by Jarrett Blanc, Frances Z. Brown, and Benjamin Press
As the coronavirus pandemic approaches the one-year mark, its toll on global health, economies, and politics almost everywhere has been immense. Yet it has hit fragile states and ongoing conflict contexts particularly hard, wreaking a host of punishing effects.
This compendium revisits the essays published in April in the collection “Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape,” which investigated the virus’s impact on twelve fragile states or international conflicts. At that time, out of necessity, the analysis was partially speculative, tracing early indications of how the pandemic might affect politics and conflicts. The collection identified several emergent effects: changed power dynamics in conflict-affected states, through instrumentalization of the pandemic by both nation-states and nonstate actors; strained legitimacy and effectiveness on the part of all authorities; the compounding of economic and conflict-related harms; and the potential reshaping of many diplomatic negotiations, peace processes, and international assistance efforts in conflict zones.
This new collection takes a second look at largely the same set of countries to identify how these trends have unfolded since then.1 Both state and nonstate actors are seeking to instrumentalize the public health crisis to advance their various political agendas. Paradoxically, often at the same time, they are wrestling with degraded legitimacy arising from their inability to effectively assist the populations they govern as they confront the combined public health and economic consequences of the pandemic. This has created a demand—at times successfully met—for local authorities to provide government services. Given the highly political nature of the crisis, it is not surprising that diplomats, political leaders, and disaffected popular movements alike have found ways to negotiate or at least express their demands despite the logistical constraints imposed by the virus. And of course, the bottom line has remained that people already tested by conflict face still worse health and economic effects, often with little effective help in managing them.
More hopeful aspirations have largely not been borne out. The most notable of these was the hope that, in some places, warring parties would at least temporarily set aside their differences to fight their shared viral enemy. UN Secretary General António Guterres channeled this hope in his call for a global ceasefire. Yet such calls ultimately went unheeded: though a few short-term ceasefires were declared in March and April, they largely failed to produce a meaningful decline in levels of violence.
Echoing a prominent theme in April’s collection, many nation-states have continued to exploit the pandemic to advance agendas unrelated to public health, ranging from broad efforts to consolidate power to narrower attempts to seize a battlefield or diplomatic advantage. Thomas de Waal’s contribution on post-Soviet states argues that Azerbaijan viewed the international community’s preoccupation with the virus as an enabling opportunity, allowing it to avoid attracting too much attention when it launched a military campaign in the Nagorny Karabakh region. And in Venezuela, as Francisco Toro shows, public health measures themselves have become instruments in the Maduro regime’s campaign of social control and repression.
In Syria, Maha Yahya points out that state-sponsored media have instrumentalized the pandemic to vilify the United States—while lauding Russian, Iranian, and Chinese pandemic response measures. Karim Sadjadpour outlines a similar trend in Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei initially described the coronavirus as an American bioweapon—a framing that has placed security sector officials at the center of Iran’s virus response and further accelerated the country’s transition from clerical to military rule. Some Iranian proxies are toeing a similar line: Ahmed Nagi notes that, in Yemen, the Houthis accused Saudi Arabia of sending coronavirus-stricken Yemenis back home to spread the virus. While it remains to be seen if these narratives will be convincing to domestic audiences, they represent a well-worn political strategy: blaming internal suffering on external forces and using crises to advance existing agendas.
New Opportunities for Nonstate Actors
Militias, parastatal groups, and other nonstate actors are also seizing opportunities created by the pandemic to advance their own goals. In Iraq, as Hafsa Halawa notes, the national government’s underwhelming pandemic response has provided an opportunity for a group of informal militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, to consolidate power and burnish their legitimacy in part by undertaking a pandemic response. In Libya, Frederic Wehrey explains that armed groups affiliated with the eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have both militarized the public health response and quashed dissent over corruption and mismanagement of the pandemic. Karim Sadjadpour underscores that instrumentalization is also a well-worn path for Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, which returned to its dualistic approach of both providing social services and invoking external challenges as a pretext to suppress dissent and consolidate power. Yet it has done so with notably less success during the pandemic than in previous crises.
The pandemic’s exigencies have also spurred some nonstate actors to adjust their initial behavior. In Somalia, as Tihana Bartulac Blanc notes, al-Shabab has reversed course on its initial dismissal of the virus after it realized that this approach would make it lose both popular support and much of its fighting force. Since then, it has begun promoting public health measures and even opened up a COVID-19 clinic.
A Test of Effectiveness and Legitimacy for all Authorities
In contexts where weak governance, political violence, and fragmented authority have previously made even basic service delivery a nearly impossible challenge, the coronavirus has strained response capacity past the breaking point. And as the effectiveness of public officials has come into question, so, too, has their legitimacy. Corruption, ineffectual public health interventions, and efforts to downplay the pandemic have embittered relations between citizens and authorities in many places.
