Ruth Hanau Santini, Università L’Orientale, Naples
On March 23rd, 2020, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged warring parties across the world to halt hostilities and to join forces in fending off the deadly threat posed by COVID-19. Guterres had in mind the Middle East and North Africa, where most violent and prolonged conflicts are concentrated, some of which are almost a decade long, such as in Syria. The call for a COVID-19 ceasefire was premised on the acknowledgement that in most of these countries, health infrastructures have been destroyed or are unequipped to deal with a pandemic, which could turn into mass-scale tragedies given the thousands of internally displaced people within high density refugee camps. Since a health emergency is politically neutral, it offers warring parties a moral high ground to cease combat, but it also offers a strategic time to regroup and plan subsequent steps.
The lonely plea of Guterres has few practical implications in the absence of a UN Security Council Resolution. After weeks of frustrating negotiations, the ten non-permanent members of the Security Council, under the presidency of the Dominican Republic managed to have a virtual meeting on Friday April 9th on the geopolitical dimension of COVID-19. The meeting ended without a resolution and only with a short press statement in which the plea for a humanitarian ceasefire was upheld. This could, according to some, still serve as a mechanism opening a window of opportunity and represent a useful framing device. However, the lack both of a Resolution and of a P5 initiative, point to a structural weakness of the Council at a tumultuous moment. This epitomises the dearth of leadership at the global governance level. In part this follows the blame game between the world’s two great powers. Washington has accused China of insufficient transparency on the origin, spread and rate of infection of the virus. Beijing has blamed the US of politicising and stigmatizing China, depicting COVID-19 as the ‘Wuhan virus’. This cannot but hinder prospect of multilateral responses emerging within the Security Council. Moreover, even if such a call were advanced by the Security Council, it would be unlikely to significantly impact the prospects for peaceful resolution of those conflicts.
Guterres called the pandemic the ‘most challenging crisis’ since the founding of the UN after WWII. Despite the global impact of the pandemic, which now counts more than one million people infected and a lockdown for half of the global population, COVID-19 has not so far been the deadliest catastrophe suffered in the past seventy years. In the past nine years, over 585,000 civilians have been killed in Syria, ten times the number of people who lost their lives due to the coronavirus. But COVID-19 does have global ramifications and multidimensional ones: impacting work and living conditions across the globe, disrupting mobility and trade, enabling autocratic leaders to impose curfews and tighter media control on their populations, causing countries to increase their debt, and overall pointing to a significant economic slowdown across the US and Europe and paving the way for a global recession.
Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire struck a chord not only among world leaders and regional organizations but among conflict parties too, including in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The topic had been broadly ignored in the global fora such as the G7 and the G20. The G7, which should have met in Camp David in mid-March but was annulled due to the pandemic, released a 16th March communiqué which referred to the need for improved international scientific cooperation to respond to the pandemic and urged coordinated efforts to spur economic growth as soon as possible, with little attention devoted to non-economic issues, be it political or humanitarian. A week later, leaders of the G20 met online and agreed on shared principles essential for maintaining global economic order, first and foremost ensuring markets remain open and continuing the flow of health equipment and medical supplies. Both high level informal groupings expressed alarm mostly focusing on the economic implications of the pandemic.
The impact of COVID-19 on existing conflicts deserves more attention than it has thus far received. The failures of global governance are especially pronounced when it comes to solving conflicts and devising effective instruments for mediation. The virtual single-issue media coverage of everything COVID-related has pushed ongoing regional conflicts to disappear from the main headlines. Inward-looking leaders have barely paid attention to how these conflict countries might handle the outbreak of the pandemic. Global figures such as the UN Secretary General and Pope Francis have been left mostly alone in drawing attention to the uneven consequences the virus can have across the globe. They highlight how, on top of existing tragedies and mass atrocities, the virus could decimate populations and further weaken these countries. The impact will be most gravely felt by the most vulnerable segments of these societies–refugees, internally displaced people, homeless, and more broadly economically fragile communities. Almost everywhere, conflict areas involve severely hit, under-funded, under-staffed, and under-equipped health systems, hardly able to face the challenge posed by a pandemic.
Guterres’ call for a ceasefire is particularly urgent in three conflict hotspots in the Middle East and North Africa: Yemen, Syria and Libya. In Yemen, already the region’s poorest country and in its fifth year of war, the virus could wreak havoc. In Syria, half of the population is displaced and the ongoing fight over Idlib has led to the exodus of one million people. Shattered health care systems and mass displacement camps would prove a fertile ground for a quick and devastating contagion. The UN special rapporteur for Syria, Geir Pedersen, followed Guterres’s call for a ceasefire by urging Syrian parties to adopt a comprehensive truce, which seems to be holding in the north. Shortly before these pleas, on March 5th, Russia and Turkey struck a deal on an Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on the Stabilisation of the situation in Idlib. The ceasefire has overall been respected. The months-long regime attacks on Idlib, the last rebel-held city in Syria have however already destroyed most health facilities. The holding of the truce might also be due to the war fatigue in the north-west and the almost victory there by the regime and the Russians.
