Analysis

Coronavirus in the Middle East: It's Not All Bad News

The coronavirus crisis has one positive aspect: A calming effect on the region's battlefronts. But there is one exception – the humanitarian disaster around Idlib

Iraqi medical staff check a passenger's temperature, amid the new coronavirus outbreak, upon her arrival to Shalamcha Border Crossing between Iraq and Iran, February 20, 2020
ESSAM AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS

Is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu using the coronavirus crisis to achieve a political goal? As far as can be seen, it is the professionals in the health system who are spearheading the policy for responding to the virus and dictating the guidelines for the public’s behavior. The measures taken by Israel in the past few days, as the virus spreads across Europe and elsewhere, do not deviate radically from the cautionary moves being taken by Western countries. In Israel and those countries, the likelihood is that all possible steps have not yet been exhausted: Additional, more stringent, restrictions might be enforced, unless the virus is contained as we enter the warmer months.

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In principle, Netanyahu prefers hyperactivity in the face of looming crises over hypo-activity. He said as much last week. Those are the lessons he gleaned from a series of crises that were later investigated by commissions of inquiry and the state comptroller, among them the Second Lebanon War (which broke out during the tenure of his predecessor, Ehud Olmert), the Mount Carmel fire and Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. In this country’s organizational culture, which assigns an important role to commissions of inquiry, he’s probably making the correct political calculation with regard to the virus. Or perhaps a part was played here by the extremely strict emphasis on hygiene that typifies so many of the stories in recent years about goings-on in the Balfour Street residence.

The coronavirus has produced one positive result for now: the security arena is relatively quiet. While the outbreak is surely not the only reason behind this, there was exceptional calm this week, with the exception of a report about an Israeli airstrike in Syria on Wednesday night. Iran is one of the countries being worst hit by the virus; apparently visitors to the holy city of Qom were the main source of its spread. There are also reports that a number of top Iranian officials have come down with the illness. Midweek, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, was seen taking part in a tree-planting ceremony wearing plastic gloves. At the age of 80, with a history of illness, Khamenei is likely at the center of the disease’s major risk group.

On Thursday there was a report about the first four cases of people contracting the coronavirus in the Palestinian Authority. The Gaza Strip, which is more isolated because of the Israeli and Egyptian siege on it, is less exposed to the virus, but once it strikes there it will be difficult to stop its spread.

Greek riot police guard as migrants stand on a fence as they try to enter Greece from Turkey at the Greek-Turkish border in Kastanies on March 4, 2020.
Giannis Papanikos/AP

Under these circumstances, with the region’s governments busy deploying to cope with an epidemic of a previously unknown scale, the coronavirus seems to have temporarily become a restraining factor vis-à-vis military confrontations. That calculus does not seem to apply to the heart of the region’s No. 1 humanitarian disaster area, which so far has not been affected by the coronavirus – in the northern Syrian city of Idlib and its surroundings, which are the objects of an offensive by Bashar Assad’s regime and the Russian air force. Estimates put the number of civilians trapped there under the brutal Russian bombardments at three million.

This week, Turkey, which is concerned about the events taking place in neighboring Syria, announced that it would open its border with Greece and permit the movement northward and westward of refugees currently in its territory, toward countries belonging to the European Union. On Wednesday, there was a report of a first incident of Greek police opening fire at refugees who were streaming out of Turkey. The last time the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan opened the border in a similar way, in the summer of 2015, refugees spread dramatically across Central Europe – a development with serious security-related and political consequences: tremendous anxiety about an influx of refugees, and subsequent attacks by Islamic extremists, the strengthening of authoritarian regimes, and a surge in the power of nationalist and racist parties. Now the spread of the coronavirus has been added to this picture of misery, which looks at the moment like a convergence of the sum of all fears.