The Syrian government finally kicked off its vaccination campaign against the novel coronavirus in the war-torn country last week.
Al Jazeera learned through reliable sources that Bashar al-Assad’s government received 5,000 doses from a country it refused to name and simply described as “friendly”. The first jabs were given to front-line health workers spread across several main hospitals in the country.
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But many in government-controlled and rebel-held areas are worried they might be left out of the vaccination drive if it is carried out without any international oversight.
Moreover, while the government is being furtive about which vaccine it received and who has footed the bill, many in Syria say it is an open secret it is Russia’s Sputnik V that was bought by Israel – reportedly under a prisoner exchange deal.
Most Syrians trust neither Moscow – an ally of the al-Assad government that is accused of destroying at least 600 health facilities in the country among all sorts of other infrastructure – nor Israel, Syria’s historical enemy.
Local activists and international aid workers say the government might use the Russian vaccine as a tool to appease supporters and punish those who opposed it in the 10-year-long conflict. The al-Assad government has repeatedly been accused of blocking food and medical aid to areas held by or supportive of rebels, and of stealing it too.
They say while they cannot control the distribution of the Russian vaccine, they urge the international community to track doses to be supplied through COVAX – a global initiative aimed at providing COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries.
‘Can’t rely’ on government
COVAX is led by UNICEF, Gavi, and the World Health Organization (WHO), and plans on vaccinating 20 percent of the Syrian population, including rebel-held northwest and northeast, by the end of this year.
In the first tranche, it would supply the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (AZ-SII) to cover a part of the 3 percent of the total earmarked. The doses are expected to arrive in Syria in about four weeks.
“The indicated allocation is 912,000 doses,” WHO’s Syria representative Akjemal Magtymova told Al Jazeera. “Another 336,000 doses of AZ-SII are going to be delivered through cross-border mechanism to cover high-risk population in northwest Syria. Together it would cover a large part of the 3 percent of the whole population at this first stage.”
While northwest Syria on the border with Turkey would receive COVAX through the Turkish city of Gaziantep, the northeast that is under the control of Kurdish rebels would be supplied through the Syrian health ministry in Damascus.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and other activists following the Syrian conflict say the government is likely to come up with a stratagem to deny the passage of vaccine to the northeast.
In a report released last month, HRW said the regime has never shied from “withholding healthcare as a weapon of war”, and if it deployed the same rulebook to the distribution of the vaccine it could jeopardise the global effort to contain the pandemic.
Furthermore, since Russia succeeded at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in getting the cross-border opening to the northeast closed, HRW said there is “no guaranteed channel for vaccine distribution for two million people living there”.
“Northeast is not under the government control and not under UNSC cross-border mechanism, which means the only way aid agencies can access it is through Damascus,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at HRW.
“We have already seen refusal by Damascus to allow testing labs for COVID in the northeast. Going by its past record of discrimination we can’t rely solely on the government to let the vaccines through to the northeast.”
‘Israel bombs Syria’
The WHO’s Magtymova, however, seemed confident of government cooperation.
“Last week I was in a polio immunization campaign that also covers northeast Syria,” she said, alluding to how international agencies and the Syrian government are regularly coordinating on Syria’s vaccination needs, including the rebel-held northeast.
Despite WHO’s assertions and assurances, many Syrians display a deep mistrust of the government, its allies, and enemies alike.
Abu Mohammad*, a 63-year-old farmer who asked that his real name not be used, said he had no hope of being vaccinated under the current dispensation.
“The regime will make sure it vaccinates only those it believes are the most loyal to it,” he said. “It makes no sense that this regime that is starving its own people and fighting them by denying them a loaf of bread would care about their health.”
Damascus-based Ahmad, who requested only his first name be used, spoke at length about the coronavirus outbreak in the capital that was kept secret by the government. He said even though he lives in the hub of the deadly virus in the country, he would not accept Sputnik V.
“A Russian vaccine for Syrians after its bombs killed so many Syrian people,” he said wryly. “Not just me, no Syrian can trust this vaccine.”
Hani*, a dentist in the Al-Midan neighbourhood of Damascus, was furious over the regime’s reported back-hand deal with Israel.
“Israel bombs Syria on a daily basis and no one from the regime moves a finger,” said Hani, also using a pseudonym for security reasons. “Maybe the vaccine is a reward for regime officials.”
Dr Ziad al-Mahamid from the city of Deraa launched a campaign called Together against Coronavirus to combat the health crisis when the hospitals in the southwestern city did not receive any help from the authorities. He said despite their desperation the Syrian people can never be at ease at accepting help from Israelis.
“We have refused an American medicine cargo only because it had to pass from the occupied territories even though we desperately needed it,” he recounted a past incident to illustrate hostility between the two countries.
The Syrian regime denied reports the vaccine was paid for by Israel and rubbished them as deliberate media leaks intended to present Israel “as a humane country”.
The Israeli press, however, has extensively reported on the purported $1m it would cost Israel to buy the vaccine for Syrians.
Analysts say while facts have deliberately been kept murky, Russia has slowly and steadily been working on softening the relationship between President al-Assad and Israel. They say Israel’s purchase of vaccines for Syria, if indeed true, is a strategic move and not a humanitarian gesture.
But some in southern Syria on the border with Israel say the neighbour they were taught to see as an enemy might have been more benign than their own government.
Abu Adam lives in Quneitra in the southeast of the disputed border with Israel. He said his view of Israel changed since it started to provide copious amounts of aid to communities on the border.
“To be honest, we are raised with a strong sense of hate for Israelis. But during the Syrian revolution, I dealt with them and found out they are very kind people. They sent food and medicines and all sorts of aid all these years,” said Abu Adam. “If anyone offers the Israeli vaccine to me, I would gladly take it.”
There are myriad other challenges to inoculating the Syrian population, including the devastation of half its healthcare infrastructure and migration of 70 percent of medical professionals.
But in the long list of daily miseries that Syrians have to cope with – the inability to provide loved ones with enough to eat, lack of fuel to run shops or keep children warm on cold nights and constant fear that any form of dissidence could cost them their lives – coronavirus vaccination is at the bottom.
“I have to first worry about procuring bread for my family,” said Abu Mohammad. “The vaccine can wait.”
*Names have been changed for security reasons