The United Nations humanitarian chief said Wednesday that more than 40 cases of COVID-19 and at least three deaths have been reported in Syria, signaling that "tragedy beckons" after nine years of war that has left the country's health care system decimated.
Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council that while the number may sound low compared to other countries, testing in Syria is very limited. The UN special envoy for Syria, meanwhile, called for a lasting cease-fire to fighting in the country.
With millions of people displaced in crowded conditions and without adequate sanitation, he said Syria can't be expected "to cope with a crisis that is challenging even the wealthiest nations."
Efforts are being made to set up isolation areas in displacement camps and health facilities in Syria, but measures aimed at containing the virus are already having side effects such as skyrocketing food prices in some areas, he said.
Lowcock said essential medical supplies and equipment must be allowed into the country, and that the Al Yarubiyah border crossing from Iraq to Syria's northeast must be reopened.
The border crossing was closed in January at Russia's insistence, and Lowcock said deliveries of medical supplies to the northeast from Damascus have not filled the gap.
Syrian Kurds established an autonomous zone in the northeast in 2012 and were U.S. partners on the ground in fighting the Islamic State extremist group. A Turkish offensive in October against Syrian Kurdish militants led the U.S. to abandon its Kurdish allies, leading to strong criticism of both Washington and Ankara.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for a cease-fire to all conflicts around the world on March 23 to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, and at separate Security Council meetings Wednesday on Syria's political and humanitarian situation there was widespread support for his appeal.
Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria, welcomed the fact that there has been "significant calm in many areas of Syria," with no all-out offensives since early March.
He said Russian-Turkish arrangements have taken hold in the northwest, the last opposition stronghold, and cease-fire arrangements between Russia, Turkey and the United States in the northeast "also continue to broadly hold."
He said the calm was "uneasy and fragile" and there is a constant risk of things escalating.
He appealed for a cease-fire "that results in sustained calm and is nationwide in scope, one that does not see new assaults across lines of contact, and enables Syrians to access equipment and resources necessary to combat COVID-19."
But Russia and the U.S. disagreed about who should be in the lead in pursuing a cease-fire and an end to the Syrian conflict.
Russia's UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council that the foreign ministers of Russia, Iran and Turkey - the guarantor states in the so-called "Astana process" aimed at ending the Syria conflict - held a video conference on April 22 and "underscored the leading role of Astana in promoting a Syrian settlement."
He said this includes stabilizing the situation in the country, dealing with refugees, resolving humanitarian problems and promoting a dialogue among Syrians in the committee that is to draft a new constitution.
Nebenzia said the ministers of Russia and Iran, who support Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which backs the opposition, would prepare for the next Astana summit.
The acting U.S. deputy ambassador, Cherith Norman Chalet, said the UN "must be at the center of any effort to establish a comprehensive, enduring, and verifiable nationwide cease-fire."
France's UN Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere also stressed that the U.N. must be "at the forefront" of cease-fire efforts.
He called for a broader political process than just the constitutional committee and told the council that "France is deeply concerned about the growing instability everywhere in Syria."
Russia's Nebenzia ticked off "terrorist" groups operating in Syria's northwest and stressed that the "pandemic cannot be used as a pretext to whitewash terrorists."
"Appeals to Damascus to step up its efforts to fight the pandemic are irrelevant as to 30% of territories which are under effective control either of foreign troops or of opposition or of terrorists," Nebenzia said.
"Those controlling these territories should be responsible for it."