Coronavirus spells trouble for Turkey in the Middle East

With a rising number of cases and deaths, Turkey is in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the political repercussions are already on display. On Monday, the unexpected and swiftly withdrawn resignation of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu after a botched last-minute lockdown left thousands rushing to crowded shops prompted a flurry of speculation about the goings-on at the pinnacle of power. But the coronavirus will not only impact Turkey’s domestic politics. It is bound to bear on its foreign policy too.

Turkey might be struggling to contain the infection, but its neighbours in the Middle East are in a much more vulnerable position. The virus threatens to take a heavy human toll, damage already fragile economies, cause social discontent, and breed even more conflict and instability close to Turkey’s borders. The knock-on effects will no doubt be felt within the country. 

War-ravaged Syria is a case in point. In the northwestern Idlib province, where three million people are crammed together in close quarters, medical facilities have been heavily damaged or destroyed in systematic bombardment by Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime and Russian airforce. There is a limited capacity to implement public health measures, especially in the camps that house hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs). Reports suggest that there is only one machine in the rebel-held enclave which can carry out tests.  

In the areas controlled by Assad, authorities have imposed curfews, shut down businesses, and cancelled flights. However, such policies might not be very effective either, given the endemic corruption which has only gotten worse in recent years thanks to the war. The low number of reported cases, 29 as of April 15, including five deaths, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Close links to Iran, which saw an early outbreak of COVID-19, could have helped spread the virus much more widely weeks ago. Failure to contain the virus would have a dramatic impact. For instance, it would undermine the rudimentary social safety nets that are in place. The government seems unable to keep food prices down, with wheat prices rising in both regime-run regions and the northeastern areas held by the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces.

Turkey’s other neighbour, Iraq, likewise finds itself in a tough spot. The slump in the price of oil has left the country teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. The prime ministerial seat is still vacant after the resignation of Adel Abdul-Mahdi back in November. Politics is as fractious as ever and feuding parties are unable to forge a compromise. Discontent directed against the political establishment is still rife, even if protestors are staying at home thanks to COVID-19. 

The activities of foreign powers are making an already dire situation in Iraq even worse. Last month saw attacks by the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah against the United States military, which in turn provoked reprisals. The low-intensity conflict triggered by the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani could easily escalate. This will surely play into the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS), which is trying to re-group following the collapse of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Dysfunction in Baghdad, coupled with an economic crisis, a coronavirus explosion and mounting violence might nudge the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) to renew its bid for independence, which was put on halt after the September 2017 referendum backfired spectacularly. An ISIS resurgence will strengthen the KRG’s hand in Washington as it did last time around. 

A destabilisation of the immediate neighbourhood is bad news for Turkey, even if its policy appears to be working for the time being. The Idlib deal cut by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow on March 5 is sticking. In Libya, the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli is gaining ground against the eastern-based Khalifa Haftar’s forces. 

But a major crisis in Iraq is a different order of challenge altogether. Turkey, pinned down at home as the coronavirus infects more and more people, will be struggling to respond. Similarly, a COVID-19 tsunami in Syria would put the Turkish government on the spot. It effectively runs parts of the country’s north, with Idlib coming into its purview, too, thanks to the large military deployment there. Will Ankara turn its back and leave Syrians in the enclaves to their own devices? Or step in and take responsibility, even if it irks its own citizens, who feel ignored because the country’s already scarce resources are being expended abroad?   

The coronavirus is yet to hit the Middle East hard, but once it does, the consequences could prove long-lasting. Pointing at socio-economic and political fragility, some analysts foresee upheavals reminiscent of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Back then, Turkey had solid reasons to see itself as a beneficiary from the changes. That is not the case now.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.