The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

The assumption that the virus will curb Middle East conflicts does not stand the test of reality. Israel must remain on high security alert.

In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, geopolitical events in the Middle East in particular, and in the world in general, appear to be of secondary concern. Some in the international arena, and even experts in Israel, have suggested that in these circumstances, the coronavirus has had a moderating effect on the prospects of escalation in conflict areas. In fact, many of the events taking place are not being reported – or, at least, they are being pushed to the back of our minds and the back pages of the newspaper – but to say that the elements that are destabilizing the status quo are waiting for the virus crisis to be resolved is unfounded, and wishful thinking at best.

Such a statement may stem, in part, from a Western rationale that does not necessarily represent the motivation or paradigm relevant to the Middle East. Moreover, some of those involved in the Middle East conflict zones seem to assume that many developments will pass “under the radar,” as the Western world now has no interest or bandwidth to deal with them.

The following examples, from arenas directly or indirectly related to the Middle East, illustrate that COVID-19, however vicious, has not stopped the historical processes and developments (including those within states) that began before the outbreak of the virus.

For Israel, this means that despite the difficulty in dividing its attention and directing some of its resources to the fight against the coronavirus, the security and intelligence community must also remain alert to what is happening in the region.

Russia, which in recent years has reestablished its presence in the Middle East, reiterated last week that it is committed to a two-state solution on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative. This came following Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s meeting with Islamic Jihad Secretary-General Ziad al-Nahala. The meeting, according to the Russian foreign ministry, promoted intra-Palestinian reconciliation on the basis of the PLO acting as the political platform that would enable, according to Russia, direct negotiations for a viable settlement with Israel.

Russia has consistently stood out as the international player to which the Palestinians have appealed in recent years – and to which they will continue to appeal following the COVID-19 crisis – in order to push back against the Trump Administration’s plan and advance their own goals.

The European Union, meanwhile, upon which the Palestinians have relied for years as a source of funding and support in the face of Israeli policy, is proving to be outrageously incompetent, with Chinese doctors and medical equipment making up the bulk of the aid being provided to Italy, one of its member states. Once the pandemic is over, the EU is likely to emerge battered and unstable, and will be a questionable and financially depleted source of support when it comes to political backing for the PA and Gaza.

The big winner is likely to be Russia (though it will have zero ability to provide financial aid, certainly when oil prices plummet). Its influence will stem from the fact that, even at the present time, they have been careful to continue to deal with the Palestinian issue, including internal Palestinian reconciliation, and to some extent keep it on the international agenda.

This Russian policy positions it as a relevant player in the international arena and highlights its importance – at least in principle – as a key participant of any attempt at Middle East peacemaking. Its efforts to consolidate its status stem mainly from the mutual hostility that exists between it and the West. Despite the pressures of the coronavirus crisis, the US and the EU are not relaxing their policy of sanctions against Russia – in fact, they are even tightening and adding sanctions.

Two additional Russian companies were included on the US sanctions list this month. Furthermore, the European Council decided to extend the sanctions on Russian officials following their involvement in Ukraine for another six months. The sanctions include the freezing of some assets and restrictions on others. This decision stands out against the backdrop of the increasing calls in major European countries, including Germany and France, to cease support for the sanctions on Russia.

This was one of the reasons behind Russia’s decision to refuse Saudi Arabia’s request to cut oil output, and in fact launch a price war. Saudi Arabia’s request came on the back of a diminishing demand for energy, mainly from China, due to the economic implications of COVID-19. The Russian move had a number of motivations, but one of the most prominent was its desire to respond to the ongoing sanctions against the country, especially those on its energy sector, which is the state’s most important source of revenue.

The Russian decision was also aimed at positioning Russia as an influencer and leader in the international energy market and in other areas. The war in Idlib, for example, did not escalate, thanks to the Moscow agreement signed between Presidents Putin and Erdogan. Their agreement froze the lines of contact, preserved the achievements of the Syrian army, in particular its control over the M5 highway connecting Hama and Aleppo, and gave access to the Russians (accompanied by Turkish forces) and civilians to the M4 motorway connecting Latakia to Aleppo.

At this point, the armed groups on the ground, led by “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham,” the current incarnation of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, prevented, under their civilian cloak, the joint patrol of Turkish and Russian forces from carrying out their mission on the M4. Also, Turkey has yet to fulfill its commitment to Russia that it will clear the territory south of this axis from terrorists, who would then be transferred to Russia. Turkey’s continual delay in realizing these commitments is likely to form the basis for renewed war in northwestern Syria. If that happens, the protraction of the COVID-19 crisis is likely to serve Russia and Syria. They could intensify their military actions on the ground in order to achieve their goal, the taking over of the M4 and the 800 square kilometers to its south, all without any international or regional response.

