War and War by Other Means
By Jarrett Blanc & Frances Z. Brown
The coronavirus has devastated fragile and conflict-affected states, exacerbating suffering and, in some cases, shifting power dynamics in ways that are likely to influence politics or the conflicts even when the pandemic subsides.
As the coronavirus pandemic approaches the one-year mark, its toll on global health, economies, and politics almost everywhere has been immense.
Yet it has hit fragile states and ongoing conflict contexts particularly hard, wreaking a host of punishing effects.
This compendium revisits the essays published in April in the collection “Coronavirus in Conflict Zones: A Sobering Landscape,” which investigated the virus’s impact on twelve fragile states or international conflicts.
At that time, out of necessity, the analysis was partially speculative, tracing early indications of how the pandemic might affect politics and conflicts.
The collection identified several emergent effects:
(a) changed power dynamics in conflict-affected states, through instrumentalization of the pandemic by both nation-states and nonstate actors; strained legitimacy and effectiveness on the part of all authorities;
(b) the compounding of economic and conflict-related harms; and the potential reshaping of many diplomatic negotiations, peace processes, and international assistance efforts in conflict zones.
This new collection takes a second look at largely the same set of countries to identify how these trends have unfolded since then. Both state and nonstate actors are seeking to instrumentalize the public health crisis to advance their various political agendas.
Paradoxically, often at the same time, they are wrestling with degraded legitimacy arising from their inability to effectively assist the populations they govern as they confront the combined public health and economic consequences of the pandemic. This has created a demand—at times successfully met—for local authorities to provide government services.
Given the highly political nature of the crisis, it is not surprising that diplomats, political leaders, and disaffected popular movements alike have found ways to negotiate or at least express their demands despite the logistical constraints imposed by the virus.
And of course, the bottom line has remained that people already tested by conflict face still worse health and economic effects, often with little effective help in managing them.
More hopeful aspirations have largely not been borne out. The most notable of these was the hope that, in some places, warring parties would at least temporarily set aside their differences to fight their shared viral enemy.
UN Secretary General António Guterres channeled this hope in his call for a global ceasefire. Yet such calls ultimately went unheeded: though a few short-term ceasefires were declared in March and April, they largely failed to produce a meaningful decline in levels of violence.
Echoing a prominent theme in April’s collection, many nation-states have continued to exploit the pandemic to advance agendas unrelated to public health, ranging from broad efforts to consolidate power to narrower attempts to seize a battlefield or diplomatic advantage.
Thomas de Waal’s contribution on post-Soviet states argues that Azerbaijan viewed the international community’s preoccupation with the virus as an enabling opportunity, allowing it to avoid attracting too much attention when it launched a military campaign in the Nagorny Karabakh region.
And in Venezuela, as Francisco Toro shows, public health measures themselves have become instruments in the Maduro regime’s campaign of social control and repression.
In Syria, Maha Yahya points out that state-sponsored media have instrumentalized the pandemic to vilify the United States—while lauding Russian, Iranian, and Chinese pandemic response measures. \
Karim Sadjadpour outlines a similar trend in Iran, where Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei initially described the coronavirus as an American bioweapon—a framing that has placed security sector officials at the center of Iran’s virus response and further accelerated the country’s transition from clerical to military rule.
Some Iranian proxies are toeing a similar line: Ahmed Nagi notes that, in Yemen, the Houthis accused Saudi Arabia of sending coronavirus-stricken Yemenis back home to spread the virus.
While it remains to be seen if these narratives will be convincing to domestic audiences, they represent a well-worn political strategy: blaming internal suffering on external forces and using crises to advance existing agendas.
New Opportunities for Nonstate Actors
Militias, parastatal groups, and other nonstate actors are also seizing opportunities created by the pandemic to advance their own goals.
In Iraq, as Hafsa Halawa notes, the national government’s underwhelming pandemic response has provided an opportunity for a group of informal militias, the Popular Mobilization Forces, to consolidate power and burnish their legitimacy in part by undertaking a pandemic response.
In Libya, Frederic Wehrey explains that armed groups affiliated with the eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have both militarized the public health response and quashed dissent over corruption and mismanagement of the pandemic.
Karim Sadjadpour underscores that instrumentalization is also a well-worn path for Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, which returned to its dualistic approach of both providing social services and invoking external challenges as a pretext to suppress dissent and consolidate power. Yet it has done so with notably less success during the pandemic than in previous crises.
The pandemic’s exigencies have also spurred some nonstate actors to adjust their initial behavior.
In Somalia, as Tihana Bartulac Blanc notes, al-Shabab has reversed course on its initial dismissal of the virus after it realized that this approach would make it lose both popular support and much of its fighting force. Since then, it has begun promoting public health measures and even opened up a COVID-19 clinic.
A Test of Effectiveness and Legitimacy for All Authorities
In contexts where weak governance, political violence, and fragmented authority have previously made even basic service delivery a nearly impossible challenge, the coronavirus has strained response capacity past the breaking point.
And as the effectiveness of public officials has come into question, so, too, has their legitimacy.
Corruption, ineffectual public health interventions, and efforts to downplay the pandemic have embittered relations between citizens and authorities in many places.
In Iraq, an intervention to stop the spread of the virus has exacerbated the shortfalls faced by a healthcare system hollowed out by corruption, with frustrated families of coronavirus victims now going so far as to attack healthcare workers.
Halawa argues that these dynamics have further fueled Iraq’s ongoing antigovernment protest movement, which, even prior to the pandemic, criticized the government for being unable to operate at a minimal level of functionality.
In Yemen, Ahmed Nagi shows that the gap between rhetoric and reality has been jarring: government-controlled areas are being overwhelmed by the pandemic, and despite performative responses to burnish its image locally and internationally, the government has not made meaningful progress on controlling the virus.
Capacity shortfalls have driven authorities in some conflict-affected places to look outside their own borders for help.
In the separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine, de Waal points out that the pandemic has further hollowed out governance structures, weakening the de facto administrations to the point that they are more likely to rely on outside actors—whether in Russia or Ukraine—for support going forward.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli Civil Administration started the pandemic with relatively good coordination, but this was undermined amid Israeli moves in May toward de jure annexation of parts of the West Bank.
As a result of this breakdown and the PA’s decision to not accept tax receipts, the PA has been forced to solicit donations from its private sector and diaspora community to sustain its public health efforts.
Zaha Hassan and Aaron David Miller argue in their contribution that the resulting shortfalls in payments to public sector employees have weakened its legitimacy and the goodwill it had garnered early on in its pandemic response.
Because the pandemic represents such a deep test of legitimacy, continuing a trendline reported in April, many authorities continue to conceal the extent of the virus’s spread under their purview.
In Iran, the government’s official tally of deaths likely vastly underrepresents actual caseloads, while Kathryn Botto adds that North Korea has continued to implausibly claim to have zero cases in an effort to project an image of stability.
In areas of Syria under the control of the government, the UN and other sources suggest significant underreporting by Bashar al-Assad’s regime about the scale of infection rates.
In Yemen, Houthi groups have also used concealment as a key strategy, recognizing that admitting the high levels of infection would further increase frustration among the population in their territory.
Jarrett Blanc is a senior fellow in the Geoeconomics and Strategy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Dr. Frances Z. Brown is a senior fellow with Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, who previously worked at the White House, USAID, and in non-governmental organizations. She writes on conflict, governance, and U.S. foreign policy.