If one battle in Yemen’s war seems designed to kill as many fighters as possible, it is the one currently taking place in Ma’rib Governorate. Five years of fighting between Ansar Allah, usually referred to as the Houthis, and armed groups loyal to the internationally recognized Yemeni government have killed thousands on both sides, and the battle has been escalating. Neither side has suffered a full defeat or won a convincing victory. Both are fighting in terrain that makes it difficult to advance. What is taking place in Yemen is a largescale war of attrition, the main consequence of which has been the exhaustion of all sides. Even if one of the parties is victorious, this is usually followed by subsequent battles of attrition.
The western governorate of Ma’rib first saw fighting in January 2015, shortly after the Houthis seized the capital San‘a, some 170 kilometers west of the city of Ma’rib. The Houthis then tried to seize cities across Yemen’s north, prompting many anti-Houthi residents to flee to Ma’rib Governorate, where local tribes mounted strong resistance to the new rulers in San‘a.
In March 2015, when the Saudi-led military coalition launched operations against the Houthis, it began sending military support to the Ma’rib front, strengthening it as a center of resistance to the Houthis and attracting many of their opponents. The government created a battalion called the National Army, made up of soldiers who refused to submit to the Houthis, along with tribesmen and fighters from the Yemeni Congregation for Reform Party, known as Islah. These forces have since recaptured some areas from the Houthis.
Despite three years of relative calm, fighting resumed with a vengeance at the beginning of 2020. The Houthis seized some areas that had been under government and loyalist tribal control, notably in neighboring Jawf Governorate and the Nahem district, close to San‘a. Today, fighting on various fronts along the northern and northwestern boundaries of Ma’rib Governorate is killing dozens of combatants almost every day.
The Houthis have launched several major offensives to seize Ma’rib, which is rich in oil and is the largest stronghold of their foes, paying little attention to the casualties. They see control of Ma’rib as a strategically vital military and economic prize. Taking the sprawling desert governorate would neutralize the biggest threat to their control over San‘a, namely the presence of pro-government forces controlling large mountainous areas within San‘a Governorate. Economically, controlling Ma’rib also means taking over the Safer oil refinery that provides many parts of Yemen with their fuel needs.
But the Houthis have faced determined opposition from pro-government forces in Ma’rib. For them, defending the governorate has become a matter of life or death. This can be seen in the intensity of the current fighting and the Houthis’ failure to make decisive advances (in contrast to their fortunes in other governorates), despite having launched blistering offensives.
The battle for Ma’rib, therefore, appears to be a zero-sum game in which neither side has any option but to continue fighting, regardless of the human and material costs. Both sides realize that the battle’s outcome will decide much of the future political landscape of the country and its alliances. It is not a marginal battle but a delayed confrontation that has lasted since 2014 and has become a seemingly permanent feature of the hills and deserts of Ma’rib.
But what is behind the recent Saudi reluctance to deal seriously with the Ma’rib battle? And what is the reason for the Houthis’ growing determination to seize the governorate now? The answers to these questions reveal important factors in the dynamics of the clashes as well as underline the Saudi-led coalition’s changing policy toward its allies on the ground.
Since the launch of the intervention in 2015, Saudi Arabia has been allied with Islah and has depended on the party’s ground forces in the fight against the Houthis. But Riyadh and Islah are little more than allies of military convenience fighting a common enemy. As Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy priorities have changed over the past two years, Turkey has emerged as a key regional rival, even ahead of Iran, which unlike Turkey does not pose a challenge to Saudi Arabia’s claims to lead the worldwide Sunni community. This has made Riyadh suspicious of groups and movements that are sympathetic toward Turkish policy. Islah is one such group, as it has ideological ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, Ankara’s most prominent ally in the Arab world and which is opposed by Riyadh.
Despite the presence of other military and tribal entities, Saudi Arabia doesn’t see Ma’rib as something other than an Islah power base. This view is reflected on the ground, with many fighters on the front lines not receiving their salaries from Saudi Arabia, a reduction in Saudi military and logistical support, and attacks against Islah by pro-Saudi newspapers and websites that accuse the party of inaction in the fight against the Houthis, or even of making secret deals with them. Saudi Arabia has also imposed restrictions on the movement of some leading Islah commanders, sidelining them and relying instead on Salafis and pro-Saudi tribal commanders. This aligns with the view of the United Arab Emirates, Riyadh’s main coalition partner, which regards Islah as a threat whose elimination is a priority.
Riyadh sees weakening Islah politically and militarily as an essential step toward preventing the movement from opposing Saudi policies. For the Saudis, weakening Islah will silence the demands of some of its commanders for an equal say, forcing them into full compliance with the goals of the kingdom. Riyadh has already imposed its decisions on the Yemeni government, which has become entirely powerless to influence events in the country. But the kingdom also realizes that it needs to continue providing some support to Ma’rib’s defenders in order to prevent it from falling to the Houthis.
Saudi efforts to weaken Islah do not mean that it favors the Houthis. Rather, Riyadh sees the battle on the Ma’rib front as chipping away at the capacities of both sides, diverting their attention away from fronts along the border with Saudi Arabia. Thus, the Houthis’ attacks on Ma’rib have been accompanied by the loss of certain positions they had seized months ago in Jawf Governorate. Saudi Arabia regards moving the Houthis away from its own borders as a priority, and has thus boosted its military supplies to fronts near the borders while cutting its support for forces deeper inside Yemen. Meanwhile, it has become clear that the Houthis’ weak point is fighting in open areas, given their lack of an air force similar to the Royal Saudi Air Force, a key asset the kingdom can control without needing a local ally.
On the other hand, the Houthis’ ability to recruit fighters has enabled them to step up their attacks on Ma’rib, taking advantage of Riyadh’s changing policy toward its allies on the ground. This has been accentuated further by the dismissal in late August of the former commander of coalition forces, Prince Fahd bin Turki, and his replacement by Lieutenant General Mutlaq bin Salem al-Uzayma‘. While these steps may not change the thrust of Saudi policy, they could alter some deployments on the ground. The Houthis appear to be carrying out preemptive attacks to exploit this transition.
Against this background, events in Ma’rib could well change course in the coming months. There are three possible scenarios in this regard. First, and most likely, loyalist forces will continue to fend off Houthi attacks and the current stalemate will persist. This is probable in light of the fierce defense these forces have mounted, along with Saudi Arabia’s determination to prevent Ma’rib from falling for the time being. Such a scenario would largely resemble the situation in the city of Ta‘ez, where fighting has taken place since the beginning of the war without the Houthis being able to seize it. This would prolong the current war of attrition. But the situation may not last, especially if there is a breakthrough in talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia that would enable the latter to secure its southern border. Things could also change if the kingdom stepped up its support for anti-Houthi forces and raised the pressure on them on other fronts.
The second scenario would see Ma’rib falling to the Houthis. This is unlikely to happen and would only come with major human cost for both sides. Yet if the Houthis were indeed to win, it would open the door to further battles in Yemen’s southeastern governorates, especially Hadhramawt and Mahra, which the Houthis would not hesitate to attack. That would mean Saudi Arabia would lose its influence on the ground inside Yemen, but would begin a wider war of attrition against the Houthis. Controlling a large swathe of territory could be a point of weakness rather than an asset for Houthi forces, especially as the areas in question are outside their main constituency.
There is a third scenario, which is also unlikely at present, namely that agreements will be signed between local forces to pause the fighting and reorganize the situation in Ma’rib in light of the latest military developments. Making this situation more improbable is the deep enmity between the two sides, accentuated by the terrible losses caused by the recent fighting. On top of this, neither side has much faith in battlefield agreements, which can quickly collapse. Moreover, Saudi Arabia would never accept such a violation of its wishes, and loyalist forces are not in a position to persuade it to acquiesce.
As the fighting continues, Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe continues to be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people live in camps in Ma’rib in terrible conditions, made worse by the fighting that is approaching them. Despite this, the global powers have done little to bring an end to the disaster.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
The impact of Yemen’s long-running war is being felt not only inside the country, but also in neighboring Saudi Arabia. New developments and the changing dynamics of the conflict have had major security, social, and economic consequences for Saudis as well as Yemenis, especially inhabitants of the southern border area. While rumored negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Ansar Allah, better known as the Houthi movement, could result in political and military arrangements, the impact of events on the border will continue to shape Saudi public opinion long after the war is over.
