Syria's Rebels on the Polio Threat

Assad says he'll vaccinate all Syrian children. The rebels are skeptical.

The UN’s confirmation recently of a polio outbreak in northern Syria shows that more than just violence is metastasizing inside Syria’s borders and spilling beyond them. Yet the disease is likely to spread much farther afield than has Syria’s instability. In a recent Lancet article, Martin Eichner and Stefan O. Brockmann write that polio from Syria could spread to Europe, with European countries with low vaccination coverage—such as Austria, Ukraine, and Bosnia and Herzegovina—being particularly at-risk of a sustained outbreak.

The highly communicable disease puts at risk an estimated half-million Syrian children, who have not been vaccinated because of the civil war. It already threatens Syria’s immediate neighbors, all of whom, except for Israel, are hosting massive Syrian refugee populations. The UN announced November 8 that the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have already begun a program to vaccinate 20 million children in Syria and neighboring countries, the largest-ever immunization response in the region.

Polio was eradicated in Syria fourteen years ago—ironically enough, shortly before Bashar al Assad came to power after his father’s death in mid-2000. On November 4, the younger Assad’s deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad, pledged that his government will work with international organizations to ensure that all children in Syria, even those in rebel-held areas, are vaccinated, although he neglected to mention when the campaign would begin, or how it would be conducted in areas contested or no longer controlled by the government. “We intend to vaccinate each Syrian child regardless of the area they are present in, whether it is a hotspot or a place where the Syrian Arab Army is present,” he said. “We promise that we will give opportunity to humanitarian organizations to reach every Syrian child.”

To discuss the anti-Assad opposition’s reaction to this pledge, I spoke with Louay Mokdad, spokesman for the Supreme Military Council (SMC), an umbrella opposition grouping that includes the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Ashley Frohwein: Does the SMC consider credible the Assad regime’s recent claim that it will facilitate the vaccination of all Syrian children against polio?

Louay Mokdad: First of all, for us in the SMC, in the Free Syrian Army, we are open to any kind of helping any Syrian people, especially the civilians and especially the women and children. Anything that will help our people, we are supportive of and encourage the international community to find a solution, especially for the women and the children the refugees outside Syria and inside Syria in the camps and the others who are in the cities and the areas which are under siege by the Bashar al Assad regime.

But our problem about this offer is that we believe Bashar al Assad is lying and this regime has no credibility at all, and we don’t believe anything that he’s doing, he’s doing for the Syrian people’s interests or to protect the Syrian people. And the most important thing before he lied and said he wants to help the Syrian people’s children: it would be very good if he stopped killing them every day. Bashar Assad is the same person who gave the orders to use the chemical weapons in Damascus province, which killed more than seven hundred women and children there. The total was 1,400; more than half of them were women and children. So we think it’s a good idea for the international community to ask Bashar al Assad to stop killing the children before he make this new lie that he wants to protect the children.

AF: Does the SMC have any position towards international calls, by the UN and Save the Children, for potential ‘vaccination ceasefires’?

LM: About this, the Free Syrian Army and the SMC and all the revolutionary forces, they are protecting themselves, which means they are not using or shooting guns because they want or like to do that. The Syrian people, they were all of their lives, seven thousand years ago until now, peaceful people; there were not any problems in Syria between the Syrian people. So the problem today, when some are asking for a ceasefire, [is that] the revolution is on the ground and rebels on the ground, they are protecting their areas. They are trying to make Bashar al Assad step away, to finish this regime because he is killing our people and he is destroying our country. And he’s responsible for about more than 150,000 deaths and more than eight million refugees.