The U.S. government (USG) is preparing to unveil a new strategy over the coming months to tackle the underlying causes of fragility and conflict in vulnerable countries around the world. The strategy comes at an important time, just as the United States and other international donors seek to respond to rapidly increasing health, food, and other emergency needs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. It will be critical that in line with the new strategy, this aid does not inadvertently stoke new tensions.
In 2014, Islamic State militants committed genocide against religious and ethnic minorities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, across northern Iraq. Kidnapping, rape, and murder marked this campaign of terror; thousands fled their homes. Six years later, with ISIS defeated militarily and its leader, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, dead following a U.S. raid, many displaced Iraqis have yet to return to their homes. The obstacles they face range from bureaucracy to a fear for their lives amid signs of an ISIS resurgence to Turkish airstrikes against groups Ankara sees as threatening its national interest.
Since October 2019, Iraq has been rocked by multiple crises. Protesters hit the street last fall to demand an end to corruption and foreign interference, an overhaul of the political system, and economic justice, leading to the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi in November. Several attempts to form a new government failed until Mustafa al-Kadhimi succeeded in May. At the beginning of 2020, the U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani resulted in ratcheted up tensions between Washington and Tehran that largely played out on Iraqi soil. Then the coronavirus descended up Iraq.
The United States is committed to advancing the Global Fragility Act (GFA) as part of its global response to the coronavirus pandemic, senior State Department, USAID and Department of Defense officials said on Wednesday at a virtual gathering of development and peacebuilding organizations and experts convened by the U.S. Institute of Peace to facilitate discussions on how to implement the legislation.
The health and economic implications of the coronavirus pandemic threaten to reverse decades of development progress. While the international community has mobilized substantial sums of aid and financing to address the pandemic and its impacts, the scale of the crisis demands an even more ambitious response. With the virus’s peak still ahead for many countries, there remains an opportunity to rally support for international collaboration on preventive measures that could stave off the worst-case scenario while addressing underlying sources of fragility.
A “mixed” response from the international community is threatening a worst-case scenario for fragile states facing COVID-19. USIP’s Tyler Beckelman says countries need to recognize “the best strategy for defeating the virus is defeating it everywhere” and cooperate on aid in fragile contexts.
As the unprecedented humanitarian and economic impacts of COVID-19 begin to be felt across poor and conflict-affected states, there is a risk that policymakers will lose focus on longer-term priorities—like conflict prevention and economic development.
During the past few months I have spent working with religious minorities in Iraq, I have realized that these communities and Iraq’s anti-government protesters seek the same outcome: a democratic, safe, and pluralistic country.
Although COVID-19 has yet to hit the Middle East with full force, the pandemic’s second and third order effects could impact the region in the most profound ways. The virus threatens to exacerbate the region’s deep-seated ills—poor governance, inadequate economic growth, deep societal fissures, pervasive conflict, and displacement—and shape the Middle East’s post-pandemic landscape.
Iran’s outbreak has been the worst in the Middle East by far and there are concerns that the pandemic’s spread is significantly worse than reported by Iranian authorities. The virus hit at a particularly bad time for Iran with the economy already suffering from the impact of U.S. sanctions. USIP’s Garrett Nada discusses the debate over the number of cases, Tehran’s decision to ease containment measures, and whether the coronavirus crisis could open the door to de-escalation with the United States.