As the coronavirus cuts a swathe of illness through every continent, and nearly every country in the world, the most immediate impact stems from the double threat to humans everywhere measured in terms of personal health and loss of employment. Next in line is Covid-19’s impact on the world’s most unstable war-torn countries, including Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen. Intriguingly, in spite of UN Secretary General Guterres’s call for a cessation of all conflict as the virus rages, while combatants in Syria and Yemen are heeding his call, the fighting forces in Libya and Afghanistan continue to wage war in spite of UN pressure.
The impetus provided by the virus appears to be registering a net gain thus far in terms of peace and stability, and the UN and its Security Council need to make the most they can out of this rare and ironic window of opportunity before it closes. Peace in Syria and Yemen are not yet done deals, and although there appeared to be initial progress in Libya and Afghanistan the odds are now against even the initiation of ceasefires between the leaders in Tripoli and Kabul. The UN-led global community still has a chance in each, but it is going to need to marshal additional forces before mounting violence overwhelms this newfound opportunity for peace.
Combatants in the 5-year old war in Yemen have ceased fighting based on a unilateral ceasefire declared by Saudi Arabia last week due to the humanitarian impact of Corona. The Saudis have pledged $500 Million for humanitarian relief and another $25 Million specifically to combat the virus. Also promising, the Houthi rebel leadership has submitted a formal peace proposal to the UN special envoy for Yemen that bodes well for cementing the ceasefire and increases the likelihood of formal peace talks getting under way. The UAE recently wound down its combatant role on the side of the Saudi forces supporting the internationally recognized government, but until last week the attacks had not ceased.
In Syria the virus is also proving to be a major contributor to the prospect of a lasting ceasefire between Turkish and Syrian/Russian forces. The ceasefire was agreed between presidents Erdogan and Putin last month, but it had not been expected to last until the threat of the virus. The catalyst for the ceasefire was the success of Turkey’s largescale military operation several weeks ago that destroyed a sizable contingent of Syrian forces; the operation merely threatened Russian forces, but via its deterrent effect led directly to the presidents’ fruitful meeting. However, the impact of Covid-19 is nonetheless playing a key causal role in the continuance of the ceasefire, giving rise to the possibility of peace talks if not necessarily the probability as over 100,000 refugees have just returned to their homes. The 9-year old war has claimed well over 400,000 lives, generated over 5 million refugees, and kept nearly 14 million Syrian citizens in grave danger.
In Afghanistan the virus has not played a decisive role but could yet play a contributing role in what has been stalled momentum toward a ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Last week the Taliban broke off mutual talks on prisoner exchanges, while the Afghan government went forward with the release of 100 Taliban prisoners as a goodwill gesture. The Taliban wanted 15 specific commanders released, but agreement could not be reached. The U.S. and UN are using the virus as part of their argument as to why a ceasefire and formal peace talks are highly necessary, and subsequently the Taliban released 25 Afghan prisoners.
However, the U.S. has undermined prospects for a breakthrough by prematurely beginning the withdrawal of U.S. troops and by failing to include a clause in the U.S.-Taliban deal—which led to a 7-day temporary ceasefire—preventing a resumption of Taliban attacks on Afghan forces. Moreover, the U.S. included a clause calling for the Afghans to fully release 5000 Taliban prisoners despite telling both Congress and the Afghan government that it would not do so. This handed the Taliban leverage, which bodes ill for the double imperative of a ceasefire-cum-peace talks. The virus is spreading rapidly inside Afghanistan, and thus may yet play a more pivotal role.
In Libya the advent of Covid-19 appeared at first to be having an unexpectedly positive impact on the civil war there, as the so-called Libya National Army (LNA) forces led by renegade General Haftar surprised the UN by citing the virus in calling for a ceasefire two weeks ago. The LNA has been attacking the capital Tripoli for months, after taking nearly all the territory in east and south of Libya over the past two years. However, despite this rare willingness of Haftar to agree to a temporary cessation in fighting—after his responsibility for the failure of UN, German, and French efforts to broker peace—the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) forces surprised observers responding by launching a surprise attack on LNA forces in south Tripoli. Fighting with hundreds of casualties has raged since, including in Misrata and western Libya, just as the virus hit the country. While the LNA bombed the key hospital fighting the virus on Easter, pointed diplomacy still has a chance.
UN Secretary General Guterres was right to use the advent of Covid-19 to call for a cessation of global conflict, which is already playing a key role in the ceasefires in Syria and Yemen, as well as putting pressure on the U.S. to ease sanctions on Iran to help it fight the virus, which could also prevent the outbreak of conflict between both sides. Moreover, a smart diplomatic push from the U.S. alongside the UN could still use the Corona catalyst to achieve breakthroughs in the ongoing wars in Libya and Afghanistan. Ironically, it is a virus contagion that perhaps more than anything else is giving peace a chance in the midst of a near global 2020 shutdown.
Dr. Jeffrey A. Stacey is UN lead consultant on Afghanistan. A former State Department official in the Obama Administration, he is the author of “Integrating Europe” and the forthcoming “Rise of the East, End of the West?” @JeffreyAStacey