Dania Koleilat Khatib | Thursday, April 30, 2020
The COVID-19 undoubtedly has an effect on the situation in the region, and by extension, on international and regional relations. With each country scrambling to contain the pandemic, foreign policy becomes a second priority. In Syria, Russia and Turkey seem to have refrained from fighting for the time being. Lebanon’s grim social and economic situation is compounded by the virus. Both Iraq and Iran’s economies are close to a collapse while the Turkish economy is about to shrink for the first time in a decade. Iran has been more aggressive in Iraq as it sees in it an opportunity to drive the US out of the country.
The effect on the conflict in Syria
In the North West, an outbreak of COVID-19 will be disastrous. Given the high density of people and dire conditions they live in, an outbreak of COVID-19 will lead to many casualties and high rate of mortality. The Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia has been continually breached by Assad forces and Iranian proxies. The last agreement held on the 5th of March between Russia and Turkey includes a buffer zone along the M4 highway. Both parties seem to be restrained by the virus as they do not want their soldiers to get infected. Russia has issued restrictions on its soldiers’ interaction with Assad army as well with locals. Turkey is decreasing its troops’ movement in Idlib to prevent any virus infection. The US on the other hand is cooperating with Turkey and putting aside disagreements regarding the Turkish incursion into the east of Euphrates and regarding the acquisition of S400 from Russia. In February, NATO issued a statement supporting Turkey, but with no material help. The following month, the US has asked NATO to provide full support for Turkey in Idlib.
In light of COVID-19, containing Assad has become a priority. Any advancement of the regime will result in a carnage and further displacement. With the spread of COVID-19, such a scenario is a disaster that no party can handle. The US and EU became determined on preventing the advancement of Assad in Idlib to dodge yet another bloodbath and another wave of refugees, which explains their support of Turkey.
“In light of COVID-19, containing Assad has become a priority. Any advancement of the regime will result in a carnage, a refugee flow, and in further displacement.”
The refugees in Idlib arrived from all over Syria and are those who refused to reconcile with Assad when the regime recaptured the areas they inhabited. These people chose to take the buses to Idlib instead. Less than 10% of those refugees will cave in to Assad’s rule again which implies that a retake of Idlib will result in a massacre and a massive flow of refugees. When the assault began late last year, refugees started fleeing to the borders while the refugee situation in Europe and the neighboring countries was already saturated. To add to that, the novel Corona crisis makes any further resettlement impossible. This has pushed EU and the US to engage with Turkey to curb the flow of migration and potentially have the people on the Turkish borders go back to Idlib.
Assad has been preparing for the assault for more than a year and it is unlikely that he will be curbed by the agreement. Already, several breaches have been conducted by the regime and the pro-Iranian militias. They have moved their forces to Sarakeeb in western Idlib. Assad is also sending reinforcement to the south of Idlib signaling a possible assault in the near future. The current situation marks an imbalance. Whereas Russia and Turkey seem restrained by COVID-19, Assad and Iran do not seem to be affected by the virus or by the odds of having their troops infected.
COVID-19 also created an occasion for thawing the relation with Damascus by the UAE. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi had a call with Bashar al Assad where they discussed humanitarian aid to counter the novel Corona virus. The crisis might have instigated a thaw in the relations with the UAE who sees Turkey/Qatar as their main regional threat.
COVID-19 plays to the regime’s advantage when it comes to its relations with the Kurds. While humanitarian aid comes to Idlib through the Turkish borders, aid to the Kurdish areas passes through Damascus. The security council under pressure from Russia closed two crossings to provide aid and kept open the route through Damascus (although with many restrictions) to use aid as a negotiating card to have again control over Kurdish areas.
On the other hand, the situation is tense in Dara in the Southwest. The different factions who fought on opposed fronts formed the fifth legion after the settlement that was done with the regime and guaranteed by the Russians. The fifth legion is supposed to have joined the pro regime forces; however, the relation remains very tense with Damascus. The regime is unable to provide services, nor did it honor the clauses of the agreements that were guaranteed by the Russians which led to protests. The tensions in Dara could lead to clashes with the regime. The factor that is preventing a conflict from erupting is the deterrence paused by potential airstrikes from the Russians to support Assad. In a case of conflict in Idlib, if Russia is refrained from providing an air cover for Assad, Dara will be encouraged to refute the authority of the Assad regime.
“The governments of Lebanon and Iraq have used the novel Corona virus to ban gatherings and stop the protests. However, those protests are likely to reemerge in a stronger manner once the wave has passed.”
The novel Corona virus left the US rushing to find a response to the pandemic. The US withdrew from smaller bases in Iraq, a plan that has been in place since last year. It aims at consolidating the US presence in Baghdad and in Ain Al Asad in the West of the country. The Corona virus has pushed the US to accelerate the plan notwithstanding the worry accompanied with its implementation regarding the infection of its soldiers. The retrenchment is also tactic to avoid being a target to Iran, especially that the latter has important missile capabilities. The US is not in favor of a military confrontation that will end up affecting its popularity in the election season, which explains its avoidance of inducing any clash. After pledging to oust the US out of Iraq post the targeted killing of Soleimani, Iran has increased its activities with the beginning of the virus outbreak. On the other hand, the US and British redeployment from Iraq represents an opportunity for ISIS to re-emerge. In Al Naba newsletter, ISIS encouraged its followers to show no mercy and increase their attacks at the time of the pandemic. In Iraq, similarly to Lebanon, the novel Corona virus has given the government forces a leeway into stifling the anti-government and anti-corruption protests.
Iran, whose economy is suffering from the sanctions, has refused the aid proposed by the US. Khamenei stated that he found the aid proposal “strange”. Meanwhile, the US has blocked an IMF request by Iran for fighting COVID-19 and is pushing for more sanctions. However, pressure and internal turmoil caused by COVID-19 is unlikely to affect Iran’s regional behavior. The Iranian regime is expected to increase its activities in Iraq especially that its influence is shrinking, while cracks are emerging in the Shia pro-Iran block.
Saudi Arabia stopped unilaterally its campaign in Yemen after facing economic problems caused by the COVID-19. The Islamic republic has deployed an array of anti-ship missiles and large rockets covering the Strait of Hormuz, through which oil of Arab Gulf state passes to be dispatched internationally. The waterway is being patrolled by the U.S. Navy and its allies to protect vessels from an Iranian aggression. Iran’s action is a bid to show force when its neighbors are retrenching and focusing domestically on fighting the virus. However, it is expected that this action will increase tension in the Arab/Persian Gulf.
In a nutshell, the pandemic might have pushed some parties like Russia and Turkey, to choose truce and stop the fighting for at least the time being while the drawbacks from a conflict will be much more difficult to handle in the environment paused by the pandemic. The US and Saudi Arabia seem more careful in handling the crisis as economic troubles are looming at home. At the same time, the governments of Lebanon and Iraq have used the novel Corona virus to ban gatherings and stop the protests. However, those protests are likely to reemerge in a stronger manner once the wave has passed. The long-term economic repercussions that will result from the pandemic will lead some countries to decrease their intervention abroad and focus on domestic matters. However, the economic calamities that will result from the virus will lead to more discontent and turbulence in the years to come.
Dania Koleilat Khatib, Visiting Scholar at the AUB Issam Fares Institute.
This article is part of a new series launched by the AUB Issam Fares Institute to reflect on the impact of the #COVID-19 pandemic on various levels: the economy (global, and national), globalization, multilateralism, international cooperation, public health systems, educational system, refugee response, among other topics.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.