As the Covid-19 spreads rapidly on a global scale and states worldwide are struggling with the pandemic, many concerns are arising over the future of fragile and conflict-torn countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where the consequences of the coronavirus are expected to be direr and more destabilizing. Here, years (and sometimes decades) of wars and uncertainty have severely weakened national health systems, leaving local authorities without the means to properly detect, manage and monitor the spread of infections. At the same time, the lack of an efficient public health system usually combines with low state capacity, authority fragmentation, endemic corruption, security duties distributed among official and non-official armed groups, high levels of displaced populations in densely-populated and ill-fitted camps, and mistrust of the local population towards the ruling elites.
Within this context, the presence of a multitude of hybrid actors adds an additional layer of complexity. In past decades, militias and other sub-state armed groups proliferated in areas of eroded state authority, usually being able to supplant the role of certain official institutions because of their flexibility in adaptation and ability to reach marginalized areas (such as the rural periphery). As several Arab countries have become dependent on the role of these groups to make up for their shortcomings, it is becoming increasingly clear that any response that includes the state alone may not be sufficient to properly address the pandemic.
Whilst many Arab governments have exploited the chance to impose stricter measures of public control, the discovery of increasing cases of infections provides hybrid groups with the chance to play a role in national emergency plans. In unstable countries like Iraq and Lebanon, sub-state and para-state groups are supporting regular armed forces in enforcing the protection of urban spaces, lockdowns and other social distancing measures, as well as in ensuring healthcare provisions. Similar approaches are also being observed in conflict-torn nations such as Libya, where militias and local authorities are converging their efforts with governments to tackle the Covid-19 threat. From one point of view, this new form of collaboration in fighting the virus alongside the state is offering a valuable opportunity to re-envision the role of hybrid actors in strengthening states’ institutions. Nevertheless, the deep uncertainty surrounding potential negative developments of the crisis also makes it necessary to consider that what appears to be a golden opportunity could also prove to be a double-edged sword. If the costs of the pandemic, especially in socio-economic and humanitarian terms, will prove too severe, the possibility of being associated with institutional activity could eventually backfire. In this perspective, hybrid groups are likely to evaluate how much they could grant to the state, analyzing the cost-benefit relationship based on their interests.
At the same time, new circumstances created by the pandemic are also offering militias and para-state groups the opportunity to advance their pre-existing agendas. In many conflict-affected areas where the leadership is contested and Covid-19 will hit particularly hard – such as in Yemen, Libya, and Gaza – fighting forces may well test these advantages to extend and consolidate their command by using campaigns to enforce public health provisions as a pretext to extend their power. In terms of security, indeed, the virus has not slowed conflict dynamics on pre-existing battlefields; on the contrary, it has exacerbated the impact of war and economic crisis across the whole region.
With international actors like the United States and European countries partially downsizing their presence in Iraq to prioritize the health of their personnel and reorienting their focus in light of the virus, local adversaries such as the Iranian-led Iraqi militias are likely to benefit from this freedom of action. In Libya, the disparate armed groups seem ready to exploit the health crisis to greatly increase their political and social prominence. Similarly, the Houthi movement in Yemenhas weaponized the pandemic as an opportunity for new recruitments, taking advantage of the Saudi ceasefire. In north-eastern Syria, the lack of cooperation with regime-held pockets gives the Kurdish Democratic Forces the opportunity to operate almost independently, temporarily raising their popularity but also without the means to properly address the potential health crisis. Finally, the high percentage of discontent among civilians for the latent sanitarian crisis in densely-populated areas such as the Gaza Strip is providing resistance movements with new chances to renew their stance against supposedly external aid providers. Combined, these factors are planting the seeds for a perfect pandemic storm, especially in terms of humanitarian costs.