worried about being shot.”

Read the first part of the Soldiers of Misfortune series here: Libya’s beleaguered general Haftar swindled out of millions by western mercenaries and businessmen, and the 2nd part here: Inside the murky world of Libya’s mercenaries