Voices from the Arab Press

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world

INTERNALLY DISPLACED Syrians from the western Aleppo countryside ride on a tractor with their belongings past Turkish military vehicles, in Hazano near Idlib on February 11. (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
INTERNALLY DISPLACED Syrians from the western Aleppo countryside ride on a tractor with their belongings past Turkish military vehicles, in Hazano near Idlib on February 11.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
 Is Coronavirus a Conspiracy?
Al-Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 14
 
We live in an age of fake news and conspiracy theories not only in the Islamic world, but also in America, where they have become more popular than ever. Today, there are books, magazines and online forums dedicated solely to the topic, many of which have been energetically covering the issue of the coronavirus epidemic. Did the virus originate from bats? How come it only broke out now and not in prior years? How come it emerged just as the US government exerted greater economic pressure on China? Did the Chinese physician who discovered the disease die of infection or was he killed? What are the Chinese authorities hiding from the rest of the world? Each of these questions generates tales, books, dialogues and interviews that neither the Chinese government nor news agencies can answer. Refuting these claims is not enough when people who are so skeptical of the existing world order. The way in which people respond to these events – pandemics, accidents and wars – is no different than the way avid fans watch important sports matches: Everyone knows the details of the game, but everyone is keen to know the details behind what the facts hold and what the news says. Sadly, real news is often void of juicy stories that the public is looking for. Very few people possess the ability to hear the truth and act on its basis. There is also a big difference between conspiracy theories in America and those in the Arab world. Conspiracies in America stem from a mistrust in political institutions. The average American politician cannot capitalize on it. Conversely, in the Arab world, conspiracy is propagated by politicians. It’s always used to galvanize the masses. A review of the history of conspiracy theories in the Middle East will reveal that the conspirator always has a name: Zionism, the Mossad, the CIA, Freemasonry. – Abdullah Bin Bakhit

Idlib in the International Arena
Al-Etihad, UAE, February 15
 
Many observers believe that what is happening in Idlib these days may inadvertently lead to the outbreak of a world war if the situation continues to get out of hand. Undoubtedly, the international community is keen on disarming this Syrian bomb for fear of getting involved in a bloody war. Unfortunately, Idlib, which used to be called the “forgotten city,” has become one of the most infamous places in the world. Today, over 4 million Syrian civilians are held there as hostages. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled. Instead of reducing tension and violence in Idlib, it seems like regional powers are turning the city into a site of never-ending bloodshed. The entrance of Turkish forces into Idlib Province to support rebel groups, concurrent with a growing Russian campaign to empower a local pro-Assad government, presents a real danger of escalation. 
Indeed, the Idlib land mine might explode in the faces of Turkey, Russia, Iran, the United States and NATO following the failure of the Astana and Sochi agreements, which had been doomed to fail due to each actor’s own goals. Time and time again, I have called on our Arab brethren to restore their role in the conflict and demonstrate leadership at a time of need. There is no need to solve the Idlib crisis in the corridors of Geneva or Washington, but rather in the hallways of the Gulf. It is time for the Arab world to step up to the plate and fight to make sure that the Syrian people can finally live a free and dignified life. They, too, understand that Syria is the gateway to greater security in the region. 
– Riad Naasan Agha, former Syrian minister of culture
 
An Iranian March Toward the Unknown
Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, February 14

One of the key factors that led to the fall of the Soviet Union was the strict US sanctions regime imposed on the Soviets by former US president Ronald Reagan. I have no doubt that the fate of the mullah regime in Tehran will be much like the fate of the Soviets unless it brushes its ego aside and sits with the Americans around the negotiation table without any preconditions or demands. When this happens, the Iranians will sit across from their American interlocutors with the sword of sanctions hanging over their necks. They will rush to reach a settlement because a long duration of negotiations will only exacerbate their dire financial situation and internal public rage. While the Americans can afford to take their time, the Iranians will have to expedite the talks as much as they can. The inevitable question therefore is: Why are the mullahs constantly rejecting negotiations, giving the Americans the upper hand? Why did they fail to make concessions in the early days of US President [Donald] Trump’s term in office, leading to a full-fledged clash with the administration? My best guess is that they were betting on Trump’s fall and the Democrats’ return to the White House. With polls now indicating that Trump is likely to win a second term in office, the mullahs are finally beginning to realize that not much will change. Given the current situation, the Iranians will have to either succumb to American demands or encounter the same fate as that of the Soviet Union. Both possibilities might seem like a calamity to the Iranians, but reaching a diplomatic solution is the best of two evils. It’s hard to say which path the mullahs might choose. Trump’s reelection will, in my estimation, send Iran into a dark tunnel open to all possibilities. – Muhammad Al-Sheikh
 
Coronavirus: Between Reputation and Safety
Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, London, February 17
 
One of the biggest lessons we can learn from the coronavirus epidemic is that public health is an interconnected issue requiring cooperation by many different actors. Countries cannot combat the virus alone, and any attempt to conceal incidents of the disease might cause it to spread even more. The anger directed toward governments is further exacerbated by various rumors and conspiracy theories that have been spreading around, including the idea that the virus originated from a military laboratory at a biological-weapons hospital. The truth is that epidemics have accompanied people since ancient times. With the boost in global travel and environmental change being brought about by human activity, viral epidemics are only expected to grow. Governments can only be blamed for one thing: if they choose to advance their political reputation over the safety of citizens. The Chinese government, for example, is said to have contacted Li Liang, the first doctor to warn about the corona danger, threatening him to cease his warnings. Unfortunately, Liang was right, and he himself died of the virus he warned the world about. The good news so far is that the spread of infection within China has slowed for the first time since its outbreak. Because of corona, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces the most challenging time of his term since he stepped into office seven years ago. He deliberately took to the streets, accompanied by the media, and visited patients at different hospitals with a mask on his face. Clearly, the current state of panic surrounding the disease is far more dangerous than the virus itself. Despite the fact that coronavirus mortality rates stand at less than 2%, the news coming from China has been causing major concern in the West. The main concerns are that there is no vaccine to prevent the illness, no drug to treat it, and death occurs within three weeks of infection. Popular anger is a natural consequence of helplessness and fear, and if the scientific deficit persists in discovering treatments and vaccines over the next few months, the situation will become even more complicated, particularly at the political level. Economic breakdown, civil disobedience, travel boycotts and halts to trade are only a handful of the possibilities. Governments around the world have already resorted to harsh measures to prevent the virus from spreading in their own jurisdiction, including through the forceful isolation of anyone returning from Asia. These are harsh measures but they are becoming more and more common. They might very well be the only way to stop the spread of the disease. – Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.