Despite Coronavirus, Mideast’s Wars Continue Unabated
After a decade of carnage, Syrians face a new scourge
Fear of the novel coronavirus has put many conflicts in the Middle East on the backburner, at far as the headlines are concerned.
But as the COVID-19 outbreak gathers strength in the region, long-running conflicts are still going strong, adding to the misery of millions of people. These wars have already destroyed the health infrastructure in places such as Yemen, Syria, Gaza, Libya and Afghanistan, leaving civilians vulnerable to the deadly disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic is also hurting parts of the region that have strong oil and gas and tourism sectors. But in the war-torn countries, health professionals face a disheartening lack of test kits, basic medical supplies like face masks, gloves and hygiene gels, and professionally trained staff.
Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst for the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line that because the novel coronavirus is dominating the news, people tend to think that wars in the Middle East and elsewhere have been suspended. This is unfortunately not the case, he said.
“Conflicts in the Middle East are probably the only thing whose course the coronavirus could not deflect. At least not yet,” Bakeer said.
“The Assad regime is still attacking civilians in Syria; Iran has reportedly recruited another 9,000 Shi’ite militiamen to join the fight. Ironically, Hezbollah promised to test its fighters for the coronavirus before sending them to the battlefield in Syria,” he said.
“The situation in Libya is not much better,” Bakeer said. “While the [Tripoli-based] Government of National Accord unilaterally ceased military operations, warlord [Khalifa] Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army are still attacking and killing civilians.
“Civilians in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Libya are the most vulnerable to the coronavirus. The refuges and the displaced, however, have no hope. They are left to their fate, lacking everything needed to survive this new enemy. They have no homes to shelter in. They certainly can’t exercise social distancing in such a cruel environment,” he said.
“Regimes that do not respect the human soul, let alone protect their citizens, should be pressured to do so. Now is the time. The international community has obligations to fulfill and still has a lot of tools that can help in this regard and provide health care and support to the most vulnerable,” Bakeer said.
Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a Saudi journalist and Middle East expert based in the United Arab Emirates, told The Media Line that the true impact of the coronavirus on these conflict areas is as yet unknown. The lack of test kits and functioning centralized health authorities, civilians’ inability to move freely so as to be tested, and the pressing concerns of war mean health takes a backseat to war.
“Only when things get much worse and threaten to affect the battlefield and the combatants’ command structures will they take the virus seriously,” Alkhamis said.
The civil war in Yemen is in its fifth year, splitting the poorest country in the region between the Iran-backed Houthi rebel-held north and the Saudi-sponsored government-run south. People there have faced almost every possible epidemic since war erupted. According to the United Nations, more than 85,000 Yemenis had died from treatable diseases and malnutrition.
If the novel coronavirus catches fire there, the ensuing disaster will only exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation.
The country has failed in the past to stop repeated cholera outbreaks that have infected more than two million people and killed nearly 4,000 since 2016.
Alkhamis said the Houthis have already recycled Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s line, “that COVID-19 is a US-made virus,” to civilians and its soldiers in Sanaa, Yemen’s largest city. The rebels have also politicized the fact that Saudi Arabia suspended collective prayer in the kingdom, attacking Riyadh for the health measure.
As a consequence of the Houthis not taking the coronavirus seriously, awareness among the population in the rebel-held zone is minimal. It is left to independent activists to warn civilians of the danger, he said.
While the virus spreads, the Houthis are attempting to advance on Taiz, formerly known as the “cultural capital of Yemen” and now called the “city of snipers,” and Ma’rib, once the capital of the ancient kingdom of Saba’. The Yemeni government based in Aden has been generally cooperating with the World Health Organization (WHO), even closing Qat markets, “a difficult move culturally,” Alkhamis said.
Elana DeLozier, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where she specializes in Yemen, the Gulf states, and nuclear weapons and proliferation, said every Yemeni is concerned about the coronavirus coming to the country. People fear that it is just a matter of time.
Although there are no confirmed cases yet, this is not reassuring as there is a lack of testing, she said. All parties to the conflict − including the Hadi government (President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi lives in exile in Saudi Arabia); the Southern Transitional Council secessionist organization; and the Houthis − have expressed concern and started to implement measures, including closing markets, DeLozier told The Media Line.
Of course, if the coronavirus does come to Yemen, all sides of the war will be affected. The WHO has expressed concern that the health care system is already stretched beyond capacity. COVID-19 cases would not only “overwhelm an already overwhelmed system” but would take doctors’ attention away from patients who are critically ill from other causes, DeLozier said.
