In February 2022, the Atlantic Council published an overview of what many experts see as a troubling development in the Middle East, as Russia and China both look to expand their influence there.  

When ‘democracy’ isn’t democracy 

The non-partisan international leadership organization noted with particular concern the latest development, in which these two giant authoritarian-led nations decided to flex their muscles by issuing a joint statement that aims to completely overhaul post-World War II international notions of what democracy is.  

Given the increased push on the part of the United States to emphasize support for traditional Western-style democracies abroad, the statement appears designed to help consolidate authoritarian rule and to challenge the now-fragile structure of post-war capitalism and open-society democracy. 

Even more alarming to anyone who would support the spread of genuine democracy in the Middle East, the China-Russia statement appears to lend support to current and would-be tyrants in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region as well, at a time when the Mideast is also rethinking how it views democracy and human rights. 


Russia and China debuted the statement on the occasion of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to China for the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. The fact that the United States, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada all participated in a diplomatic boycott of the Games over China’s massive human rights abuses only threw the China-Russia declaration into high relief. 


‘One-size-fits-all’ model of democracy 


The Russian and Chinese authors of the joint declaration have tailored it to allow them to cram the authoritarian, repressive practices of their own nations into a freakishly altered definition of democracy. The declaration seems, in the view of most Western analysts, to be designed to further the interests of Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and other autocrats and oligarchs throughout the world. 


In the statement, which runs to more than 5,000 words in English, China specifically states its support for Russia’s goal of halting the expansion of NATO, with obvious reference to one of the pretexts for Putin’s subsequent invasion of Ukraine. In addition, the Russians and the Chinese also condemn American multinational military alliances with the UK, Australia, and nations in the Indo-Pacific sphere, a region China seeks to dominate. 


Among the cornerstones of civil society that the declaration seeks to redefine are freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and independent journalism. Russia and China state their mutual condemnation of the “one-size-fits-all” model of democracy championed by the U.S., and seek to redefine human rights as being only safeguarded in respect of “the specific situation in each country.”  


One doesn’t have to have a vivid imagination to see how such a statement seeks to reframe China’s own human rights abuses against its Uyghur population, an estimated 1 million of whom are imprisoned in concentration camps in the western part of the country. 


Russia and China further pledge to stand together against nations’ “interference” into the internal policies of fellow countries under the “pretext” of standing up for human rights. 


These specious arguments are meant to counteract the traditional Western defense of fledgling or struggling democracies—think Ukraine and Taiwan first of all—around the world. 


Helping the rule of strongmen and tyrants 


So how does all this play out for democratic movements in the Middle East? 


Analysts note that the Chinese-driven model redefining democracy, with Russia following its lead, offers strong appeal to three main types of autocratic nations in the MENA region: Islamists seeking to embed their brand of religious fundamentalism into governments; nationalists hoping to cement their own type of ethnocentrism; and monarchies looking to secure their dynasties’ unquestioned rule. 


For any of these types of authoritarians, the China-Russia model could allow cover for redefining “democracy” with a view to the “exceptionalism” allegedly a core part of the Middle East. Namely, the same bone-deep influence of religion and traditional social norms that continues to hinder the progress of individual human rights, including women’s rights, the rights of LGBTQ people, freedom of the press, freedom to worship, and other rights the U.S. sees as inalienable for all people. 


With the vast majority of Middle Eastern nations already built around a national identity that includes a strong component of traditional religion, supported by the coercive force of the state to enforce its norms, such a view of “democracy” would indeed mean that democracy in the Western sense would never even get off the ground. 


Silencing the change agents 


One of the key problems here is that the very people with the intellectual and moral capital to make the case for how the universality of Western democratic values could be applied in the Mideast are in jail, or otherwise silenced. Recent headlines offer numerous examples, including that of the wave of pre-election arrests of members of the press in Algeria, and the case of the Saudi women’s rights activists imprisoned for advocating that women should be allowed to drive. 


The very real personal threats that authoritarian rule poses to these civil society advocates are enough to keep most from being as effective as they could be in calling for real democracy. And the Middle East loses the chance to create a more open—and truly democratic—society. 

The United States has instituted the Humanitarian Parole system, which is designed to evacuate people from Afghanistan, without visa requirements, in case of “urgent humanitarian” needs or for “significant public benefit.”  



Once in the US, these vulnerable Afghans can work with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to pursue a path to legal immigration status and, ultimately, citizenship. The purpose is to get them to the safety of the US or another friendly country before they or their family members come to harm from the Taliban. After two decades, these extremist forces recaptured control of the government in the wake of the 2021 American withdrawal. 



The typical evacuee would be someone who worked as an interpreter, driver, guide, or another type of aide for one or more branches of the American military stationed in Afghanistan. Any delay in processing their applications under the Humanitarian Parole program puts their safety, and that of their loved ones, in jeopardy.  



Yet for too many of the Afghans who were counting on the US to deliver them from their enemies at home, the program has proven itself to be slow, precarious, and ineffective. 

As of the fall of 2021, the US government was frantically working with hundreds of private organizations to build a resettlement system for endangered Afghan evacuees.  



