Will COVID-19 slow world's conflicts or intensify them?

Will coronavirus slow the world's conflicts or intensify them?

Representative image.

Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, the Sahel... with the great powers focused intently on the COVID-19 virus, will armed conflicts across the world decrease in the severity or intensify? Experts, as well as diplomats at the United Nations, say there is a serious risk of the latter.

For guerrilla fighters and extremist groups, "it's a clear godsend," said Bertrand Badie, a specialist in international relations at France's Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po).

When the "powerful become powerless," he told AFP, one can see "the revenge of the weak over the strong." In recent days, some 30 Malian soldiers were killed in an attack in northern Mali blamed on jihadists, without drawing any sharp reaction from the Security Council.

In Libya, and Syria's Idlib region -- the object of intense diplomatic attention before the coronavirus stole the spotlight -- fighting continues.

Evoking the "potentially devastating impact of #Covid-19 in #Idlib and elsewhere in Syria," the UN undersecretary-general for political affairs, Rosemary DiCarlo, called on Twitter for all parties to show restraint.

"If anyone -- incredibly -- still needed a reason to stop the fighting there," she added, "this is it." Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, issued a similar plea: "At a time when the world is struggling to fight a pandemic, the focus of the parties must shift away from fighting one another to ensuring that the population will not face even graver risks."

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Up to now, these countries have not been afflicted by Covid-19 on the scale seen in China, South Korea or Europe. But the virus carries the potential, once it reaches into poor and conflict-ridden countries, of having a devastating impact.

In the absence of concerted assistance from abroad, the UN fears "millions" could die.

The pandemic will not necessarily favour any particular group of belligerents, one diplomat noted, because the ravaging disease has been "uncontrollable." "The pandemic could lead to a worsening of conflicts, with the risk of exacerbating the humanitarian situation and population movements," he said.

But the pandemic might also sap the will of the belligerents and their ability to fight in coming months, some experts said.

"Throwing their troops into battle will expose both states and violent non-state groups to contamination, and thus to potentially catastrophic losses of human life," said Robert Malley, president of the Washington-based International Crisis Group.

He believes that the virus "will very certainly diminish the capacity and will of states and of the international system -- the UN, regional organisations, refugees, peace-keeping forces -- to dedicate themselves to the resolution or prevention of conflicts." It will also throw up a whole set of new obstacles, he told AFP, complicating access to conflict zones, making it harder to organize negotiations in neutral countries, and diverting financial investments to the fight against the coronavirus.

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