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A Covid-19 respite
Published in Ahram Online on 24 - 03 - 2020

The Middle East is on lockdown. From Morocco to the Gulf, passing by Egypt, most countries are either in partial or complete lockdown. In Jordan, the government ordered a night-to-dawn curfew while most Arab countries have closed down schools, universities, and even went as far as closing down mosques. Egypt, for instance, took this rare step Saturday, 21 March, after public outcry on social media targeting the minister of religious endowments for holding public Friday prayers the day before, which was telecast. The reason for this regionwide lockdown is not war nor an armed conflict. It is a tiny virus, the coronavirus, that brought life to almost a complete standstill.
No one knows when and how all this will end, but if there is one constant, it is that regional dynamics have remained the same. Some would have believed that the ravages of this new virus would concentrate minds and open a window of opportunity to think vis new avenues to resolve basic issues of war and peace in the region, but such expectations, however limited, proved optimistic.
The basic and main confrontation has not changed. Neither the US administration nor the Iranian government have tried to cool off. On the contrary, American officials promised to keep up their “maximum pressure” strategy on Tehran despite the sad fact that Iran is the Middle Eastern country most affected by the coronavirus. The rising death toll is alarming, and the country which has been the victim of a harsh sanctions regime imposed by the United States desperately needs foreign financial assistance to import much-needed ventilators and other necessary medical supplies to contain the pandemic. The US administration has denied that its sanctions prevent the Iranians from receiving humanitarian assistance. They have accused the Iranian government of being solely responsible for the deteriorating public health situation in Iran.
For the time being, Iraq has become the main battleground between the United States and Iran. In the meantime, airstrikes against Iranian targets within Syria or along the Syrian-Iraqi borders have continued, without anyone claiming responsibility, but almost everyone is sure who is behind these attacks the latest of which took place on Wednesday, 11 March, against a large Iranian base under construction in Syria, known as the Imam Ali Base. According to Israeli press reports, 26 pro-Iranian militia members were killed in addition to the demolition of warehouses. The objective was to deny Iran the capacity of weapons trafficking through Al-Qaim on the joint borders between Syria and Iraq.
American military bases in Iraq have become targets for pro-Iranian militias. The frequency of the attacks has demonstrated that these militias, with the tacit approval or not of the caretaker Iraqi government, are determined to increase the pressure on the United States to withdraw from Iraq entirely, something that the United States government has refused so far. The US administration has warned that if the Iraqi government fails in protecting American and international coalition bases from these attacks, then US forces would adopt a “proactive” defence posture. In other words, they would retaliate and target the responsible militias. That would put the Americans in direct confrontation, face-to-face, with Iraqi militias. An open-ended confrontation that would put more pressure on the US administration — in a presidential election year in the United States — to withdraw from Iraq. If Washington will not ease the sanctions regimes targeting Iran in the months to come, the odds are that the pro-Iranian militias will ratchet up their military attacks on American and coalition bases.
While the situation in Iraq is open to all eventualities, the Turks are still sending military reinforcements for their troops stationed in northwest Syria, despite the ceasefire agreement reached between Russia and Turkey earlier this month in Moscow. The joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M-4 Highway linking Aleppo to Latakia that went into effect 15 March are in jeopardy. The humanitarian situation of the Syrian refugees is deteriorating at a rapid pace for lack of funds and trained nurses to fight the propagation of the coronavirus in refugee camps. On the other hand, the situation on the Turkish-Greek border has stabilised momentarily after the Turkish government orchestrated the flight of refugees towards Europe via Greece and Bulgaria in February. Turkish threats to resume its military advance in northwest Syria if the ceasefire is violated are renewed from time to time. Moreover, Syria and Russia have vowed to keep fighting terrorist groups operating in this part of Syria, some of them come under Turkish protection. Once the coronavirus is brought under control, it is more likely that military operations could resume with greater intensity. The main protagonists haven't yet achieved a decisive breakthrough, be it militarily or politically in Syria.
In the meantime, Israel, a main player in Syria, is still without a government after a third general election in less than a year on 2 March. The third elections have proven that political polarisation is still the main political determinant in Israeli politics and society. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed in an interview with Israeli TV Channel 12 last Saturday that his Likud Party reached agreement with its main rival, the Blue and White Party of Benny Ganz that won a plurality in the 2 March elections, on what a “national unity government would look like”. He promised to leave office “on the agreed date”, that is, after a year and a half, and that there “will be no shticks and tricks”. The problem remains that no one has any trust in Netanyahu.
Gantz in a Facebook message 20 March wrote that he is working on forming a government that he described as a “wide, stable and statesmanlike government that will know how to deal” with the great challenges facing Israel.
For his part, Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Israel Beitenu, warned against letting Netanyahu “become a Mao Zedong”.
When the coronavirus struck the region, Palestinian-Israeli relations had been in reanimation, fighting a complete breakdown that would have never served the long-term interests of both parties. According to international organisations, and against all expectations, the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government have been actively and positively cooperating in fighting Covid-19 for their mutual benefit. Such cooperation, coupled with the formation of a new Israeli government, not dependent, solely, on the support of the extreme right in Israel, rekindles hopes that both sides would extend this cooperative spirit to more fields, the most important and serious of which is, undoubtedly, negotiating a grand historic reconciliation that would end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict according to UN resolutions, and in the context of the various agreements that they had already signed. A new US president at the Oval Office next year, if it comes to pass, would definitely help in this context.
Farther west, there were international calls for a ceasefire in Libya, and several Western governments, for instance the American and the Italian governments, have called on the “Libyan National Army” (LNA) of Khalifa Haftar to respect a complete ceasefire. While welcoming this call, the spokesman of LNA couched acceptance on the condition that the other side, meaning the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, stop violating the ceasefire. If international pressures for a temporary cessation of hostilities remain strong, the two warring parties in Libya would oblige. However, without a political breakthrough in the Berlin process, initiated at the Berlin Conference on Libya on 19 January, hostilities could resume once Covid-19 is no longer a pandemic.
The state of the region is on hold until the international community succeeds in defeating this coronavirus. The key to a more promising future for the Middle East lies not within its boundaries but across the Atlantic shores. The former US vice president, Joe Biden, who has become the favourite to become the official candidate of the Democratic Party in the presidential elections in November against incumbent President Donald Trump, wrote in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs that if elected president he would lead American efforts to reintegrate the Iranian nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew in May 2018, with some conditions that Iran could live with. That is good news in a rather sombre picture in the Middle East during the times of the coronavirus pandemic.
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The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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