How will the Middle East look the day after coronavirus?

Regional Affairs: What the global crisis might do is add another layer of difficulty onto a Middle East already swimming in them

A MAN SPRAYS disinfectant inside the Jaramana refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, last week.  (photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
A MAN SPRAYS disinfectant inside the Jaramana refugee camp in Damascus, Syria, last week.
The coronavirus has been widely described as the most significant event to hit humanity since World War II, with every corner of the globe feeling its impact. And just as the world order changed fundamentally after the war ended, so too is COVID-19 expected to create a new world order once the virus fades.
Except, perhaps, in the Middle East, where – according to Amos Yadlin, the director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies – the virus has not hit as hard, at least until now, as it has in other parts of the world.
“The Middle East is up to its neck in problems,” Yadlin said this week in an INSS-sponsored Zoom conference on the regional impact of the plague. “The corona is just another variable on top of all that.”
For instance, a half million people have been killed in the nine-year Syrian Civil War, so the death of a number of people there at the hands of the virus will likely go unnoticed, he said.
Yadlin said that whereas World War II fundamentally changed the balance of power in the world, the coronavirus is unlikely to do the same in the Middle East. The Sunni and Shi'a camps will continue to be in conflict, he predicted, the Israeli-Palestinian issue will not be solved, and the various civil wars in the region will rage on.
What corona will do, he speculated, is just add another layer of difficulty, another level of problems, onto a Middle East already swimming in them.
Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of Military Intelligence's Research Division and now with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, agreed with this assessment, and said that at this point the virus “is not enough to stop local wars, or bring about unity,” or even to trigger much of a discussion in the region about the world after corona. The region sees the virus “as a time out, let's stop for a minute,” he said, but not as a factor that will lead to a decline in ideological enmity and confrontation.
The numbers of people infected by the virus and the numbers of dead are relatively small. The Mideast in this regard is not the US, not Europe, and not East Asia. For instance, as of Wednesday, Jordan has reported only six deaths as a result of the virus, and 350 sick. Egypt, a massive country of 100 million people, reported 94 dead and 1,450 infected.
But the figures coming out of the Mideast are not considered reliable. First, in some countries there is little testing; second, some governments have an interest in playing down the numbers; third, because of cultural reasons, some are reluctant about going to a hospital. The picture of the scope of the virus
in the Mideast, therefore, is muddy.
Nevertheless, at this point it seems as though the Arab world has been hit by the pandemic only mildly, said Kuperwasser. He noted that the disease has primarily hit the developed world, pointing out the small number of instances reported in Africa as well.
The one glaring exception in a Mideast that has so far largely dodged the corona bombshell is Iran, where the virus has taken an exceptionally large toll: on Wednesday the number of infected stood at 62,500, and the dead at 3,872. Those numbers, however, are also not considered reliable, with the real totals believed to be significantly higher.
Sima Shine, an Iranian expert at the INSS, said that Tehran is trying to take advantage of the crisis to ease the economic sanctions clamped on it which, even before the virus, were wreaking havoc on the economy. Iranians took to the street last November because of economic woes, and that was before the plague hit the country hard. Shine said that 50 leading economists recently sent a letter to the Iranian leadership warning that the virus will lead to more unrest, especially among the lower economic classes who are getting hit particularly hard.
The Iranians are working in the diplomatic realm in an effort to relieve the sanctions, but also stepping up pressure on the US inside Iraq in the hope that this will get the US to agree to sanction relief.
“There is no doubt that this situation, together with the already difficult economic situation and basic mistrust in the government, undercuts the regime, but we don’t know whether it will topple it,” she said.
According to Shine, the deep crisis in Iran as a result of  the virus may lead it to rethink its opposition to negotiations with the US over a new nuclear deal, and US President Donald Trump has said the Iranians “will benefit” if they come to the table. She added, however, that with Trump now busy dealing with the coronavirus and his reelection campaign, it is doubtful he will have the bandwidth to deal with all the problems that Israel has regarding a new nuclear deal with Iran.
Yadlin said that one possible post-corona scenario is that the crisis could actually weaken “reformist” forces inside Iran, such as President Hassan Rouhani, giving the Iranian revolutionary Guard Corps an opportunity to wrest more control, thereby thrusting Iran onto an even more extreme trajectory.
According to Carmit Valensi, of INSS's Syria Research Program, the coronavirus is likely to set back Iran's efforts to entrench itself inside Syria.
She noted that COVID-19 has not stopped the fighting inside Syria, but that could change depending on the degree of support the Assad regime continues to get from its two biggest backers, Iran and Russia.
There have recently been calls in Russia to take half of its forces out of Syria if the virus spreads there – something that is significant and could greatly impact on the Russian backed regime of Bashar Asssad. Iran is the center of corona in the region, she said, and the fact that Syria is continuing to allow Iranian and Iranian-backed militias across the borders can increase the spread of the virus, something that could in turn impact Russia 's decision whether to withdraw troops.
Valensi noted that flights from Syria to Iran continue, and that the border crossing with Iraq through which Shi’a militias are coming into the country is also still open. A widespread outbreak of the virus among Shi’a militias and Iranians in Syria would, however, possibly lead to a gradual drawback in those forces, meaning it may be difficult for Iran to continue apace with its project to entrench itself inside Syria. 
One piece of graffiti that has made the rounds on social media from Eastern Syria, she said, proclaims, “We prefer corona to the Shi'a and the Iranians.”
A similar slogan, according to Orna Mizrahi, a senior INSS researcher who served in the National Security Council as deputy national security advisor for foreign policy, has made the rounds in Lebanon as well: “It is better to die of corona than hunger.”
In Lebanon, she said, the virus is coming at a time of unprecedented economic distress, with nearly half the population living under the poverty level and the country facing its worst economic crisis ever, including during its civil war and wars with Israel. The numbers of sick and dying in the country as a result of COVID-19 are small – 19 dead and 548 people infected – but the true figures are “a lot worse,” she said.
Mizrahi said that Hezbollah has mobilized all its resources to deal with the virus – competing with the efforts of the government – in an attempt to prove that they are defending all Lebanon, and not just the Shi’a population. According to Mizrahi, Hezbollah is using this opportunity to try to shore up its image, which has been badly tarnished by its involvement in the fighting in Syria.
Mizrahi said the situation in Lebanon is making it less likely that Hezbollah will initiate a wide scale military operation against Israel, even though Iran and Hezbollah have not given up on their project to convert Hezbollah's missile arsenal into precision-guided missiles.
Yadlin, whose think tank at the beginning of the year characterized 2020 as a potentially explosive year because of Iran’s nuclear development and its precision-guided missile project, revised that assessment in light of the virus. It now says the year – at least with regards to military confrontation – is looking less combustible.
“Everyone is looking inward, dealing with internal problems,” he said, adding that the countries in the region do not have an interest now to go to war and add another problem to the significant ones they are already facing, and which have gotten only worse because of the plague.