We know that the effects of climate change are worse on developing nations. Drought and water shortages curtail food supplies, make formerly well-populated landscapes uninhabitable, and force inhabitants to migrate due to increasingly unsustainable environments. The long-standing water crisis in Iraq is an example of what can result from a changing environment—and how a poorly administered water policy can make the lives of millions of people worse. 



Where civilization may go to die 



Climate change, in the words of a lengthy April 2022 Washington Post survey, is turning “the cradle of civilization” into a “grave.” In Iraq, yearly temperature averages are rising at a rate close to double that of the global average. 



Long years of unusually intense heat waves and inadequate rainfall have resulted in ever greater dependence on the water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. But those waters, which supply more than 90 percent of Iraq’s water, are also running dry. Experts note that projections show both rivers potentially drying up within the next few decades unless the world takes definitive action.  



So different, not so long ago 



Between these rivers, toward the south of Iraq, lies the historic and environmentally rich land of marshes that once covered about 7,000 square miles. These lands were once crisscrossed by deep waterways and wetlands and covered in thick growths of reeds. The whole area teemed with wildlife, including flocks of herons and other wading birds, as well as numerous songbirds. Some scholars believe that the marshes were the inspiration for descriptions of the Garden of Eden in the Bible. 



For thousands of years, this abundance has supported tribal societies where people lived much as their ancestors did centuries ago, and where they were relatively isolated from the rest of the world until very recently.  



British explorer Wilfred Thesiger loved this region. He spent years during the decade of the 1950s living among the Marsh Arabs, as Westerners traditionally called the local people. Thesiger’s classic 1964 non-fiction book The Marsh Arabs is based on his experiences. As he traveled the waterways and marshes by canoe and gained the trust of the inhabitants, they introduced him to their way of life on the small islands spread across the landscape.  



Thesiger described these lands as “great swamps of bamboos and bullrushes,” and documented everything with sharply etched black-and-white photographs from his Leica camera. 



A rude awakening to crisis 



The landscape of these fabled lands has changed drastically even in the half-century since Thesiger’s time. Many women and children have moved to nearby metropolitan areas, while their men try to maintain their way of life in the marshes, even as fish become increasingly scarce and water buffalo herds die out. To make economic matters worse, the area’s once-thriving industry of buffalo milk production and export has been affected by the poor quality of the grass the animals feed on. 



“There are no fish, no reeds, no life,” a local fisherman told journalists in 2021. If you go far across what remains of those once-fertile lands now, you quickly run up against the stark reality of baked ground and dried-up grasses and reeds. 



Additional human-caused misery 



It isn’t only climate change, though.  



Because the Marsh Arabs are mostly Shi’a Muslims, and because they rebelled against the Sunni-dominated government of Saddam Hussein (in power from 1979 to 2003), they suffered persecution, oppression, torture, and execution during his regime. As a form of punishment, Hussein drained the marshes and built dikes to block the rivers from flowing into the wetlands, all of which helped prompt the exodus to the cities.  



After Hussein fell from power, Iraq worked to restore the marshes and managed to build them back to about 75 percent of their pre-Hussein levels. But by 2015, the severe shortage of water flowing from the Tigris and Euphrates, along with the hotter climate overall, pushed the wetlands down to about 50 percent of what they once were.  



Additionally, the construction of new dams in Turkey (where the Tigris and Euphrates originate) and Iran (which shares the large multi-river floodplain with Iraq and other countries) has been responsible for a reduction of about 60 percent in the rivers’ volume of water. All of the environmental factors discussed here lead scientists to conclude that the marshes will never regain their former lush, wild beauty or their ability to support a population of any size.  



There’s also the fact that post-Hussein Iraq has shown little to no ability to systematically deliver adequate supplies of clean water to its people. Corruption, inattention, and failure to apply established engineering and public health protocols have led to situations like that in Basra, which came to a head in 2018.  More than 100,000 people exhibited severe gastrointestinal symptoms traced to poor water sanitation. Yet the health ministry denied the problem and delayed acting in the public interest.  



