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Syria has not officially recorded a confirmed case of coronavirus, largely due to a lack of health infrastructure and government denial/silence on the matter, but human rights and health observers have noted outbreaks in areas under Syrian government control in Tartous, Damascus, Homs, and Latakia provinces, as well as rumors of cases in areas outside government control (Al Jazeera, March 16).
The Syrian regime relies heavily on Iranian support and reports have begun to emerge linking Iranian officials and fighters to cases of the coronavirus. While the link between IRGC officials or Iranian proxy forces and coronavirus cases cannot be independently verified, it is still likely cases have originated in Iran as the Syrian government was slow to halt flights between its country and Iran following the outbreak. Iran plays an active role in the Syrian government’s military operations.
Outside of Syria, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its proxies have similarly been linked to coronavirus cases in Lebanon and Iraq. Continued flights by the IRGC-linked Mahan Air as well as the coronavirus-related deaths of at least six IRGC members, including Lt. General Nasser Sha’abani lends some credence to the notion of the IRGC as a transmission vector as its officials travel to liaise with its proxies and fighters rotate back from Iran (Al Arabiya, March 13). Regardless, the rumors themselves and the more easily confirmed transmission of cases from Iran in general does have significant short term and long-term implications for Iranian proxies.
In the short-term, significant coronavirus outbreaks in countries where Iran maintains proxy forces could alter their abilities to operate as well as the local government and international community’s operations against Iran and its proxy forces. For instance, President Trump reportedly held off on an aggressive response against Iran for attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and is drawing down some operations in the country due to the coronavirus outbreak.
In the long-term, the pandemic is likely to alter the economic and political environment in a way that challenges the authority of many Iranian proxies, particularly Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Lebanese economy is in dire condition and the outbreak has laid bare systemic issues that could provide the Lebanese government an opportunity to increase its legitimacy at the detriment of Hezbollah, which runs the country’s health ministry. Further, the outbreak is being increasingly politicized—from within and outside Lebanon—as Hezbollah opponents blame the outbreak on the group’s close relationship with Iran. Rumors were also circulated that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and other leaders were infected following meetings with Iranian officials (Jerusalem Post, March 11). The outbreak has the potential to bolster anti-Hezbollah/Iran sentiment while offering the government a chance to intervene in a positive way.
Iran is undoubtedly the Middle East’s epicenter of the pandemic, which is likely to have significant implications on the region’s political landscape and Iranian proxies. Regardless of whether the IRGC is in fact a notable transmission vector, rumors and the perception that it is coupled with the economic impacts of the outbreak create conditions that can pose a significant challenge to Iranian proxies’ authority. While the peak reaction in many countries will likely not come until the outbreak subsides, protests against Iranian-backed militias have continued in Iraq despite coronavirus, with protesters calling the militias the virus.