Since Riyadh intervened militarily in Yemen in 2015, Saudis have actively discussed developments there on social media, reflecting growing public interest in Yemeni affairs. This has been accompanied by ongoing, wide-ranging debates between Yemenis and Saudis over the details and trajectory of the war and how the Saudi intervention is seen by Saudi society. Most Saudi activists have adopted a similar discourse to that of the Saudi state, partly due to government censorship and intense monitoring of social media platforms, precluding any opposing voices. However, the level of debate shows how much attention Saudis have paid in recent years to news from Yemen, which has had a direct impact on their lives.
The economic costs of Saudi involvement in the conflict alone have had major effects on Saudi society, in the form of tax hikes, raised fees for various services, and higher fuel prices. The conflict has also sparked a string of Houthi missile attacks against targets inside Saudi territory, sowing fear among ordinary Saudis and prompting many to start following the news from Yemen more closely.
Totally forbidden from criticizing their government or critiquing its policies, Saudis writing on the war have focused on the country’s enemy and limited their criticism of Saudi-backed actors in Yemen to questioning their seriousness and ability to achieve victory. The situation in Yemen has brought to prominence new Saudi writers, who have treated the subject as a safe topic for political commentary—provided that they adopt the official narrative.
Prior to the war, Yemen received hardly any attention in Saudi life, especially in light of how difficult the Saudi state has made it for Yemenis to enter the country over the past two decades. But things have changed because of the conflict, and Saudi writers and activists have emerged to meet public demand for a narrative to explain the war. Many Yemeni media figures covering the conflict have also gained a following among the Saudis, while clerics have used mosques and religious gatherings to promote the official discourse around it. This narrative has played up Saudi national identity and the ruling family’s ability to manage the conflict. Saudi media outlets have also used events in Yemen to promote the concept of the upstanding Saudi citizen, loyal to his country and its rulers.
The kingdom’s weak spot in this regard is its territory along the Yemen border, where the war has changed security arrangements and demography. When the war broke out in 2015, the Saudi government moved many residents of villages near the border to cities deeper inside Saudi Arabia, essentially turning the region into a buffer zone. This zone extends into Yemeni territory along the border, to a depth of between 10 and 40 kilometers toward Houthi-controlled territory. The goal of this was to prevent incursions into Saudi Arabia, especially as land clashes with the Houthis have dragged on.
This shift in Saudi strategy in its southern region has had major repercussions for tribes along the frontier. Before it engaged the Houthis in military conflict, Saudi Arabia relied heavily on these tribes, both inside Saudi and Yemeni territory, to secure the long border. But Houthi military operations on the Yemeni side, with cooperation from some Saudi elements due to social and sectarian links, pushed Riyadh into a brief conflict with the Houthis in 2009. This revealed the fragility of the region’s security situation and prompted Saudi Arabia to invite the Yemeni military to fight the Houthis from Saudi territory, backed by Saudi air strikes.
Throughout the current conflict Riyadh has relied on Yemeni conscripts—by some estimates numbering as many as 60,000 fighters—distributed across various fronts along the border. However, these fighters only make up the first line. Behind them are a multitude of military and security forces charged by the kingdom with securing its territories. Saudi Arabia has lost dozens of troops in the area due to clashes and artillery fire emanating from Houthi-held areas.
As many as half the Saudi troops lost in these clashes hail from the southwestern border region, especially Jizan, upon whom Riyadh has relied heavily. These casualties have naturally had a social impact. Despite Saudi glorification of soldiers sacrificing their lives to guard the frontier, the losses have been deeply felt nationwide, especially in contrast to the stability that had reigned in previous decades.
Fighting in certain border regions has also forced the closure of markets once vital to local economies. The closure of major border crossings in the Tuwal district has caused major economic losses for Saudis living in surrounding areas. Traffic that used to cross into Yemen from there has moved instead to the Wadieh crossing in the Najran region, which leads into an area controlled by the Yemeni government opposed to the Houthis. These areas have seen an economic rebound thanks to the surge in cross-border trade, especially with the anti-Houthi coalition’s partial blockade of Yemeni ports and crossing points. Residents of Najran have benefitted from this economic shift and the influx of Yemeni investment in areas close to the Wadieh crossing.
The displacement of residents from some pockets of border territory and the rise of economic opportunities in others have led to the creation of new communications channels between these regions, as well as a growth in unofficial traffic across the 1,400-kilometre border with Yemen, which is hard to control.
The war has shown that residents of Saudi Arabia’s southern cities and villages have not been shielded from the repercussions of Riyadh’s intervention. The conflict has brought changes to the way that Saudis think, which will remain strongly present in the coming years. Even after the war ends, Saudi Arabia will face many domestic problems born of the long conflict in Yemen.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
The social fabric on both sides of the Syrian-Jordanian border has remained similar, notwithstanding the fact that a century has passed since the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region between Britain and France. Communities on either side of the separation line remain similar, with extended families and clans (sub-tribes or ‘ashireh) dominating the social landscape. They remain linked by family and kinship ties, as well as shared customs and traditions.
But this so-called “line in the sand”—the boundary dividing British and French areas of control drawn during World War I—has also left its mark. Relations between tribal clans and their respective states differ markedly between Jordan and Syria, both in terms of their roles in the state-building process and the space that clan notables have been given to exercise traditional authority within their societies.
With the increasing levels of violence in Syria after 2011, many Syrians, especially from the border governorate of Dar‘a, sought refuge in Jordan. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that the largest concentration of refugees is located in Amman Governorate, Jordan’s economic heartland. The second-largest is present in the northwestern border areas of the kingdom, which resemble nearby parts of Syria in their climate, geography, and even architecture. Not only is the environment similar, but many Jordanian and Syrian families have family ties and relationships from before the conflict. This helped Syrians integrate into Jordanian society after they had fled Syria.
After settling in Jordan, many refugees found that the state’s relationship with clans were different than what they had encountered in Syria. Throughout the decades of Ba‘th Party rule, the Syrian state sought to weaken tribal clan authority. Half a century of such policies prior to the uprising, along with changing ways of life, gradually reduced the role of clan notables. Still, the state used what remained of these notables’ influence for its own ends. For example, it took advantage of their authority to contain and resolve major disputes between large families and keep the peace in rural peripheries of the country.
Jordan’s tribal clans, in turn, face few of the restraints and pressures experienced by their Syrian counterparts. Instead, they remain a major power center with considerable authority and influence in the kingdom. Tribal tradition plays a crucial role in Jordanian society despite growing opposition to it. Even today, the king derives some of his legitimacy from his status as the leader of the kingdom’s tribal leaders, a historical legacy dating back to Jordan’s foundation. Despite rare bumps in ties between the state and tribal clans, especially for economic reasons, these relationships have remained essential for the stability of Hashemite rule.
The new reality in Jordan makes some Syrian notables claim that there is more respect for the clan in Jordan than in Syria. Indeed, in Jordan tribal traditions and customs similar to those in Syria are more widely practiced. This continues to strengthen the clans’ traditional authority, which gives them positions of leadership with judicial, customary, and even political roles as intermediaries between their communities and the state—far more than in Syria.
The situation in Syria has brought about deep changes in the relationship between state and society, including with clan notables. Early on in 2011, notables in Dar‘a broke with their traditional roles and were at the forefront of anti-regime protests when Brigadier General ‘Atif Najib, the head of the Political Security Directorate in Dar‘a, humiliated notables who had gone to seek the release of children arrested and tortured for writing anti-regime slogans. This is widely seen as the incident that sparked the uprising.
Tribal customs remained, and perhaps were strengthened, amid the absence of state institutions in Syria. As a result, some known personalities lost their social status as notables, while others turned the crisis into an opportunity. They gained authority and prominence within their extended families and clans and became new intermediaries with the state. These transformations are ongoing and the political role of clan notables in Syrian society today has yet to become clear. For now, many seem to have lost the roles they played before the uprising, becoming rivals and targets of the state.