Over the decades the US military has been in Afghanistan, the process to provide safety to interpreters has lagged, often by years. Members of Congress and others interested in providing a haven for these people in danger have also spent years petitioning the USCIS for expedited processing in specific cases. Sometimes this has gotten results, but most often it has led to no avail. Now, after the US withdrawal, the numerous remaining Afghan translators and other aides, along with their families, are stuck in limbo—and at the mercy of the Taliban. 



According to leaders at the nonprofit Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services in Connecticut, the agency is gearing up for an effort larger in scale and different from most of its previous work. These unprecedented emergency conditions mean that anyone committed to saving the lives of vulnerable Afghans is racing against time. Time they don’t have. 



The lucky ones 



In the months leading up to, and after, the US withdrawal in August 2021, numerous news accounts told a familiar story, like that of a man called “Reggie” (a nickname given him by the American troops he helped), who spoke to journalists from his home in Kabul.  



In August 2021, Reggie waited in fear, wondering exactly when the Taliban were going to come for him because of his nine years of service as a US Army translator. The Taliban, he said, were regularly patrolling his neighborhood. At that time, Reggie was among the estimated tens of thousands of Afghans waiting for the backlog on special immigrant visas to clear.  



These fears were, and are, real. Although the Taliban issued an initial statement saying there would be no reprisals against those who had aided Americans, it was—like most of their rhetoric—a hollow promise. In July 2021 a 32-year-old interpreter who had received death threats for having worked with the Americans for more than a year was ambushed by Taliban forces on an isolated roadway. According to witnesses, he was dragged from his vehicle and beheaded. That young husband and father of three is among the estimated hundreds of people branded “traitors” by the Taliban who have suffered violent deaths over the years of the American occupation and withdrawal.  



After hearing the news story, a US veteran of the Afghanistan war remembered Reggie as the man who had helped him staunch the bleeding when he’d been wounded by a suicide bomber. This veteran was able to pull enough strings to get Reggie and his family on a flight out. They were among the 117,000 or so people lucky enough to get out before the final US exit transport on August 30.  



The unlucky ones 



The many others who haven’t been so lucky include the estimated 60,000 interpreters and other visa applicants whose cases for assistance languished as of the close of 2021. The State Department estimates that more than half of these people may be eligible to be evacuated immediately. This is the group that has already passed the most stringent initial intake screenings designed to filter out anyone who could pose a threat to the United States.  



However, even applicants in extremely dangerous situations are being denied. This was the case with family members of an Afghan interpreter, already in the US, who had received commendations for the work he did alongside the Americans. His family fled to Pakistan in fear after the US withdrawal and were told they could apply for expedited entry due to their emergency. After months of waiting, the US refused their request.  



As a September 2021 Wall Street Journal headline noted, most of the interpreters and other visa applicants remain left behind, and the US is unsure of how many exactly. On February 16, 2022, the New York Times reported that those who had missed the earlier evacuation flights, and who had been counting on the Humanitarian Parole program, remain in Afghanistan. Of an estimated 43,000 applications to the program received since July 2021, not even 2,000 have been processed. As of early February 2022, fewer than 200 have received approval. Many of those waiting are in hiding in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or neighboring countries.  



An unfulfilled promise 



President Joe Biden made a promise to these translators and aides that they would find a safe home in the US. And the government has scrambled to put a workable plan in place, begging other countries to temporarily house the Afghans until they could be processed into the US. Meanwhile, it costs these Afghan refugees $575 just to file their applications, and the US collects millions of dollars as they wait.  


In early 2022, the State Department of the United States gave approval for a set of possible arms sales to friendly Middle Eastern countries that include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the approved sale to Jordan alone includes a dozen F-16 C/D Block 70 fighter jets, with a value of more than $4 billion. Additionally, Jordan is approved to receive tail kits for guided missiles and other related munitions and radio equipment. 

The U.S.-Jordan diplomatic relationship officially began in 1949 and has been a close and cooperative one for the past four decades, as Jordan has increasingly become a force for moderation in the region. In 1994, Jordan became the second Arab nation to conclude a peace treaty with Israel, further cementing its relationship with the U.S. In 1996, noting shared strategic and peace-keeping goals, the U.S. proclaimed Jordan a major non-NATO ally. The U.S. also continues as the single biggest provider of bilateral aid to Jordan. 


Israel’s relations with Jordan remain at least stable, as well, with King Abdullah II continuing his nation’s diplomatic ties and security cooperation with the Jewish State since he came to the throne in 1999. This relationship has sometimes been more of a cold peace, particularly at points during former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long term in office. Additionally, the presence of some 3 million Palestinians within Jordan’s borders means that the king cannot build too warm of a relationship with Israel. 


But, while Netanyahu more than once nettled the Jordanian government, current Israeli coalition Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is a more subdued presence. Soon after taking office, Bennett doubled the water supply Israel diverts to Jordan, and has reportedly met personally with Abdullah in Amman to discuss enhancements to the relationship. 

The trajectory of the Hashemite dynasty 


King Abdullah II is the son and heir of the late King Hussein, who died in 1999 after a 46-year rule. Under Hussein, modernizing trends shaping the developing world took root, and his policies notably boosted the national economy and gave more Jordanians the opportunity to raise their standard of living. 


