Calls for a “vaccination ceasefire” between government forces and the armed opposition, engaged in fierce fighting, are growing louder in Syria after the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported several cases of polio in the embattled Levantine state.
The WHO has confirmed 10 cases of polio in the battle-torn eastern province of Dier al-Zour, where government forces and opposition combatants are vying to establish full military control. Twelve more children are also being investigated for the infection. Heavy fighting in the area is preventing humanitarian interventions by health workers, triggering anxieties that the highly contagious polio virus could now rapidly spread to the rest of Syria and beyond.
Syria had been free from the ailment since 1999, but after the recent occurrences, nearly 100,000 children, under the age five, are susceptible to polio in Dier al-Zour alone. The area is a virtual war zone, with government forces controlling the main city, and the opposition dominating territories in the countryside.
Caught in the cross-fire of violence and its fall-out, Syria and its seven neighbours have announced emergency plans to carry out vaccinations on a war footing. Aware of the daunting task ahead as multiple and unstable centers of administrative control emerge, the international children’s charity, Save the Children, has issued an appeal seeking “pauses in fighting to allow vaccination campaigns to take place across both sides of the conflict”. The charity’s president, Carolyn Miles said in a statement that if “chemical weapons inspectors can be allowed access across Syria with notebooks, surely aid workers can be allowed in with vaccines”.
She was referring to personnel from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), who are on the ground to account for and steer the destruction of Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons. Syria’s decision to eliminate its chemical stockpiles has staved off possible U.S. missile strikes, and has helped shift the focus from a military to a diplomatic solution to end the crisis. On October 24, the Syrian government formally made an initial declaration of its chemical weapons programme, which would support total and verified destruction of its chemical weapons.
Hoping to breathe fresh life into diplomacy, the U.N. and Arab League envoy on Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi held talks with President Bashar Al Assad about the proposed international conference in Geneva. While the Syrian government has agreed to participate in the conclave, President Assad clarified on Wednesday that he stood firmly opposed to any externally imposed solution to the crisis. He pointed out that the Syrian people must determine their own future, and a political solution is only possible if there is a halt to “terrorism”—a reference to militant violence by armed organisations including the Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra group. Mr. Brahimi, seemingly subscribing to the President’s conditions, acknowledged that Syrians should decide their own future, free from foreign pressures.
Syrian officials say that with a political dialogue on the horizon, the Americans are signalling their intent to reach out to the government. After talks with Mr. Brahimi on Tuesday, Syria’s minister of State for national reconciliation, Ali Haidar announced that the U.S. is “seriously thinking about opening channels with Damascus”. However, he cautioned that “it is too early to talk about that, especially since the U.S. has not ceased supporting the opposition politically and in the media” Russia Today quoted him as saying.