The lives of Syrian clan notables in Jordan differ greatly from their lives before the uprising and from the situation of Syrians who are living in Dar‘a today. Many certainly face the hardships of being refugees and do not enjoy the same privileges as their Jordanian counterparts. Yet they live in a sociopolitical environment in which they are able to exercise their traditional authority more widely over their communities and without the fear of being targeted by the state. In that sense, despite living in exile, they are in a more favorable social and political setting than where they had been.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
The American withdrawal from areas east of the Euphrates in October 2019 was a turning point in the conflict in northeastern Syria. It allowed Turkey to expand into the area, effectively moving its border deeper inside Syria to create a buffer zone with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF is a heterogeneous alliance of multiethnic armed groups led by the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an organization it accuses of engaging in terrorist activities.
This expansion has fundamentally altered the nature of Turkey’s border areas with Syria, linking them politically, socially, economically, and in security terms to Turkish provinces just over the frontier. While stopping short of outright annexation, such integration has reshaped the social and economic framework of these regions. It also may lay the groundwork for future, more far-reaching, steps by Ankara in the area.
The U.S. withdrawal was followed by a Turkish military operation known as Peace Spring, which resulted in Turkey’s military taking control over a strip of land between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad. This established a new border zone, much as Turkey’s Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations had done in other parts of northern Syria. The Peace Spring area is closely connected to Sanliurfa Province in Turkey in terms of administration, services, and trade. However, it is also isolated from surrounding areas inside Syria. The area has strategic importance for Turkey in that it intervened to prevent the emergence there of an entity effectively controlled by the PKK. That is why the expanse between Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad is highly securitized and is not one to which Syrians can easily return today.
Turkish involvement in the area runs deep. Every local council has a coordinator who is affiliated with the province of Sanliurfa. These coordinators help local councils secure the logistical support and funding necessary to carry out service projects. They also help coordinate the delivery of Turkish assistance to local bodies through the Syrian opposition’s interim government. This includes such things as healthcare, property and civil status registration, and education.
The depth of this involvement is illustrated by the fact that when the interim government declared the formation of a local council in Tell Abyad on October 28, 2019, the governor of Sanliurfa, ‘Abdullah Erin, visited the city and expressed his support for the new council. When the local council for Ras al-‘Ayn was formed on November 7, 2019, Erin visited this city as well, stressing that Turkey would continue to rebuild the area and encourage a Syrian refugee return.
In the education sector, the Turks have reopened 146 schools operating in the Ras al-‘Ayn area, enrolling more than 15,000 students. Harran University has also signed a memorandum of understanding to open a branch there soon. Scholarships are given out to a number of students who have achieved high scores on the YÖS Turkish-language exams, especially for universities located in Harran, Mardin, and Hatay.
In another example of what Turkey is doing, last May it allowed 85 combined harvesters to pass through its territory from areas captured in the Euphrates Shield operation to the area of Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad in order to harvest wheat and barley. This was necessary as there is no direct connection between the two areas under Turkish control. According to sources on the ground, the Turkish authorities also granted entry permits to 1,500 farmers during the harvest season so that they could move through Turkey to harvest their land in Syria. After the end of the harvest, transit procedures will be eased in order to move seeds to the Euphrates Shield areas. The Turkish aid groups IHH and the Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, as well as the Turkish Red Crescent, are also involved in the area, filling the gap left by U.S. and European aid agencies no longer active there.
The Ras al-‘Ayn and Tell Abyad area is highly connected to Turkey but has closed its boundaries with the rest of Syria. This has encouraged smuggling. According to people on the ground, building materials are cheaper in the Peace Spring areas, where they are stored. Steel costs $500 per ton in these areas, but $650 per ton in Raqqa, controlled by the SDF. A ton of cement costs $42 in Peace Spring areas and $100 in Raqqa. The opposite is true for fuel products, because SDF-controlled areas produce oil. A barrel of fuel oil costs $37 in Peace Spring areas but just $15 in Raqqa, while gasoline costs $84 per barrel in Peace Spring areas and $40 per barrel in Raqqa.
This indicates that while the area is technically in a border zone with Turkey, it also acts as a border between Turkey and the rest of Syria. The fact that it is closely connected to Turkey yet remains isolated from Syria makes an imminent large-scale refugee return unlikely. Asked about the prospect of refugees returning, a local commander stressed the deficiencies in local infrastructure and the difficulties in procuring sufficient resources. “The electricity, water, and food are just enough for us. We don’t want anyone to come back,” he said.
The idea behind Turkey’s reshaping of Syria’s northern border areas is not to seize these territories for Turkey, but to create a buffer zone with the SDF to absorb the impact of any confrontation with the group. These parts of Syria will likely remain Syrian, but under Ankara’s heavy influence. That said, the situation could create more options for Turkey in the future. But for now, as its administration of these areas has in many ways been successful, Turkey may be encouraged to replicate such a model east of the Euphrates.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
As coronavirus-related lockdowns are implemented worldwide, they are posing serious problems for supply chains and increasing the vulnerability of Middle Eastern and North African economies.
Supply chains in many sectors throughout the region have been severely impacted by the closure of ports and delayed shipments. The departure of goods and shipping volumes from Chinese ports have plummeted since the implementation of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, and the activity of many ports throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East has slowed.
A good example of this situation is Tunisia and its supply chains. The new Tunisian government has announced the doubling of strategic stocks of basic food, medicines, and fuel. It has done so because it aims to prevent panic buying generated by the long confinement. Because of the risk of food shortages, given the limited number of operating suppliers and the slowdown in transportation, governments are under pressure to secure a variety of basic necessities.
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t only impacted formal economic exchanges but also invisible supply chains providing for markets across the region. Informal economies in the region don’t exist as separate entities. They are inextricably linked to domestic and international formal economies. Many goods supplying formal economies make their way through complex global commodity chains that are linked in one way or another to informal economies. In North Africa, these supply chains are usually diverted toward illicit cross-border trade through border markets, such as the one in Ben Gardan in Tunisia or Souq Dubai in Al-‘Aulma in Algeria.
Unregistered and misevaluated because of corrupt arrangements, these flows transit through ports and border posts. All across the region informal operators trade products through illicit distribution mechanisms as this means they don’t have to comply with registration, tax, and licensing regulations. Similarly, transnational economic actors use the informal economy and border markets to reach low-income segments of the population whom large formal retailers cannot supply.
Since the 1990s, border markets in North Africa have been energized by extended supply chains importing Asian-made consumer goods and low-cost products. With globalization there has been a restructuring of production and distribution in many industries, characterized by outsourcing and subcontracting through global commodity chains. Border markets and small retailers sell items that are made in Asia before being shipped to North and sub-Saharan African through Dubai. That’s how the Tunisian economy ended up being supplied with Asian goods transiting through Libya or Algeria.
In North African countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco, informal economies represent between 35–40 percent of GDP. Informal employment has been massive in sub-Saharan Africa, with 85 percent of employment taking place in the informal sector. In Asia, the figure is 68.2 percent and in the Arab world 68.6 percent. In total, 93 percent of the world’s informal jobs are in emerging and developing countries, showing that globalization has gone hand in hand with informalization.
The current coronavirus lockdown underlines an interesting fact, namely that many informal economies have been globalized over the decades. This is notably the case of border markets. The border market of Ben Gardane, in southeastern Tunisia, has played an important role in supplying the Tunisian and Libyan economies with consumer goods and fuel. Since the 1990s, Ben Gardan has been an entrepôt in which informal cross-border trade between Tunisia and Libya has been concentrated. Cities in western Libya have connected southern Tunisian cities to the global illicit economy. After the fall of the Qaddafi regime, the border economy became a magnet for non-state armed groups seeking to control and profit from illegal flows of goods, people, and money.
The struggle for control over economic resources and illicit cross-border traffic has had a significant impact on Ben Gardan. This has been mainly due to fighting between Libyan militias over the control of border rent and the frequent disagreements between the Tunisian authorities and their Libyan counterparts over procedures at the Ras Jedir border crossing. The closure of the crossing has sparked massive protests, strikes in Ben Gardan, and anger directed against the Tunisian authorities for contributing to the marginalization of the border region. The Libyan conflict, the coronavirus lockdowns, and the slowdown in global supply chains, will drastically limit the flow of goods transiting through Ben Gardan.
Tunisia’s government has sought to cushion the impact of the new situation and has put in place an economic package to prevent job losses and assist poor families who have been severely hit by the economic crisis. Tensions rose recently as people struggled to cope with the unprecedented sanitary and economic crises, while the government still does not have accurate data about the poor in order to help them. That is why Tunisia’s political elites have to think strategically on how to integrate the informal economy and address the needs of all those living off the books.