As part of the carve-up of the post-World War I Ottoman Empire, the British created the emirate of Transjordan to the east of the River Jordan, flanked by what are now Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Israel (then mandatory Palestine). The Hashemite dynasty was established by that first emir, Abdullah (the current monarch’s great-grandfather), who traced his family history all the way back to the Prophet Muhammed through the Hashemite princes of Mecca. Abdullah I was the brother of Iraq’s King Faisal, and both brothers allied with adventurer T. E. Lawrence in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. (Fans of David Lean’s epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia will recall Alec Guinness’ memorable portrayal of Prince Faisal.) 


Abdullah I notably was the only Arab ruler to accept the terms of the UN’s division of mandatory Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. During the Arab countries’ war with Israel in 1948, his troops moved into the West Bank (which he annexed in 1950) and East Jerusalem, occupying them until the Six-Day War in 1967. The annexation met with vociferous anger from surrounding Arab nations, and from the Palestinians. It was a Palestinian who ended Abdullah’s reign with a bullet, at the entrance to the al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1951. 


After Abdullah’s assassination, his grandson Hussein was chosen to take the throne after Hussein’s own father, Talal, was forced to abdicate due to his suffering from an extreme form of mental illness. It was during Talal’s brief reign, however, that Jordan was declared a constitutional monarchy.  


Under this system, the king retains ultimate power over all branches of government, aided by his self-chosen prime minister and cabinet, although these appointments are subject to approval by parliament. The bicameral legislature includes senators appointed by the king and representatives elected by the people. 


The constant Palestinian presence 


The Palestinian presence in Jordan has been a particularly consistent thorn in the side of its kings.  


After King Abdullah I’s annexation of the West Bank, numerous Palestinians came under his rule. After the founding of Israel, many more fled to Jordan. After the Six-Day War brought the West Bank and East Jerusalem under Israeli control, it also gave rise to another influx of refugees into Jordan. Palestinians now constitute an estimated more than one-fourth of the total Jordanian population. 


After the loss of the West Bank, Palestinians joined rapidly proliferating fedayeen (guerrilla) organizations. In 1970, King Hussein ordered the Jordanian army into combat against fedayeen strongholds in order to prevent the toppling of his reign. The fighting was ruthless, with the result that many Palestinians continue to feel bitterness toward the Hashemite dynasty. The king reduced the influence of Palestinians in Jordan’s government beginning in 1974, when the Palestine Liberation Organization, and not Jordan, was proclaimed the official representative of the Palestinian people. 


Grappling with crisis 


Over the past two decades, Jordan has seen a number of attacks from al-Qaeda within and across its borders. Notably, Iraqi al-Qaeda operatives claimed responsibility for the 2005 suicide bombings at three Amman hotels that took the lives of 60 people, most of them Jordanian citizens. 


The national economy is also marked by the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken, with high unemployment figures across demographics. The unemployment and economic crisis is particularly hard on the many Syrian, Iraqi, and Palestinian refugees in the country, a large percentage of whom remain stuck in camps. 


Additionally, Jordan’s tribal alliances—traditionally a strong support for the monarchy—have become discontented with the king’s appointment of technocrats to ministerial positions. Young people are also restive in the country, which has been described by some progressive activists as a “soft dictatorship.”  


And in 2021, the news got out that a half-brother of the king had attempted what amounts to a coup. The government claimed that the brother, Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, sought to foment “sedition” in the country with support from foreign organizations. The prince is thought to be still under house arrest after the plot was defused. 


Despite this turmoil, Jordan in fact remains among the more stable partners for peace and security in the region as far as the U.S. and the Israelis are concerned. All the more reason to watch events unfolding there with keen interest. 

An American military operation resulted in the suicide of the new leader of ISIS on February 3, 2022. The terror leader “is no more,” President Joe Biden said in a speech to Americans afterward. The message that the incident sends to other terrorists throughout the world, Biden said, is that the United States is prepared to “come after you and find you.” 


During a raid on an Islamic State compound in northwest Syria, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi reportedly blew himself up, killing several children and adult family members in the blast, according to local first responder sources. U.S. military sources said that Special Forces personnel rescued 10 other civilians from the building.  


Special Forces additionally confiscated electronic devices from the encampment. The information recovered will reportedly assist the U.S. in finding and taking the fight to additional ISIS strongholds. 


History repeats itself 


U.S. forces under the previous administration raided the compound of then-ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi late in 2019, in almost the same geographic location as the raid on al-Qurayshi. After al-Baghdadi died subsequent to detonating his suicide belt, the Iraq-born Qurayshi took over leadership of the terror group. Under Qurayshi’s direction in recent years, ISIS fighters conducted a campaign of genocide against the Yazidi minority in the region, among other crimes against humanity. 


A terror mastermind 


Al-Qurayshi, believed to have been born in 1976, was also reportedly a graduate in Quranic studies from Mosul University in Iraq who took up arms as a member of ISIS in about 2007. Taken into custody by American forces the following year, he is believed by intelligence sources to have disclosed to the U.S. the identities of some two dozen other members of ISIS. Media reports have declared him the “architect” of the Yazidi genocide, and he seems to have been promoted to the position of al-Baghdadi’s second in command by 2018. 


