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Virus fears amplify appeals for Syria peace

Human rights experts warily eyeing the first cases of coronavirus in Syria renewed long-ignored calls for an end to the war, this time in the name of health.

Human rights experts warily eyeing the first cases of coronavirus in Syria renewed their long-ignored calls for an end to the war on Saturday, this time in the name of taking urgent health measures to avert further catastrophe.

As the first few cases of COVID-19 were reported over the past few days in the war-ravaged nation, the U.N.’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria called on all parties to the war to immediately cease fighting and allow health workers to protect civilians from the spreading pandemic.

“Syrian civilians now face a deadly threat in the form of the COVID-19 outbreak, one that will strike without distinction and that will be devastating for the most vulnerable in the absence of urgent preventative action,” the commission chair, Brazilian diplomat Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, said in a statement.

“In order to avoid a looming tragedy, the parties must heed the United Nations secretary-general’s and the special envoy’s calls for a cease-fire — anything short of that will likely condemn large numbers of civilians to preventable deaths," he said, referring to previous efforts by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres and the U.N. special envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen to bring the war to an end.

Less than two weeks ago, as the conflict since early 2011 entered its 10th year, UNICEF reported that almost 5 million children in Syria have known nothing but war while another 1 million were born as refugees into a harsh life.

Pedersen, a Norwegian diplomat who has been the U.N. secretary-general’s special envoy to Syria since the start of 2019, said the suffering of the Syrian people defies comprehension and belief. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs considers the war to be the 21st century’s worst humanitarian catastrophe so far. The war also gave rise to the Islamic State group, which, despite its effective defeat in Syria, has been regrouping in Iraq.

“Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, men and women, have lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands have been detained, abducted or are missing,” Pedersen said in a statement.

6.5 million particularly vulnerable

The Syrian health care system is devastated, the commission said. Only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary healthcare centers still function, while 70% of the health workforce has left the country, according to the World Health Organization.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in March 2011 sparked a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced half the nation’s 22 million pre-war population. Islamic State militants seized upon the war to take over large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq until earlier this year.

Assad's pro-government forces systematically targeted medical facilities, attacking doctors, nurses and medical volunteers. That compounds the risk of exposure to COVID-19 among 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians, including 1 million civilians — mainly women and children — camped by the Syria-Turkey border,  according to the U.N. commission. Many have extremely limited access to clean water, sanitation or medical care.

“Humanitarian aid, including medical supplies and support, must be allowed to flow to such persons based on need and not political considerations,” said commission member Karen AbuZayd, a U.S. citizen and former head of UNRWA, the U.N. agency that aids Palestinian refugees.