This blog was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
Ahmed Nagi is a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where his research focuses on Yemen. He has been closely following the development of the new coronavirus pandemic in the country, and recently published an article on the topic at the website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is to discuss the issue further that Diwan interviewed Nagi in mid-April to get his perspective on what may happen in an impoverished Yemen that has been caught in a devastating war since 2015, and that suffers from a healthcare system in deep crisis.
Michael Young: How have the parties to the Yemen conflict reacted to the spread of the novel coronavirus?
Ahmed Nagi: Despite the fact that they announced that they would take precautions, the warring parties have displayed indifference toward civilians even with regard to their health measures. For instance, in areas controlled by the internationally recognized government, Aden airport and Seiyoun airport in Hadhramawt remained open until March 17, though most of the travelers there either came from or passed through Egypt, which was one of the areas most affected during the early days of the pandemic. The government then announced the closure of ports, following measures taken by Saudi Arabia.
In the northern areas, the Houthis began establishing centers to quarantine people arriving from government-controlled areas. However, these centers are anything but quarantine centers. They contain hundreds of people placed together in small buildings with almost no social distancing rules in place. At the beginning of April, the Houthis closed all internal borders, claiming that the government was not applying the proper preventive measures in the areas under its control. Moreover, the local authorities are trying to ban gatherings, including wedding celebrations, qat markets, group prayers, Friday sermons, and other religious gatherings, despite a lack of commitment by inhabitants.
It is remarkable how measures to contain the coronavirus reveal conflicting plans for fighting the pandemic. We have seen measures independently implemented by the local authorities in governorates controlled by the government. For instance, in Hadhramawt, where the only coronavirus case in the country has been reported, the local authorities announced a partial lockdown even before the case was made public. After that, the southern governorates of Mahra and Shabwa announced the closure of roads with Hadhramawt.
The fact that only one case so far has been made public does not mean that Hadhramawt is the only area affected by the pandemic. What it means is that the authorities in the governorate are, in relative terms, the most transparent. Other areas in Yemen have concealed the spread of the virus to show that they are more adept at implementing containment measures. Moreover, the lack of testing and medical capacities make it difficult to confirm cases of coronavirus, especially when other diseases are present in Yemen, such as cholera, dengue fever, and H1N1, with symptoms similar to the coronavirus. According to interviews with some doctors, the mortality rate has been higher than average in recent weeks, and most of the deaths have been recorded as being caused by the diseases I mentioned.
In terms of the conflict, while Yemenis were expecting the warring parties to halt their hostilities in order to face the coronavirus, the fighting has continued, even escalating in some areas despite announced ceasefires. That is the case of the current confrontations between the Houthis and the government in Marib, Baida and Jawf Governorates, as well as the military tensions between the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Saudi-backed government forces in Abyan and Socotra. It seems that some parties are trying to take advantage of the situation to advance their agendas. What we learned from the cholera outbreak is that the parties to the conflict pay no attention to the concerns of civilians. They only pursue their own military interests.
MY: Is Yemen’s public health infrastructure capable of addressing the spread of the coronavirus?
AN: Before the war Yemen’s health sector was already suffering from a lack of capacity, especially in rural areas where people have no access to basic healthcare. Today, after more than five years of conflict, the public health system is nearly ruined. Even the private healthcare sector has been affected by the situation. Most private hospitals suffer from a lack of health personnel and medical equipment, as well as limited capacity. In addition, most Yemenis live below the poverty line and therefore cannot afford private healthcare services.
In the last two months the World Health Organization (WHO) has equipped a few centers in Aden, San‘a, and Hadhramawt to receive coronavirus cases if they are confirmed. But confirmation requires testing, which is not available in many areas of the country. Beside being unable to receive a large number of cases, the WHO-equipped centers conduct no regular tests for people suspected of having the disease so that we can have a sense of the number of cases. The situation is made worse by a sense of shame among Yemenis. Even if some people have coronavirus symptoms, they do not report them, thinking it could trigger panic.
Consequently, Yemenis are facing the pandemic with a devastated health system, little international assistance, and a lack of awareness in society. All this will mean the pandemic could have serious implications for the war-torn country.
MY: Is there any sense of how widespread the coronavirus epidemic is in Yemen? And what would you say are its main sources?
AN: The Yemeni government has reported only one case so far, but this might not be accurate given the large number of newcomers from affected areas who have entered the country without testing. Furthermore, the number is expected to rise dramatically given the inability of people to follow social distancing measures because of the very difficult economic conditions in the country.
I was talking to one of the locals, and he said, “It is impossible to stay at home, as that will make me unable to feed my family. Even if I catch the coronavirus, there is only a 5 percent possibility of death, while staying at home without work means a 100 percent possibility of death.” When people have only two options—the coronavirus or starvation—of course they will choose the least harmful one.
Another source of the disease that has been hard to control is the flow of migrants into Yemen’s coastal areas. According to Yemen’s Health Ministry, a large number of migrants continue to enter Yemen despite the closure of the country’s borders. The ministry warns that this could spread the coronavirus into many areas.
MY: You recently wrote an article on internal borders in the Yemen conflict. Has the coronavirus affected such borders, and if so how?
AN: The coronavirus has pushed the warring parties to tighten their control over internal borders, leaving each region closed off and isolated. The Houthis, for instance, have threatened to punish anyone who smuggles people into areas under their authority. Participants in the conflict have used the pandemic as an excuse for tighter security control. Yet unlike the time before the virus, many people today are not opposing such restrictions. They view them as justified. But since there is no national action plan to contain the pandemic, it is anticipated that the internal borders may be imposed for a period far outlasting the pandemic itself.
MY: Has aid been provided to Yemen for the coronavirus outbreak? If so, what kind of aid and how have the warring parties used this aid?
AN: Assistance has been provided by certain international nongovernmental organizations in the past two months. In addition, the World Bank announced it would allocate just under $27 million for fighting the pandemic. Nevertheless, this is not enough to curb the disease and address its consequences, especially at a time when most donors are fighting the coronavirus at home. This could be the difference between the cholera outbreak, which afflicted Yemen after April 2017, and the coronavirus, despite the fact that the mortality rate of the latter is higher.
Most of the warring parties have asked for more aid from international nongovernmental organizations. Yet this aid has been used politically in certain parts of the country. For example, the STC has withheld essential coronavirus-related equipment that WHO sent to Yemen in Aden. It has done so to ensure that government medical staff would not have access to it.
MY: Do you anticipate any long-term impact of the disease on Yemen’s international borders, and on border relations?
AN: The land crossings with Saudi Arabia and Oman were largely closed last month, with only a limited number of trucks carrying agricultural products allowed to pass. The closure is expected to last after the pandemic ends, as the Saudis and Omanis fear that the possibility of transmission may remain given the poor state of Yemen’s healthcare system. This would be added to measures on the Saudi side to continue to use the military to prevent smuggling and human trafficking from Yemen. More than 1.5 million Yemenis live in the kingdom and their movement would be significantly affected.
This interview was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
Harith Hasan, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center (CMEC) and Kheder Khaddour, a nonresident scholar at CMEC, have just published a paper titled “The Transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian Border: From a National to a Regional Frontier.” The paper was published with support from the X-Border Local Research Network, a component of the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development’s X-Border Conflict Evidence, Policy, and Trends program. The X-Border Local Research Network—a partnership of the Carnegie Middle East Center, the Asia Foundation, and the Rift Valley Institute—carries out research to better understand the causes and impacts of conflict in border areas and their international dimensions. Diwan interviewed the authors in early April to discuss their paper.
Michael Young: You’ve just published a paper at Carnegie on the Iraqi-Syrian border in the area of Qa’im-Bukamal, titled “The Transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian Border: From a National to a Regional Frontier.” What is your main argument?
Harith Hasan and Kheder Khaddour: We present two main arguments: First, as a result of the weakening of the central state and the fragmentation of power in both Iraq and Syria, the border area has attracted a number of state, nonstate, and parastate actors. This has created a hybrid configuration of authority characterized by fluidity, changing alliances, contestation, and the overlap of subnational, national, and transnational agendas.
