A review and assessment of the corona pandemic in the countries of the Middle East

The response of each Middle Eastern country to the pandemic. Diplomatic and defense implications stemming from the situation. Part I. Op-ed.

Fellows of the JISS ,

Map of the Middle East
Map of the Middle East
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Part I

Introduction

The coronavirus epidemic does not respect borders. Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Israel, Turkey and the Arab states – have reacted differently and at different times, but eventually adopted plans of action similar to those of other countries around the world. They restricted international air travel and movement within each country, tightened border controls, and adopted social distancing.

These responses echo the ancient lesson taught in the Talmud (Tractate Bava Kamma 60b): “If there is plague in the city, gather your feet, as it is stated ‘And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning’ (Exodus 12:22).”

Management of the coronavirus crisis has varied, based on the capabilities of specific countries’ national health care systems, and on the nature and authority of leadership. Some governments have responded quite effectively and forcefully, such as the Jordanian government, while others were late to react.

This paper reviews the responses of Middle Eastern countries to the spread of the coronavirus and highlights diplomatic and defense implications stemming from the situation. The assessment of JISS fellows is that the coronavirus crisis will not fundamentally change power dynamics in the region, or alter the prevailing ambitions and policies of key countries.

Iran

The coronavirus crisis has shaken the Iranian public’s confidence in government and led to the most difficult economic period in the history of the revolutionary regime since it took power in 1979. Iran likely “imported” the coronavirus directly from China, but Teheran downplayed the danger for quite some time because of its close trading relationship with the PRC. It is unclear how badly Iran has been hit by the virus, but by all accounts, the damage is extensive and the official figures are misleading. Some senior regime officials have died.

Iran was the source of the virus’s spread to Shiite populations in Bahrain, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, due to pilgrimage from these places to the city of Qom, and the Islamist regime’s failure to realize, until late in the day, that mass prayers accelerate the spread of infection.

Beyond the dismal economic situation stemming from the “maximum pressure” of US sanctions, Iran also has been hit by a dramatic drop in oil revenues, following the oil price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia and the flooding of the market with surplus oil. Energy exports provide more than 80 percent of Iran’s foreign currency revenue and make up about half of its national budget. Consequently, the system of subsidies Teheran provides to the general public is in danger of collapse. The Iranian economy will continue to shrink, as has been the case over the last two years, although the IMF had previously anticipated growth in 2021.

While the regime does not yet appear to be in danger of collapsing (it has been using suppression measures and has attempted to divert public rage towards “enemies of the revolution”), there are preliminary signs of anarchy in the country. Soon, Iran is likely to face a strategic point of decision. A request for international aid to help cope with the coronavirus crisis, in exchange for a new nuclear deal with the West, is not out of the question. However, at this point there has been no sign of Iran backpedaling on the steps it already took in breach its obligations according to the JCPOA, such as accelerating the process of enriching uranium.

Meanwhile, Iran continues to support the pro-Iranian militias operating in Iraq with the aim of pushing US forces out of that country. Iran also continues to assist the Assad regime in Syria and mobilize pro-Iranian militias that are fighting there. Iran continues to provide financial assistance to Hezbollah in Lebanon (albeit in smaller sums), and to back the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have increased their harassment of US warships in the Gulf, which already has provoked a harsh reaction from President Trump. In the absence of an unequivocal warning signals from the US, Iran may further escalate its attacks and Washington will be forced to respond. At the same time, Iran cannot but have noticed that US Democratic leaders have adopted a conciliatory tone in speaking about Iran.

In short, Iran’s priorities have remained unchanged despite coronavirus. It is worth noting that in 2019 Iran diverted one billion euros that it had received for medical needs for other purposes. When the official number of corona-related deaths in the country surpassed 3,000 on April 1, Iran launched an international campaign for sanctions relief. But based on the regime’s record, funds that Iran might receive from this effort (as opposed to legitimate assistance in kind, i.e., in the form of medicine and equipment) surely will be devoted to “exporting the revolution.”

Turkey

Turkey, too, initially ignored the coronavirus. There were even government assertions that the Turkish “race” is resistant to the virus. The lack of transparency makes it difficult to know how extensively the virus has hit Turkey.

Turkey’s increasing economic difficulties stem from the cessation of tourism and economic shutdown, which has led to 30 percent unemployment. In addition, its currency is losing value, while its foreign currency reserves are being dangerously depleted.

In parallel, there is a crisis of confidence developing due to the flaws in the government’s response to the coronavirus that could weaken Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s status. This may have political consequences, although the next presidential election is scheduled only for 2023. Meanwhile, Erdogan is taking advantage of the crisis to contend with his political opponents. So far, it has been hard to identify signs that the corona crisis is directly affecting his conduct or his ambitions to regional leadership and hegemony, or the advance of ambitious projects such as the Istanbul Canal that is to be dug along the Bosphorus.

