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The outbreak of Covid-19 in the MENA region will affect social and political life for decades to come. The pandemic will have an impact on peace processes in particular, constituting an opportunity and a risk at the same time. The extent to which the Covid-19 could aid renewed efforts of peacemaking will depend on the varying ‘ripeness’ of conflicts there.
While Covid-19 may provide an excuse and opportunity for warring parties already fatigued by war to hang up their weapons, in many situations, it will exacerbate tensions. As much as the onus is on the local warring factions and insider mediators, the international community must move with lightning speed to leverage opportunities where they exist and help prevent the calculated exploitation of the crisis.
On March 23, UN Secretary General António Guterres made a landmark appeal for a global ceasefire, proclaiming that “the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war”. This suggests that the rupture caused by Covid-19 may be used as a unique opportunity for global peace.
Approaching this vision by creating real change will take effort and the investment of substantial political and diplomatic capital. Yet, with the epicentre of the pandemic shifting from China, to Europe and now the United States, an increasing number of developed countries find themselves hamstrung by their own national crises, embroiled in their domestic responses and troubled by their bankrupt coffers.
To use the pandemic as a moment of global cooperation that cuts across existing lines of conflict, a more international vision will have to replace the prevalent ‘me and my nation first’-approach. It will require actions not just of few brave individuals, but of an entire global movement. First steps in that direction were taken on April 7, when the EU announced to provide 15 billion Euro to support anti-Covid measures in developing countries.
More recently, the IMF and the World Bank have called for rich nations to help poor states fight the pandemic by stopping the collection of debt payments until June 2021. While these and other measures are worthwhile, money alone cannot establish the cross-partisan collaboration that is required in conflict situations to effectively contain Covid-19 and lay the groundwork for potential peace.
In the Middle East, turning the crisis into an opportunity for reconciliation is more likely in some conflict areas than in others. In Yemen, after years of fighting, the various sides appear to approach what is often referred to as a ‘hurting stalemate’. There is neither the will nor the capacity to continue the country’s civil war indefinitely.
At the same time, conflict parties care about the public perception of their own morality, which is crucial to their respective claims to legitimacy and the rally for international support. No one would want to be seen as having stood idly by while the deadly virus swept through the country.
On April 8, Saudi officials announced a unilateral cease-fire to facilitate peace talks brokered by the United Nations. They stressed that the step was motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen. While it remains to be seen to what extent the ceasefire will be implemented and facilitate reaching a peace agreement, recent Yemeni developments indicate that Covid-19 may provide the ‘pretext’ that allows conflict parties taking steps towards peace.
Such positive projections cannot be scaled up to a regional level. In Libya, for instance, fighting has intensified alongside the increase of reported country-wide Covid-19 cases. Conflict parties have near infinite resources from oil and support from external allies to continue their fight, which translates into immense costs on part of ‘the losing side’.
In this case, Covid-19 is unlikely to increase the chances of cross-party dialogue, instead adding misery to a living situation that is already grim. The curfews and lockdowns imposed in different parts of the country have acerbated the devastating impact of war, making it harder for civilians to escape conflict and for humanitarian workers to move freely.
Ongoing fighting has also put additional stress on public health institutions: hospitals have been destroyed, temporarily shut down, or have been strained by an increasing number of injured patients, who can no longer be treated abroad due to closed international borders.
In the Palestinian Territories as well, Covid-19 has had a negative impact on the prospect of peace as efforts gather pace to further formalize annexation. Home demolitions continued right up until the start of April, while heavy handed police raids, especially in East Jerusalem, have further upped tensions. Concerns have also been raised about the limited medical capacity of existing health care facilities in the West Bank and especially Gaza. The recent outbreak of the virus in Gaza threatens to rapidly overwhelm its healthcare system, which has been destroyed by years of war and Israeli blockade.
To avoid catastrophe, the international community must pressure Israel, as the occupying power, to abide by its obligations to offer essential health services, enshrined in international law. This should involve allowing all vital humanitarian aid into the area. As of yet, Israel’s response has been limited and, if history and Israel’s ongoing international support is any indication, Covid-19 is unlikely to emerge as the harbinger of peace.
Likewise, in Syria, calls by the UN special envoy to implement an immediate ceasefire to help contain the pandemic has fallen on deaf ears. Unless the government and Syria’s various opposition groups, with the help of the international community, develop an effective response to political fragmentation and a battered health-care system, regions outside of the government’s control will be woefully underprepared to fight the pandemic. In this case, Covid-19 would emerge as merely another factor impacting Syria’s long-term domestic power struggle. It would not, however, motivate a ceasefire and increase the chances for peace.
Writers and analysts are proclaiming that the world will never be the same after Covid-19. In the Middle East, it is crucial to identify conflict situations that might be resolved or at least be alleviated through Covid-induced cross-party dialogue and cooperation.
Where chances for peacebuilding are non-existent or have deteriorated since the outbreak of Covid-19, it is imperative for the international community to design interventions that prevent conflicts from deteriorating. Change for the good will not happen automatically but requires grit, inventiveness, and worldwide determination to break the cycle of conflict.