Second, rather than being a border separating two sovereign states, this border zone has become a regional frontier where the authorities in Baghdad and Damascus are restricted by the intense presence of Iranian-backed militias and the transformation of the Qa’im-Bukamal area into a strategic conduit for pro-Iran paramilitary groups. The presence of U.S. forces and their local allies in other areas near the border, like the frequent targeting of the bases of Iranian-backed militias in Qa’im and Bukamal by U.S. and Israeli airstrikes, has turned the border zone into a front line in a regional conflict.
MY: What have been the main characteristics of the border in the past, particularly since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003?
HH and KK: Prior to the U.S. invasion, the rivalry between the two ruling branches of the Ba‘th party in Iraq and Syria resulted in the severing of diplomatic and commercial relations and the closing of border crossings. Apart from limited illicit trade run by local smugglers, there was a general stagnation in the border area as both Qa’im and Bukamal became more connected with the centers in Baghdad and Damascus, respectively, than they were with each other. This started to change when the two countries resumed commercial relations and opened the border to the movement of goods and people in the late 1990s. It also changed with the revival of smuggling routes in the 1990s, benefiting from the relative weakness of the Iraqi government after the Gulf war of 1991 and the decline in the value of the Iraqi currency due to international sanctions.
After the U.S. invasion in 2003, there was a collapse of order on the Iraqi side of border, which provided insurgents and jihadi groups with an opportunity to build a strong presence in the border zone as they took advantage of old and new smuggling networks. The area became an essential passage for jihadis and foreign fighters who moved into Iraq from Syria, often with the help of Syrian government operatives. Qa’im became a key stronghold for Al-Qa‘ida in Iraq, led by Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi, who spent some time there. This remained the case until 2005 when an alliance was formed between the U.S. military and the largest tribe in Qa’im, the Bou Mahal, which eventually managed to push the jihadis out.
However, the Syrian uprising in 2011 created new opportunities for jihadis, this time entering Syria from Iraq. The area became a vital zone of activity for the Islamic State group. In 2014, when the Islamic State—then still known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—declared the foundations of its caliphate across the Iraqi-Syrian border, Qa’im-Bukamal was the only area where it tried to integrate Iraqi and Syrian towns into one administrative entity. The aim was to legitimize its claim of having put an end to the alleged consequences of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 (though it was based on an inaccurate interpretation of that agreement). The Islamic State named the new entity Wilayat al-Furat, or the Euphrates Region, allowing the unrestricted movement of people between the two towns, which are located around 7 kilometers from each other.
MY: In recent months we’ve seen an uptick in military actions in the border area by U.S. and Israeli aircraft. Why has this happened and is the border a new regional front line?
HH and KK: Indeed. The recent confrontations have had very little to do with the key interests and priorities of the Iraqi and Syrian states. There is a heavy deployment of militias on both sides of the border area, including militias that are part of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). In theory, the PMF is affiliated with the Iraqi state, but in practice it is largely autonomous. Therefore, the Qa’im-Bukamal area has become the main conduit for the activities of the transnational network of paramilitaries backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Tehran has sought to use the border to maintain a connection across four countries—Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon—in order to protect its regional influence. This is why the United States and Israel have frequently targeted the bases of IRGC-backed paramilitaries in the area, to prevent Iran from securing this route and using it to counter U.S. influence in Iraq, promote its operations in Syria, especially near the Syrian-Israeli border, and retain its ability to support Hezbollah in Lebanon.
MY: Who is actually present in the Qa’im-Albukamal sector of the border, and how solid is their control?
HH and KK: On the Iraqi side of the border, an array of state, nonstate, and parastate military units share territorial control. These include the Iraqi army’s 7th and 8th Divisions, border guard units, a counterterrorism force, various militias operating under the auspices of the PMF, and Sunni local tribal forces such as the Hamza Brigade, which is the military arm of the Bou Mahal tribe, and the Upper Euphrates Brigade, made up of men from Karbuli tribe.
When we were writing the paper, the main PMF militias deployed in the zone were Liwa’ al-Tuffuf (PMF Brigade 13), Kataeb Hezbollah (PMF Brigade 45), which controls the road between Qa’im and ‘Akashat to its southwest; Kataeb al-Imam ‘Ali (PMF Brigade 40); Saraya al-Khorasani (PMF Brigade 18); Liwa’ al-Muntazir (PMF Brigade 7); and Kataeb Ansar al-Hujja (PMF Brigade 29). Based on interviews with local residents, the Tuffuf brigade, affiliated with the Shi‘a shrines in Karbala but which also has strong connections with Iran, and Kataeb Hezbollah, one of the most pro-Iranian and well-trained groups that secured a very influential position within the PMF’s core leadership, are the most active in Qa’im.
Inside Syria, in and around Bukamal, the Euphrates River divides the area into two regions. The western side is known as the Shamiyya, which the regime holds alongside Iranian-backed militias; and the eastern side is known as the Jazira, and is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militias led by the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish militia with ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party. However, IRGC-backed militias also maintain a heavy presence in the city. On the Shamiyya side, the 17th Division, the Republican Guard, and some Russian forces control the boundary between the Assad regime and the SDF along the Euphrates. The Russians also run a center focused on fostering reconciliation, the Markaz al-Musalaha, in Bukamal.
Some neighborhoods have become centers for Iranian-backed militias. These include Kataeb Hezbollah, Harakat al-Abdal, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba’, the Zeinabiyyoun, the Fatimiyyoun, Kataeb al-Imam ‘Ali, and ‘Asaib Ahl al-Haq. In May 2019, the Fatimiyyoun militia, composed mainly of Afghan Shi‘a fighters, took over a building in the Dowar section of Bukamal because it gave them a good view of the surrounding roads. They installed cameras and converted the building into an operations center.
On the Jazira side, by contrast, the SDF has maintained control in cooperation with the Sha‘itat clan, a less complex mix than the multinational forces on the Syrian regime-controlled side. This combination of armed units throughout the border region likely will ensure that tensions remain high for years to come.
MY: Has the Covid-19 pandemic affected the border in any way?
HH and KK: It’s too early to make an assessment. Inasmuch as it affects the Qa’im-Bukamal border zone, the pandemic is likely to slow the ambitious plans of some actors who put pressure to officially reopen the Qa’im-Bukamal crossing, which took place on October 1, 2019. That was the same day when the latest wave of Iraqi protests started, feeding into the conspiracy theories of some Iranian-allied groups that the protests were driven by the United States and Israel, whose aim was to weaken ties between members of the resistance axis—Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi‘a militias—which the border opening was supposed to strengthen.
Qa’im-Bukamal is now the only crossing on the Iraqi-Syrian border that is officially opened and managed by the Iraqi and Syrian governments. The two other official border crossings—Tanf-Walid and Rabi‘a-Ya‘rubiyya—remain closed, as U.S. forces have blocked the Syrian government’s access to the former, and the SDF has impeded its access to the latter.
The Syrian government lobbied to accelerate the opening of the border. It did so to reassert its authority over part of the border and because it aspired to reactivate industrial facilities in Aleppo and benefit from the Iraqi market as a destination for Syrian products while also importing cheap oil products from Iraq. The Lebanese government and Hezbollah also encouraged the reopening of this crossing as a way of facilitating the export of Lebanese products to the Iraqi market.
The crossing would also serve as the main land crossing for Shi‘a pilgrims from Iran and Iraq to Syria. The reopening can be seen as another step toward the normalization of the new power configurations in this border area, with the aim of strengthening ties between Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut. Some local residents also think it would benefit transportation and commercial companies connected to the IRGC-led axis of groups and paramilitaries operating in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Now, some of these plans have had to be postponed as all borders are either closed or subjected to extraordinary restrictions for the purpose of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
This interview was originally published by the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center.
Mindanao, despite its legacy as a strife-ridden region, is still known to us as the “Land of Promise.” Gagandilan Mindanao Women, Inc.—Gagandilan Women for short—is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to peace, development, and women’s empowerment in Muslim Mindanao. The name “Gagandilan”—courageous warrior in the local Tausug language—pays tribute to all Bangsamoro women who have worked so tirelessly for peace.
I founded the organization in Zamboanga City after the infamous 2013 clash between government soldiers and a faction of the Moro National Liberation Front that became known as the Zamboanga Siege. Our members are Moros, the Muslim inhabitants of Mindanao, and we focus our efforts on mobilizing our community for small-scale projects to foster peace and build a foundation for stability in the region’s most vulnerable areas.