Dominoes stacked to fall 



What does all this mean in the realm of international affairs? For one thing, Iraq is among the Middle Eastern countries whose food production systems are most fragile in terms of vulnerability to climate change, and therefore closest to collapse. Add in factors such as poor central governance, a burgeoning youth population, and continued pandemic-related stagnation, and you have a recipe for armed conflict over natural resources, increased migration, the formation of extremist paramilitary organizations, and the growth of terrorist movements—all already problems in Iraq.  



As numerous policy experts have pointed out, climate change consistently raises the probability of war and political instability. This means that, like it or not, any real effort we put into solving Iraq’s water supply problems redounds to the benefit of everyone, everywhere.  

After eight years of bloody encounters on the battlefield, the horrific use of chemical weapons, and an estimated half a million dead on both sides, the Iran-Iraq war ended in an effective stalemate in 1988. In addition to those killed, an estimated 1 million more were injured, and the total material losses rose well over $1 trillion.  



The conflict was among the longest and largest-scale conventional military confrontations between two neighboring countries since the Korean War in the 1950s. And, just as in the case of Korea, the repercussions of the Iran-Iraq war went on for years, playing a big role in determining the state of not only the combatants themselves but the wider Middle East and the world today.  



On September 22, 1980, war broke out with Iraq’s massive incursion over its western border with Iran. The Iraqis claimed that the actual start of the conflict took place earlier in September, when Iranian soldiers shelled its border outposts.  



An unsettled region 



After the departure of Great Britain in the 1960s from its position of hegemony over the Persian Gulf, the resulting geopolitical reshuffling left Shia-majority Iran facing off against Shia-majority but Sunni-dominated Iraq. Disputes over territory fueled tensions into the 1970s. 



By 1980, both nations were brutal dictatorships with an abiding mutual hatred for Israel and distrust of the United States. President Saddam Hussain, at the head of the violently controlling Ba’ath Party in Iraq, had assumed power in 1979. That same year, the repressive fundamentalist Islamist regime led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took over via revolution in Iran.   



Shifting alliances 



In its isolation under its fanatical Islamist regime, Iran found only two allies in its war with Iraq: Libya and Syria. On the other hand, Iraq found tacit support from both the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as financial and other types of support from Saudi Arabia, tiny neighboring Kuwait, and other Arab nations. 



Historians credit President Ronald Reagan’s intervention on behalf of Saddam Hussain’s Iraq with ultimately giving the bigger advantage to that country, with American forces involved in violent—but unacknowledged—military confrontations with the Islamic Republic at sea and in the air. Although American interests hinged on maintaining a balance of power and petroleum-trading capacities between Iraq and Iran, as Iran seemed to gain the upper hand in the conflict, Washington saw no alternative to making its bed with Iraq.  



That choice was made less unpalatable by the fact that, at the start of the war, Iran still held dozens of the American hostages it had taken in Tehran when the Islamists came to power in 1979. 



But as the war progressed, the Reagan administration sent arms to Iran in the mistaken hope it would help them free American hostages held in Lebanon, part of the larger scandal of the Iran-Contra Affair. When that plan collapsed, the US tilted back toward Iraq. 



The scourge of chemical weapons  



By the early 1980s, as later-declassified American government documents show, Iraq had begun deploying mustard gas against Iran, which, in turn, began to develop its own chemical weapons program. Tens of thousands of Iranians likely lost their lives to Iraq’s chemical weapons, which later included nerve agents. Many more Iranians suffer the effects of their exposure to this day.  



American documents also show that Iran was likely successful in the limited use of cyanide and mustard gas against the Iraqis by 1987. And in the last year of the war, thousands died in a Kurdish village in Northern Iraq, possibly as a result of being caught in the crossfire of chemical weapons used by both Iraq and Iran.  



All for nothing 



The parties agreed to abide by a UN-facilitated cease-fire in 1988, though tragically, their respective borders at the end of the war were scarcely different than they had been at the beginning. 



