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What impact is COVID-19 having on Middle East conflicts?

The coronavirus has dampened but by no means ended hostilities in the multiple conflicts roiling the Middle East (AFP Photo/AAREF WATAD)

Beirut (AFP) - It remains unclear what the novel coronavirus pandemic's impact will be on Middle East wars, but a first consequence seems to be a unilateral ceasefire starting Thursday in Yemen.

The United Nations has appealed for ceasefires in all the major conflicts rocking the planet, as COVID-19 has killed tens of thousands and placed half of the world population in confinement.

Here is an overview of the impact so far on the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq:

YEMEN

The Saudi-led military coalition fighting Yemen's Huthi rebels has declared a two-week ceasefire in the Arab world's poorest nation from Thursday at 0900 GMT.

There has been no immediate reaction from the Iran-backed rebels, but the announcement is a rare glimmer of hope for the five-year-old conflict.

It is the first breakthrough since the warring parties agreed to a UN-brokered ceasefire in the port city of Hodeida in late 2018.

"The coalition is determined... to support efforts towards combatting the spread of (the) COVID-19 pandemic," coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki said.

Despite all sides initially welcoming the UN call for a halt in violence, fighting spiked late last month.

It was feared more flare-ups in Yemen could compound a humanitarian crisis often described as the worst in the world and invite a coronavirus outbreak of catastrophic proportions.

In a country where the health infrastructure has collapsed, where water is a rare commodity and where 24 million people require humanitarian assistance, the population had feared the worst without a ceasefire allowing for adequate aid.

SYRIA

The COVID-19 outbreak turned into a pandemic just as a ceasefire reached by the two main foreign power brokers in Syria's nine-year-old war -- Russia and Turkey -- was taking effect.

The three million people living in the ceasefire zone, in the country's northwestern region of Idlib, had little hope the deal would hold.

Yet fears the coronavirus could spread like wildfire across the devastated country appear to have given the truce an extended lease of life.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the month of March saw the lowest civilian death toll since the conflict started in 2011, with 103 deaths.

The ability of the multiple administrations in Syria -- the Damascus government, the autonomous Kurdish administration in the northeast and the jihadist-led alliance that runs Idlib -- to manage the coronavirus threat is key to their credibility.

"This epidemic is a way for Damascus to show that the Syrian state is efficient and all territories should be returned under its governance," analyst Fabrice Balanche said.

However the pandemic and the global mobilisation it requires could precipitate the departure of US-led troops from Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

This in turn could create a vacuum in which the Islamic State jihadist group, still reeling from the demise of its "caliphate" a year ago, could seek to step up its attacks.

LIBYA

The main protagonists in the Libyan conflict initially welcomed the UN ceasefire call but swiftly resumed hostilities.

Fierce fighting has rocked the capital Tripoli in recent days, suggesting the risk of a major coronavirus outbreak is not enough to make guns fall silent.

Violence since the start of the year has displaced 200,000 people from their homes, most in the capital, the International Organization for Migration says.

Hostilities on Monday damaged a Tripoli hospital where COVID-19 patients are being treated, it said.

Turkey has recently played a key role in the conflict, throwing its weight behind the UN-recognised Government of National Accord.

Balanche predicted that accelerated Western disengagement from Middle East conflicts could limit Turkish support to the GNA.

That could eventually favour forces loyal to eastern-based strongman Khalifa Haftar, who launched an assault on Tripoli one year ago and is backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

Western countries have been hit hardest by the pandemic, which could prompt them to divert both military resources and peace-brokering capacity from foreign conflicts.

The International Crisis Group has reported European officials as saying efforts to secure a ceasefire in Libya were no longer receiving high-level attention due to the pandemic.

IRAQ

Iraq is no longer gripped by fully-fledged conflict but it remains vulnerable to an IS resurgence in some regions and its two main foreign backers are at each other's throats.

Iran and the United States are two of the countries most affected by the coronavirus but there has been no sign of any let-up in their battle for influence that has largely played out on Iraqi soil.

With most non-US troops in the coalition now gone and some bases evacuated, American personnel are regrouped in a handful of locations in Iraq.

Washington has deployed Patriot air defence missiles, prompting fears of a fresh escalation with Tehran, whose proxies it blames for a spate of rocket attacks on bases housing US troops.

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