Turkey continues to tighten its grip on Syria, in the Idlib province and the areas east of the Euphrates River. In February 2020, Turkey was involved in heavy fighting in this area against the Syrian army. Syria was backed by the Russian air force and fought hard to regain control of the region. A ceasefire along the existing front lines was agreed upon at the Moscow Summit between Erdogan and Putin on March 5, and joint patrols were established. Stopping the advance of Syrian regime forces was a feat for the Turks and their allies among Islamists and other rebels in Syria. However, Sunni extremists (such as the “Guardians of Religion,” Huras al-Din,) have refused to abide by the ceasefire, and have murdered Turkish soldiers. The price of Turkey’s military presence in Syria in the buffer zone along the border, and especially in the Afrin and Idlib provinces in western Syria, is expected to continue to rise.

In the wake of the escalating refugee problem (hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from Idlib), Turkey is once again threatening to flood Europe with refugees. Greece, which is on the front lines, has taken significant steps to protect its borders and prevent refugees from landing on the shores of its islands. The continuation of the current trends could lead to a sharp rise in tension in the Aegean basin.

In complex connection to the two fronts mentioned above, Turkey is determined to establish facts on the ground in the eastern Mediterranean. It has continued its involvement in the Libyan civil war in an effort to bolster the Fayez al-Sarraj (GNA) government that rules the Tripoli area (and is affiliated with the Islamists), against the forces of the Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Haftar and backed by Egypt, the UAE, and Russia. Turkey reached an agreement with the GNA in November 2019 on the delineation of a border between the Turkish and Libyan exclusive economic zones in the Mediterranean. One of the reasons for this was an attempt to counteract cooperation between the members of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum – comprised of Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority – and to hamper plans to transfer gas via a pipeline from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe.

The agreement with the GNA was aimed at establishing Turkish hegemony in the Mediterranean and damaging vital strategic and economic interests of Israel, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus. It provoked a strong European response, including preventive actions by the French navy off the coast of Libya, followed by the announcement of an EU military presence, “Operation Irini,” for the purpose of enforcing the UN ban on arms supplies to Libya.

Egypt

Egypt was also late in dealing with the coronavirus. The measures it is currently taking have not been decisive, especially considering the high density of the Egyptian population, which makes it difficult to enforce social distancing. It is doubtful whether the Egyptian government is aware of the spread of the virus in its territory, and whether it has the ability to stop it. In any case, the president was granted additional emergency powers to deal with the coronavirus.

The damage to Egypt’s economy, mainly due to global suspension of the entire tourism industry, is profound and ongoing. Egypt’s economic achievements in recent years have somewhat dulled the economic blow. Even so, the coronavirus crisis will increase Egypt’s need for external assistance in order to prevent a humanitarian disaster. This, at a time when the its traditional sources of aid – the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states – are experiencing financial difficulties themselves, and China’s ability to assist is unclear. (Beijing does appear to be capitalizing on the situation to take over assets with strategic potential). The conflict with Ethiopia over the building of a dam on the Nile River, Egypt’s lifeline, assumes even greater significance during these times.

Israel

The advanced Israeli health system has coped reasonably well with the virus crisis, despite deficiencies in infrastructure and logistical problems. In fact, Israel has dealt with coronavirus better than most Western countries. Its medical personnel exhibited unflagging dedication. Particularly notable is its low mortality rate in comparison with countries such as the UK and France. (It is about one tenth of the rate in those countries). The national resilience and discipline that the Israeli public has demonstrated so far is a strategic asset, given the importance of such resilience in the context of deterrence.

However, the measures taken to ensure social distancing paralyzed much of the Israeli economy. Unemployment has reached 25 percent. It remains to be seen whether the gradual “exit strategy” adopted recently by the government will be successful in re-igniting economic activity without excessive health risk.

The IDF has played a significant role in the government’s response to the epidemic due to its organizational, logistical and technological capabilities. The IDF’s relationship with Israeli society was enhanced, including its image among the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab sectors. It is clear, however, that the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis dramatically decreases the chances that the IDF will obtain the NIS 20 billion it seeks for its multi-year “Tnufa” (“Momentum”) buildup plan. It certainly will be easier for the Finance Ministry to reject IDF demands for an increase in the defense budget.

This is very problematic, since Israel indeed faces significant strategic challenges. For example, the so-called “campaign between wars” must continue, to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria and to prevent Hezbollah from upgrading its missiles.

If there is a vital need, such as a dramatic escalation in strategic threats, Israel has significant foreign exchange reserves that it can draw upon both to power an economic recovery and to boost its military.

Part II will review Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, ending with assessments.and forecasts.

Posted with permission from The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security JISS, which offers security expertise for a strong Israel. The institute considers the Jewish People’s historic connection to the Land of Israel a central component of strategic worldview; and highlights the importance of united Jerusalem to Israel’s destiny and defense. It provides counsel to the highest echelons of the Israeli government and trains the next generation of Israeli national security specialists.




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