One would assume that during these pressing times of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, geopolitics and the typical bickering between nations would be put on the back burner for a short while. After all, countries do need to direct all their energy toward keeping their people safe and healthy.
Unfortunately, this has not been the case throughout the Middle East. Various countries and groups in the region have been using the chaos of the pandemic to further their strategic goals, even if it means causing more bloodshed and violence. Rather than taking a back seat to this global health crisis, several conflicts have actually escalated in the past few weeks.
For starters, Turkey has been taking advantage of the pandemic in Syria and Libya, where it seeks to maximize influence. Around the battered region of Idlib, Syria, Turkey has deepened its intervention, building dozens of new military outposts to defend Syrian insurgents like Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, a Salafi jihadist group operating in Idlib.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish president who dreams of reviving the Ottoman Empire, wants the next battle in Syria to be deadlier than the last, carelessly ignoring the possibility of a wider confrontation between Russia and Turkey.
In Libya, where a civil war is stalemated between the Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA), Turkey has also intervened, throwing its weight behind the GNA. By bolstering the GNA with Turkish drones and imported Syrian mercenaries, Turkey has succeeded in turning the tide of the war, helping the GNA capture a string of cities.
But the success of this Turkish intervention may be short-lived. The LNA still remains in control of the majority of the country and its oilfields, and it is certain that Haftar's backers, which include a myriad group of nations like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Russia and France, will up their game to counter Turkey.
Russia already has hundreds of its Wagner mercenaries fighting alongside the LNA, and with the support of France, the UAE is continuing to smuggle weapons to the LNA. This will probably prolong the war in Libya for a few more years. This continued proxy fighting in Syria and Libya makes a mockery of the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic can abate geopolitical struggles.
Moving on to Yemen, which is split on the battlefield between the Iranian-backed Houthis and the Saudi-backed government, fighting has also intensified in recent weeks. To make matters more complicated, the ragtag Saudi-backed coalition is fracturing. Funded and armed by the UAE, separatists in southern Yemen have announced their secession from the Saudi-backed government.
This is threatening to turn the civil war into a three-way bonanza, adding on to the devastating Saudi air raids and the Saudi and Western blockade of Yemen that has resulted in a famine. All of this is occurring in an impoverished country that is devoid of infrastructure to deal with the pandemic, yet the fighting continues.
Another area of simmering contention is Iraq. Despite Iran and the U.S. instating national lockdowns due to COVID-19, both countries have found time to play politics in Iraq. Various militias aligned with Iran have launched several missile attacks on American bases, in some cases killing American personnel.
The Americans, in turn, have struck back with airstrikes and have begun a large withdrawal from many of its Iraqi bases, citing a long-planned, non-pandemic-related desire to "consolidate" its presence in the country.
Other nations and groups around the Middle East have also interpreted the pandemic as a grand time to take a whack at their opponents. Saudi Arabia decided to wage an oil price war with Russia, causing oil prices to tank and as a result unwittingly adding undue stress on its own economy.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban have essentially reneged on their peace deal promises and are launching more ambushes on government forces during the pandemic. The Islamic State (ISIS), too, has used the pandemic to launch more attacks in Syria. And Israel has persisted with its airstrikes against pro-Iranian militias in Syria, routinely violating Lebanese airspace each time.
All these conflicts that are occurring in the Middle East have taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of slowing down the fighting, countries have actually used the chaos of the pandemic to intensify their campaigns. It goes to show that not even a global pandemic can sideline geopolitics.
Alexander Eid is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies. His column, "Keeping it Real," runs on alternate Thursdays.
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