National boundaries mean nothing to the coronavirus, which has reached just about every country across the globe. This makes Covid-19 a truly shared deadly enemy for the entire world. But while the challenge of fighting this common enemy will act as a “pause” button on some long-simmering conflicts, Covid-19 ultimately aggravates the sources of instability in conflict-ridden regions like the Middle East and North Africa and could contribute to sparking yet more in the future.
Given the shocking spread of the virus and the way it throttles economies and healthcare systems, it’s logical that some countries embroiled in conflict will choose to focus more of their attention on fighting Covid-19 for now. A warring party that was already looking for a drawdown or repositioning of forces now has the opportunity to make it happen.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, just cited concern over the spread of the virus as justification for announcing a temporary ceasefire in Yemen. Several months ago, well before the onset of Covid-19, Saudi Arabia had been seeking a pragmatic exit from the Yemen conflict. With this move, the Saudis are merely acting on that desire now.
Similarly, the need to focus on preventing further infections before the virus metastasizes further will inject a new short-term pragmatism into some governments that are at odds with each other, especially those with shared borders. This is the case between the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government, which have been compelled into cooperation by Covid-19. That cooperation, though well bedded in by now, belies the profound political chasm between them, but it also highlights how shared territory and therefore shared risk overrides their differences, at least for now.
Of course, in both Yemen and Israel/Palestine, the actual conflicts at hand are far from resolved; Covid-19 is but a distraction. For Riyadh, the enormity of the fight against Covid-19 is a valid but convenient reason to temporarily turn away from operations in Yemen, even if it does not in any way defuse what ignited the conflict in the first place. Israeli and Palestinian officials cooperating to stem the spread of a deadly virus does not actually open many doorways to cooperation in other fields.
Some conflicts could see a temporary slowdown in military operations, but an end to them is hardly likely. This is the case with Turkey’s involvement in both Syria and Libya.
In Syria, Turkish troops are reportedly minimizing movement to help slow the spread of Covid-19 in their own ranks, but they are not withdrawing altogether from military operations there. In Libya, General Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army is still actively engaged in fighting in Tripoli against military forces aligned with Turkey. The bombing of a hospital on April 6, reportedly by Haftar’s forces, clearly showed there was to be no let-up, despite the steady encroachment of Covid-19 in Libya.
Yet what is even more worrying is the prospect of Covid-19 causing a slackening of military pressure on groups that everyone considers an enemy, such as ISIS. In Iraq, the military leadership’s concerns over Covid-19 potentially running rampant inside military bases has already led to a suspension of training exercises by the anti-ISIS coalition.
With Iraqi attention now directed elsewhere, this could present ISIS – which remains active in some of the country’s more remote mountain and desert regions – with a prime opportunity to regroup and pose a much greater threat to Iraqi stability later on.
The long term negative economic impact from this global pandemic could also spark unrest in economically vulnerable communities such as Lebanon and Iraq, among others, stoking new sources of simmering conflict over time.
Wealthier countries may well be facing new economic realities that will oblige them to cut budgets, but spending on defense will remain a priority, as they have long been for Middle Eastern governments, and national security priorities will remain paramount.
In countries that are steeped in intense debates on political reforms, the need for a unified response vis-à-vis Covid-19 could lead to a more pragmatic approach in politics and governance. This could help bridge an impasse in the short term but could also contribute to even more entrenched deadlock further down the road.
A national dialogue in Senegal, for example, had recently run aground over divisions on electoral reform, but the president is now able to marshal support from the political opposition to help coordinate a national response to Covid-19. In Algeria, a similar national dialogue process and an emboldened anti-government protest movement are both on hiatus because of the virus and the newly installed government has some breathing room to implement policies to fight the disease. For the moment, then, the political scene in both Senegal and Algeria looks peaceful, but that anti-government sentiment and bickering among the elite will come roaring back once the worst of the pandemic has passed.
Despite having Covid-19 as a common enemy, it is by no means a given that countries will work together for any sort of global common good; it’s more likely that countries will seek to shepherd their own national interests.
If anything, the global economic strain and xenophobia sparked by the pandemic will only inflame those sources of nationalism more, strengthening nationalist arguments for governments who will use them to hold on to power.
Emily Hawthorne is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence platform based in Austin, Texas, monitoring political, business and security developments across the region.