In Iraq, an intervention to stop the spread of the virus has exacerbated the shortfalls faced by a healthcare system hollowed out by corruption, with frustrated families of coronavirus victims now going so far as to attack healthcare workers. Halawa argues that these dynamics have further fueled Iraq’s ongoing antigovernment protest movement, which, even prior to the pandemic, criticized the government for being unable to operate at a minimal level of functionality. In Yemen, Ahmed Nagi shows that the gap between rhetoric and reality has been jarring: government-controlled areas are being overwhelmed by the pandemic, and despite performative responses to burnish its image locally and internationally, the government has not made meaningful progress on controlling the virus.
Capacity shortfalls have driven authorities in some conflict-affected places to look outside their own borders for help. In the separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine, de Waal points out that the pandemic has further hollowed out governance structures, weakening the de facto administrations to the point that they are more likely to rely on outside actors—whether in Russia or Ukraine—for support going forward. Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli Civil Administration started the pandemic with relatively good coordination, but this was undermined amid Israeli moves in May toward de jure annexation of parts of the West Bank. As a result of this breakdown and the PA’s decision to not accept tax receipts, the PA has been forced to solicit donations from its private sector and diaspora community to sustain its public health efforts. Zaha Hassan and Aaron David Miller argue in their contribution that the resulting shortfalls in payments to public sector employees have weakened its legitimacy and the goodwill it had garnered early on in its pandemic response.
Because the pandemic represents such a deep test of legitimacy, continuing a trendline reported in April, many authorities continue to conceal the extent of the virus’s spread under their purview. In Iran, the government’s official tally of deaths likely vastly underrepresents actual caseloads, while Kathryn Botto adds that North Korea has continued to implausibly claim to have zero cases in an effort to project an image of stability. In areas of Syria under the control of the government, the UN and other sources suggest significant underreporting by Bashar al-Assad’s regime about the scale of infection rates. In Yemen, Houthi groups have also used concealment as a key strategy, recognizing that admitting the high levels of infection would further increase frustration among the population in their territory.
Capacity Shortfalls Spur Local (In)action
As the pandemic has deepened the gulf between local needs and national capacities, actors at the subnational level have tried to step up. In many conflict areas, this has resulted in renewed legitimacy for local authorities and civil society. In Libya, municipal officials have partnered with civil society actors on issues as diverse as spreading virus awareness to combating price fixing on hand sanitizer. Wehrey’s essay shows that activism and protests have accelerated there as citizens call on both the Government of National Accord and authorities under Haftar to put aside factional conflict and focus on governance and service delivery. In some places in Syria, local dissent even among Assad regime supporters is calling attention to poor national-level responses.
Yet many local authorities have struggled to meet the needs of their populations, especially as national governments fail to effectively allocate sufficient resources to fight the virus. In Somalia, Bartulac Blanc explains that the government’s weak federal structure and capacity forced woefully underresourced local authorities to attempt to mount a response—to little effect. And in Yemen, Ahmed Nagi notes that many local governorates are choosing to simply ignore the pandemic amid a lack of national leadership.
Civil society has, in some instances, stepped in to address these gaps. In Libya, the pandemic has contributed to the mobilization of civil society, including groups like the Red Crescent and the Scouts, to meet capacity shortfalls in aid delivery. In Afghanistan, healthcare service providers have refocused from their previously slated missions (such as polio vaccination) to try to provide coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and case management advice.
Implications for Diplomatic Negotiations and Political Processes
As the world first wrestled with the implications of the coronavirus for any activities normally requiring face-to-face contact—everything from schools to parliaments—it seemed likely that lockdowns, constraints on travel, and other practical challenges would make the normal modes of diplomacy difficult or impossible. This has not always proved to be the case, though, as diplomats and political leaders have found ways to allow negotiations and political processes to proceed without serious logistical interference.
A notable example is the intra-Afghan negotiations, which began in Doha in September. Delegates representing the Afghan government, the Taliban, and supporters from the international community used coronavirus testing and a kind of partial, mutual lockdown to allow in-person meetings. Though the negotiations were slow, an agreement on procedures for substantive discussions was reached in December. Similarly, negotiations on a ceasefire and an agreement on a tenuous political roadmap in Libya were eventually possible despite coronavirus travel restrictions. Meanwhile, a UN-backed constitutional committee meeting on Syria in Geneva had to be postponed when some participants tested positive for the virus, but its proceedings eventually resumed.
Some domestic political processes have also proved resilient to the logistical challenges posed by the pandemic. In Somalia, a combination of virtual and in-person meetings between federal and state authorities reached agreement on election procedures despite the postponement of elections in some neighboring countries.
While the coronavirus has not made diplomatic or political agreements operationally impossible, it has had at best mixed effects in terms of providing an impetus for warming of relations. In Yemen and Nagorny Karabakh, combatants took advantage of apparent international distraction to pursue military offensives without effective diplomatic constraints.
