A member of the Syrian Civil Defense sanitizes inside the mosque at the Bab al-Nour internally displaced persons camp, to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Azaz, Syria, March 26, 2020.

Combat in the world’s biggest conflict areas not slowing down despite COVID-19

International organizations such as the UN and the Arab League have called for warring parties across the globe to put down their guns so that locals can deal with the coronavirus pandemic. But are their calls being heard?

The World

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres pleaded with warring parties across the world last week.

The coronavirus, he said, illustrates the folly of war.

“I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world,” he said. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

The Arab League, an organization made up of 22 Arab nations across the Middle East and North Africa, has also called for an immediate ceasefire.

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“This pandemic, which affects everyone without discrimination,” Ahmed Abul Gheit, Arab League’s secretary-general, wrote in an op-ed, “may represent an opportunity for countries that suffer from conflicts to declare a truce that allows to remedy the situation and put an end to humanitarian crises and economic suffering.”

Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the Arab League, reiterated this call.

“Give peace a chance. Halt all military activities, hostile activities and start giving people a break.”

Hossam Zaki, Arab League, assistant secretary-general

“Give peace a chance,” he told The World. “Halt all military activities, hostile activities and start giving people a break.”

The coronavirus has now reached most major conflict areas in the world: Syria’s health ministry reported its first official death from the coronavirus on Sunday. Afghanistan has 145 recorded cases as of Monday, and Libya has 8, according to Johns Hopkins University. Yemen has yet to report any infections.

“While no country is immune to the virus, the war has left Yemen at perilous risk; it has decimated an already fragile health system, displaced 3.3 million people, and left 80% of the population in need of humanitarian assistance,” Marcus Skinner, senior conflict and humanitarian policy adviser with the International Rescue Committee, wrote in a piece on Monday

Years of fighting has decimated the health care systems in these embattled countries, said Zaki from the Arab League. And that leaves large numbers of people vulnerable to something like COVID-19.

Related: Can COVID-19 be contained in war-torn Syria?

“The suffering of the peoples in those countries is already so immense because of the ongoing wars,” he explained, “and then the pandemic comes and the suffering becomes unimaginable.”

In Syria, a humanitarian group called The White Helmets has dispatched teams in white hazmat suits to disinfect schools, mosques and other public facilities. They also hand out leaflets that teach Syrians in displacement camps how to properly wash their hands.

So far, a ceasefire in northern Syria is holding. But that’s only part of the story. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi in the United Kingdom studies jihadi groups. His research shows that ISIS and other similar groups in Syria have been talking about the pandemic for months.

“[They have been] rejoicing it, if it mostly strikes the non-Muslims. Secondly, giving directives on how to avoid the epidemic and thirdly, trying to exploit preoccupation with this to launch more attacks.”

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, researcher, UK

“[They have been] rejoicing it, if it mostly strikes the non-Muslims,” Tamimi said. “Secondly, giving directives on how to avoid the epidemic and thirdly, trying to exploit preoccupation with this to launch more attacks.”

Related: Should sanctions against Iran be lifted in the wake of COVID-19?

Tamimi said ISIS sees a few opportunities in this pandemic.

“One of the things that [ISIS] has called for actually in this context is renewed efforts to try to break free prisoners held, in say … camps in eastern Syria and elsewhere,” he said.

On Sunday, a group of ISIS members managed to escape from a prison in northern Syria. Some of them were recaptured, but others are still on the loose.

Vera Mironova, a researcher who studies the behavior of individuals in conflict environments at Harvard University, connected The World with one fighter in Idlib province. (He is not one of the prisoners who escaped over the weekend).

He is originally from Uzbekistan and calls himself Abu Shwayeb. He fights with a jihadi group called Liwa al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar. Over audio messages, Shwayeb said he is not worried about the coronavirus pandemic.

“People here are wearing masks and gloves to protect themselves,” he said.

What about the calls for a ceasefire? Will he and his fellow fighters stop their attacks so that locals can deal with the coronavirus outbreak?

“It’s the Russian and Syrian forces that are attacking civilians. They’re the ones who don’t care about human lives.”

Abu Shwayeb, fighter with jihadi group 

“It’s the Russian and Syrian forces that are attacking civilians,” he said in Russian, through an interpreter. “They’re the ones who don’t care about human lives.”

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ISIS is active in Afghanistan, as well. Last week, it carried out an attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul, killing 25 people. In the aftermath, families gathered to mourn their loved ones.

Then, there’s the Taliban. The group recently signed an agreement with the US, which raised hopes for a final peace deal with the Afghan government. But over the weekend, Taliban fighters carried out a series of attacks in Afghanistan. The group begins its annual spring offensive this week. Taliban spokesman Soheil Shaheen didn’t respond to text messages from The World about the calls for a ceasefire.

So far, it seems the pleas from the United Nations and others are not being heard. In Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, fighters don’t see a bigger, common threat in the coronavirus. And they are not ready to swap their guns for hand sanitizers and surgical masks.

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