How could coronavirus affect wars in the Arab world?

Despite UN call for a global ceasefire and warnings of humanitarian disasters, warring sides have continued to fight.

Makeshift shelters of internally displaced Syrians are seen from a hill top as part of an IDP camp located in Sarmada, Idlib province, Syria February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Makeshift shelters of internally displaced Syrians in the northwestern province of Idlib [Umit Bektas/Reuters]

With cases of the novel coronavirus confirmed in Syria, Libya and Yemen in recent weeks, there are rising fears of potential mass outbreaks in war zones in the Arab world.

Rights groups and experts have predicted that a mass COVID-19 outbreak in Middle Eastern countries mired in conflict could have devastating humanitarian consequences, as years of war have left healthcare systems decimated.

Last week the ICRC warned that millions of people in conflict-affected countries already lack access to food, water, medical services and electricity.

Yet despite calls from the UN for a global ceasefire to allow countries to focus on containing the pandemic, there have been few signs that the warring parties across the region are willing to implement a truce.

Al Jazeera spoke to three experts to explore how the coronavirus pandemic has affected developments in the wars in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

No U-turn in Libya

Jalel Harchaoui is a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague. His work focuses on Libyan politics and security.

There are two main camps in Libya: the Turkish-backed coalition led by the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the UAE-backed coalition led by military commander Khalifa Haftar.

Before the pandemic was in the news, both camps were engaged in an escalation process. By early January 2020, both camps were already deeply committed to ramping up their military intervention in Libya’s internationalised civil war.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had in December announced a bold military intervention. 

From that moment, we knew that Turkey was going to carry out a very aggressive military buildup and the UAE wasn’t going to stand by. It is going to respond in kind.

Berlin tried on January 19 [to de-escalate the situation], Moscow had had a go a week earlier, the UN also tried and then special envoy Ghassan Salame resigned

When Western states become completely distracted by the pandemic, then that basically translates into an acceleration of the existing escalation because it encourages both parties to pursue the escalation they were seeking to carry out, in any case.

TARHUNAH, LIBYA - APRIL 18: Libya's UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) forces have made progress towards the town of Tarhunah near Tripoli within Volcano of Rage Operation in Libya on A
Libya’s UN-recognised GNA forces have confronted Khalifa Haftar’s forces since 2014 [File: Hazem Turkia/Anadolu Agency]

Turkey is implementing a very specific military strategy. It is being very methodical and very precise. For Ankara, this is a war against a military enemy. It is not there to kill civilians and not because it is particularly virtuous, but rather because it has no time. 

Haftar and the UAE, however, were caught off guard by Turkey’s self-assurance which means they do not yet have a clear strategy.

What they tend to do in response to Turkey’s operations is usually go after civilian infrastructure and civilian-inhabited areas. They continued to do that even more than before, knowing that there’s a pandemic.

For the next four to six weeks, I suspect that the dynamic that we are seeing is going to continue. It always takes time for states to shrink their foreign policy.

If the attitude before the war is that you really want to win the war by all means, then when the pandemic hits, you cannot suddenly do a U-turn. It is not like domestic policy where you can institute a lockdown, austerity measures, etc. 

In Libya, the pandemic has not fully hit home yet. If a month from now, you end up having 15 or 20 percent of the foreign mercenaries not able to fight or a lot of them dying, that will surely affect the behaviour of the states that sponsor the war. Somewhat of a de-escalation may ensure.

But international observers must not bet on this. The other scenario – an unabated continuation of the ongoing escalation – remains a distinct possibility, irrespective of the damage COVID-19 will inflict on Libya.

Can coronavirus be contained in conflict zones? (25:00)

Further fragmentation in Yemen

Holly Topham is an editor at the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies where she edits and co-authors the monthly publication The Yemen Review. 

In terms of fighting, we have not really seen a de-escalation since the Saudis announced a unilateral ceasefire last week, at least not on the major front lines. 

Over the past few months, there has been a huge escalation east of the Houthi-held capital, Sanaa, which has seen Houthi forces advance on Marib – the last government stronghold in the north and a major oil and gas hub. 

That front line has been incredibly active, with huge troop movements, perhaps the biggest we have seen in years. And the Houthis have made massive gains in this area. The internationally recognised government has faced intense criticism for perceived military failures on this front. 

With the Saudi announcement of a unilateral ceasefire, we are seeing somewhat of a sidelining of Yemen’s internationally recognised government. The Houthis’ response was similarly directed only at the coalition.

