Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 30 May 2020

How coronavirus is affecting conflicts in the Middle East

UN call for ceasefires to help fight Covid-19 has had mixed results

The novel coronavirus has put global trade on hold, placed half of the world population in confinement and has the potential to topple governments and reshape diplomatic relations.

The United Nations has appealed for ceasefires in all the major conflicts rocking the planet, with its chief Antonio Guterres on Friday giving a warning that "the worst is yet to come".

But it is not known what effect the pandemic will have on the several wars roiling the Middle East.

Here is an overview of its effects so far on the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

Syria

The Covid-19 outbreak turned into a pandemic just as a ceasefire brokered by the two main foreign actors in Syria's nine-year-old war –Russia and Turkey – was taking effect.

The 3 million people living in the ceasefire zone, in the country's north-west region of Idlib, had little hope the deal would hold.

Yet fears the coronavirus could spread like wildfire across the devastated country appear to have given the truce an extended lease of life.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor in the UK, the month of March had the lowest civilian death toll since the conflict started in 2011, with only 103 deaths.

The ability of the different administrations in Syria – the Damascus government, the autonomous Kurdish administration in the north-east and the militant-led alliance that runs Idlib – to manage the coronavirus threat is crutical to their credibility.

"This epidemic is a way for Damascus to show that the Syrian state is efficient and all territories should be returned under its governance," analyst Fabrice Balanche said.

But the pandemic and the global mobilisation it requires could precipitate the departure of US-led troops from Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

This, in turn, could create a vacuum in which the ISIS militant group, still reeling from the demise of its self-declared "caliphate" a year ago, could seek to step up its attacks.

Yemen

The Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels initially responded positively to the UN appeal for a ceasefire, as did neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab military coalition in support of the government.

That rare glimmer of hope in the five-year-old conflict may, however, be short-lived after Iran-backed Houthi rebels fired missiles at Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi-led Coalition retaliated by striking Houthi military targets in the rebel-held capital Sanaa on Monday.

Talks have repeatedly faltered but the UN envoy Martin Griffiths is holding daily consultations in a bid to clinch a nationwide ceasefire. Saudi Arabia has also invited Houthi representatives to Riyadh to hold direct talks although there is no word as yet on their reply to the offer.

More flare-ups in Yemen could compound a humanitarian crisis, described by the UN as the worst in the world, and invite a coronavirus outbreak of catastrophic proportions.

In a country where the health infrastructure has collapsed, where water is a rare commodity and where 24 million people require humanitarian assistance, people fear a catastrophe if a ceasefire does not allow for adequate aid.

"People will end up dying on the streets, bodies will be rotting in the open," said Mohammed Omar, a taxi driver in the Red Sea port city of Hodeida.

Libya

Much like Yemen, the main protagonists in the Libyan conflict initially welcomed the UN's ceasefire call but swiftly resumed hostilities.

Fierce fighting has rocked the south of the capital Tripoli in recent days, suggesting the risk of a major coronavirus outbreak is not enough to make guns fall silent.

Turkey has recently played an important role in the conflict, throwing its weight behind the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.

Fabrice Balanche predicted that accelerated Western disengagement from Middle East conflicts could limit Turkish support to the GNA.

That could eventually favour forces loyal to eastern-based Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, who launched an assault on Tripoli a year ago to end the rule of militias.

Western countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic, which could prompt them to divert both military resources and peace-brokering capacity from foreign conflicts.

A report by the International Crisis Group said European officials said efforts to secure a ceasefire in Libya were no longer receiving high-level attention because of the pandemic.

Iraq

Iraq is no longer gripped by fully-fledged conflict, but it remains vulnerable to an ISIS resurgence in some regions and its two main foreign backers are at each other's throats.

Iran and the United States are two of the countries most affected by the coronavirus but there has been no sign of any let-up in their battle for influence that has largely played out on Iraqi soil.

With most non-US troops in the coalition now gone and some bases evacuated, American personnel have regrouped in a handful of locations in Iraq.

Washington has deployed Patriot air-defence missiles, prompting fears of a fresh escalation with Tehran, whose proxies it blames for a spate of rocket attacks on bases housing US troops.

The New York Times reported that the US Department of Defence had ordered commanders to draw up plans to smash Kataib Hezbollah, the most bellicose of Iraq’s Iran-backed militias.

Updated: April 5, 2020 11:39 AM

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