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.
Capacity Shortfalls Spur Local (in)Action
As the pandemic has deepened the gulf between local needs and national capacities, actors at the subnational level have tried to step up. In many conflict areas, this has resulted in renewed legitimacy for local authorities and civil society.
In Libya, municipal officials have partnered with civil society actors on issues as diverse as spreading virus awareness to combating price fixing on hand sanitizer.
Wehrey’s essay shows that activism and protests have accelerated there as citizens call on both the Government of National Accord and authorities under Haftar to put aside factional conflict and focus on governance and service delivery.
In some places in Syria, local dissent even among Assad regime supporters is calling attention to poor national-level responses.
Yet many local authorities have struggled to meet the needs of their populations, especially as national governments fail to effectively allocate sufficient resources to fight the virus.
In Somalia, Bartulac Blanc explains that the government’s weak federal structure and capacity forced woefully underresourced local authorities to attempt to mount a response—to little effect.
And in Yemen, Ahmed Nagi notes that many local governorates are choosing to simply ignore the pandemic amid a lack of national leadership.
Civil society has, in some instances, stepped in to address these gaps. In Libya, the pandemic has contributed to the mobilization of civil society, including groups like the Red Crescent and the Scouts, to meet capacity shortfalls in aid delivery.
In Afghanistan, healthcare service providers have refocused from their previously slated missions (such as polio vaccination) to try to provide coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and case management advice.
Implications for Diplomatic Negotiations and Political Processes
As the world first wrestled with the implications of the coronavirus for any activities normally requiring face-to-face contact—everything from schools to parliaments—it seemed likely that lockdowns, constraints on travel, and other practical challenges would make the normal modes of diplomacy difficult or impossible.
This has not always proved to be the case, though, as diplomats and political leaders have found ways to allow negotiations and political processes to proceed without serious logistical interference.
A notable example is the intra-Afghan negotiations, which began in Doha in September. Delegates representing the Afghan government, the Taliban, and supporters from the international community used coronavirus testing and a kind of partial, mutual lockdown to allow in-person meetings.
Though the negotiations were slow, an agreement on procedures for substantive discussions was reached in December. Similarly, negotiations on a ceasefire and an agreement on a tenuous political roadmap in Libya were eventually possible despite coronavirus travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, a UN-backed constitutional committee meeting on Syria in Geneva had to be postponed when some participants tested positive for the virus, but its proceedings eventually resumed.
Some domestic political processes have also proved resilient to the logistical challenges posed by the pandemic. In Somalia, a combination of virtual and in-person meetings between federal and state authorities reached agreement on election procedures despite the postponement of elections in some neighboring countries.
While the coronavirus has not made diplomatic or political agreements operationally impossible, it has had at best mixed effects in terms of providing an impetus for warming of relations.
In Yemen and Nagorny Karabakh, combatants took advantage of apparent international distraction to pursue military offensives without effective diplomatic constraints.
In Georgia, the pandemic response spurred improved relations between authorities in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, the national government, and international organizations. However, another breakaway region, South Ossetia, seems to have redoubled its policy of isolation from Georgia and the international community.
South Korea hoped to use the pandemic, as it has other natural disasters, to provide assistance and encourage cooperation with the North, but Pyongyang has instead further cut itself off from the world, going so far as to explode the de facto South Korean embassy.
Antigovernment Protests Roil Civic Space
Engaged political activity has proved possible not only in refined diplomatic meeting rooms but also in the streets. The pandemic has seen a global surge in protests, including in conflict-affected countries.
In some cases, the protesters seem to be condemning authorities’ specific failures in addressing the public health crisis, while in others people have simply chosen to risk exposure to large crowds to voice long-standing grievances.
Governments have become the target of public demonstrations as corruption, ineffectual responses, and economic displacement intersect with preexisting complaints.
Iraq’s massive antigovernment protests have been revitalized during the pandemic, as social and economic upheaval exacerbate opposition to the country’s ruling elite.
