Securing humanitarian assistance in the Middle East is more urgent than ever

People walk past a damaged building depicting drawings alluding to the coronavirus and encouraging people to stay at home, in the rebel-held Idlib city, amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), Syria April 18, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a sense of urgency to addressing governance and security gaps in transitioning societies that have undergone, and in some cases are still undergoing, political and security crises. Countries like Iraq have suffered a civil war at least twice over the past decade; others like Syria, Libya, and Yemen are also likely to be engulfed in political and violent instability for years to come.

COVID-19 has complicated attempts to ensure effective and sustainable security provision because it adds another layer to existing governance challenges. Ultimately, this public health crisis has broadened the contestation for power and resources between armed groups and national governments vying to shape and dominate the political landscape. Policymakers face daunting challenges to developing and implementing new strategies to combat this deteriorating security climate in the Middle East and North Africa region.

Warfare in the Middle East

In recent years, world powers have decreased their dependency on conventional armed forces, opting instead to rely on a combination of hybrid warfare (the use of irregular local fighters, cyberwarfare, and drones, among others) and indigenous local forces. The latter’s capacity and willingness to either fight on behalf of, or in partnership with, outside powers makes them a useful alternative to the more politically sensitive dependency on conventional forces. In recent years, the United States and its European allies have increasingly worked with these actors, sometimes simultaneously. In Iraq, they have relied on the Iraqi armed forces and Iraqi police units; Arab Sunni tribes in northern Iraq; irregular Shiite fighters; and the Kurdish Peshmerga. In Syria, the West has supported and relied on Arab rebel groups and tribes who have fought the Assad regime, as well as the Kurdish fighters of the Popular Protection Units (YPG). In Libya, European countries effectively sit on opposite sides of the conflict between the U.N.-backed, Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

The humanitarian cost

The humanitarian cost of present and future conflicts cannot be understated. Syria’s war has displaced half its population—more than 12 million people—both internally and externally. Millions have been displaced in Iraq and Yemen. In Libya, hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The statistics are harrowing: about 13.5 million people need humanitarian aid in Syria; in Yemen, 21.1 million; in Libya, 2.4 million; and in Iraq, 8.2 million. Many regional countries have neglected public healthcare for years. Consequently, their medical systems could soon shatter under the weight of a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases. In conflict zones like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, warring factions and their external sponsors have directly targeted hospitals and healthcare facilities. The U.N. scaled back to essential staff and stopped already limited medical evacuations for chronically ill civilians due to a ban on flights in and out of Yemen. Armed groups in Yemen have also banned the use of biometrics to register aid recipients, ostensibly for health reasons. This impedes outside assistance to deeply beleaguered populations.

The U.N. estimates that the pandemic will plunge a further 8.3 million people into poverty– that means at least 101 million people will be classified as impoverished and 52 million as undernourished in the Arab region. But the pandemic has already had immediate reverberations for vulnerable groups and communities. Gender-based violence has increased in refugee and internally displaced person (IDP) camps. In mid-March, Turkey stopped allowing patients in need of medical treatment to cross into the country from Syria’s northwest, partly in response to COVID-19. This has left hundreds of people suffering from complex diseases like cancer struggling to find medical help. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have said quarantine requirements and movement restrictions are disrupting aid workers’ ability to deploy in Syria.

The Challenges

The first challenge facing policymakers across the globe is developing a response that addresses this deteriorating security climate.  Security strategies should focus on the acute humanitarian threats related to this unprecedented public health crisis, but it should also build on existing measures and strategies designed to address shortcomings in governance. Examples include the promotion of reconciliation between competing factions; support for civil society; and the empowerment of local media, which is particularly important to ensure transparency and the free flow of information about the impacts of crises like COVID-19. This would curtail the potential for the pandemic to re-emerge and would mitigate its long-term implications for existing governance challenges.

The second challenge that policymakers must confront is how to implement this strategy in a region where studies show that conflict will increase in the future. Indeed, studies show that of the 105 countries that suffered a civil war between 1945 and 2013 globally, more than half (59 countries) experienced a relapse into violent conflict—in some cases more than once—after peace had been established. A study conducted by the University of Denver’s International Futures model, a statistical simulation of human and social development indicators, shows that while many countries were experiencing armed conflict before the pandemic, an additional 13 countries are likely to see new conflicts through 2022—an increase of 56 percent compared to pre-pandemic forecasts. The study goes further to stipulate that it now expects 35 countries to experience instability between 2020 and 2022, more than at any point over the past 30 years.

Path Forward

Taken together, these multiple challenges and crises suggest the humanitarian and security implications presented by COVID-19 could dwarf the dire humanitarian costs that regional conflicts have so far produced. Consequently, there needs to be a re-evaluation of how policymakers view and address complex, inter-connected issues. Strategies that underscore the vulnerability of fragile societies in the midst of the pandemic should be prioritized. Although policymakers will not be able to address long-standing and potentially generational issues related to the role, responsibilities, and accountability of state and non-state actors, it is possible to develop greater local responsiveness to urgent challenges like COVID-19, which does not discriminate between ideology, creed, or culture. Any strategy should focus on ensuring the safe flow of humanitarian support. It must include securing vital medical supplies and health care workers to support local populations, as well as encouraging long-term accords between warring factions that ensures these supplies reach the people that need them, without any disruptions. This crisis management response could provide an opportunity to induce cooperation that might otherwise be lacking and could help establish at least some of the building-blocks that are necessary for a durable peace.