So we are potentially seeing further fragmentation of the conflict – that between the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis (where Riyadh is primarily focused on the security of Saudi territory), and the fighting between Houthi and government forces within Yemen, which has shown no signs of abating. 

Given that Saudi Arabia is dealing with its own coronavirus outbreak amid plummeting oil prices, supporting the Yemeni government on Yemeni soil is now very far down the kingdom’s list of priorities – especially if it can strike a deal with the Houthis.

Tribesmen loyal to the Houthis hold their weapons at a gathering in Sanaa aimed at mobilising more fighters [Hani Mohammed/AP]

If we think of the Houthis as a group that is looking to assert its legitimacy over a segment of the population, then part of that legitimacy is going to depend on its ability to deal with a threat like the coronavirus pandemic. 

If you look at the response the Houthis are publicising on their social media and official outlets, there seems to be a real push to give the impression that they are taking action and are responding the way a government would. However, there are also concerns that the group may use measures introduced under the pretext of the pandemic to further their political goals.   

It remains to be seen whether they are able to respond to the health crisis but regardless of the outcome, they will likely allude to the coalition blockade in response to any criticism of their handling of the pandemic – for example, blaming the coalition for holding up the entry of medical supplies or essential goods.

We have seen this tactic elsewhere. If we look at food insecurity in areas under Houthi control, the blockade is always held up as the only reason. Of course, the blockade plays an instrumental role, but there is also evidence of systematic aid diversion and obstruction by the Houthi authorities. So the picture of accountability is often obscured and often the blockade is used as a cover for the Houthis’ contribution to the plight of the Yemeni people. This is something to keep in mind in assessing the response.

At the moment, we are seeing that the countries most impacted by the coronavirus are high-income, G20 countriesAmong these are some of the countries that have been pushing most strongly for peace in Yemen and providing financial and humanitarian support.

It is not going to be a politically sound time for any of these countries to be focusing their eyes elsewhere and that is possibly one of the biggest risks for Yemen at this point. Coupled with a possibly devastating outbreak of coronavirus in Yemen, this is why the push to end the war now is more urgent than ever. 

We do not know what the direct impact of the coronavirus on Yemen will be. The decimation of the country’s healthcare infrastructure from five years of war means that it would struggle to respond to a severe outbreak. Even if it did avoid this scenario though, it is very vulnerable to the expected knock-on effects.

Yemen relies on imports for more than 80 percent of its staple food needs and we are already seeing indications of global supply chain disruptions and increases in commodity prices. This would lead to a further decline in the purchasing power of the Yemeni population – the key driver of food insecurity in Yemen during the conflict.

War-torn Yemen gears up for coronavirus battle (2:24)

Russia to relaunch Idlib offensive?

Firas Maksad is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

Chemical agents and the deliberate targeting of medical facilities have been used as tools of warfare by the Syrian government against its adversaries. The arrival of the coronavirus is unlikely to give Damascus or its allies much pause.

If anything, should the virus spread through opposition-held Idlib province, there is growing concern that Syria and Russia may use the pandemic for added leverage over Turkey and Europe. Thousands of infected refugees from Idlib could cross the border into these countries should Damascus and Moscow relaunch their military offensive in the province.

With only a few dozen cases officially confirmed, the Syrian government seems more interested in covering up any news of the coronavirus, rather than prioritising it over the war effort. Reports from Damascus suggest that those who have contracted the virus have been warned to stay home and not to talk to media. This is a classic authoritarian response that will ultimately backfire. 

A decision to relaunch hostilities in Idlib province is not one which local belligerents can take without the approval of their regional and international backers. At the moment, it appears that Russia has decided against pressing Turkey further on the Syrian battlefield. This may be subject to change, with a potential mass outbreak in northeast Syria having a more detrimental impact on adjacent Turkey.   

Refugees coronavirus
Syrian Civil Defence sanitising a tent at the Bab al-Nour internally displaced persons camp in Azaz, Syria [Khalil Ashawi/Reuters] 

Humanitarian considerations aside, it is an imperative for governments in the West to recognise that a second or third wave of the coronavirus may reach their shores carried by Syrian refugees.

Rather than closing their borders and ignoring reality, they must apply all pressure possible to make sure that the guns in Syria remain silent. Only then can much needed medical assistance to the internally displaced help mitigate the spread. 

Source: Al Jazeera