Will coronavirus pandemic intensify or defuse Middle East conflicts?

Will coronavirus pandemic intensify or defuse Middle East conflicts?
Displaced Syrian girls wear face masks decorated by artists during a COVID-19 awareness campaign at the Bardaqli camp in the town of Dana in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, on April 20, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 12 August 2020

Will coronavirus pandemic intensify or defuse Middle East conflicts?

Will coronavirus pandemic intensify or defuse Middle East conflicts?
  • COVID-19 has left people living in the region’s many conflict zones more vulnerable than ever
  • In online talk, UN official Rosemary DiCarlo called for a reshuffling of priorities to tackle the fallout

DUBAI: The coronavirus pandemic has left people living in the Middle East’s many conflict zones and hot spots more vulnerable than ever, according to a senior UN official. But there will be an opportunity to “build back better” once the storm blows over.

In a recent online talk titled, “Will COVID-19 exacerbate or defuse conflicts in the Middle East?,” organized by the Atlantic Council, Rosemary DiCarlo, UN under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, called for a reshuffling of priorities to combat the pandemic, which has placed the region’s long-running conflicts in a different light.

She admitted that there is no good time for a pandemic, but said the outbreak has hit at a difficult moment, with the international community and rules-based order built after World War II under increasing attack.

“Great power rivalry is intensifying,” said DiCarlo.

“Violent conflicts have drawn in regional and global powers and actors, displaced millions and collapsed state and local institutions.”

Before the pandemic, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, had underscored the urgent need for effective crisis management systems and lines of communication in the Gulf region, she said.

“That need is greater now than ever before. Any miscalculation and the current atmosphere can lead to consequences that could overwhelm the mechanisms that are currently in place.”

DiCarlo drew attention to Guterres’ appeal for a global cease-fire so that all efforts could be aimed at fighting the coronavirus.

“His call has resonated around the world: 115 member states have endorsed his appeal, as have regional organizations, civil society, religious leaders and 24 armed groups,” she said.

 

According to DiCarlo, the challenges for conflict prevention and resolution efforts include the economic fallout of the pandemic, which could lead to civil unrest and violence.

“As countries slowly lurch back to life from weeks of lockdown, the demands for economic recovery may grow beyond the capacity of many states," she said.

“The rate of unemployment is skyrocketing, and the decline in oil and gas prices is further straining national finances.”

DiCarlo cited the protests and violence in Lebanon and Iraq as reasons for concern given the risk of human-rights violations, adding that the “shrinking civic space” in the region poses an obstacle to fighting the pandemic.

 

“We've seen discrimination in accessing health services, increased cases of domestic violence, and an overall disproportionate impact on women and on households headed by women,” DiCarlo said.

“Refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as detainees and abductees — many living in crowded and squalid conditions — have been particularly vulnerable. Migrant workers in the Gulf have faced growing pressure to return home.”

DiCarlo said migrant workers were most vulnerable to high prices and food shortages, and faced limited access to health care and crowded living conditions.

 

To cap it all, there is the continuing threat of terrorism, she said.

In DiCarlo’s view, the pandemic is occupying the attention of governments, giving terrorist groups an opportunity to strike.




Syrian Muslims wearing face masks attend the Friday prayer at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus on May 15, 2020, following the authorities' decision to allow prayers on Fridays in disinfected mosques with strict social distancing and protection measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)

“There are reports that Daesh has tried to exploit the pandemic in Iraq and elsewhere, launching new initiatives and intensifying propaganda,” she said.

“Actors in conflict settings could also exploit the confusion created by the virus to press their advantage, leading to a greater escalation of violence that will further complicate efforts for a peaceful resolution.”

In regard to Yemen, international organizations had been asking for funding to shore up their operations in the impoverished country after 75 percent of UN programs had to shut their doors or reduce operations because of a lack of funds.

Saudi Arabia answered the humanitarian call by organizing a pledging event on June 2, co-hosted by the UN, where participants included representatives from more than 125 member states.




A Yemeni youth carries a portion of food aid, distributed by Yadon Tabney development foundation, in Yemen's capital Sanaa on May 17, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

At the event, $1.35 billion was pledged, falling short of the $2.5 billion that the organizations said they needed to keep their operations going.

In a subsequent interview with Arab News, Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, said: “The conference was a huge success for the United Nations and for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for Saudi diplomacy.

“The fact that you can hold such a conference, with such wide participation, under the current circumstances, virtually, and with the economic clouds hanging in the air over the heads of the participants, and then come up with (actual) results — I think that is a major success.”

Al-Mouallimi described the situation in Yemen as “catastrophic, both in terms of the humanitarian situation and in every (other) respect.”

