Browsing the media, one could be forgiven for believing that, not only has the whole world retreated into lockdown, but all conflicts, strife and injustices have been put on hold for the duration of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis.
Regrettably, however, conflicts and insurgencies continue apace in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Nigeria, Iraq, Libya, Kashmir, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. The danger is that, if the international community is distracted by the epidemic for the next 12 to 18 months, the resulting contagion of instability will have far-reaching consequences for global security.
With the most influential foreign correspondents quarantining themselves in the safety of their homes, non-virus international reporting has almost disappeared from many media outlets. Just as philosophers agonize over the question of whether a tree falling in an empty forest makes any sound, what happens to worldwide atrocities and injustices when there are no investigative reporters to document and publicize them?
Belligerent parties in Libya have ignored calls for a “humanitarian pause,” with fierce fighting continuing throughout Tripoli. The UN Support Mission in Libya has warned that COVID-19 could indiscriminately cross front lines, calling on all Libyans to unite to confront this overwhelming threat. It is conceivable that a full outbreak could cause significantly more deaths than the many thousands reaped by a decade of conflict.
The publications produced by Daesh have called on militants to exploit the fog of pandemic to escalate attacks
Daesh has been especially entrepreneurial in capitalizing on the pandemic, lauding it as a divine “plague” designed to force “crusader nations” into retreat. A comparably bonkers conspiracy theory is being peddled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who says the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians, which they have obtained through different means.” The publications produced by Daesh have called on militants to exploit the fog of pandemic to escalate attacks and break their supporters out of “camps where they face subjugation and disease.” The group’s propagandists have it both ways: Proclaiming that those following its extremist path will be immune, while offering detailed hygiene advice for how clean-handed militants can remain disease-free.
As well as attacks of growing intensity throughout Daesh’s Syrian and Iraqi heartlands, extremists are stepping up activities in well over a dozen states throughout Africa. Daesh claimed responsibility for a recent attack in Northern Mozambique that killed and injured dozens of soldiers and police. Meanwhile, at least 70 soldiers were killed in an ambush by militants (understood to be from a Daesh offshoot) in northeastern Nigeria. Old enemies Daesh and Al-Qaeda, along with numerous other extremist factions, are increasingly coordinating activities, from Senegal, Mali, Libya, Niger, Burkina Faso and Nigeria to Somalia, Egypt and Sudan — more of a desert-straddling “Ungodly Empire” than an Islamic state.
Despite this escalating Daesh threat, the Trump administration has previously signaled its intention to withdraw counterterrorism forces from throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The disappearance of this stabilizing Western military presence leaves the field wide open for Daesh to consolidate its dominance.
Any troops that remain overseas may be largely confined to their bases by coronavirus and ultimately recalled home. Last week, at least 23 US sailors on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt tested positive for the virus, highlighting the enhanced risks faced by troops deployed overseas in crowded quarters.
France last week announced the withdrawal of its forces from Iraq. Throughout Iraq and Syria, the US and other parties are drawing down troops. Washington has, meanwhile, effectively surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban as the price for extracting its forces, while slashing $1 billion in aid to the country. Meanwhile, more than 100,000 Afghan workers have been returning home from virus-stricken Iran, arousing concerns that this will fan the flames of the outbreak.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is calling for a worldwide cease-fire. The Red Cross has similarly called for a cessation of fighting in Syria and elsewhere to enable precautionary measures to be mobilized ahead of the expected major viral outbreaks. Various combatants paid lip service to this demand without necessarily changing their behavior, while, on some occasions, capitalizing on the reduced scrutiny of their activities.
Not only will vast refugee camps prove fertile incubators for the virus, but woe betide the thousands of Syrians who disappeared into hellhole regime prisons, with starvation-level nutrition and no medical care. In many crowded Syrian camps, even basics like soap and clean water aren’t available, making it very difficult for refugees to protect their families. In recent days, Saudi Arabia has overseen a major airlift of medical supplies to Yemen in anticipation of the rapid emergence of infection cases there. Riyadh also voiced its support for the legitimate Yemeni government’s calls for a cease-fire. The Iran-backed Houthis have been accused by the UN of diverting food and medical aid from civilians, while engaging in serious human rights violations. These forces show little intention of halting their offensives in the northwest and, on Saturday night, fired at least two ballistic missiles into Saudi Arabia.
As well as Daesh in Iraq, coronavirus has provided additional breathing space for the Iran-backed militants of Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi to enhance their countrywide dominance. The Hashd has been shrouding itself in new layers of opacity in recent months, with additional entities like the “Free Revolutionaries Front” emerging. These “resistance” elements would travel to Syria and stage operations against America, Israel or Arab states, while longstanding Hashd factions can claim to be acting within the established rules of engagement.
The Hashd is energetically translating military control into economic muscle — in flagrant breach of then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi’s July 2019 executive order that demanded the closure of “all economic offices” held by paramilitaries. Militias are now engaged in a broad spectrum of legal and illicit economic activities, including enriching themselves by appropriating the vacated lands and property in areas with a large displaced population. As highlighted by a new Washington Institute report, this has led to the accumulation of enormous wealth by Hashd leaders like Shibl Al-Zaydi (of Kata’ib Al-Imam Ali), who today boast sizable real-estate empires in the most opulent districts of Baghdad.
Coronavirus renders far-reaching geopolitical threats almost invisible until it is too late. It is right that governments impose strict measures to protect their citizens from the ongoing pandemic. However, if this is at the expense of coherent efforts to address the threats of terrorism, regionalized conflict and instability, we may awaken after the coronavirus crisis has passed to find ourselves confronting major challenges of a very different nature.
*Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.