Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a NESA Alumnus and a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. Dr. Khatib frequently publishes Op-Eds in the Arab News and is based in the UAE.
Steps taken by the United States to secure its international standing amidst this current crisis are crucial. It is clear that Covid-19 is testing the United States medical system and threatening a substantial economic downturn. In such an environment, foreign affairs are going to be a secondary priority, but foreign policy blunders must be avoided at all costs. Covid-19 is a threat. However, the crises created by the viral outbreak can also be an opportunity. In the Middle East, the Covid-19 pandemic could have positive outcomes, such as encouraging a breakthrough for discussions between the Turkish state and Kurdish groups. The United States should continue to cooperate with Turkey and do what it can to encourage an easing of tensions that surround the Syrian conflict.
The United States can take on an active role regarding regional tensions surrounding Syria. Turkey’s ongoing opposition to Kurdish actions inside Syria is one such example. The United States could reemphasize its preference to see an agreement reached between Kurdish groups operating in Syria and the Turkish government, as the current pandemic environment has led all states to review their political priorities. Such an agreement is not beyond possibility.
Prior to the Arab uprising the Turkish government had consistent talks with Kurdish groups. The key to recapture this once again is for some type of breakthrough to emerge between the Turkish state and Kurdish interests inside Turkey. Relations between the state and Kurdish groups inside Turkey soured after the emergence of the Arab Uprisings and only intensified with the emergence of Kurdish groups in Syria becoming a major actor in that ongoing conflict. The Turkish state felt Kurdish interests could threaten Turkey’s stability, economy, and social systems. The US should actively push both sides to reengage in talks while giving guarantees for both. Here is a big opportunity for the US to use its soft power and play the role of the honest broker. The pandemic environment can encourage the Turkish government and the Kurdish factions to come together for talks. If Kurdish groups could pledge to end violence in their efforts for political influence inside Turkey, then the Turkish state could potentially see a benefit to taking a different approach. The United States can also keep tensions between Kurds and Turks at bay inside Syria by maintaining their presence east of the Euphrates River. Calming down the border regions of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq is crucial right now for a host of reasons, but two worth pointing out are the ongoing refugee crisis and the impacts of the Covid-19 outbreak.
Altogether, support for Turkey will remain important in the coming months. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens the region. It could also be disastrous for the most vulnerable people in the Levant region – refugees. Russian support for Assad is an ongoing problem, as is Assad’s continued aggression within Syria. To strengthen humanitarian efforts and to improve the ability of international organizations to address health concerns the US should reach a deal with Russia whereas relief organizations can operate in Syria and dispatch aid without any interference from the regime. Regional tensions in the Gulf could intensify and enhance instability. Disagreement between Turkey and Kurdish groups could remain an issue. Many of the problems surrounding Syria cannot be easily solved, but the global pandemic could create an opening to address specific tensions between the Turkish state and Kurdish groups. Easing tensions in this one case could have positive outcomes in various ways. The United States must remain engaged and do what it can to diminish tensions in the region.