DiCarlo likewise said Yemen faces one of the “gravest humanitarian challenges in the world.”




Yemeni workers wearing protective outfits spray disinfectant on a car in the capital Sanaa, during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic crisis, on May 21, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Noting that Arabia was “very committed” to seeing a peaceful resolution to the conflict, she said the Kingdom did declare a unilateral ceasefire and does “understand that there is not a military solution to the disagreements among the various parties, that it has to be negotiated.”

On Syria, DiCarlo said cease-fire agreements are fragile and humanitarian efforts on the front lines insufficient.

The need for continued and expanded cross-border assistance could not be overstated. “Progress on the UN-led political process remains elusive, despite our efforts,” she said.

Recent developments in war-torn Libya are also doing little to inspire optimism. “When parties have called for humanitarian truces at various times in the past, the conflict has intensified,” DiCarlo said.

THE NUMBERS

COVID-19 in the Middle East

- Over 16,000 Libyans displaced by recent military movements in Greater Tripoli and Tarhouna.

- 80,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp closed off by authorities during a two-month lockdown.

- 15 million Yemenis, or half the country’s population, may become infected, resulting in more than 40,000 deaths, says WHO.

- 1 in 5 Syrian refugees in Turkey do not have access to clean water.

- 75% of Lebanese people in need of aid, with the pound losing 60% of its value as of May.

- 115 UN member states have endorsed global cease-fire to fight pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis has prompted many Arab countries to step up humanitarian efforts, with the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar providing much-needed medical equipment and assistance to Iran. However, the pandemic has not proven to be the olive branch for ending the region’s divisions.

Despite the seemingly intractable issues, great opportunity awaits, DiCarlo said, adding that the UN is hoping that the region will explore this in the near future.

She said the pandemic has been a catalyst for much-needed cooperation and dialogue.




A Yemeni youth wearing a protective mask sells fruits at a street market in Yemen's third city of Taez, on June 1, 2020 amid the novel coronavirus pandemic crisis. (AFP)

“There are encouraging examples of this in the Middle East,” she said, pointing to Israel and the Palestinian government, which are working in tandem with the UN to tackle the common threat posed by the pandemic.

“We continue to strongly urge Israeli and Palestinian leaders to build on recent cooperation,” DiCarlo said.

There are other positive developments, she said. In the Gulf, the dangerous escalation of tensions between Iran and Iraq, and the region as a whole, is thought to be tapering off.

“There is this understanding of a number of parties, who have been involved or supporting different sides in this conflict, that there is a time now for negotiation and for finding a resolution to this issue. I find that encouraging," DiCarlo said.




Lebanese protesters run from tear gas fired by riot police amid clashes following a demonstration in central Beirut, on June 6, 2020. (AFP)

She said despite restrictions on face-to-face meetings, the increased use of technology could create new opportunities and enhance the inclusivity of peace processes, including the participation of women and young people.

“The secretary-general and our UN envoys and special representatives continue to exercise good offices, and cajole and support conflict parties in pursuit of dialogue and cooperation,” she said.

“These efforts now rely mostly on the use of secure digital tools and platforms.”




A member of the Kurdish Internal Security Forces of Asayesh stands guard on a deserted street in Syria's northeastern city of Hasakeh on April 30, 2020, following measures taken by the Kurdish-led local authorities there, to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. (AFP/File Photo)

DiCarlo concluded her briefing on a note of optimism, saying: “I think we will overcome COVID-19. I believe so, but obviously the international community will not be unscathed.

“It will take a lot of vigilance and hard work, at the UN, between individual states or groups of countries, in civil society and among many of you," she said.

“We have a chance to go beyond recovery. We can safeguard the progress achieved over the past 75 years that helped societies prevent, resolve and rebuild from violent conflict. We can do more. We must build back better.”

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@CalineMalek


Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia began work on the dam in 2011. Egypt and Sudan are calling for a binding and comprehensive deal with Ethiopia that guarantees the rights and interests of all three countries. (AFP/File)
Updated 14 June 2021

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam

Egypt sends letter to UN Security Council about Renaissance Dam
  • Cairo fears the GERD will threaten its water supply from the Nile

CAIRO: Egypt has sent a letter to the head of the UN Security Council to highlight developments in the Grand Ethopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute, as it and Sudan drafted a resolution about the dam to be presented to Arab foreign ministers next week.

Ethiopia began work on the dam in 2011. Egypt fears the GERD will threaten its water supply from the Nile, while Sudan is concerned about the dam’s safety and its own water flow.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s letter to the UN Security Council included the country’s objection to Ethiopia’s intention to continue filling the dam during the upcoming flood season. It also expressed the government’s rejection of Ethiopia seeking to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries through unilateral measures.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez said the letter aimed to reveal the truth about the intransigent positions Ethiopia was taking as these were stalling the efforts made over the past months to reach a fair, balanced and legally binding agreement on the issue.