And in Libya, governance shortfalls—including blackouts, widespread corruption, and shortages of basic goods—fueled protests in both GNA-controlled and Haftar-controlled areas. Wehrey argues that these protests ultimately pushed both sides toward a truce.
Meanwhile, governments have used the pandemic as an opportunity to repress protests and dissent. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opportunistic use of public health restrictions to curb protests against him have generally backfired; as Hassan and Miller note, the constant protests have become a poignant visual of discontent with his leadership.
And in Venezuela, extreme restrictions in the name of public health have provided a convenient excuse to quash service delivery protests.
Compounding Economic, Public Health, and Conflict-Related Harms
Perhaps the least surprising theme of these essays is that the pandemic has simply made things worse for populations already struggling under the burden of conflict. North Korea is an extreme example.
To minimize the risk of exposure from international sources, its leaders have almost completely cut the country off from the outside world, including from international assistance and from the smuggling and sanctions-evading trade routes it has carefully constructed over the years.
North Korea’s drastic response demands a reevaluation of the United States’ and the international community’s long-standing theory of the political economy of sanctions against Pyongyang.
If the North is willing to cut itself off from international commerce more severely than sanctions ever have, Botto argues that the idea that it will trade security concessions for sanctions relief is a dubious basis for future policy.
Afghanistan has also been a vivid exemplar of these compounding harms. Afghan economic migrants, who had long been based in Iran, returned home en masse when Iran became an early epicenter of the pandemic.
They brought the virus with them, and the loss of their foreign income amplified hardship for their communities. The further strain on the country’s healthcare system has meant a reduction in polio vaccinations and an increase in polio cases, likely only the most visible metric of the pandemic’s secondary public health implications.
While some countries have tried to limit the economic consequences of lockdowns, even to the detriment of public health, Venezuela has taken the opposite tack.
Francisco Toro argues that the government appears to have seized upon the coronavirus as an excuse for explaining preexisting economic failures, compounding a long-standing depression that has already reduced the people of what was once a middle-income country to widespread hunger.
A tragic thread tying together several of these countries is that prevailing conditions before the coronavirus appeared were already so dire that the pandemic has not become a priority in the eyes of the population.
Accurate numbers are unavailable for infection caseloads and pandemic-related deaths in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan, but in all three countries, satellite images or other data on new graves indicate that the scale of death and suffering are horrifying.
In all three contexts, governments and nongovernmental combatants have been unable to manage the crisis and have somewhat given up or fallen back on performative rather than practical pandemic response measures.
Amid the generally gloomy outlook of the April collection of essays, we concluded with the optimistic view that “crises can bring out the best in people, even in starkly difficult conflict settings. . . . It is possible that the coronavirus pandemic could produce some beneficial opportunities in some of the conflicts reviewed herein.”
In a few instances, that may have been true. As noted above, the pandemic may have prompted some relaxation of tensions between Abkhazia, Georgia, and international authorities.
After a bloody spring and summer in Libya, it may have been one contributing factor to an autumn ceasefire.
Diplomats deserve credit for managing the operational challenges of lockdowns and travel restrictions to allow diplomatic meetings and political negotiations to proceed, addressing the conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Syria, among others.
In many more cases, though, the pandemic has simply become another instrument to seek advantage in the conflicts that predated it and will survive it, often to the detriment of civilians.
As the pandemic recedes, we begin to face a new set of questions about its implications for conflictive environments. How will its effects on the legitimacy of various state, nonstate, and international actors continue to shape these conflicts?
As coronavirus vaccines slowly become available, will their delivery and administration be another casualty of conflict, or provide a new opportunity for authorities to demonstrate to their populations that they can muster effective responses?
Can coordination of vaccination campaigns become an opportunity for wider efforts at violence reduction and political progress in the conflicts studied here?
Or will each of the populations afflicted by these conflicts simply emerge a little poorer, a little sicker, and a little worse governed than before?
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.