In war-torn Middle East countries, pandemic aid is hard to come by

In war-torn Middle East countries, pandemic aid is hard to come by
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A man in eastern Syria arrived at a hospital in the city of Qamishli and died days later of what was suspected to be the coronavirus, according to reports. However, it took weeks for the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Syrian government in Damascus to provide the U.S.-backed local authorities with confirmation that he died of the virus, making it harder to control the spread of the contagion. Syria is one of many countries in the Middle East divided by civil conflicts and proxy wars, and lack of government control of portions of the country. The pandemic has thrust these divided countries under the spotlight because international organizations and local states have not been able to provide access to testing consistently across battle lines.

COVID-19 does not care about borders, but health policy is made by countries and differs from state to state. The WHO and other international bodies that provide advice or support generally work through governments recognized by the United Nations. That means in divided countries such as Syria, Yemen and Libya the threat of the virus is compounded by the inability for people in some areas to access testing. It is difficult enough in poor countries for people to get health care, or for governments to test people, but this pandemic shows to what degree policies do not take into account these crises.


For example, Yemen’s per capita GDP is $944, compared to $23,338 in neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has conducted extensive testing for the virus and put in place restrictions to keep the number of confirmed cases relatively low. Yemen’s authorities control only part of the country and recently confirmed only one case of COVID-19, but this is likely because the country lacks resources to even identify cases. Aid organizations have warned for weeks about this problem, and there are calls for a ceasefire in the fighting between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Similar problems affect Syria and Libya. Libya is divided between the U.N.-recognized and Turkish-backed government in Tripoli and the forces of Khalifa Haftar, who runs eastern Libya and is backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, France and others. While the government in Tripoli had confirmed nearly 60 cases of COVID-19 as of last week, who will test people for the virus in eastern Libya? International organizations are aware that Libya has low capacity for testing, political fragmentation and a weak health care system, but there is little that can be done amid the fighting.

In Syria, the failure to act against the pandemic is particularly egregious considering that the U.S. backs those in control in eastern Syria — the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — while Turkey, a U.S. NATO ally, controls parts of northern Syria and Russia backs the Syrian government in Damascus. The U.S., Russia and Turkey are wealthy, powerful states able to provide testing. The U.S.-led, anti-ISIS coalition did provide some basic support of around $1.2 million in supplies in early April. But with the outsized threat of the virus, that amount of money is miniscule for an area a little larger than New Jersey that the SDF runs in Syria, with millions of residents, many of them poor, displaced and recovering from the ISIS conflict.

The international community is stretched by the pandemic and many countries have closed their borders, including the European Union. Countries are loath to spend much-needed resources abroad. Yet the need to address areas in Yemen, Libya, Syria — and other divided countries such as Somalia — is urgent precisely because the virus can come back to impact the rest of the world if it spreads unchecked in poor, unstable countries. 

The pandemic illustrates why it can be problematic to work only with central governments in supplying aid and medical support when dealing with civil wars. All sides of a civil conflict deserve medical care during a pandemic. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, France, Saudi Arabia and other countries that play a role in these conflicts owe it to the local people to provide them aid, after years of supplying weapons or other forms of support.

Seth J. Frantzman is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post and is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of “After ISIS: How Defeating the Caliphate Changed the Middle East Forever.” Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.