Main Image Credit Courtesy of Jklamo/commons.wikimedia.org
The pandemic preoccupies Europe. But the continent should not lose sight of potential new crises in the Middle East.
As Europe has become the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, governments on the continent have closed borders and turned inwards, scrambling to curb the outbreak and minimise the economic fallout. The crisis is raising big questions about European solidarity, while pushing other matters such as the negotiations about the future UK–EU trading relationship down the list of priorities.
Yet, even as coronavirus is understandably consuming much government bandwidth and dominating the headlines, it is important not to lose sight of other ongoing crises, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, which are affecting European geopolitical and security interests, including those of the UK. Just before the pandemic swept Europe, policymakers in London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere worried about simmering tensions between the US and Iran, escalating conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya, and unfolding economic and governance crises in Lebanon, Iraq and Israel. None of these challenges have gone away. If anything, the pandemic gives them another, complicating dimension.
With the notable exception of Iran and Turkey, coronavirus outbreaks across the rest of the Middle East have not yet reached the severity seen in many European countries, at least not officially. At the time of writing, only Israel had registered more than 5,000 confirmed cases, Saudi Arabia had more than 2,000, and Qatar and the UAE each had more than 1,000. However, there are suggestions that the real numbers in the region may be much higher. Some governments, such as Egypt, have been accused to trying to hide the extent of the outbreak in their countries, and limited testing capabilities likely mean that many cases are going unregistered. In any case, governments throughout the region have followed the global trend of introducing travel restrictions, imposing curfews and closing non-essential businesses and places of worship.
There are widespread concerns that healthcare systems in many Middle Eastern countries will be unable to cope if the disease spreads as it did elsewhere. The wealthy Gulf monarchies may be able to throw money at the problem, though their budgets have been thrown into uncertainty by the collapse in global oil prices and the slowing global economy. Poorer countries, from Jordan to Morocco, will almost certainly struggle.
In Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, fear of the virus and the social distancing measures introduced to slow its spread have brought a temporary end to months-long protest movements. The political and economic problems that brought people into the streets, however, remain and are sure to be compounded by the looming public health and concurrent economic crises. Lebanon, in particular, is in the midst of a financial crisis of existential proportions. In early March, the beleaguered government in Beirut decided to default on a debt payment of $1.2 billion, with further payment deadlines approaching in the coming weeks. In Iraq, newly designated Prime Minister Adnan Al-Zurfi faces the daunting task of forming a government in a deeply divided country that is still seeing deadly exchanges between US forces and Iranian backed militias.
The situation is particularly worrying with regards to the region’s most vulnerable populations who are affected by ongoing conflicts, including those in Yemen, Syria and Libya. The UN has warned that major coronavirus outbreaks in these countries and in the many crowded refugee camps in neighbouring states could be catastrophic and impossible to contain. The virus has already reached Syria and Libya, while no cases have yet been registered in Yemen. However, after years of war, all three countries’ healthcare systems are so woefully equipped to report and track cases effectively – much less treat them – that any available data is likely to be unreliable at best.
To make matters worse, the violence that has caused these already existing humanitarian crises is continuing unabated. Thus far, talks about at least temporary ceasefires to prevent the virus from spreading in Yemen, Syria or Libya have progressed slowly or not at all.
In Yemen, the Saudi-led intervention in the country’s civil war has just passed its five-year anniversary. Peace appears out of reach as the conflict has once again intensified since the beginning of the year. Saudi Arabia may want to extricate itself from the war, but recent Houthi advances make this impossible. Having a well-armed militia allied with Iran operating just across its southern border remains as unacceptable a threat to the Kingdom’s national security as it was five years ago.
For Europe, the war in Yemen may seem distant, but it cannot be separated from the wider conflagration between the US and its regional allies and Iran. European governments have struggled to define their role in this conflict, without being able to isolate themselves from its consequences. The death of a British soldier in Iraq on 12 March in an attack on a military base by an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia is just the latest example of this. Thus far, Europe, led by London, Paris and Berlin, has held on to the nuclear deal with Iran, even as it has been hollowed out by Washington’s withdrawal from the agreement and Iran’s gradual reneging on its commitments to it. It seems clear that a new agreement would have to go beyond the nuclear deal and include Iran’s regional activities. Its support for the Houthis in Yemen, which in turn is driving the Saudi-led intervention in the war, is an important part of this.
The war in Syria has just entered its 10th year. Fighting in Idlib province, in particular, is ongoing. Turkey, which backs Syrian opposition groups in the area, and Russia, the Syrian regime’s main ally, have temporarily stepped back from a direct confrontation that loomed in February. But the ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia in early March is fragile. On the ground, fighting continues and a renewed large-scale escalation of violence seems to be a matter of when, not if.
Libya’s civil war also shows no sign of coming to an end. For the past year, the self-declared Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar, which controls most of eastern Libya, has tried to conquer Tripoli from forces aligned with the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). The frontlines have not moved substantially in months, but the fighting, including indiscriminate bombardments of residential areas, continues every day. In the process, the conflict has morphed into a regional conflagration of dazzling complexity. Haftar has received support from the UAE and Egypt, as well as from Sudanese and Russian mercenaries. The GNA is backed by Turkey, which has sent some of its own military personnel to western Libya, together with thousands of Syrian opposition fighters.
To date, European governments have failed spectacularly in their often half-hearted attempts to push for settlements of these two wars on Europe’s southern flank. The threat by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in February to once again allow Syrian refugees to leave Turkey towards Europe caused an uproar in European capitals. It sparked angry accusations that Turkey was trying to blackmail Europe, but no substantial action. In Libya, the opposing policies of France and Italy have complicated matters. The former has backed Haftar, seeing him as the most likely candidate to stabilise the country; the latter has worked closely with the GNA and some of its armed affiliates in an effort to stem migration across the Mediterranean. Both Rome and Paris have longstanding commercial interests in Libya’s oil and gas industry. In January, Germany hosted an international conference attended by all countries involved in Libya’s civil war, including Turkey, Egypt, the UAE and Russia. The parties agreed to uphold the UN arms embargo on Libya, in place since 2011, only to subsequently ramp up support for their partners on the ground. This week, the EU announced the launch of a new naval mission to prevent arms shipments to Libya. But aside from doubts about its effectiveness, support from member states for the mission is lukewarm at best, with many governments worried their ships will have to rescue migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.
The past decade has shown that conflicts and humanitarian crises in the Middle East directly affect the national security and domestic politics of countries throughout Europe. Yet, instead of galvanising European foreign policy – whether collectively or of individual countries – the fear of more refugees and migrants continues to paralyse governments across the continent. European governments are quick in identifying how the actions of others – from the Trump administration’s aggressive anti-Iran posture, to Russian meddling, to regional rivalries – are fuelling instability across the Middle East. But they have no responses of their own, either unilaterally or multilaterally. In the process, Europe’s influence over the crises on its borders is minimal at best.
For the moment, coronavirus has forced European governments to focus their attention inward, while providing a new reason to close borders and steel ‘Fortress Europe’. Yet, desperate people fleeing bloodshed and instability in the Middle East – and perhaps soon crumbling healthcare systems – will continue to see Europe as a safe haven. In the coming weeks, the pandemic could well spark new humanitarian crises in the Middle East and further exacerbate existing ones. European policymakers have to be prepared for that.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Tobias Borck
Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies
International Security Studies