Today we run local programs such as orientations on gender-based violence and the role of women in preventing conflict. Our program Women Against Violent Extremism, or WAVE, was a coalition-style movement to prevent violent extremism. Our organization is led mostly by women, and the majority of our field researchers are women as well. In keeping with our commitment to gender equality, however, our researchers on the ground always include men. We focus on the provinces of Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi—fondly referred to together as Zambasulta—all on the southwestern tip of the Philippines.
The sea borders to the west of Zambasulta are shared with the Malaysian state of Sabah and the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan, and Zambasulta has been a maritime trading region since precolonial times in the Philippines. Today, much of this trade takes the form of so-called “barter” that skirts tax and customs enforcement, yet the barter trade brings basic necessities to Zambasulta and has, in some ways, contributed to the stability of the area.
In late 2018, The Asia Foundation invited Gagandilan Women to work on a study of the informal barter marketplace. An initiative of the X-Border Local Research Network, which studies conflict in border regions, the new research project examines the nuances of the barter marketplace and the policy regimes that have both sought to suppress it and allowed it to thrive. We conducted interviews and gathered data from traders, boat operators, port authorities, and other people and institutions that contribute to informal trade in Zambasulta. We wanted to know what people were trading, how much they were earning, and how they were able to slip across international borders.
For a prosperous trading region, Zambasulta has earned a notorious reputation for its decades of violent conflict due to lawless elements like Abu Sayyaf, kidnap-for-ransom gangs, clashing political groups, and the episodic clan violence known as rido. Gagandilan Women hoped the X-Border project would be an opportunity to show the world a Mindanao beyond the conflict, and a Zambasulta that is home to the diverse cultures of several indigenous groups, including the Samal, Tausug, and Yakan peoples. We also saw a chance to grow as an organization by committing our time, resources, and network to a project that was larger than our previous undertakings.
The Asia Foundation encouraged us to take the lead in developing local data-gathering strategies, and they incorporated many of our ideas and insights into the research design. The Foundation provided training on interview and data-collection procedures and created a rigorous safety protocol, an important consideration given the sensitive nature of our inquiry and the volatile areas where we would be working. This was driven home for us by a kidnapping in Sulu, where some of our interviews were to take place. The incident caused us to reevaluate our approach to interviews and to plan our local movements strategically and with the utmost caution.
In 2020, we continue to work with the X-Border Local Research Network, focusing on rice, the primary commodity traded from Sabah, Malaysia. The informal rice trade in Zambasulta has come to a crossroads, with a new semi-autonomous regional government looking to support the local economy while the domestic market is flooded with imported rice, and we’ve set out to see how barter traders and the public are being affected.
In the midst of our fieldwork in Sulu, a serious fire broke out in the capital city of Jolo in February. Thousands of people were affected by the conflagration, including several of our intended respondents. One pillar of Gagandilan Women as an organization is humanitarian engagement, and we changed gears to provide assistance to victims of the Jolo fire, working with various partners such as local government agencies, student organizations, and other civil society organizations to organize clothing donations. In the end we were still able to complete our intended interviews through local contacts.
We have completed the first round of research on the rice trade, and despite the temporary restrictions on movement caused by Covid-19, our work with the X-Border Network in Zambasulta will go on. In the meantime, we have been helping local governments distribute masks and pandemic information. Ultimately, we hope our research will help the Philippine national government and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao bring lasting peace and security to the Land of Promise.
Covid-19 is already starting to expose fractures, prejudices, and weaknesses among many marginal or conflict-affected populations. Existing discrimination against minority ethnic or religious groups is intensifying as they are perceived to be spreading the virus. In Pakistan, minority Shia Muslims have been blamed for importing the virus from Iran, creating potentially serious implications for communal tensions and a challenge for those organizing a comprehensive response.
In the Philippines, prejudices between villages and along religious lines are being amplified, and hate speech is spreading online. Where relationships between local communities and authorities are already strained—from urban neighborhoods in India to rural parts of Southeast Asia—official health advice on Covid-19 has been rejected.
Addressing these fears and prejudices is challenging but not impossible. Decades of development work in conflict-affected areas have led to an array of approaches, many of them actively pursued by local and foreign organizations. Development actors must ensure that pandemic mitigation efforts do not backfire by exacerbating current problems or unintentionally stoking violence. Further steps can proactively seek to dispel rumors, build common understanding, and ease tensions.
Since 2004, southern Thailand has struggled under a bloody and attritional confrontation between local armed cells and the Thai military. Hundreds of shootings, bombings, reprisals, and revenge attacks have led to over 7,000 deaths. Ceasefires have been repeatedly proposed but never gained momentum. Recently, though, the threat of Covid-19 has led to a minor breakthrough, as the main rebel faction informally decided to postpone hostilities until the pandemic is brought under control.
This example shows how sudden crises can break established patterns of behavior, sometimes generating shared interest in ending violence. In other cases, a major crisis such as Covid-19 can lead to more conflict. Governments are already taking advantage of emergency legislation and a distracted international media to suppress their rivals. In February 2020, the Myanmar government ramped up aerial and ground attacks on an armed group, the Arakan Army, in a heavily populated area of Rakhine State, striking hard while the world is distracted.
Similarly, fear of the pandemic has not stopped ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, and leaders of the extremist group Islamic State have openly encouraged followers to launch attacks globally. Meanwhile, lockdowns, quarantine, and travel bans may weaken ceasefire monitoring and peacekeeping missions in conflict zones across the world.
Coordination and collaboration, two essential elements in addressing a pandemic, are especially hard to achieve in conflict zones, where responses need the support of all armed actors. Involving armed groups is critical if they hold territory or exert strong influence over local civilians.
There are precedents for cross-conflict cooperation. International agencies have backed cooperation across conflict lines when organizing mass vaccination campaigns. Nonstate armed groups have already assumed some responsibility for Covid-19 responses. The most powerful nonstate armed group in Myanmar, the United Wa State Army, rapidly introduced travel restrictions and launched public health information campaigns.
The response to Covid-19 provides an opportunity for foreign aid agencies, who are now obliged to work remotely, to support local capacity and devolve program management, steps that they have already pledged to take. In conflict-affected areas, where people often mistrust or fear government representatives, including even health workers, local organizations can play a vital role by providing health services, gathering accurate information, and persuading local communities to change behavior.
Displaced and refugee populations, often the victims of conflict, are especially vulnerable. Families in refugee camps and temporary settlements endure poor sanitation, dense housing, and limited access to information. In Bangladesh, the government has restricted mobile internet access for almost 900,000 Rohingya confined to refugee camps around Cox’s Bazar. The resulting information vacuum has allowed damaging rumors about Covid-19 to flourish. People suspected of carrying the virus are being stigmatized, leading to the underreporting of symptoms and unwillingness to seek treatment.
Policymakers may have limited information on events in conflict-affected areas, from the spread of the virus to the status of border closures and the availability of basic goods. Measures to gather and report on data, qualitative or quantitative, can make a significant difference for areas that are off the radar and for marginalized groups who otherwise remain invisible.
Gender inequalities are exaggerated by the combination of conflict and crisis. While statistically more men than women have serious symptoms and die from Covid-19, the indirect impact of the pandemic in conflict zones is likely to disproportionately affect women, aggravating gender-based violence.
After the risks of outbreaks recede or a vaccine becomes available, the economic impacts of the virus will persist. Analyses of policy responses to major shocks indicate that things rarely return to the old normal. Once governments introduce new powers or impose new taxes, the temptation to retain them is strong.
Where the Covid-19 pandemic accelerates changes that were already under way, it may trigger a tipping point into a new normal. For example, controversial forms of high-tech surveillance and monitoring of citizens may become acceptable. The policy response to the virus may unintentionally increase border restrictions over the long term, with unclear consequences for the many conflicts in Asia that straddle frontiers and borderlands. More immediately, border closures will have a devastating effect on communities that depend on cross-border trade for their livelihoods.
The Covid-19 pandemic makes existing conflicts in Asia less predictable. Change often follows disruption; one well-quoted study indicated that most long-term conflict rivalries both start and end in the ten years following a major shock. If current conflicts follow the same trends, the next decade will be a time of both risk and opportunity for peacebuilding. Accurate local information and high-quality analysis will be vital to make sense of the confusing new terrain.
