ARIHA: Photo taken during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan shows an aerial view of members of the displaced Syrian family of Tariq Abu Ziad breaking their fast together for the sunset ‘iftar’ meal, in the midst of the rubble of their destroyed home upon their return to the town after fleeing during the previous military assault on the town by Syrian government forces and their allies. – AFP

DAMASCUS: President Bashar Al-Assad has warned of a “catastrophe” in war-battered Syria if the easing of lockdown measures against coronavirus is mishandled. The government in Damascus has officially recorded 44 cases of COVID-19, including three deaths, while Kurdish authorities in the country’s northeast have announced three cases in areas under their control.

The relatively low number of recorded cases does not mean Syria is “out of the danger zone”, Assad told the government’s coronavirus crisis body. “Although the numbers are limited, this doesn’t mean they can’t explode suddenly in a matter of days or maybe weeks,” he said in a video shared on the presidency’s social media channels.

“This will put us in the face of a real catastrophe that would overwhelm the state’s health and logistical capabilities.” The government last week started to gradually lift a weeks-old lockdown that has hampered a crumbling economy battered by Western sanctions and nine years of war. A night-time curfew is still in force and residents are not allowed to travel across provinces, but markets have reopened during the day and the government on Monday said that Friday prayers will resume on May 8.

Assad said Syria was in a “transitional phase” from the lockdown but warned of grave economic challenges ahead. Syria is in the thick of a grinding economic crisis that has seen its pound hit record lows against the dollar, while inflation has soared, plunging most of the population into poverty. “In tandem with the health challenge, the other challenge during the coronavirus pandemic and even before is the economic challenge,” Assad said.

With the pandemic, “citizens from different segments of society have been forced to choose between hunger and poverty… or illness.” Later on Monday, a plane landed at the Damascus airport in the evening bringing in 251 Syrian passengers from the United Arab Emirates, the official SANA news agency said. It is part of the Syrian government’s efforts to repatriate nationals stranded abroad. The returnees will be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival, SANA added.

Missiles intercepted
In another development, Israeli missiles targeting a research facility in northern Syria were intercepted on Monday, Syrian state media said, while a war monitor reported a second attack minutes later in the east. Israel has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the war in 2011, targeting government troops, allied Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters. “Syrian air defenses intercept an Israeli aggression on a research centre in Aleppo province,” the official SANA news agency said. Citing a military source, SANA later said the intercepted missiles targeted several “military depots” in the Al-Safira area southeast of Aleppo city.

The Israeli army did not comment on the reports. The raids caused “violent explosions” in the area, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor that relies on a network of sources inside Syria. The Observatory said strikes targeted weapons depots belonging to pro-Iran militias and Syrian government forces. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Minutes later, warplanes hit positions of pro-Iran militias in the Mayadeen desert in eastern Syria, according to the Observatory.

It was not immediately clear who was responsible but the Observatory said it was “likely” to be Israel. If confirmed, the strikes would mark the fifth Israeli attack on Syria in two weeks. Israel rarely confirms details of its operations in Syria but says Iran’s presence in support of President Bashar Al-Assad is a threat and that it will continue its strikes. On Friday, Israeli forces hit a Hezbollah missile depot in central Syria hours after Israeli helicopters fired missiles at sites in southern Syria.- Agencies