Previous health emergencies in Syria, such as the 2013-2014 polio outbreak, failed to trigger a ceasefire. Nor did the spread of cholera in Yemen from 2016 onwards halt violence or facilitate humanitarian assistance. Health emergencies limited to one country or a region, in other words, had not only received scant attention from the international community, but also had not facilitated, increased or improved humanitarian assistance and its coordination. This time, things seem to be different because of COVID-19’s global dimension. This is the first time, since the Spanish influenza in 1918-19, that both the US and European countries are heavily affected by a pandemic. While this has turned their attention inwardly, the threat multiplier nature of such health emergency is resonating across Western capitals, making them more aware of the disruptive effect such a health emergency could have across the MENA region.
The Saudi-led coalition announced a two week pause in its military campaign in Yemen on April 9, though there is not yet a negotiated ceasefire in place. All Yemeni parties – including President Hadi and the Houthis – have praised the plea of Guterres for a ceasefire, which was reiterated on March 25th and only addressed to Yemen. Health infrastructures in the country have been severely hit by Saudi airstrikes in the past four years and were a pandemic to strike, also in light of the widespread malnutrition of its population, the humanitarian catastrophe would be unimaginable. But again, prospects for a concrete halt of hostilities seem limited. While paying lip service to the UN Secretary General call for ceasefire, Houthis have little incentives to stand by a truce at a moment when, since January, they have made significant progress in the Jawf province along the Saudi border. Far from respecting a humanitarian ceasefire, Houthis’ missiles have been launched against Riyadh and in the past few days against Jawf.
The situation in Libya, on the other hand, despite the Berlin conference in January and the latest Geneva round of talks in February, continues to escalate. The continuous violations of the arms embargo and the power politics among international actors over the conflict led the UN envoy for Libya, Ghassan Salamè, to resign. The conflict has deteriorated since General Haftar, on April 4th 2019, got a green light from the US and France to move an offensive against Tripoli. The call from the UN Secretary General, after an initial 24 hours’ truce, fell on deaf ears and violence not only resumed but intensified. Turkey stepped up efforts to support the Tripoli-based government in attacking the Haftar-controlled Al-Wutiya airbase. The attack failed and Haftar, forcefully backed by the UAE, allegedly seized control of a string of cities in the country’s north-west. In the meantime, the EU has launched a new naval operation, Irini, replacing the previous Sophia, aimed at intercepting weapons’ shipment. The naval nature of the mission might curtail Turkish aid but not UAE, air-transported military shipments. Despite the limited number of cases of COVID in Libya, risks persist. The country has seen most of its health facilities destroyed during the war since the fall of Qaddafi and its doctors and nurses have either left the country or have failed to be paid from last year.
The cases analysed seem to point to a ‘when the pandemic will strike more violently’ rather than ‘if’ they will. The three regional crises represent three different cases. In Syria, the plea has been heard and the ceasefire in the North-Western part of the country is substantially respected, albeit unrelated to the virus. In Yemen, the parties have paid lip service to the plea, but are capitalising on the international community’s indifference to gain further leverage. In Libya, all players simply ignored the appeal and the conflict continues unabated. The ceasefire call has been taken up only in those contexts where the balance of power in place was already leading to some form of conflict stabilisation. In those cases, as in Syria, the plea for ceasefire received an instrumental endorsement, enabling specific actors to portray themselves as responsible stakeholders or norm entrepreneurs, i.e. the regime and Russia. Where advantages on the ground had not yet enough materialised, as in Yemen, the plea was ignored whereas it was welcomed by Saudi both as an attempt to halt Houthis’ advances and portray itself as a responsible stakeholder in a war that has already caused over 100,000 deaths. Lastly, where, as in Libya, the strongest party profited from international attention being diverted toward the pandemic, the plea for ceasefire has been largely ignored.
 Transcript of the Secretary General’s virtual press encounter on appeal for the global ceasefire
 G7 leaders’ statement on COVID-19, European Council, 16th March 2020. Link at: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/03/16/g7-leaders-statement-on-COVID-19/
 “G20 Trade ministers meet by video to tackle Coronavirus disruptions”, New York Times, 30th March 2020. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2020/03/30/world/asia/30reuters-health-coronavirus-g20.html
 “Covi-19 and conflicts: seven trends to watch”, Special briefing n.4, 20th March 2020, International Crisis Group. Available at: https://www.crisisgroup.org/global/sb4-COVID-19-and-conflict-seven-trends-watch