After Qurayshi’s death, experts noted that his successor was likely to be another Iraqi in the group’s leadership structure. While declared by the U.S. as defeated a few years ago, ISIS has recently shown that it is regaining strength, determination, and numbers. 


Key allies in the battle against ISIS 


In his address to the nation, Biden additionally gave credit to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a majority-Kurdish fighting operation that has given extensive manpower aid to the U.S. and other Western nations in the struggle against ISIS. 


Formed with extensive U.S. support in 2015 after four years of the continuing civil war in Syria, the SDF has played a key role in combating the proliferation of ISIS in the region. American forces have provided military aid and training to the group in tactical issues such as calling in airstrikes. In 2017, American-backed SDF fighters took over Raqqa, the “de facto capital” of ISIS in Syria, and announced a “total liberation” of the city. 


And it was the SDF whose fighters dealt what looked like the decisive blow to ISIS in March 2019, when they recaptured the last significant patch of territory held by the self-declared ISIS “caliphate.” 


After that victory, the SDF used their momentum to establish themselves along a wide swath of autonomous territory across Syria’s northeast, naming their stronghold Rojava. They have since put in place their own governing institutions in the area. 


ISIS resurgent 


Even soon after the SDF and the U.S. had declared victory in 2019, though, ISIS was already showing signs of its resurgence. 


The operation that took out Qurayshi took place only days after ISIS fighters overpowered the staff of a prison in Hasaka, in the northeast of Syria. That prison changed hands again when SDF forces in turn overpowered the ISIS militants holed up inside. The intense fighting, which flowed over into nearby residential streets, was the most extreme incident involving U.S. troops in urban combat since the ISIS was subdued in 2019. 


A complex organization  


So who are the members of the SDF? 


Although primarily composed of Kurds, the group includes a number of Arabs, Armenians, and Assyrians among its troops. Notably, women often fight alongside men within the relatively egalitarian structure of the SDF.  


According to the European Council on Foreign Relations, the SDF is hoping for eventual international recognition of its locally run, de facto Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES).  


This multi-ethnic, loosely knit organization has proved to be the West’s chief ally in the fight against ISIS. Its leadership is drawn mainly from the YPG (Kurdish People’s Protection Units), formed in 2012 by a group of veterans newly returned to Syria from the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).  

The PKK is a militant group that traces its origins back to the 1970s. The PKK’s original program included the promotion of violence to achieve independence for the region’s Kurds, and in recent years it has been officially declared a terror organization by the U.S., the European Union, and Turkey, which has expressed sometimes violent opposition to any notion of Kurdish independence. 


The SDF has also drawn criticism from the PKK for its policy of concluding oil deals with the U.S., as well as for its attempt to participate in United Nations-facilitated dialogue on the future of war-torn Syria. 


Meanwhile, according to the European Council, the SDF has filled an infrastructure and leadership vacuum in northern Syria, with the oil revenues flowing from the lands it occupies, allowing it to pay good wages to workers from local majority-Arab communities. However, continued oil money is, in practical terms, contingent on the continued ability of the U.S. to shore up this ally by blocking Russia from its oil-rich territories. 


Regardless of its help to the U.S. in prosecuting the war against ISIS, it seems unlikely, given current Turkish, Syrian, and Russian opposition to its nationalist goals, that the SDF will achieve its hoped-for recognition any time soon, if ever. 

On January 31, 2022, Israeli airstrikes hit multiple locations near Damascus. According to the UK-based human rights advocacy group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the strikes targeted weapons caches and other positions held by Hezbollah. During the preceding week, Russia had been joining with the Syrians to conduct air force jet military patrols around Syria’s borders, with operations extending into the Golan Heights, which was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. 


While there were no immediate confirmations of casualties, official Syrian media reported that there was “material damage” from the attacks. Israel, as part of its policy of responding promptly to threats, typically runs airstrikes on arms shipments coming from Iran to Hezbollah and other non-state proxy actors in both Syria and Lebanon. 


Destabilizing Lebanon and the region 

Hezbollah, based in Lebanon and a recipient of extensive Iranian assistance over the years, has sent fighters to Southern Syria in support of the government troops of President Bashar al-Assad and against rebel forces in that country’s decade-old civil war.  

In Lebanon, a war-ravaged country as well, Hezbollah exercises power as both a militant terror organization and a political party with a governmental and social program. As this type of hybrid presence, Hezbollah has gained a greater share of political capital than any other group currently operating in the country. Its legitimacy in this sense also puts it in the position to act with impunity at multiple levels of Lebanese life.  

Born in battle and hatred 

Historians trace Hezbollah’s origins to the early 1980s. It was founded after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when the Israelis hoped to make inroads against the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s bases in the south of the country. So, the first members of Hezbollah focused on driving the Israelis out.  

The central government in Beirut had already shown its neglect of the region, and the Israeli invasion brought tragedy in its wake as infrastructure unraveled further, with numerous Lebanese and Israeli lives lost. Israel’s unilateral withdrawal of the last of its soldiers was not completed until 2000. 

The long-term Israeli military presence in Southern Lebanon, of course, added fuel to the fire of Palestinian and Lebanese grievance and hatred. The area became a prime recruiting station for Hezbollah and other militant groups. But Hezbollah, whose name in Arabic means “the party of God,” and which called itself a “resistance” movement, was anything but.  