In Georgia, the pandemic response spurred improved relations between authorities in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, the national government, and international organizations. However, another breakaway region, South Ossetia, seems to have redoubled its policy of isolation from Georgia and the international community. South Korea hoped to use the pandemic, as it has other natural disasters, to provide assistance and encourage cooperation with the North, but Pyongyang has instead further cut itself off from the world, going so far as to explode the de facto South Korean embassy.
Antigovernment Protests Roil Civic Space
Engaged political activity has proved possible not only in refined diplomatic meeting rooms but also in the streets. The pandemic has seen a global surge in protests, including in conflict-affected countries. In some cases, the protesters seem to be condemning authorities’ specific failures in addressing the public health crisis, while in others people have simply chosen to risk exposure to large crowds to voice long-standing grievances. Governments have become the target of public demonstrations as corruption, ineffectual responses, and economic displacement intersect with preexisting complaints. Iraq’s massive antigovernment protests have been revitalized during the pandemic, as social and economic upheaval exacerbate opposition to the country’s ruling elite. And in Libya, governance shortfalls—including blackouts, widespread corruption, and shortages of basic goods—fueled protests in both GNA-controlled and Haftar-controlled areas. Wehrey argues that these protests ultimately pushed both sides toward a truce.
Meanwhile, governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to repress protests and dissent. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opportunistic use of public health restrictions to curb protests against him have generally backfired; as Hassan and Miller note, the constant protests have become a poignant visual of discontent with his leadership. And in Venezuela, extreme restrictions in the name of public health have provided a convenient excuse to quash service delivery protests.
Compounding Economic, Public Health, and Conflict-Related Harms
Perhaps the least surprising theme of these essays is that the pandemic has simply made things worse for populations already struggling under the burden of conflict. North Korea is an extreme example. To minimize the risk of exposure from international sources, its leaders have almost completely cut the country off from the outside world, including from international assistance and from the smuggling and sanctions-evading trade routes it has carefully constructed over the years. North Korea’s drastic response demands a reevaluation of the United States’ and the international community’s long-standing theory of the political economy of sanctions against Pyongyang. If the North is willing to cut itself off from international commerce more severely than sanctions ever have, Botto argues that the idea that it will trade security concessions for sanctions relief is a dubious basis for future policy.
Afghanistan has also been a vivid exemplar of these compounding harms. Afghan economic migrants, who had long been based in Iran, returned home en masse when Iran became an early epicenter of the pandemic. They brought the virus with them, and the loss of their foreign income amplified hardship for their communities. The further strain on the country’s healthcare system has meant a reduction in polio vaccinations and an increase in polio cases, likely only the most visible metric of the pandemic’s secondary public health implications.
While some countries have tried to limit the economic consequences of lockdowns, even to the detriment of public health, Venezuela has taken the opposite tack. Francisco Toro argues that the government appears to have seized upon the coronavirus as an excuse for explaining preexisting economic failures, compounding a long-standing depression that has already reduced the people of what was once a middle-income country to widespread hunger.
A tragic thread tying together several of these countries is that prevailing conditions before the coronavirus appeared were already so dire that the pandemic has not become a priority in the eyes of the population. Accurate numbers are unavailable for infection caseloads and pandemic-related deaths in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, but in all three countries, satellite images or other data on new graves indicate that the scale of death and suffering are horrifying. In all three contexts, governments and nongovernmental combatants have been unable to manage the crisis and have somewhat given up or fallen back on performative rather than practical pandemic response measures.
Amid the generally gloomy outlook of the April collection of essays, we concluded with the optimistic view that “crises can bring out the best in people, even in starkly difficult conflict settings. . . . It is possible that the coronavirus pandemic could produce some beneficial opportunities in some of the conflicts reviewed herein.”
In a few instances, that may have been true. As noted above, the pandemic may have prompted some relaxation of tensions between Abkhazia, Georgia, and international authorities. After a bloody spring and summer in Libya, it may have been one contributing factor to an autumn ceasefire. Diplomats deserve credit for managing the operational challenges of lockdowns and travel restrictions to allow diplomatic meetings and political negotiations to proceed, addressing the conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, among others. In many more cases, though, the pandemic has simply become another instrument to seek advantage in the conflicts that predated it and will survive it, often to the detriment of civilians.
As the pandemic recedes, we begin to face a new set of questions about its implications for conflictive environments. How will its effects on the legitimacy of various state, nonstate, and international actors continue to shape these conflicts? As coronavirus vaccines slowly become available, will their delivery and administration be another casualty of conflict, or provide a new opportunity for authorities to demonstrate to their populations that they can muster effective responses? Can coordination of vaccination campaigns become an opportunity for wider efforts at violence reduction and political progress in the conflicts studied here? Or will each of the populations afflicted by these conflicts simply emerge a little poorer, a little sicker, and a little worse governed than before?
1 The only conflict from the previous collection not featured in this compendium is the Kashmir, India, and Pakistan conflict.