Iran and Iraq did not finalize an official peace treaty or resume normalized relations until August 1990. That was the same month that Saddam Hussain ordered his troops to invade Kuwait, drawing the US and the region into the Persian Gulf War that would culminate in the rout of the Iraqis the following February.  



Farther along this trajectory came the Iraq War (also known as the Second Persian Gulf War), which began with a quick Anglo-American victory and the trial and death of Hussain in 2003. This conflict, of course, deteriorated into the long slog of the US-led occupation and the bloody Iraqi insurgency that lasted until 2011. 






Toward the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war, Hussain unleashed a genocidal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds using chemical weapons, even as Khomeini in Iran tightened his grip on power and stepped up the imprisonment and execution of dissidents, further entrenching his country in the vice of Islamist theocracy.  



As a consequence of American actions in the Iran-Iraq war, both those nations came to believe that the US had played them for its own ends.  



By the end of the 1980s, Iraq viewed the US as a major threat despite the masses of strategic intelligence the Americans had provided it. To Iranians, the conflict became known as the “Imposed War” because they believed the US was behind it. 



The Iranians continue to believe that the Americans were orchestrating events at major points of their conflict with Iraq and that the US was behind the global turn in favor of Iraq. This is easier for Iranians to believe when they correctly remember that the UN did not condemn Iraq’s initiation of the war at the time. Iran’s view of itself as a smaller power threatened by the Americans further helped the ayatollah consolidate his regime’s power over the country after the war’s end.  



And that war, with its aftermath of deep mistrust of Western powers, was the formative historical event in the lives of subsequent Iranian leaders, including current president Ebrahim Raisi and religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. As young men, both played notable roles during the war, with Raisi long associated with a line of politically motivated executions in Iran at the war’s end. 

On April 5, 2022, Kuwait saw the collective resignation of its third government in 18 months after critically needed reforms failed to move forward. The resignation came ahead of a vote of no confidence in the prime minister scheduled for later in the week. The deepening political crisis in the small Persian Gulf nation caps a long history of uncertainty. 



Small but strategic 



The largely Sunni Muslim emirate of Kuwait, nestled between Saudi Arabia and Iraq, is located in the midst of one of the most deserted land spaces on earth. But it also curves around the strategically important harbor depths of Kuwait Bay.  



The name Kuwait comes from an Arabic variation on the Hindustani word kūt, which means “fort,” harkening back to an 18th-century trading post established in the country. Ever since then, Kuwait’s fortunes have been linked to foreign trade.  



In 1756 the Al Sabah dynasty officially created an autonomous sheikhdom on the territory that is now Kuwait. Today’s Kuwait City, the sole major population center, is among the world’s most densely urbanized nations with almost 250 people per square kilometer.  



Kuwait came into its own as a self-governing center of commerce in the 19th century. Sheikh ʿAbd Allāh II, whose 26-year rule began in 1866, turned Kuwait away from its previous neutrality, tilting its foreign policy toward building close ties with the Ottoman Empire. ʿAbd Allāh was assassinated by his brother, Mubārak the Great, who set his sights on an alliance with the British after the Ottomans began rumbling about annexation. In 1899 Mubārak gave the direction of foreign policy over to Great Britain. 



British domination, Iraqi pretensions 



As the First World War was tearing Europe apart, Kuwait officially became a British protectorate. Britain subsequently handled the negotiations that led to a reconfiguration of the borders with Saudi Arabia and Iraq. 



Long before the memorable Mideast conflicts of our time, Iraq laid the first of its dubious claims to Kuwait. In 1938 oil was discovered beneath Kuwaiti soil, so it’s little wonder that Iraq—only six years after its independence from British protection— suddenly discovered a “historical” claim to Kuwait, one that had never surfaced before, either on the part of Iraq or the Ottoman Empire of which it remained a part until World War I. In particular, Iraq emphasized its supposed claims to two strategically situated islands off Kuwait’s coast. 



It was also in 1938 that Iraq lent verbal support to the Majlis Movement, an uprising against the emir of Kuwait. 



Independence and fragility 



In 1961 Kuwait and the British Empire agreed to end the Anglo-Kuwaiti Treaty of 1899, giving Kuwait its independence from Britain. Recognition by the US and other nations soon followed, but it was not until 1987 that the US-Kuwaiti strategic relationship fully developed. In that year, Kuwait granted freedom of navigation through the Persian Gulf to Kuwaiti tanker ships reflagged with American markings.  



But it was in the fateful summer of 1990, when invading Iraqi forces prepared to cross the border, that the partnership between the US and Kuwait came to full fruition. 



Even after Kuwaiti independence, Iraq had continued to press its claim on the offshore islands, only to be met with resistance from the nations of the Arab League, as well as from Britain. 



In the 1980s, the region was dominated by intense conflict between Iraq and Iran. The repercussions touched Kuwait, which saw no alternative but to ally with Iraq to counter the menace from Iran. The emirate gave logistical and monetary support to Iraq, resulting in Iranian acts of sabotage in Kuwait and an attempt on the life of its ruling sheik. After the Iran-Iraq War drew to a close later in the decade, relations with Iraq soured.  



In 1981 Kuwait joined Saudi Arabia and other neighbors in establishing the Gulf Cooperation Council to enhance mutual security and commerce. After Iran launched attacks against Kuwaiti tankers operating in the Gulf, Kuwait sought assistance from both the US and the Soviet Union.  



A pawn of war 



Then came Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, despite the vociferous anti-Iraq sentiments of the Kuwaiti people. The Iraqi invasion followed on August 2, 1990. The Iraqis under President Saddam Hussain gave the same old specious arguments for their claims on Kuwait, but the real reasons boiled down to a few: the strategic and commercial advantage of a position in the Gulf, a desire to achieve a position of power and influence among the Arab states, and a means of awakening positive feelings among Iraqis after the heavy losses sustained in the war with Iran.  



Iraq’s takeover of Kuwait provoked the Persian Gulf War, with the UN Security Council, as well as the US Congress, authorizing the use of force to remove Iraq from the country. The year 1991 began with US attacks on Iraqi positions in both Kuwait and Iraq as part of Operation Desert Storm.  



American and coalition forces quickly gained supremacy in the air, even as Kuwait’s oil wells were on fire below. A ground invasion in February 1991 put the coalition in command of the war, which quickly ended with a cease-fire in the space of 100 hours. The fighting left tens of thousands of Iraqi casualties, with only a few hundred on the coalition side.  



Post-war problems 



After its liberation from Iraqi control, the damage to Kuwait in terms of looting, population displacement, and infrastructure damage became a matter of urgent concern. More than 50 percent of all Kuwaitis had fled due to the war, although most eventually returned. Intra-Kuwait clashes divided people based on the degree to which they called for political liberalization and whether they had left the country or stayed behind to fight.  



The immediate post-war years saw the imposition of martial law, followed by new elections that ushered in a large number of politicians representing Islamic parties. UN-supervised border revisions went largely in Kuwait’s favor, bringing former Iraqi-controlled oil fields into its possession.  



Rising tensions with Hussain’s Iraq led to Kuwait being used as a military base for American and British troops invading Iraq in 2003. But the Anglo-American victory that followed, along with the death of Hussain and his regime, led to new problems, particularly as some Kuwaitis were pulled into terrorist activities. 



Then, beginning in 2011, Kuwait saw stepped-up public dissent and rebellions against corruption as part of the waves of activism during the Arab Spring.  



In 2020 plummeting oil prices as a result of pandemic lockdowns meant that Kuwait’s finances were on the line. Meanwhile, the problems of succession and policy that ensued following the death of the 91-year-old emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, contributed greatly to the current recurring crises of government. 

In his first official trip to Morocco as Secretary of State, on March 29, 2022, Antony Blinken met in Rabat with the country’s foreign minister, Nasser Bourita, only days after the two men joined a group of six nations for a high-level summit in Israel’s Negev Desert.  



The so-called “Negev Summit” over the last week of March brought together Israel, Egypt, Morocco, the UAE, Bahrain, and the US to discuss the problem of Iran’s nuclear program and other common concerns. The Arab-majority nations participating have either long-standing (in the case of Egypt) or recent (in the case of Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain) peace and normalization agreements with Israel. 



When Blinken met separately with Bourita and other top Moroccan officials in Rabat, he called for an expansion of the positive diplomatic trends shaping up across the Mideast, forming new economic and political alliances among Israel and some of its former enemies, and turning generations-old notions of realpolitik on their heads.  



A controversial plan for Western Sahara 



Blinken and Bourita also discussed terrorism and regional security issues specific to Morocco, particularly those surrounding its contested control of neighboring Western Sahara. The US, according to Blinken’s remarks published on the State Department’s website, continues to regard Morocco’s projected autonomy plan for Western Sahara as a “credible” alternative, although the Biden administration has stopped short of full endorsement.  



Morocco’s plan would grant semi-autonomy to Western Sahara, providing it accedes to ongoing Moroccan control. Spain has also expressed confidence in this plan, likely as a bid toward securing greater Moroccan control of immigration from Africa across Spain’s borders. 



Western Sahara has been on the United Nations’ list of Non-Self-Governing Territories since 1963, and the UN does not recognize Morocco’s control. Other countries with a stake in the discussion have also expressed opposition to Morocco’s designs on the territory. In particular, Morocco’s continuing rule there is deepening a rift with Algeria.  



A desert land in contention 



Since achieving independence from Spain and then immediately being annexed by Morocco five decades ago, Western Sahara has experienced the devastation of militant conflict and terrorism. It has also been the prize fought over in a fierce game of one-upmanship between Morocco and Algeria as those two nations vie for control of their weaker, smaller neighbor.  



With a population of only a little more than half a million, Western Sahara sits toward the far western edge of the African continent, hemmed in by the Atlantic Ocean to the west, Morocco on the north, Mauritania to the south and east, and a very tiny eastern border that connects it to Algeria.  



Much of Western Sahara is uninhabited desert, but in addition to the plentiful fishing grounds off its coast and its large deposits of phosphate, many experts believe it has previously untapped offshore oil deposits. 



In diplomatic limbo 



In 1991 the UN facilitated a truce between warring factions in Western Sahara, but a guaranteed referendum on independence has still not been held. Today, a Moroccan-created buffer zone fortified with landmines runs along the border of territory disputed between Morocco and the separatist, ethnic Sahrawi rebels known as the Polisario Front.  



The western part of Western Sahara, which includes the Atlantic coastline, is still under the administrative control of Morocco. The Algeria-supported Polisario Front controls a smaller and less-populous portion of land to the east.  



In 1976 the Polisario Front declared the existence of a new state, which its leaders named the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, or SADR. A number of countries, most of them in the developing world, have officially recognized the SADR, although some have revoked that recognition. 



Whither US policy? 



Late in 2020, under the former Trump administration, the US recognized Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. That decision was linked to Morocco’s support for the Abraham Accords that cemented the North African country’s ties to Israel.  



In a rare move, the Biden administration has elected to continue this Trump-era policy. But the US remains the only country to accord Morocco this recognition, a step that has drawn sharp criticism from the diplomatic community.  



No angels in this desert 



Critics point to Morocco’s harsh military rule over the Sahrawi people. According to the nonprofit democracy advocacy group Freedom House, Morocco severely limits civil liberties and expressions of independence in Western Sahara, although the territory it controls maintains representation in Morocco’s legislature. 



The Polisario Front, whose leadership remains in exile in refugee camps and military bases across the border in Algeria, is, of course, not on board with this direction. Algeria continues to provide extensive practical support for the rebels.  



In 2020 the Polisario Front obstructed an essential trade route between Morocco and nearby Mauritania, heightening tensions further. The Polisario Front has also been accused of acts of terrorism and human rights violations, particularly against women, in its camps in Algeria. And the group’s leaders have been accused of war crimes—including torture and murder—by human rights organizations.  



Morocco-Algeria friction likely to continue 



Algeria and Morocco have had a fraught relationship since the days when France maintained colonial governments in both countries. The French protectorate in Morocco ended in 1956. After a bloody conflict, Algeria won independence from France in 1962.  



The two nations have long jockeyed for power and influence in their region, and early in 2021, Algeria announced the severing of their diplomatic relationship. The ostensible reason was Morocco’s alleged “spying” in Algeria and the lack of progress in the fate of Western Sahara. Subsequent border disputes and a deadly drone attack on Algeria attributed to Morocco haven’t helped.  



Whether Biden ultimately rescinds his predecessor’s endorsement of Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara remains to be seen. As he concluded his North Africa trip, Blinken called on Algeria to curtail its alliances with Russia in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s continuing presence in Syria. He also called for reconciliation between Algeria and Morocco. Given the situation on the ground in Western Sahara, none of these pleas seem likely to be answered any time soon. 

On Wednesday, March 30, 2022, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog flew to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah II. Officials timed the visit to give Herzog and the Hashemite ruler a chance at smoothing over simmering tensions just ahead of Ramadan.  



The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, although in its essence a time to celebrate peace, charity, and repentance, has recently seen an escalation in the number and intensity of terroristic attacks on Jews in Israel and around the world. This year, Ramadan, Easter, and Passover fall at the same time of year, potentially heightening both religious observance and historic tensions. 



Herzog’s visit marked the first time an Israeli president had visited Jordan in an official capacity. It followed a trip to Amman by Israeli defense minister Benny Gantz and a rare visit to Ramallah in the West Bank by King Abdullah. 



It also comes after one of the deadliest strings of terror attacks to take place in Israel in years.  



Bnei Brak, Hadera, and Beersheba suffer unspeakable tragedy 



On March 29, 2022, a Palestinian gunman illegally in Israel from the West Bank used an M-16 assault rifle to slaughter five people in the space of about 10 minutes in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv. The victims were random individuals—two Ukrainian nationals at a neighborhood grocery store, a parent trying to protect a baby in a stroller, a man who stopped his car to intervene in the violence, and a police officer—tragically shot as they were going about their everyday lives and work. 



These murders came on the heels of two other attacks within a week by Israeli Arabs against Israeli Jews, with the death toll for the three closely spaced but apparently separate assaults standing at 11. In the earlier two cases, in the cities of Beersheba and Hadera, the assailants were allegedly linked to or inspired by the Islamic State terror group (ISIS). In all three deadly events, the terrorists were shot dead by law enforcement or civilians.  



At the funeral of one of the Beersheba victims, the victim’s husband said that the attackers had chosen to kill his wife “for no reason,” solely “because she was Jewish.” 



Campaigns of viciousness 



Although Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas took the unusual step of publicly condemning the killing sprees, members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad celebrated in the streets. Survey after survey has shown that numerous everyday Palestinians view such civilian murders as equivalent to the deaths of enemy combatants.  



These are life-changing tragedies for the families who have lost their loved ones, but they are also folded into the diplomatic narrative of the Middle East. The militant branch of the Palestinian Fatah movement known as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades claimed responsibility for the killings, declaring that the attacks were a “clear message written in blood” as a reply to a high-profile meeting held that same week in the Negev desert.  



Diplomacy amid horror 



At that meeting, Israel hosted top-level diplomats from the United States and four Muslim-majority nations (Egypt, Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates), with which it has concluded normalization agreements. Without concluding official documents, the participants nevertheless pledged greater cooperation with one another in diplomatic and economic efforts. The issue of what to do about Iran and its nuclear program loomed large over the summit, with all the participants to one degree or another coalescing into a de facto “stop Iran” bloc.  



US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he saw the meeting as a means of cementing a growing trend toward normalization between Israel and its neighbors that is becoming the “new normal” in the Mideast. It was at this Negev Summit that Blinken, who is Jewish, made a historic visit to the grave of Israel’s founding prime minister in the company of Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid. 



Many foreign analysts heralded the summit as a powerful statement about the strength of the US-Israel relationship and the developing alliances of both nations with more moderate Arab governments amid fragile negotiations with a nuclear Iran and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For yet-undetermined goods or ills, all these developments point to a rapid reconfiguring of the geopolitical order that has not been seen in this generation. 



Blinken also met with Palestinian leaders, who have felt increasingly sidelined by the recent cooperative and trade agreements between Israel and its Arab partners. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drawing renewed attention by the tragic spate of killings, also loomed large over the summit.  



As the Jerusalem Post has pointed out, most Christians did not participate in the hateful violence directed at European Jews over the centuries during Easter Holy Week, and most Muslims aren’t going to murder Jews in the name of Ramadan. The problem is, it only takes one person poisoned by the worst and most inhumane aspects of religious fervor to end the lives of strangers in a minute.

Russia’s unprovoked war of choice on Ukraine is having consequences that extend far beyond Eastern Europe—even to the Middle East. Since the Russian invasion began on February 24, 2022, the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region has seen its already food-insecure countries running short on products they regularly import from both Ukraine and Russia.  


Breaks in the food supply chain 


According to officials at the United Nations World Food Programme, millions of people across the Mideast could be driven deeper into food insecurity due to the devastation being wrought on Ukraine.  


Ukraine’s government, understandably desperate to protect the food supply for its own war-ravaged population, has put a ban on exports of vital crops like grains. Even if Russia were to withdraw immediately, there would still be a long lag between withdrawal and the return of farmers forced to flee their lands. It would also take time to replace agricultural equipment and infrastructure after so much has been destroyed. And war and its after-shocks are massive disruptions to the spring planting season and autumn harvest.  


Ukraine and Russia are among the major providers of farm products to the Middle East, where by mid-March the war had caused rising prices for bread and other necessities to increase still further. The wheat, other grains, and vegetable oil exported from Eastern Europe support affordable traditional diets across the MENA region.  


When bread is life 


In Egypt, bread is known as “aish”—“life.” The world’s largest importer of wheat, this country of more than 100 million people has in recent years sourced about 70 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine, which together account for about a quarter of the world’s supply. Egypt is also dependent on Ukrainian exports for more than 50 percent of its supply of sunflower oil.  


Egypt is an example of a country that must recalculate how to feed its own people in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. The nation is taking what the Financial Times called “drastic” means to prop up the subsidized bread program that feeds almost three-quarters of its population.  


Damaged infrastructure means food insecurity 


At least 60 percent of Lebanon’s imports of wheat also originate in Ukraine or Russia. What’s more, after a mid-2020 explosion in Beirut that destroyed grain silos, the country has lost much of its ability to warehouse food reserves. Only about a month’s worth of grain can even be stored near the port.  


All this means that middle-class professionals in Lebanon are discovering that they can’t find flour on grocery store shelves. They’re also seeing merchants charging higher prices. In the face of the soaring cost of bread, many people in Lebanon have watched as their wages plummet amid the country’s ongoing financial crisis. The Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value over the past few years alone.  


While Lebanon, given its already fragile economy, is an extreme case, the growing shortages are affecting people throughout the Mideast, sharpening existing anxieties about maintaining food security and social and political stability. Experts point out that the people around the world who are already on the brink of food insecurity—like those in dozens of MENA nations—will be the most affected, although richer countries can also expect shortages and higher prices. 


Violence affects food supplies 


Countries like Syria and Yemen, where there are preexisting conditions of civil war, population displacement, and damaged or destroyed infrastructure are in an equally dire situation. Yemen’s people, already struggling with widespread famine, get more than half their daily calories from bread. More than one-third of the country’s supply comes from lands around the Black Sea.  


“The world’s breadbasket” 


According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Ukraine contains within its borders about one-third of the most fertile soil on earth. The Black Sea region in and around Ukraine is responsible for about 12 percent of the world’s food exports.  


Ukraine in particular is known for its “black earth,” the highly arable lands that have earned it the designation as “the world’s breadbasket.” Farmers use this rich soil to produce an abundance of cereal crops like corn and barley, in addition to wheat. Sunflower oil and other oilseeds also grow particularly well in Ukraine, and the country serves as a major source of poultry.  


