Syria’s oxygen shipment raises suspicions in Lebanon

Hezbollah in the crosshairs over alleged ‘oxygen-for-vaccine’ plan.
Thursday 25/03/2021
Syrian Minister of Health Hasan al-Ghabash meeting with his Lebanese counterpart Hamad Hassan (L) in the Syrian capital Damascus. AFP
Syrian Minister of Health Hasan al-Ghabash meeting with his Lebanese counterpart Hamad Hassan (L) in the Syrian capital Damascus. (AFP)

BEIRUT--Lebanese political sources said Syria’s pledge to send 25 tons of oxygen to Lebanon was nothing more than an attempt by Hezbollah to embellish the tarnished image of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

The government of war-torn Syria said Wednesday it will send emergency oxygen supplies to neighbouring Lebanon, which has experienced shortages amid a surge of coronavirus infections in both countries.

It is being said the shipment falls within the framework of a swap of coronavirus vaccines for oxygen supplies.

The gesture comes as the both countries’ hospitals face serious challenges compounded by the pandemic and unprecedented economic woes.

Lebanon Health Minister Hamad Hassan told Lebanon’s al-Manar TV the oxygen was a “direct gift” from Assad, who responded to Lebanon’s humanitarian request for the oxygen.

Syria’s health care infrastructure has been battered by a 10-year war and the problem of acquiring foreign aid as Assad’s government faces growing Western sanctions.

For Lebanon, Syria’s gesture comes at a time of political deadlock among rival groups who are deeply divided over Syria. Hassan is allied with the Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which has been a main backer of Assad.

Syrian Health Minister Hassan Ghabbash said his visiting Lebanese counterpart would leave Damascus with the first batch of oxygen from Syrian plants. The amount going to Lebanon, reported to be 75 tons by Syrian media, won’t impact the needs in Syria, he said.

Lebanon’s health minister Hassan had said that existing oxygen supplies would last only through Wednesday, adding that bad weather had delayed the arrival of ships bringing in the fresh cylinders. The consignment from Syria would avert the loss of “thousands of lives,” he said.

“There are currently a thousand patients in Lebanon on ventilators. The amount of oxygen we have is sufficient for today,” Hassan said.

The Syrian move has raised many questions and eyebrows in Lebanon, especially with local officials who maintain oxygen supplies are in fact sufficient.

An official who spoke to The Arab Weekly on condition of anonymity said the Lebanese minister’s statements were simply an attempt to garner public approval for  Damascus’s shipment.

Head of the Syndicate of Private Hospital Owners, Suleiman Haroun, has previously insisted  that “there are two large oxygen plants in Lebanon that meet the demand, and there is no shortage of this substance.”

Some Lebanese politicians went as far as claiming that the oxygen supplies will be provided in exchange for 30,000 Pfizer vaccines that were recently smuggled from Lebanon into Syria.

One politician described Syria’s pledge as “an oxygen-for-vaccine programme,” in a phrase reminiscent of the 1990s Security Council resolution for heavily-sanctioned Iraq, which was subject to an “oil-for food-programme.”

Former MP Faris Saeed condemned Lebanon’s acceptance Syrian oxygen sending a Twitter message to Damascus, in which he said, “To Bashar al-Assad, we reject even oxygen from you … We’re not like you.”

The health situation in Syria is also critical. World Health Organisation officials said hospital beds are at full capacity in the capital Damascus and COVID-19 infection cases are at their highest amid a dearth of testing capabilities.

Syria has recorded more than 17,000 infections and 1,175 deaths. The country is in a deep economic crisis, with more than 80% of the population living in poverty.

Both countries are witnessing an unprecedented crash of their local currencies.

Lebanon has been struggling with a surge of infections since the start of 2021. A weeks-long lockdown has only brought the numbers down slightly. WHO said intensive care-unit beds are more than 85% full in the small country of 6 million people, including over 1 million Syrian refugees.

Since last year, Lebanon has recorded nearly 445,000 infections and 5,850 deaths.

A vaccination campaign began in Lebanon last month, with over 970,000 people registered for the jab and some 156,000 doses already administered.

On Wednesday, the first shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines arrived in Beirut. The government had said it would delay administering them until the vaccine was cleared for use by international health regulators following concerns about possible blood clotting. The European Union’s drug regulatory agency insisted last week the vaccine does not increase the overall incidence of blood clots and the benefits of using it outweigh the possible risks.

Lebanon had secured 2.73 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine through the WHO-led platform and ordered more directly from the company.

Syria said it has received some vaccines but it has yet to launch a national vaccination campaign. WHO announced Tuesday it will oversee a vaccination campaign in Syria expected to start in April with the aim of inoculating 20% of the population by the end of 2021.