Can COVID-19 open the door to peace-building in Syria?

Can COVID-19 open the door to peace-building in Syria?
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As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads to the Middle East, it also may unlock an unforeseen opportunity for peace-building in Syria. To be sure, the window is narrow and the prospects for lasting peace remain distant. Yet, the virus’s onslaught may create an opening to mitigate the conflict, providing some relief from the ravages of the nearly decade-long war.

The United Nations secretary-general recently reiterated his call for a global ceasefire including in Syria, warning of the imminent “COVID-19 storm.” The pandemic could be disastrous in Syria with its devastated health system and vulnerable population. Idlib — recently targeted by a brutal government offensive — is poised for catastrophe. Nearly 1 million displaced civilians are trapped near the Turkish border, living in crowded, often unsanitary conditions.

Echoing the secretary-general’s appeal, UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen highlighted critical steps to de-escalate the conflict and battle the pandemic. They include: a sustained nationwide ceasefire; a large-scale release of detainees; improved humanitarian access; and the waiver of sanctions that impede the ability to fight the pandemic.

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Many of Pedersen’s proposed measures are embodied in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which provides a roadmap for a political settlement. Yet today, the pandemic and its shared threat to all sides of the Syrian conflict could spur a shift in calculus by the conflict’s protagonists that heightens the appeal of the plan.

COVID-19 already may be slowing the pace of conflict in Syria. A fragile March 5 ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey in Idlib is largely holding, with no airstrikes since March 6. Nor has northeast Syria witnessed any significant fighting over the past few weeks. A nationwide ceasefire would reinforce and expand the relative calm prevailing in both Idlib and northeast Syria. Voicing concern over the virus, the Syrian Democratic Forces recently appealed for a “humanitarian truce.” At this opportune moment, the UN should accelerate efforts to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire under its authority and with accompanying monitoring mechanisms.

Prisoner releases are important in a pandemic because crowded jails can abet the virus’s spread. The UN has highlighted the “risk of mass infections” in Syrian prisons that ultimately imperils the country. Even if out of self-interest, the government should release large numbers of detainees per its March 22 amnesty decree.  

Enhanced humanitarian access — obstructed by the Syrian government — will be crucial to fighting the pandemic. Specifically, the Syrian government must allow the United Nations access to the closed Yarubiya border crossing in eastern Syria for the duration of the crisis. Otherwise, northeast Syria will collapse under the virus. The regime should also ensure the equitable delivery of humanitarian assistance in areas it controls, eschewing its practice of awarding loyalists and punishing opposition. The virus will not discriminate; neither should the regime.

Syria is subject to extensive sanctions. With the pandemic, UN officials have appealed for the waiver of certain sanctions to enable a more effective response. The United States should facilitate existing humanitarian waivers on medicine and medical equipment and actively encourage companies to use these exemptions.

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Taken together, these various steps would both bolster an effective anti-pandemic campaign and foster a significant de-escalation of the conflict. Given the long history of failed peace-building efforts in Syria, skeptics are right to ask why this time would be different.

Yet the pandemic has sparked a moment of disruption that could change the paradigm in Syria. Its global spread poses an indiscriminate threat across Syria and beyond its borders, touching on every actor in the conflict. Already, some key players appear to be pivoting away from Syria to focus on the pandemic in their home countries.

Hezbollah reports shifting its resources from Syria to fighting the pandemic in Lebanon. Iran is certainly not walking away from Syria, but the pandemic’s severity may divert its attention toward battling the virus at home. Iran appears to have diminished the volume of weapons sent to Syria, instead focusing on obtaining medical supplies from China.

COVID-19 appears to be having an adverse, if underreported, impact in Russia. President Putin recently ordered a significant economic shutdown to curb the virus. To date, Russians have tolerated Moscow’s Syrian adventurism. However, should Russia experience a severe economic downturn compounded by the oil price collapse, public tolerance for its role in Syria may erode significantly.

In Turkey, President Erdoğan warned of a “historic catastrophe” with the pandemic bearing down and experts predicting an economic contraction in 2020. Concerned by the virus, Ankara has frozen its military deployments in Syria. Turkey’s major expenditures in Syria could stoke deeper domestic opposition, with the public demanding a withdrawal in the shadow of the pandemic’s economic toll. 

Propelled by the pandemic, a confluence of factors may yield an opportunity to mitigate the conflict in Syria. The overlap of peace-building efforts with counter-epidemic measures could catalyze an important opening for peace. All key players — Syria, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the United States — will need to trade concessions to fight a common enemy. They also may bring Syria a little closer to peace.

Mona Yacoubian is a senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace, where her work focuses on Syria and the broader Middle East. Follow her on Twitter @myacoubian.