A disciple of Iran 

Hezbollah draws its support in Lebanon primarily from Shia Muslims, and its ties with the government of Iran are long-standing. Shia-majority Iran’s 1979 revolution that led to the repressive rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini served as a major inspiration for Hezbollah. The Lebanese group based its ideology on Khomeini’s teachings and those of other militant Shia clerics. In 1981 the Iranian Revolutionary Guard even established a presence in a castle in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley as a place to train Hezbollah fighters.  

In its early days, as it fought to expel Israel from Lebanon, Hezbollah also hoped to form an Islamist, Shia-led government—like that of Iran—in Southern Lebanon. Consistently and stringently anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-Israel from its foundations, Hezbollah is the most likely suspect in numerous cases of bombings, kidnappings, and other offenses directed at American citizens in the region.  

Throughout the 1990s, Hezbollah obtained extensive support not only from Iran but from Syria as well, enabling it to continue its full-bore terrorist warfare against the Israelis. This was the era that saw the militant organization’s candidates winning their first seats in Lebanon’s parliament. But even as it attempted to legitimize its image, Hezbollah continued to conduct occasional forays over the border into Israeli territory.  

The instigator of senseless slaughter 

In summer 2006, a Hezbollah cross-border raid enabled it to take two Israeli soldiers hostage after killing two others, and the month-long Second Lebanon War (as it is known in Israel) was born. Tragically, more than 40 Israeli civilians were killed, mostly from Hezbollah rocket fire, and some 120 members of the Israel Defense Forces were killed in action. Equally tragic were the needless deaths of about 1,200 Lebanese civilians—an estimated one-third of them children—also caught in the crossfire.  

Richard Armitage, a former Deputy Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, once dubbed Hezbollah the likely “A-team of terrorists,” more effective even than al-Qaeda. Adherents or allies of the group were responsible for, among other atrocities, two bombings on the United States embassy in Beirut in 1983 and 1984 that killed and injured dozens. In 1983 Hezbollah members assaulted military installations housing US and international troops, killing 241 American soldiers, sailors, and marines out of a total of 299 fatalities.  

An international threat 

In more recent years, Hezbollah has taken its virulent hatred of Israelis and Westerners far beyond its borders. In 1994 it bombed a Jewish community headquarters in Buenos Aires, killing 85.  

In 2012 a Hezbollah bomb on a passenger bus killed five Israeli tourists and one Bulgarian national. Hezbollah operations have also included terror attempts as far afield as Peru and Thailand. In 2018 Czech intelligence discovered and disabled a Hezbollah hacking operation designed to lure unsuspecting Internet users into downloading mobile malware. The horrific events credibly attributed to Hezbollah around the world go on and on.  

Acknowledging the obvious 

Some will argue that not “all” of Hezbollah should be labeled a terrorist organization, pointing to its presence in Lebanon’s parliament and its social service work among people desperate for aid. After all, this argument often goes, the national government of Lebanon has long shown itself neglectful of human service needs among its people, needs that continue to be largely supplied by non-governmental groups along sectarian lines. But Hezbollah, like many state actors over the centuries, consistently uses largess to build bonds of support among the citizenry.  

In 2019 the American Jewish Committee, along with the Institute for Counter-Terrorism, produced a detailed policy analysis making a firm case for why Hezbollah, in its entirety, should be designated a terrorist organization. Some countries have shown timidity about so designating the group’s political wing. In 2021 Australia notably stepped up, joining a small group that includes the US, Germany, Israel, Canada, the United Kingdom, a handful of European and South American countries, and the nations in the Gulf Co-Operation Council, to do just that.   

In December 2021, Libya was preparing to hold its first presidential elections since the ouster and killing of long-term dictator Muammar Gaddafi a decade before. But those elections never happened, and as of January 2022, no one could be sure when—or if—they would take place. Libya’s parliamentary commission stated that circumstances had made it “impossible” for elections to proceed. It was an enormous disappointment to the international effort to put an end to the chaos, violence, and disorder in the oil-rich country since the strongman’s death. 

According to the publication Egypt Today and other sources, security issues were the main hurdle. The Libyan High Electoral Commission pointed to threats from several different militias that prevented them from publishing the final list of candidates for the presidency. Additionally, disputes over electoral rules as well as who was eligible to be a candidate roiled the process. 

For one thing, Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, had applied as a presidential candidate but was rejected by the electoral commission as ineligible. In 2015 the younger Gaddafi was convicted of war crimes in absentia for his actions during the revolution that sealed the fate of Gaddafi senior. His attorney claimed that a court had overruled the election ban. 

The urgency to fill a void 

All Libyan institutions still operating under an interim government are doing so without full credibility, and a comprehensive peace agreement is the only viable way forward. Continued conflict is not only fraying the nation’s remaining infrastructure and endangering civilians, but it is also causing shutdowns to oil operations. This is major, as oil exports are Libya’s main source of state income. Short-term and long-term shutdowns drain sources of revenue that would, in the best circumstances, support basic civilian needs.  

Trying to pick up the pieces 

United Nations officials stated their belief that elections were still possible within a few months, and set June 2022 as an achievable goal.  

This would still be in alignment with a roadmap facilitated by the UN, based on discussions at the November 2020 Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. The forum worked to establish structures and goals for holding credible democratic elections and included stakeholders—male and female—from multiple sectors of Libyan society.  

UN representatives also stated that the rights of the almost 3 million Libyan citizens who registered to vote must be upheld, and that the core issues standing in the way of security and a free election must be addressed promptly. 

Posthumous support for Gaddafi 

Many Libyans today, even after the extreme repression and violence Gaddafi perpetrated against his people over four decades, continue to revere him as a symbol of strength and stability. This is particularly true among members of the Warfalla tribe in Western Libya, Gaddafi’s home region.  

But while the Arab-Berber Warfalla people, who make up one-sixth of Libya’s population, served in key security positions and achieved high ranks in the government patronage system under Gaddafi, growing urbanization and other trends make them more diverse politically than might first be apparent to Westerners. While many of the Warfalla have expressed nostalgia for the days of Gaddafi, pointing to the rampant violence and instability that has ensued since the time of his death, others are more than ready for change.  

Tyranny followed by calamity 

The Arab Spring proved to be a colossal and dangerous failure in Libya. During the NATO-supported uprising against Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, the country was divided into two rival governing segments in the east and west. In the east, warlord Khalifa Haftar held power, while the UN supported the administration based in Tripoli in the west. Numerous outside actors, including other nations and militias with varying ideologies, were in the mix, supporting one side or the other.  

Problematic candidacies 

Haftar, who in 2019 led an attack on Tripoli and who has expressed contempt for democracy, was among the announced candidates for president in December 2021. Haftar’s candidacy, like that of Gaddafi’s son, was problematic for the electoral commission, and immediately before the scheduled December 24 election date, it remained unclear whether he would be allowed to run. He has been credibly accused of torture and other human rights abuses. And a court in Western Libya has pronounced a death sentence on him (rendered in absentia) due to his bombing attack on a military school. Haftar is said to hold dual Libyan-American citizenship, which would also disqualify him.  

Haftar and the younger Gaddafi were among a slate of about 100 individuals who originally registered as presidential candidates for the December elections. Twenty-five proposed candidates were initially disqualified, although that decision must make its way through an appeals process in the court system.  

Complicating matters still further, interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh did not submit his declaration that he would stand down from his present position by the required three months before the election. Dbeibeh had previously promised, as part of his elevation to the premiership, that he would not run for president in a later election. 



Meanwhile, most ordinary Libyans simply want an end to the chaos 

The Abraham Accords, signed between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain on September 15, 2020, have already yielded multiple benefits for the nations involved, and for the Mideast in general. Official normalization of relations with Israel on the part of the UAE and Bahrain—and in separate agreements, Morocco and Sudan—has created a climate not only of peace and security, but of increased business and technological exchange opportunities as well. 

In addition, there are new cultural exchanges that would have been unthinkable two years ago.  

Planting Trees for Peace 

On January 17, 2022, Israel and Jewish communities all over the world celebrated the holiday of Tu B’Shvat, called the “New Year of the Trees.” This holiday is centered on the responsibilities of human beings as stewards of the earth, and on the value of celebrating the connection with nature. Throughout Israel, and wherever there are Jews, people plant trees in order to help sustain the environment for the future. And Tu B’Shvat of 2022 was the first time ever that the holiday was celebrated in the UAE.  

The Jewish Educational Campus in the UAE, formed in early 2021 soon after the conclusion of the Abraham Accords, is the focal point of a small but growing expat Israeli and Jewish community in the UAE. In partnership with Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF), the organization sponsored tree plantings during the celebration of its first anniversary, which coincided with the ecological holiday.  

The Power of Cultural Diplomacy 

We shouldn’t overlook the importance of cultural events like this one. Cultural diplomacy is part of the 21st century way of conducting diplomatic relations. It emphasizes building connections between people across borders to help them appreciate one another as human beings with common goals: peace, prosperity, improved communication and technological cooperation, and solving transnational problems like climate change.  

The Israeli government has long believed that it has a responsibility to promote the cultural products of its citizenry—literature and the arts, social relationships, folklore, and holidays included—to foster greater understanding of Israel and to increase the chances of sustaining peaceful and mutually beneficial international relationships over the long term. 

What “Jewish Arbor Day” Is All About 

 In Hebrew, “tu” refers to the number 15. So, the name “Tu B’Shvat” simply means that the holiday falls on the 15th day of the month of Shvat in the Jewish lunar calendar. In ancient times in Israel, this date marked a key event according to the agricultural and tax practices of the time.  

The rabbis legally set the 15th of Shvat as the “birthday” of all the trees in the nation as a convenience for farmers. This is because they had to know when the fourth year after planting arrived. That way, they could bring the fruit of a tree to the Temple as an offering, as required by the Torah.  

In today’s homes, synagogues, and Jewish community centers throughout the world, people join together not only to plant trees, but to honor the bounty of the earth. Tu B’Shvat seders reflect the traditions of the Passover seder while focusing on environmental themes. With its overall theme of a common desire to protect the earth, the holiday is especially suited for interfaith and inter-cultural observances. 

Dignitaries at the UAE Tu B’Shvat celebration included representatives of the Israeli consulate in Dubai and KKL-JNF. They noted their positive feelings about being able to plant a tree in the UAE that could be enjoyed by future generations. They also emphasized KKL-JNF’s commitment to working with the UAE to combat climate change and support ecologically friendly development.  

“Nature Knows No Borders” 

Environmental issues have become critical throughout the Middle East, throwing the interdependence of the region’s people into high relief against their desert background. In Israel, the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies works with the motto, “Nature Knows No Borders.” Arava has cooperated extensively with Jordanian, Moroccan, and other Mideast nations, as well as with the Palestinians, in programs such as one training international college-age youth to study and work on environmental issues. 

Arava’s leaders have addressed the need for Israel and its neighbors to collaborate on solutions for the mutual survival of their peoples. It’s important to note a central point in this conversation: Israel’s advanced technologies that allow it to manage water resources and control the spread of desertification ensure that the full impact of climate change on its people is blunted for now. But in order to survive over the long term, it is vital that it learns to manage common resources with the Arab nations that surround it.  

The Arava Institute is focused on developing its ability to build relationships with the Gulf States that bring young scientists, creative artists, and policymakers from multiple nations together. These relationships are helping to establish a new generation of programs that have the ultimate goal of making a more sustainable region, with improved living conditions and new opportunities for Israelis and their neighbors.  

And as the environmental and cultural diplomacy evident in the Tu B’Shvat celebration in the UAE demonstrated, things may be starting to change for the better.  

Things are hard for Palestinian scientists, researchers, and science students living in Gaza and the West Bank. They face the prospect of very little investment on the part of the Palestinian Authority into research, technology, infrastructure, and higher education. They also face the hours it often takes to get through the checkpoints between the territories and the State of Israel as they travel daily to and from work or school. In addition, they deal with limited access to resources, including lack of electricity and clean drinking water.  


By means of illustration: The PA education department’s 2017 budget to support research, at a modest 20 million shekels ($5.5 million USD), was the first in half a decade to allocate any funding for scientific endeavors.  


A sense of safety elusive for Israeli counterparts 


Meanwhile, the Palestinian researchers’ Israeli counterparts certainly possess a world of sophisticated equipment and technological infrastructure at their fingertips. But simply as Israelis, they live with the constant threat of the terror attacks that could be directed at their own homes by militants on the Palestinian side of the security barrier. 


But despite their differences and an atmosphere that normalizes hatred of the other group, the pursuit of knowledge unites scientists beyond borders. It’s that passion that has led to effective research and business partnerships, and to some measure of greater mutual understanding.  


Peace through wind farms in a tense time 


In 2010, the Israel Defense Forces intercepted a Turkish-led flotilla attempting to break through its naval blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. After the IDF soldiers boarded, members of the flotilla fell upon them, wielding metal bars and knives, and took several Israelis hostage. The Israelis fought back, with the result that nine of the attackers were killed.  


In the midst of all the tension and passions surrounding this incident, an Israeli-Palestinian project got off the ground with the goal of supplying wind power in the West Bank. A Ramat Gan-based Israeli company joined with a Bethlehem-headquartered Palestinian one to announce that they would work together to build and sell wind turbines to customers in the West Bank and surrounding areas. 


This was one of quite a few cooperative scientific, technical, market-oriented projects that have brought Israelis and Palestinians together as curious, goal-oriented, and hopeful human beings intent on making the world a better place while pursuing the well-being of both peoples.  


Trans-border desalination 


Here’s another such joint project, anchored in the common dependence on water in a largely arid region: In 2017, Israel and the PA announced their agreement, with support from the government of Jordan, to move supplies of fresh water from Israel to the West Bank. One of the key components of the water-transfer plan was a desalination plant to be built at the Jordanian Red Sea port of Aqaba.  


Building a new Silicon Valley 


Another example: the Rawabi Tech Hub, located in the West Bank, in the first planned Palestinian city. The tech hub is bridging the knowledge gap and the cultural gap, as it brings together Israelis and Palestinians working in high-tech fields. Among its many benefits to local and cross-border business ecosystems, the hub is able to supply highly skilled Palestinian software and tech workers to Israeli companies.  


The city of Rawabi, on which construction got underway in 2010, hosts the hub, which includes “Connect,” a tech-focused business center with a start-up incubator and a collaborative co-working and networking space. A major focus of the “Connect” space is to bring Palestinian and Israeli tech talent, entrepreneurs, and company leaders together. The long-range goal is to put Rawabi on the map as a 21st century Palestinian version of Silicon Valley.  


This sort of science diplomacy can become a means of building bridges toward peace. Experts point to the current lack of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and to the disinterest of the Biden administration in serving as a facilitator for peace, as major reasons why person-to-person relationship-building of this kind has become especially valuable now.   


Environmental win-wins  


In 2021, the renowned Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in Israel teamed up with the Palestinian NGO Damour for Community Development to create the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy, based in Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel.  


This pioneering organization receives support from a partnership with Oxford University’s Martin School Program on Transnational Management of Natural Resources. For the past three years, the Oxford team has brought on board Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian researchers to collaborate on forecasting models showing the effects of climate change on regional natural resources. The focus is on water and energy resources, as well as research into public health, security, and sustainability applications.  


The Center’s organizers are preparing the organization to facilitate further collaborative, transnational research and diplomatic progress, alongside real-world programs in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.  


Arava and Damour have also partnered on projects like one working to bring more clean drinking water to Gaza. This Palestinian enclave draws most of its water from its coastal aquifer. But the aquifer’s water supply is dwindling, with the result that the remaining water has become dangerously salinized, and Gazans have had to resort to buying water from a local desalination facility. 


In 2020, the Arava-Damour collaboration put a state-of-the-art, Israeli-made atmospheric water generator, able to produce 800 liters of clean water daily using only the air, in a Gaza Strip community.  


These are small steps, to be sure, given the overall political picture and the continued intransigence of the PA in refusing compromise to achieve peace. But the alternative of no scientific and technical partnerships whatsoever would surely cost both Israeli and Palestinian lives.  


In a region where these lives in many respects have become cheap, we’ll note with cautious optimism the people-to-people, knowledge-and-resource-sharing connections that might be able to help pave the way for greater political diplomacy in times to come. 

Both the former Soviet Union and today’s Russia have had a decided influence on the political landscape of the Middle East. Here’s what you need to know: 

Russia’s Historic Great Game in the Mideast 

 Russia spent the 17th through the 19th centuries as a foe of the Ottoman Empire, grabbing up territories in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions—and access to vital ports—as the Turks’ grip on power crumbled. Imperial Russia also historically had a strong interest in protecting the rights of Orthodox Christians living in Ottoman lands.  

 In the 20th century, the Soviet Union was a strong backer of multiple Arab client states, partly as a means of countering American influence. The Soviets broke ties with Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967. 

In the decades immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia’s footprint in the region diminished due to its focus on urgent needs at home. For example, Russia tended to take a backseat during the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations’ work at Mideast statecraft for much of the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century.  

However, in the last few years, a resurgent Russian Middle East presence has rendered the already complex affairs of the region even more so.   


Filling the Power Vacuum in the Region 

In many ways, Russia is seeking to fill a vacuum. The deteriorating Western presence and influence in the region is perhaps most obviously illustrated by the chaos accompanying the Biden Administration’s and NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in Summer 2021.  

The turning point came in 2015, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia became a major player in the Syrian civil war. Russian air strikes were the crucial factor in helping President Bashar al-Assad hold on to power.  

This intervention became the defining event that re-established Russia as one of the outside powers to be reckoned with in the region. Russia’s changing governments over the past five decades have stood as a major source of support for the Assad dynasty—first for President Hafez al-Assad (in power 1971 – 2000), and now for his son. 

 Building Regional Partnerships 

Since 2015, Russia has participated in major arms sales to Middle Eastern states that include Turkey and Egypt. It has worked to build up relationships with Middle Eastern governments, and to pursue a variety of investments.  

It has additionally strengthened its long-standing partnership with Iran, which is the other major supporter of the Assad regime in Syria. It is this relationship with Iran, alongside its military success in Syria, that has provided Russia with a major foothold as it seeks to reestablish itself in the region.  

Additionally, in 2017, King Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia made a historic first visit to Moscow to discuss with Putin their shared interest in preventing the US from limiting their respective interests as the world’s two top oil producers. The Russians and the Saudis finalized more than a dozen high-value agreements spanning not only energy interests, but also military cooperation, space exploration, and arms sales.  

The visit served as a high point along the two nations’ still often rocky, up-and-down relationship. The Saudis notably expressed strong opposition to the Assad regime and to Iran’s entanglement in its neighbors’ affairs. 

But Russia doesn’t seem to be playing the intense-involvement game that has been the bread-and-butter of American policy in the region for generations. Instead, the Russians today, like the Soviets in the past, maintain a limited but noticeable presence. The goal here seems to be to avoid over-extending Russia’s resources while gaining the most ground as a rival to the Americans as a regional power broker. 

Russia has sent only a relatively small military contingent to Syria. The manner in which it has conducted operations—the emphasis on air strikes, for example—indicates a clear focus on minimizing risks of incurring Russian casualties.  

Unlike the US, Russia has not been interested in promoting democracy—or any other particular type of political system—in the Mideast, but rather in maintaining stability. Russia continues to view US policy, including the Americans’ belligerent approach to Iran, as a destabilizing factor. 

Rapprochement with Israel 

The historically complicated relationship between Russia/the Soviet Union and Israel has also taken a recent turn toward cooperation. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Russia re-started diplomatic relations with Israel after three decades of estrangement. There are cultural ties as well. About one-fifth of Israel’s citizens today trace their backgrounds to Russia or the Soviet Union, and the nations maintain a visa-free travel arrangement. 

As the most sophisticated Middle Eastern country in terms of its military capabilities and its technological development, Israel is drawing increasing Russian interest. After the fall of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who assiduously cultivated a positive relationship with Putin—earlier in 2021, experts were uncertain how the new coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett would be received in Moscow. 

However, in October, a meeting between Bennett and Putin provoked extensive media commentary for its warmth and cordiality. Both governments appeared to focus on continuity and stability. 

It’s also important to note that Russia has become Israel’s de facto neighbor due to its presence in Syria. That situation offers both complications and opportunities, as Russia develops as a significant factor for Israel’s to weigh as it tries to offset Iran’s influence in Syria.