HIGHLIGHT

The Council of Arab States, at the level of foreign ministers, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session in Doha on Tuesday at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss developments regarding the dam issue.

Hafez said that an integrated file was also deposited with the UN Security Council to serve as a reference for the international community on the issue, as well as to document the constructive and responsible positions taken by Egypt.
Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the League of Arab States, said there was an Arab consensus supporting Egypt and Sudan’s rights in the Nile waters and that there was not a single country outside this consensus.
He indicated that Ethiopia’s attempt to “drive a wedge” between Arab and African countries on the Renaissance Dam issue would not succeed.
The Council of Arab States, at the level of foreign ministers, is scheduled to hold an extraordinary session in Doha on Tuesday at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss developments regarding the dam issue, he added.
Zaki said the session would be held on the sidelines of the consultative meeting of Arab foreign ministers that was being held in Doha.
Egypt and Sudan are calling for a binding and comprehensive deal that guarantees the rights and interests of all three countries.


Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel
This handout picture released on January 29, 2020, by the Turkish Defence Ministry Press Service shows migrants in a rubber boat rescued by Turkish navy soldiers on January 28, 2020, off the Libyan coast. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel

Greece says Turkish patrol boat damaged coast guard vessel
  • Greece in April had accused Turkey of seeking to “provoke an escalation” in the Aegean with “dangerous” maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants

ATHENS: The Greek coast guard said that one of its patrol vessels was “harassed” by a Turkish patrol boat on Sunday, causing minor damage, a day before the Greek and Turkish leaders hold talks in Brussels.
There were no injuries in the incident, which occurred east of the Aegean island of Lesbos, the coast guard said in a statement.
It said “a patrol vessel of the Turkish coast guard harassed a patrol boat of the Lesbos coast guard, causing minor damage.”
Such incidents are common in the Aegean Sea during patrols for boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.

SPEEDREAD

• A patrol vessel of the Turkish coast guard ‘harassed a patrol boat of the Lesbos coast guard, causing minor damage.’

• Such incidents are common in the Aegean Sea during patrols for boats carrying migrants from Turkey to Greece.

• Greece had accused Turkey of seeking to ‘provoke an escalation’ in the Aegean with ‘dangerous’ maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants.

Greece in April had accused Turkey of seeking to “provoke an escalation” in the Aegean with “dangerous” maneuvers and illegal assistance to migrants.
Athens wants Ankara to better police migration routes and take back hundreds of asylum seekers found ineligible for refugee protection.
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is to hold talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels.
Mitsotakis said on Friday that good bilateral relations will depend on de-escalation efforts and on whether “Turkey participates constructively in the dialogue and respects the conditions set by the EU” in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.


Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections
Algerian elections staff count ballots for parliamentary elections at a polling station in Bouchaoui, on the western outskirts of the capital Algiers, on June 12, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections

Algeria awaits results after voters snub elections
  • The movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in early 2019 to force longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies from power

Algeria on Sunday awaited the results of a parliamentary election boycotted by the long-running Hirak protest movement and marked by widespread abstention.
Turnout was just 30.2 percent, electoral commission chief Mohamed Chorfi announced after Saturday’s vote — the lowest in a legislative poll at least 20 years.
He said it would be “96 hours” before official results are announced.
Fewer than 1 percent of registered voters cast their ballots in Kabylie, a mainly Berber region east of Algiers, and the cities of Bejaia and Tizi Ouzou.
“As expected, the majority of Algerians snubbed the ballot boxes. The low turnout confirms the strong trend toward rejecting the vote,” read the front page of French-language daily Liberte.
President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, himself elected on an official turnout of less than 40 percent in late 2019, put a brave face on the figures.
“For me, the turnout isn’t important. What’s important is whether the lawmakers that the people elect have enough legitimacy,” the president said.
The Hirak protest movement, which apart from a hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic had held twice-weekly demonstrations for reform until they were effectively banned last month, rejected the polls as a “sham.”
The movement has urged boycotts of all national polls since it mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in early 2019 to force longtime President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies from power.
But voting day was mainly calm, except in Kabylie, where ballot boxes were ransacked and security forces detained dozens of people, rights groups said.
Two prominent journalists detained on the eve of the election and released Saturday, Khaled Drareni and Ihsane El Kadi, condemned their “arbitrary” arrests.
“I believe you have the right to know that two journalists ... were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention for no apparent reason,” Drareni wrote on his Facebook page.


IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital
A member of Syria’s Civil Defence service inspects the damage caused by the shelling at Al-Shifaa hospital in Afrin, Syria. (AFP)
Updated 14 June 2021

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital

IRC denounces deadly attack on Syria hospital
  • Saturday’s attack on the opposition-held northern town of Afrin killed at 21 people

BEIRUT: The International Rescue Committee on Sunday condemned the shelling on the Syrian city of Afrin that put a hospital out of service and killed civilians and medical staff.

Saturday’s attack on the opposition-held northern town killed at least 21 people, mostly in shelling on the hospital, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
“We utterly condemn this deadly attack on Al-Shifaa Hospital, one of the largest medical facilities in northern Syria,” said IRC’s Syria director Wolfgang Gressmann.
“This is the 11th attack on healthcare that has been recorded so far this year, and brings the total number of verified attacks on healthcare since January 2019 to 124.”
Of the 21 killed, 17 were civilians, including at least 4 hospital staff members, the Observatory said, adding that 23 people were also wounded.
The IRC said the attack completely destroyed the emergency room and the labor and delivery room.

This is the 11th attack on healthcare that has been recorded so far this year.

Wolfgang Gressmann, Syria director of IRC

“The hospital is now out of service,” the statement said. “It is vital that these attacks stop.”
According to the Observatory, Saturday’s artillery fire originated from northern Aleppo province where militias backing Iran and the Syrian regime are deployed near a region run by Kurdish forces. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued a statement denying any involvement in the shelling.
The Afrin region, like all areas held by pro-Turkish rebels, regularly witnesses targeted killings, bombings and shootings.
The conflict in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations.
Separately, the Lebanese army on Sunday said it intercepted a small boat carrying 11 people, mostly Syrians, attempting an illegal sea crossing out of the crisis-hit country. A statement said a naval force spotted the boat off the northern port city of Tripoli and that its passengers were all detained and referred for investigation, the army added.
The boat was carrying “10 people of Syrian nationality and a Lebanese national,” it said.
Their journey’s end was not specified but neighboring Cyprus, a member of the European Union, has been a popular sea smuggling destination in recent months.
In May, the Lebanese army intercepted a boat near Tripoli carrying 60 people, including 59 Syrians.
Lebanon, home to more than 6 million people, says it hosts more than a million Syrian refugees.
They have been hit hard by widening poverty rates and growing food insecurity brought on by the country’s economic crisis.

 


Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’
(L to R) Israel's outgoing PM Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 13 June 2021

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’

Netanyahu ‘might be down but he’s not out’
  • Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his premiership began outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year hold on power ended on Sunday after a parliamentary vote on a new coalition government headed by a right-wing hawk.

Embattled Netanyahu earlier vowed that “if it’s our destiny to be in the opposition, we’ll do so with our heads high until we take down this bad government and return to lead the country our way.”

Khaled Elgindy, nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, told Arab News: “Netanyahu might be down but he’s not out.”

Elgindy said Netanyahu and his supporters “will do everything they can to bring down this highly fragile (new) government whether it takes a week, a month or a year.”

The new Cabinet was cobbled together by centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and ultranationalist Naftali Bennett.

The latter, a hawkish hi-tech millionaire, is likely to serve as prime minister for two years before former TV host Lapid takes over.

Wadi Abunassar, director of the Haifa-based International Center for Consultation, told Arab News that it is difficult to talk of the “end of the Netanyahu era” because he is expected to be the leader of an aggressive opposition.

“Many things could happen in the Israeli political arena, including the collapse of the Bennett-Lapid government,” said Abunassar.

Celebrations by Netanyahu’s opponents to mark the end of his premiership began outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year.

Dimitri Diliani, spokesman for the Democratic Reform Current — a Palestinian movement — told Arab News that the new Israeli government was not born out of a struggle between pro- and anti-peace camps.

“In general, both the previous government and the newly sworn-in one are in favor of expanding settlements and further Israelization of Palestinian Jerusalem, and against the two-state solution,” he said. “Palestinians aren’t placing any hope or expecting any change in policies concerning them.”

Bennett, a former defense minister, has promised that “Israel won’t let Iran have nuclear weapons.”

But Netanyahu said “Iran is celebrating” the prospect of a “dangerous” and weak new government.

It is the most unusual of coalitions, spanning the spectrum of Israeli Zionist parties and including Ra’am, an Arab party.

Mansour Abbas, head of Ra’am, succeeded in getting $16 billion pledged for Arab communities and recognition of a number of Bedouin towns in southern Israel.

Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Arab News: “From his perspective, Netanyahu’s most stunning achievement was his success in expanding Israel’s relations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and with great powers, while expanding settlements and putting the Palestinian issue in the deep freeze.”