In December last year, the casino compounds of central Myawaddy swelled with thousands of Chinese workers eagerly awaiting the chance to return home for the upcoming lunar New Year festival.
Construction of a new city at Shwe Kokko, about 20 kilometres north of Myawaddy, had been suspended following a Kayin State government surprise check that same month. Billed as a US$15 billion undertaking, in which 30,000 acres of land will be turned into a “comprehensive international city”, the Shwe Kokko project is being jointly implemented by Chinese investors and the Kayin State Border Guard Force, a former ethnic armed group that is now part of the Tatmadaw and headed by Colonel Saw Chit Thu.
No longer able to work, thousands of Chinese nationals had been brought from Shwe Kokko to the casinos in downtown Myawaddy so that they could head home early for the lunar New Year holiday, by crossing the border into Thailand and flying out of neighbouring Mae Sot.
“There were about 3,000 Chinese workers at Shwe Kokko before construction stopped temporarily in December 2019,” a soldier with the Kayin State Border Guard Force told Frontier on March 19 on condition of anonymity. “I was in the security team that sent the workers to downtown Myawaddy in December. We separated them into many cars, took them to Myawaddy and put them in hostels inside the casino compounds. We provided them with security while they were in Myawaddy, too.”
The BGF operates dozens of illicit trade gates along the banks of the Thaung Yin River (which the Thais call the Moei) in Myawaddy Township, opposite Thailand’s Tak Province. These gates provide an alternative crossing, for both goods and people, to the official gates at the two Thai-Myanmar Friendship bridges. Eighteen casinos have also been built along the Myanmar side of the river on BGF-controlled land, mostly aimed at customers crossing on ferries from Thailand.
U Kyi Thein, who works in a casino near BGF Gate No. 1, remembers when the workers arrived. They were hard to miss: the hostels in the casino compound were overflowing. “I’ve never seen it so crowded as when the workers from the Shwe Kokko site arrived here,” he said.
And then they disappeared, batch by batch, starting from the second week of December. By the first week of January, they were nearly all gone, Kyi Thein said – sent back to Mae Sot through illegal gates 1 and 12, both of which are controlled by the BGF. It wasn’t only the Shwe Kokko workers who left, he said. Nearly all of the Chinese employees at the casinos and other businesses in the township – from restaurants and entertainment venues to mines – headed home for the holiday, too.
“Friends of mine who operate boats on the river said they had to send more than 15,000 Chinese people to Thailand over the four weeks, mostly at night time,” he said, a version of events that was confirmed by multiple other sources in Myawaddy.
But then, on January 7, Chinese health authorities announced they had isolated a new virus, the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCov, and said it was responsible for a spate of people in the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, being hospitalised with respiratory problems. Hubei province was put into lockdown on January 23 and a week later the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. The world began to pay attention to what until that point had been a health issue confined to China.
As the outbreak escalated, the Chinese workers on leave from jobs in Myawaddy rushed back to Mae Sot. In normal circumstances they would have entered Myanmar as tourists by applying for a visa on arrival, numerous sources told Frontier. However, the workers were unable to enter Myanmar through the two official crossings, apparently because the government had suspended visas on arrival for Chinese nationals on February 1.
Interviews with around 20 people in Myawaddy and Mae Sot familiar with the matter revealed that for about two weeks, thousands of stranded Chinese nationals lived in the no-man’s-land along the banks of the river in pre-existing informal settlements.
Thai officials encouraged them to return to China, but took no action against them because the settlements, of which there are around 50, are beyond the official Thai border wall.
“Some of my relatives live in that area – the Chinese workers stayed there about two weeks,” said Mae Sot resident Naw Mya Mya Aye. “Thai officials tried to get them to leave, but they wouldn’t.”
Several sources said that the people already living in the informal settlements provided the workers with some basic necessities. “The people living there had heard about coronavirus and were very afraid of catching it from the Chinese,” said one source. “But they are more afraid of the BGF, so they helped the Chinese.”
Finally, in the third week of February, the BGF arranged for the workers to return to Myawaddy, ferrying them across the Thaung Yin, one group at a time, to the casinos that line the riverbank.
In this way, as the coronavirus outbreak was gathering pace around the world, thousands of workers who had recently returned from China had been smuggled into Myanmar, skipping both immigration formalities and health checks.
A spokesperson for the BGF, Colonel Naing Maung Zaw, told Frontier on April 2 that he did not know anything about the workers being brought across the river from Thailand.
He said that the BGF had closed its trade gates on February 29 – after the Chinese workers had returned, according to Frontier’s sources – and no one had been able to cross the river since then. “We checked the casinos to make sure there were no gamblers left before closing the gates,” he said, declining to comment further.
Immigration officials said that – officially at least – they also knew nothing of the returning workers.
U Aung Khaing Swe, the director of the Immigration Department for Myawaddy District, said there were 200 Chinese nationals living in Myawaddy Township officially, of whom 82 held work visas.
But he acknowledged that policing the border was difficult because of the informal crossings. “We know about the BGF gates but have no idea how to control them. We aren’t allowed to enter these areas without informing the BGF, but when we do tell them we are coming, the BGF clears the area before immigration officers can come and check,” he said.
He said that immigration officers had been searching downtown Myawaddy for illegal Chinese visitors but had not found any recently.
Locals told Frontier that the Chinese workers have not left the casino compounds since returning to Myanmar – unlike in the past, when they could often be seen in downtown Myawaddy.
Myawaddy residents who were already concerned at the potential health risk posed by the returning Chinese workers have grown more alarmed in recent weeks after at least three workers have died in unusual circumstances.
On the night of March 21, a labourer at the Heng Sheng 1 casino, Mr Xio Kai, 29, was taken to Myawaddy District Hospital for treatment after complaining of a fever and coughing, but he died before he could receive treatment.
A spokesperson for the hospital, Dr Yan Naing Oo, said in a statement distributed to Myawaddy-based media on March 22 that Xio did not die of COVID-19, though it appears he was not tested for the virus. (As of April 10, only five people had been tested in Myawaddy Township for COVID-19 and all returned negative results, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports.)
“When we conducted an autopsy, we found out that the patient’s liver was 1.5 times larger than normal. [There were also] blood clots on the right side of the brain. We assume that the patient died of a stroke and it is not because of COVID-19,” Yan Naing Oo was quoted as saying.
The doctor recommended that the authorities check the health of other people living in the casino compound, but it is unclear whether any checks have been conducted.
On March 27, a Chinese national living in Shwe Kokko, Mr Jian Yong Rong, died in Myawaddy Township Hospital after being admitted the previous day complaining of a sore throat. A medical report listed the cause of death as a heart attack.
The following day, an administrative officer at Shwe Kokko, Mr Huang Lifei, also died, prompting police to investigate on March 29. A police officer from Myawaddy, who asked not to be named, said the man had a history of heart disease. “He often went back to Mae Sot for treatment. We found that he died of a heart attack and had no symptoms of fever,” said the officer.
Kayin State Hluttaw lawmaker U Thant Zin Aung (National League for Democracy, Myawaddy-2) said the recent deaths – coming shortly after Myanmar had confirmed its first cases of COVID-19 – had caused significant concern in Myawaddy.
“The residents worry about COVID-19 after hearing about Chinese nationals dying in Myawaddy,” he said, adding that he had visited Myawaddy Township after Jian’s death on March 27. “We are trying our best to ensure there are no cases of COVID-19.”
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the presence of large numbers of Chinese workers was a source of tension in Myawaddy.
In recent years, thousands of Chinese have flocked to the township to work in casinos, construction projects, mines, restaurants and entertainment businesses.
“Chinese people are everywhere in Myawaddy Township,” said Myawaddy resident Saw Aung Aung Min, who drives a tuk-tuk. “Their population has grown over the past two years or so alongside the increasing number of casinos and other Chinese investments in Kayin State.”
Aung Aung Min said he often takes Chinese passengers from near the official border crossing at the No 1 Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge or the BGF-run gates to the casino compounds along the river.
“I think they enter Myanmar with a tourist visa but they never leave through the official gates after staying in the casino area. If they go back home, they just use the boat behind the casino” to cross back to Thailand, he said.
