Analysis |

As Armies Reassess Risk, Coronavirus Is Making Peace in the Middle East

The virus could hasten the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, while Turkish-Syrian clashes in Idlib subside. But some refugees have no means to tackle pandemic, not even running water

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Barker shakes hands with Iraqi General Mohammed Fadel during the hand over of Qayyarah Airfield West from US-led coalition forces to Iraqi Security Forces, March 26, 2020.
U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Barker shakes hands with Iraqi General Mohammed Fadel during the hand over of Qayyarah Airfield West from US-led coalition forces to Iraqi forces, March 26, 2020.Credit: THAIER AL-SUDANI/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

What politics in Iraq couldn’t do, the coronavirus has. After the Iraqi parliament decided to demand that the U.S. withdraw its forces from Iraq and the Americans rejected that demand, this week the Pentagon decided to scale down the number of U.S. troops in the country to reduce the risk of contagion. The announcement from the command of the U.S. Forces in Iraq says a number of American bases in the country will be closed, instructional forces will be trimmed and all exercises with the Iraqi military will cease.

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The U.S. Forces command stated that while the U.S. continued to be committed to defending Iraq from ISIS attacks, “We shall do so using smaller forces and a smaller number of bases.” A similar announcement was issued earlier by the coalition forces operating in Afghanistan regarding the decision not to send any new troops to that arena after 21 soldiers were found to have symptoms of infection with the virus, and that 1,500 soldiers and civilian contractors who arrived in Afghanistan this month were placed in quarantine after showing similar symptoms. Practically speaking, this means that soldiers serving in Afghanistan will not be able to return home in the near term and their stay in Afghanistan could be extended by two months at least.

The problem is that Afghanistan has no laboratories that can identify the disease, so all samples are being flown to the military laboratories in Germany, while the people tested are required to remain in isolation until the test result is received, and the beds in the isolation facilities are quickly filling up. In the accord signed in February with the Taliban, the United States pledged to reduce its troop count in the country to 8,600 and maintain that level for 135 days, starting on March 9. Despite the administration’s announcement that it still intends to uphold the conditions of the accord, it’s unclear now how that can be achieved while many troops cannot be brought home, possibly for months.

The question of how combat troops can function under the threat of the coronavirus is also on the minds of Turkey, Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya, all of which have active military operations on various fronts. This week Turkey and Russia began holding joint patrols in the Idlib area as part of the agreement reached at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Women hold stacks of bread as they walk along an empty street, as restrictions are imposed as measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in Qamishli, Syria, March 23, 2020. Credit: RODI SAID/ REUTERS

Reports from the area say that the regular combat between Turkish forces and forces loyal to Assad, which threatened to expand into an all-out clash between the two armies, has almost completely stopped, except for sporadic ambush strikes on the main highway by radical militias against Assad’s forces. The main concern now is of an outbreak of the disease in this besieged province that is home to 3 million people and in the city of Idlib itself, which has a million residents. Turkey did send 300 testing kits but that is not nearly enough, as thousands of tests are needed as well as skilled personnel to administer the tests and identify people who are infected.

In the areas near Idlib controlled by the Syrian army, efforts to sanitize and disinfect public buildings began, but it is practically impossible to enforce quarantine orders and the closure the authorities imposed on the area, because a large portion of the people there are refugees and people uprooted by the war who live in temporary shelter and densely packed neighborhoods, many of which have no source of running water for washing. Not to mention that there are no clinics or other medical facilities where infected people could receive proper treatment.

In the provinces under the control of Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria, no cases of coronavirus infection have been found, but the fear is that the virus will appear there as well due to the presence of Iranian forces in Deir Al Zor. As a preventive measure, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units imposed a curfew on most of the provinces but there, too, they lack the means to identify and locate people who may be infected and to hospitalize them if they have the virus. Dr. Nima Saeed, the Acting WHO Representative in Syria, said in an interview that the WHO sent 1,200 test kits to be used in the northern parts of Syria that are controlled by the Syrian forces, but that no kits had yet been sent to the Kurdish provinces.

A member of the Syrian White Helmets disinfects a former school building currently inhabited by displaced families in the rebel-held town of Binnish in Idlib, March 26, 2020.Credit: AFP

Asked by a reporter from the Rojava Information Center (the Kurdish-administered area is also known as Rojava) why no test kits had been sent to the Kurdish areas, Saeed replied that the WHO is currently working to set up one lab that could check samples, but until it is built, the tests will be sent to the central laboratory in Damascus. She did not respond directly to the question.

Transferring the tests to Damascus is an exhausting undertaking because it requires prior coordination with the Syrian authorities, obtaining a transit permit and then transporting the samples through areas of combat all the way to Damascus, with no guarantee that the test will make it to their destination. Saeed admits that even when the tests arrive, there is no way of knowing when their turn will come in the lab and how effective the test can be, as samples must be examined within a short time to halt the spread of the disease. The main lab in Damascus also handles tests for other diseases like AIDS and polio, and priority is naturally given to samples that come from Damascus and areas under the regime’s control.

A member of disinfection units of the semi-autonomous Syrian Kurdish administration sprays billboards of President Bashar al-Assad in Qamishli, Syria, March 24, 2020Credit: AFP

And there’s no point even asking about ventilators, isolation equipment, face masks and protective attire for (freshly trained) medical staff. The commander of the Kurdish forces who are aided by American forces has said that its people are continuing to prosecute their war against the pockets of ISIS forces that remain in northern Syria, but one has to wonder how they can properly do battle when the troops are afraid to get close to one another and the American forces are careful to avoid direct contact with the Kurdish fighters. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, it looks like the coronavirus could hasten the reduction of American forces and possibly their full withdrawal.

The dilemma of how to sustain combat under the coronavirus threat is also a focus of the Turkish government and the Turkish military, which is worried that the virus could hit Turkish troops and the militias operating under its patronage and posted in Syria in the western parts of the Kurdish provinces as well as in Idlib province. The Kurds claim that the Turks halted the flow of water to the city of Al-Hasakah and are thereby not only harming the daily needs of hundreds of thousands of local residents, but also preventing them from being able to maintain hygiene and sanitize their neighborhoods, thus increasing the risk of a virus outbreak. The coronavirus seems to be becoming a prime strategic factor in military and long-term policy planning in the Middle East. It may present an opening for a series of interim or even final accords that would replace direct combat, due to the need to reduce military activity by regular armies and militias alike.

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