In bloody Syria, 10 years of civil war have left infrastructure and the health sector in shambles. Officially, the government has conducted about 100 tests for the coronavirus; its Health Ministry said all of them came back negative.
But Alkhamis said the government recently confirmed Syria’s first case of the disease. “It’s difficult to determine the impact or rate of spread of disease in conflict zones until well after the fact,” he added.
The war has forced millions of displaced Syrians into overcrowded refugee camps that lack basic health services.
In the face of the virus threat, the government ordered the borders shut, a lockdown limiting people’s movement, closed schools, restaurants, cafés and parks, and suspended conscription into the army.
Alkhamis said the Assad government has imposed curfews, but that is nothing new to civilians in much of Syria. As in the Gulf and Lebanon, many blame Iran for the spread of the virus in the Middle East, as Syria frequently receives aid, soldiers and officials from the Islamic Republic.
In rebel-held areas, they’ve also imposed curfews, both in the Rojava de facto autonomous region in the northeast and in Idlib Province in the northwest. In Idlib, Turkish forces are nominally monitoring the virus, Alkhamis said.
Afghanistan on Sunday reported its first death from the novel coronavirus. Health officials have so far reported 34 cases of the epidemic, mostly in the densely populated capital Kabul.
And to add insult to injury, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday cut aid to the government after his talks with feuding claimants to the Afghan presidency leaders in Kabul failed to bridge the divide between them. Meanwhile, Pompeo moved forward with the Taliban on a deal to pull out US troops from the country.
The withdrawal of aid is punishment for Kabul’s failure to present a united front in the US-brokered effort to start peace talks with the Taliban, the Islamist militant group that imposed a reign of terror across most of Afghanistan throughout the 1990s, and which controls much of the country today.
Pompeo’s surprise visit to Kabul came in hopes of reviving the recent US accord with the Taliban to end America’s longest war. On his way home he stopped in Qatar, where senior Taliban leaders maintain an office, becoming the highest-ranking US official to ever meet with the Islamist insurgents.
In stark criticism of a government backed for nearly two decades by the United States, Pompeo voiced disappointment that President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, could not bridge their differences.
“Their failure has harmed US-Afghan relations and, sadly, dishonors those Afghans, Americans and coalition partners who have sacrificed their lives and treasure in the struggle to build a new future for this country,” Pompeo said in a statement.
Pompeo said that the United States was immediately cutting $1 billion in aid and would pull another $1 billion in 2021.
The US would consider further cuts, including withdrawing support at any future donors conference, he said.
Pompeo also confirmed that the US would go ahead with its pullout from Afghanistan, with a goal of removing all 13,000 troops by next year.
The Taliban, who in the past have been repeatedly accused of murdering health workers, last week said they would not obstruct the work of health organizations battling the coronavirus crisis.
Since the outbreak began around a month ago, tens of thousands of Afghan refugees have returned home from Iran, but only a few hundred have been tested for the virus.
The Media Line asked Tanya Goudsouzian, an Istanbul-based Canadian journalist who has covered Afghanistan for two decades, about the status of the Afghan-US peace agreement.
“The US-Taliban deal signed on February 29 was hailed as ‘historic’ and a step toward reconciliation after nearly 40 years of war in Afghanistan. But the ink was barely dry when a Taliban spokesman announced that the group would resume its attacks on Afghan government forces. There were a number of stumbling blocks that the dealmakers either didn’t take into account or took for granted,” Goudsouzian said.
“To start with, [there is] the issue of the release of Taliban prisoners. The Taliban believed that the US had committed to the release of 5,000 prisoners prior to the start of intra-Afghan talks, but the Afghan government insisted that it was not the prerogative of the Americans to make such a promise; rather, the prisoners would be an item on the agenda of intra-Afghan talks. Compounding the difficulties is the contested elections and the parallel presidency of former Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, which has weakened the position of the government. This has made it profoundly difficult to move toward the next steps,” she said.
The Media Line asked Goudsouzian if anything substantial came out of Mike Pompeo’s visit to Kabul.
“Yes. Secretary Pompeo publicly announced the immediate reduction of $1 billion in US aid to Afghanistan and issued a threat to reduce another 1 billion in 2021 for failing to compromise on the election impasse. Most observers, however, see this as a punitive measure punishing the Afghan government for refusing to fall in line with the deal the US negotiated with the Taliban,” she said.