Many of the businesses they work for are linked to the BGF. The ethnic Karen force was established in 1994, when disgruntled Buddhist members of the Christian-dominated Karen National Union broke away with the encouragement of a radical monk to form the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and allied themselves with the Tatmadaw. In 2010, the DKBA transformed into the BGF and was formally integrated into the Tatmadaw.
In 2017, BGF leader Colonel Saw Chit Thu began working with a Hong Kong-registered company called Yatai International Holding Group to develop the Shwe Kokko project. Dubbed “Chinatown” by locals, it is located on the edge of a scruffy, pre-existing town that has served for decades as a hub for smuggling cattle to Thailand. So far, the joint venture company, Myanmar Yatai International Holding Group, only has Myanmar Investment Commission approval to build 59 luxury villas at a cost of $22.5 million, but as reported by Frontier, construction work has far exceeded that allowed under the MIC permit.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a March 30 report on Myanmar-China relations that the developer’s “stated long-term goal may be a useful cover for more controversial short-term activities”, namely online gambling – a lucrative industry estimated to be worth $24 billion across Asia last year. It noted that many of the Chinese at Shwe Kokko appeared to be “white collar” professionals rather than construction workers.
Numerous sources, including the Karen Peace Support Network, have reported as many as 10,000 Chinese working at Shwe Kokko. The 18 BGF-linked casinos closer to Myawaddy are believed to house many thousands more.
Major Saw Maung Win, a BGF spokesperson for the Shwe Kokko area, told Frontier that when the project got underway in 2017 Myanmar Yatai had said it planned to bring 1,700 workers from China to Myanmar via Thailand with visas on arrival. It built 700 temporary accommodation units at Shwe Kokko to house them, he added.
However, he said the BGF was just responsible for security and did not know exactly how many workers were at Shwe Kokko, or what they were doing.
“We don’t know the exact number of Chinese workers at the moment in the project area because the number is not stable and we are just responsible for security. But the number increased when the first phase was completed, because then more workers came and lived in the villas that were built. The 700 temporary accommodation units are full of people,” he said.
Immigration officials in Myawaddy told Frontier on condition of anonymity that they kept an informal list of Chinese workers in the township, including Shwe Kokko, and estimated there were around 15,000 altogether.
The workers enter the country officially, they said, usually taking advantage of the visa on arrival facility for Chinese nationals, and then stay on beyond the expiry of their visa and work illegally. Exiting via the illegal border gates allows them to avoid penalties for overstaying.
Locals complain about many of the Chinese working illegally but the authorities are unwilling or unable to tackle the issue because of the involvement of the BGF.
Tempers flared in September 2019, when a brawl broke out between locals and a group of Chinese workers accused of urinating in front of a shop in Myawaddy. In the following months residents staged several protests, calling on the authorities to take action against the workers. This prompted a fairly modest response, with the state government forcing businesses to take down Chinese-language signs and deporting a handful of Chinese nationals for violating immigration rules.
Kyi Thein said “hundreds” of Chinese people were living in the compound of the casino where he works, and there was a similar number at the casino where he was previously employed.
“I have never seen immigration officers enter their hostel in the casino compound and check their visas. They pretend they are staying legally but I’m sure they are not,” he said. “I’ve no doubt that the BGF is hiding the real number of Chinese workers living in casino compounds in Myawaddy.”
The BGF soldier who helped transport thousands of Chinese workers from Shwe Kokko in December said that some casino compounds in downtown Myawaddy had large “hostels” that could accommodate more than 1,000 people. Only Chinese workers and BGF members were allowed to enter these areas, he said. “We have the right to arrest anyone who enters the areas around the Chinese workers’ hostels,” he said.
Although most jobs at the casinos, from management to security guards, are reserved for Chinese workers, it’s not clear exactly why the casinos need so many staff.
Border Guard Force representatives told Frontier their businesses were operating according to the law.
Saw Min Min Oo, the managing director of Chit Linn Myaing, the BGF’s main holding company, drew a distinction between projects such as Shwe Kokko, in which the BGF is formally involved, and business activities along the border, such as casinos.
A former BGF colonel, Min Min Oo retired from the force when he was appointed to run the BGF’s formal businesses.
“All of our businesses are registered as official companies with the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration,” he said, distinguishing these ventures from “BGF-owned land along the Thaung Yin River [that is] rented to Chinese and Thai investors who run casinos and hotels. These are not under the management of the BGF.”
The land along the river is administered by Colonel Saw Mote Thone, an assistant to Saw Chit Thu who is responsible for “BGF security management”, Min Min Oo said. This is where the BGF also operates its dozens of illegal trade gates, at which huge amounts of contraband – everything from beer and liquor to cars and whitegoods – crosses the border on small boats and ferries in broad daylight.
Min Min Oo declined to comment on these activities, but confirmed that there were 18 casinos on BGF-controlled land along the river.
Although Myanmar’s gambling law was amended last year to permit casinos for the first time, the process for legally operating a casino has not yet been set out in any by-law or notification. Although it is unclear whether the Myawaddy casinos are licensed, the law only permits foreigners to gamble in a licensed casino and when Frontier visited Myawaddy in October 2019 there were large numbers of Myanmar nationals playing the tables at the riverfront casinos.
On the evening of March 4, a photojournalist and I were detained by security while taking photos of construction work at a casino close to the No 1 Thai-Myanmar Friendship Bridge. Residents in the area had said the construction work was taking place at the rear of the Heng Sheng 1 casino along the river, and many of the workers were Chinese. The buildings under construction were hostels for more Chinese workers.
Although we were outside the casino compound, an official from a nearby BGF security post, known as thae pone security gate, sent security guards to detain us. The security post is part of BGF Gate 1, which is overseen by Mote Thone, the BGF commander.
An official from the security post named U Soe Kyi then confiscated a camera and phones from us and deleted the photos.
While waiting at the post, we could see the entire casino compound, including what appeared to be at least 500 Chinese workers. Soe Kyi said they were labourers working to build the casino, but refused to say if they were working legally.
We were then taken in a car with Soe Kyi and two security guards from Heng Sheng 1, who carried high-powered rifles, wore black uniforms adorned with Chinese characters that differed from BGF uniforms, and spoke Chinese to each other.
We were then detained for 27 hours and subjected to physical abuse by men in BGF uniforms. We were released on the evening of March 5 and BGF leaders explained that the incident had occurred without their knowledge. Mote Thone, the BGF commander, personally apologised to us and promised to take action against those involved in our arrest.
He said that Soe Kyi is just an official from the casino construction project and security gate, but does not have a formal position in the BGF. According to Mote Thone, Soe Kyi used BGF soldiers to detain us without seeking permission from the group.
Soe Kyi, who was also present when we were released, claimed that it was a “misunderstanding” and that he had thought we were taking photos of BGF soldiers. He did not mention the Chinese workers or the construction site.
Two days later the BGF announced that it had sentenced four soldiers who assaulted us to six months at a BGF prison in Hlaingbwe, while Soe Kyi and four other soldiers who participated in the arrest were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in BGF cantonment 4.
Heng Sheng, which also operates a second casino at Myawaddy, could not be reached for comment.
It describes itself as being “a comprehensive investment group with multiple industries including entertainment, tourism and e-commerce” that was established in 2011 and is based in the “Miaowadi [sic] Special Economic Zone” (Myanmar has only three SEZs, at Thilawa, Dawei and Kyaukphyu), with branches in Vietnam and thousands of employees.
Our 27-hour detention earned the BGF condemnation from human rights and press freedom groups. Although the BGF leadership was quick to distance itself from the incident, that it happened at all seemed to indicate the extreme sensitivities around Chinese immigration and labour in Myawaddy. Moreover, despite the BGF’s attempts to portray itself as a mere landlord where the casinos are concerned, the detention also showed how closely its soldiers are involved in protecting them.
Meanwhile, the ordinary people of Myawaddy say that their concerns and fears about unregulated Chinese migration, which has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, are not being addressed by anyone who holds power in the area.
Myawaddy resident Daw Htun Kyi said she wanted the state authorities to immediately check the Chinese in the casino compounds, expel any illegal workers and monitor the health of the rest.
“I saw the news about Chinese people entering Myawaddy and before that I saw a lot of Chinese people everywhere across the township,” she said. “Then I heard that Chinese people here were suddenly dying. Have they got COVID-19? I suspect so.”