In Iraq, too, the coronavirus has not stopped the conflict within the state and the increasingly violent demonstrations against the US from continuing to spread. It can certainly be assessed that the protests in the Shi’ite street against US military activity in the country have increased. The violent incidents this month, in which two American soldiers and a British soldier were killed, can be defined as the first attack by the new resistance group to the US presence in Iraq, called “Usbat al-Thaireen” (“The Revolutionary League”). This militia is most likely backed by Iran.

The fact that a number of Iraqi soldiers (from the 46th Brigade) and an Iraqi civilian were killed during the US military’s retaliation against those suspected of having carried out the attack has only increased hostility toward the Americans among Shi’ites in Iraq. As a result, the US military is continuing to converge in the Sunni and Kurdish areas of the country, slowly reducing daily contact with the Shi’ite civilian sphere. This is intensifying the competition between the various parties operating within it – the pro-Iranian organizations and militias, Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, and the moderate organizations affiliated with the cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. This struggle was also reflected in the process of appointing a new prime minister, with each party trying to put forward a candidate serving its own interests.

In this respect, it appears that the deadlock and the internal Shi’ite political strife will continue to jeopardize the ability of the Iraqi political arena to agree on a government that would enable a return to the full functioning of the state’s institutions. This is all after the pragmatist Adnan al-Zurfi was assigned the responsibility of forming the government. Further disagreements could push Iraq towards new elections and/or exacerbate tension in the internal security sphere, even as the novel coronavirus continues to spread.

In Iran, the country in the region with the highest COVID-19 infection and mortality rates, coping with the challenge of the virus has not prevented the leadership from engaging in adventurism and destabilizing provocations, as it does during times of routine. Some claim that the growing distress and sense of being pushed up against the wall will prompt the ayatollah regime to show a display of strength, with many of the regime’s officials diagnosed with the virus themselves and fearing that the West and Israel will exploit this window of opportunity to undermine Iranian rule. And indeed, Iran is continuing to fan the flames of regional conflicts through its envoys and satellites.

For example, in one of the region’s conflict zones, Yemen, where Iran is active through the Houthis, the war continues to rage. The Houthis are expanding their control over the northern part of the state, and recently succeeded in breaking the pro-Saudi coalition’s defense system in the northern al-Jawf province, occupying significant parts of it. They also pose a significant threat to Marib, having inflicted many casualties on both the Saudis and their allies. At the same time, the pro-Saudi coalition is clashing with the “Transitional Council,” which until recently has been the arm of the UAE in the country. These frictions are expected to continue, thereby increasing pressure on Saudi Arabia, which continues to find itself sucked into the turbulence in Yemen with no hope of the hostilities ending in the near future.

Regarding the superpowers’ influence in the Middle East, not only did COVID-19 not slow down certain processes, it actually highlighted their existence and acceleration. Beyond what was noted above regarding Russia and the United States, China, which was the first and hardest-hit to date by the novel coronavirus, appears to have the leverage and vision which, with the end of the pandemic, may give it a more powerful role in the region than it has ever had before. Whereas the EU seems to have been a less reliable source of support for its member states, and the US has not significantly assisted virus-affected countries, China has delivered considerable humanitarian aid to Iran and Iraq, all 54 African countries, Italy and Spain, and it continues to offer aid to additional countries. Therefore, China now constitutes a major center of gravity for medical and humanitarian aid, while Europe and the US are retreating inwards.

This policy is a continuation of the one that China has been pursuing for years – preserving its relationship with Iran while at the same time taking steps to entrench its footprint in Iraq and expand its operations dealing with critical civilian infrastructure in the country, relegating the US. Beijing also noted that the Gulf States were quick to offer aid and medical equipment to China, which is a major, if not the Gulf States’ largest, trade and economic partner. After the crisis, the Chinese are likely to recall which countries rushed to their side to assist them, and intensify even further their economic penetration in the region at the expense of the US.

The rumor spread by Chinese and Iranian officials (and unofficial Russian sources) that the coronavirus is an American biological weapon could lead to greater willingness on the part of publics in the Middle East to take violent action against US presence in the region. Growing public outrage on the Middle Eastern street about the way the virus has been dealt with, along with increasing economic challenges, is liable to threaten pro-Western regimes such as Saudi Arabia.

Once the COVID-19 crisis has passed, the Middle East will discover that the conflict zones have not ceased to burn, and that some of the destabilizing elements in the region were not waiting for the storm to pass. Israel, despite its intense occupation with fighting the virus, must remain alert (in terms of intelligence, primarily) for renewed crises in the region.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

photo: NIAID / CC BY 2.0