“The US is putting pressure on the Afghan government to honor the deal that they [the US] signed with the Taliban in Doha. It is important to remember that the Afghan government was excluded from the Doha talks from the outset; Kabul is not a signatory to the deal and therefore is not bound to honor any of the terms. But, by slashing aid to Afghanistan at this critical hour, it is a reminder that the US bankrolls the Afghan government and it reflects a view in Washington that this financing is conditional upon Kabul meeting the commitments outlined in the Joint Declaration,” Goudsouzian said.
The Media Line asked the Canadian journalist how the coronavirus was impacting the negotiations with the Taliban.
“The coronavirus outbreak gave proponents of the Doha deal the moral high-ground to force Ashraf Ghani’s hand in releasing the 5,000 Taliban prisoners, by invoking the Geneva conventions. They claim that the Taliban are considered militia members, rather than terrorists, and assert that militia members are entitled to healthy detention conditions under the Geneva conventions, and they have called on Ashraf Ghani to release them immediately. They also claim that Ashraf Ghani is holding on to the prisoners as political leverage in negotiations with the Taliban,” she said.
“But Afghan popular opinion is overwhelmingly and passionately opposed to the release of those prisoners, many of whom have the blood of innocent Afghans on their hands. Ghani’s offer to release 1,500 prisoners as a gesture of goodwill toward the Taliban was met with outrage across the country. But it may well be that the coronavirus crisis may succeed in forcing his hand,” Goudsouzian said.
COVID-19 was slow to make an appearance in the Gaza Strip. The Health Ministry, which is controlled by the Hamas Islamist group, has reported only two cases of the novel coronavirus, both in Gazan men who had returned from Pakistan via Egypt.
Israel has imposed a tight blockade on Gaza for over 12 years, and Egypt also has limited the movement of people and goods into the enclave. The Palestinian Authority government based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, has imposed its own measures against Hamas in an attempt to force it to relinquish its control of the Gaza Strip.
All that combined has led to the deterioration of many aspects of life in the impoverished Palestinian enclave, including the health sector.
Despite the blockade, Israel allows serious medical cases through the border. Gaza’s testing capacity remains severely limited, starting with enough kits to process 150 samples. Israel delivered an additional 200 kits.
But last week, in coordination with the World Health Organization, Israeli officials allowed the delivery of hundreds of additional test kits along with medical protection equipment.
Israeli officials say they are closely monitoring the situation in Gaza and are ready to work with the international community if there is a widespread outbreak.
The 1.8 million residents of Gaza are extremely vulnerable. The third-most densely populated area in the world (after Singapore and Hong Kong), Gaza already suffers from a protracted humanitarian crisis, a debilitated health infrastructure, and restricted electricity supplies.
Prof. Mkhaimar Abusada, chairman of the department of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told The Media Line: “The whole world has forgotten about the Israeli siege and blockade against the Gaza Strip and also the deterioration of the lives of two million Palestinians in Gaza, and everybody is focusing now on the spread of the coronavirus.
“But let me say that discovery of two cases in Gaza a few days ago has placed attention back again on Gaza and the dilemma facing Israel and the WHO because already Gaza has been under Israeli blockade for more than 12 years. … Gaza lacks proper health infrastructure as a result of the Israeli siege, and the fear is that if the virus spreads, it will lead to catastrophe,” he said.
“Israel is also concerned that the virus will spread on a large scale that would affect Israel, and at the end of the day it is the responsibility of Israel, which according to international law is the occupying power and is legally responsible for the well-being of two million Palestinians in Gaza,” he continued.
“My message to the international community is that they should take this opportunity to impose additional pressure on Israel to put an end to its siege and blockade against Gaza, especially at this critical time where millions of Palestinians’ lives are at stake in the Gaza Strip, and Israel should allow the entry of more medical supplies to Palestinian hospitals and clinics in Gaza, which lack basic medical supplies and equipment to deal with this deadly virus,” Abusada said.
Reeling from six years of civil war that sent the North African country into chaos, Libya reported its first case of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday.
The deadly civil war has badly degraded the public health care system.
Even before this first case was detected, both rival administrations had launched preventive measures against the COVID-19 pandemic, including nighttime curfews and the closure of restaurants and cafés.
But they have continued to fight in the main battleground south of the capital Tripoli, where heavy bombardments were again heard on Wednesday.
Alkhamis said that in Libya, much like in other conflict zones, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord accuses the rival Tobruk-based government of using “foreign mercenaries” who may bring the coronavirus from their countries. This allegation is mainly used as a propaganda attack on Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, who is loyal to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives.