How the pandemic could start inflaming wars around the world

Even as countries are pledging co-ordinated action to fight COVID-19, the pandemic represents a risk to social order and could further inflame already intractable wars across the globe, says a stark assessment released this week by the International Crisis Group.

Western leaders could have 'little or no time' for peace efforts, report warns

An Afghan policeman stands guard near burning NATO supply trucks, following an attack by militants, on a U.S. base east of Kabul, Afghanistan, in September 2013. A new report warns the coronavirus pandemic could aggravate many of the crises to which Canada has devoted foreign policy time and effort. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

Leaders of the world's 20 biggest economies met in an extraordinary virtual session Thursday and vowed to work together to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most citizens of those countries, which include Canada, would be forgiven for not even noticing what was said as border closures and mass layoffs overwhelm their personal and professional lives.

But even as countries pledge co-ordinated action, the COVID-19 crisis represents a risk to social order and could further inflame already intractable wars across the globe, says a stark assessment released this week by the International Crisis Group (ICG).

Many of the countries, causes and crises to which Canada has devoted considerable foreign policy time and effort face the prospect of even more suffering, says the special report released by the non-profit, non-governmental organization, based in Brussels.

Western democracies that were already distracted will turn even further inward, the ICG predicts.

"The disease means that international leaders, focused as they are on dramatic domestic issues, have little or no time to devote to conflicts or peace processes," says the report.

Canadian special forces look over an observation post, in February 2017 in northern Iraq. The report warns that turmoil from the pandemic could breathe new life into old conflicts. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

One of the first casualties could very well be United Nations peacekeeping operations. China and Italy — two of the countries hardest hit by the pandemic — have been asked to "suspend some or all of their unit rotations into blue helmet operations due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19." 

That means the tours of duty for troops already in two of Africa's most volatile peacekeeping missions — the Central African Republic and South Sudan — will have to be extended.

"A prolonged pandemic could make it difficult to find and deploy fresh forces and civilian personnel, wearing down missions," said the report. 

The report also says the pandemic opens the door for hardline countries to embark on "destabilizing foreign adventures," and could breathe new life into old enemies as governments in the developing world and the Middle East are weakened.

"ISIS for example used the post-2011 chaos in Syria to gain a level of power that would otherwise have been impossible. It is possible that social and political disorder may create similar openings for jihadist actors as the crisis goes on," it warns.

Having just returned from the UN headquarters in New York 10 day ago, former diplomat Ferry de Kerckhove says he's already seen signs of erosion and is acutely worried that we are at the end of the multilateral world. 

"I used to talk about the divide between the U.S. and others, but now it's the divide between everybody," said de Kerckhove, Canada's former ambassador to both Indonesia and Egypt. "Borders are closed and the spirit of co-operation is fading."

Before COVID-19, people in many countries were already questioning the international order and, now, that will only increase, he warned.

The ICG report warns there could be social upheaval ahead because "the pandemic's public health and economic consequences are liable to strain relations between governments and citizens, especially where health services buckle; preserving public order could prove challenging when security forces are overstretched and populations become increasingly frustrated with the government's response to the disease."

Depending upon how deep and how bad the economic fallout becomes, unrest could affect countries that may not have been hard hit by the coronavirus, especially if governments are perceived to have mishandled the crisis.

"One further reason to worry is COVID-19's clear potential to unleash xenophobic sentiments, especially in countries with large immigrant communities," the report said. 

That, de Kerchove said, will make backlash against migrants and refugees more brutal and will come at a time when Western governments are completely locked down, swimming in a sea of new debt and preoccupied with their own unemployed masses.

He said he wonders: "Who's going to give a damn about what's going on in Syria? Nobody cares about it. Turkey and Russia can go to war — or not."

Marius Grinius, Ottawa's former ambassador to Vietnam and a 12-year veteran of the Armed Forces, said he wonders how long countries like Canada will be able to sustain their foreign aid budgets and whether there will be political support at home for helping other countries. 

Such a withdrawal would open the way for authoritarian states to expand their influence. 

"The vacuum is not being filled by anyone other than China and its junior partner, Russia," he said. "I think that's huge."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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