image Photo: Reuters

Turkey fights virus at home while increasing military presence in Syria

Turkey has experienced its sharpest increase of coronavirus-related deaths yet, with a spike of 63 to 277 fatalities on Wednesday (1 April). The number of confirmed cases in the Western Asian Republic also shot up by 2,148 to 15,679, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca.

Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Koca said that 14,396 tests were conducted within the last 24 hours, bringing the total number of tests carried out in Turkey to 106,799 since the beginning of the pandemic. He added that between 20,000-25,000 tests will be carried out each day next week, reaching 30,000 a day over “in the coming 7- 10 days.”

While the disease has spread across all 81 provinces in Turkey; the Health Minister revealed that 60% of cases were in Istanbul, with 8,852 cases and 117 deaths in the country’s most populous economic, cultural and historic center. The western coastal province of Izmir and Ankara follow as the most impacted provinces, with 853 and 712 cases respectively.

The government has urged people to stay at home, halted all international flights, limited domestic travel, closed schools, restaurants, bars and suspended mass prayers and sports events; although it has stopped short of announcing a full lockdown in an effort to cushion the economic impact.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an address to the nation on Monday (30 March 30), when he launched a National Solidarity Campaign to help low-income people suffering economically due to the measures taken against the spread of the disease. He said he was donating seven months of his own salary and that Cabinet members and other lawmakers have donated 5.2 million Turkish liras ($791,000) to the initiative. “Our goal is to help those financially struggling, especially daily wage workers, due to the precautions taken against the outbreak,” said Erdogan.

The president also called on all parliamentarians, local leaders and citizens planning to donate during the upcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan to do so in advance, expressing his “wish that the aid to our campaign will be accepted in the sight of Allah.”

Saying that “currently, 41 settlements – village and neighborhoods- are under quarantine throughout the country” and that “We have drastically reduced mobility in the streets,” Erdogan called on his constituents to remain home, as “The only way to prevent the spread of the outbreak is that each unit implements their own quarantine.” He said that “all intercity travels by land, air, and sea” have been restricted” and that, “If necessary, we can implement similar methods in urban transportation.”

Erdogan’s speech followed the first Cabinet meeting held via videoconference in Turkish history, in accordance with social distancing measures to fight the virus.

Meanwhile, Arab media is reporting that Turkey deployed 25 armored vehicles into Syria yesterday through the Kafrsolin crossing to the northwestern Idlib province. According to the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat international newspaper, at least 2,100 Turkish military vehicles and thousands of Turkish soldiers have entered Syrian territories since the start of Ankara’s ceasefire pact with Moscow last month.

Idlib is located within a de-escalation zone laid out in a deal between Turkey and Russia in late 2018. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies, however, have consistently broken the terms of cease-fire, launching frequent attacks inside the zone. 4 million civilians currently live in the de-escalation zone,including hundreds of thousands who were displaced in recent years by regime forces throughout the war-weary country.

Asharq Al-Awsat cited the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) as reporting that “the number of Turkish vehicles that arrived in the “de-escalation zone” rose to more than 5,515, carrying tanks, personnel carriers, armored vehicles and mobile bulletproof guard booths and military radars” since 2 February, and that “some 10,250 Turkish soldiers have deployed in Idlib and Aleppo during that period.”

Despite the ceasefire, the paper said there was “intermittent shelling between Syrian regime forces and opposition factions loyal to Turkey” yesterday, in addition to SOHR claims that “regime forces renewed rocket fire, targeting locations in Kansafra, Kafr Oweid and other areas in the southern countryside of Idlib.”

A pro-opposition war casualty monitor founded in June 2011 called the Syrian Network for Human Rights has released an 11 page report, alleging “widespread looting by Syrian and Iranian regime forces” of “nearly 30 areas since April 2019” in and around Idlib “threatens the return of the displaced people and is sowing religious hatred,” and “constitutes a war crime.”

In related developments, the United Nations delivered 45 truckloads of humanitarian aid to Idlib yesterday. A convoy of trucks passed through the Cilvegozu border gate in Hatay, Turkey’s southern border province with Syria, and aid will be distributed to residents in the northwestern province, in addition to areas in the surrounding countryside which have been subjected to years of devastating attacks by the Assad regime and its allies, triggering a wave of 1 million refugees.

The war in Syria started in early 2011 when the regime cracked down on pro-democracy protests. Hundreds of thousands of people have since been killed and more than 10 million others displaced, according to UN officials.

Humanitarian groups are now expressing major concerns over the ‘carnage’ an outbreak of Covid-19 could wreak at overcrowded and unsanitary camps of internally displaced Syrians.

Hundred of thousands of people uprooted from their homes by regime and Russian air attacks are living in tents or under flimsy makeshift tarpaulins in the sprawling massive tent cities in Idlib, where there are few  or no hygiene facilities available or access to clean water.

Doctors from of the Idlib Health Directorate went to the Qasr Ibn Warden tent city in Idlib province last Friday to warn inhabitants, particularly children, of the dangers of coronavirus and how to take preventative measures. Residents were given face masks to wear and physicians distributed information leaflets and talked to the adults, as civil defense teams sprayed disinfectant throughout the camp paying particular attention to classrooms and school desks.

There are rising concerns that the reason that no cases of the disease have yet to be reported in the camps is due to the lack of available testing kits.