The situation is made even more critical due to the fact that much of Ukraine’s wheatfields are located in the east, which as of mid-March were bearing the brunt of Russia’s onslaught. 


New visions for food independence 


As a means of shoring up political stability, many Middle Eastern leaders are calling for increased support for domestic agriculture to provide independent food supplies for their countries. Noting that dependence on foreign imports makes their societies especially subject to soaring prices and the instability that comes with them in times of shortages, civil society leaders from a number of Arab countries have long argued in favor of crop production for domestic consumption rather than export. 


Given that the climate in the Middle East hangs in the balance between temperature and weather extremes and is highly sensitive to water scarcity, achieving full food self-sufficiency may be a tall order.  


Greater regional investments in technology to better manage land and water resources, and to give the greatest boost possible to agricultural production, will be necessary. Israel’s advanced techniques for irrigation, desalination, and crop production have already drawn the attention of its neighbors, and some collaborative cross-border projects have taken place. Given all that, it might no longer be unrealistic to think that global crises like the one in Ukraine might boost Arab-Israeli cooperation in ways that promote the well-being of all the region’s peoples.

Israel continues to operate under the Begin Doctrine, which states that Israel will always do its utmost to prevent the development of nuclear weapons on the part of any other state that poses an existential threat to its people’s existence. 


Menachem Begin’s lifelong championship of Israel 


Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913 – 1992, in office 1977 – 1983) defended Israel in numerous ways. Born in what is now Belarus, he led a Polish youth group working in the 1930s to create a Jewish state. He lost his parents and brother to the Nazis, but managed himself to escape to Lithuania. He suffered in a Siberian prison camp after the Soviet Union took him prisoner in 1940, but after being freed a year later, went to pre-state Palestine with the Polish fighting forces in exile. 


Begin commanded the militant Irgun fighting force from 1943 up to the year of statehood, in 1948. He went on to lead the Irgun’s political movement as an opposition party in the Knesset. In 1977, as head of the Likud (“Unity”) right-of-center coalition party, he formed a government as prime minister. His landmark negotiations with his Egyptian counterpart, President Anwar el-Sadat, led to the Camp David Accords and the lasting peace treaty between the two nations. The two men were jointly honored with the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.  


Far from being the “reluctant peacemaker” he was often portrayed as in American media, Begin knew exactly which lands conquered in war he believed could safely be given back to Egypt, and which could not. He made a bold move for peace while retaining the areas he thought essential to protecting the state. 


And it was Begin who laid the foundations for the modernized, well-resourced, high-precision security establishment that continues to work toward national security goals with tireless dedication. Numerous analysts credit Begin with planting the seeds that have grown into trees that now protect every man, woman, and child in the State of Israel. 


Operation Opera 


The Israeli Air Force (IAF) first put the Begin Doctrine to the test in 1981, after Saddam Hussein in Iraq developed the Osirak nuclear reactor. On June 7, after years of strategizing, a group of Israeli fighter jets—in what was known as Operation Opera—flew to Baghdad and did what no one in human history ever had before: They bombed a nuclear reactor. 


The Israeli F-15s and F-16s took only a minute and a half to drop multiple charges on the reactor, destroying it completely, before making their successful exit toward home. Their action prevented Hussein—a brutal authoritarian and bitterly anti-Semitic leader then at the height of his power—from developing the nuclear weapons with which he could well have annihilated the Jewish State. The 1980s was the same decade in which Iraq also showed no compunction in using chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, and poison gas against the Kurds. 


Colonel Ilan Ramon flew in the IAF mission against Osirak. He later recalled how his mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, inspired him to risk his life in the daring mission. Knowing firsthand what had happened to the Jews of Europe, he did not want the world’s only sure Jewish safe haven to be destroyed. Ramon, of course, is now remembered as the Israeli astronaut tragically killed aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. 


Operation Outside the Box 


On September 6, 2007, the Israelis put the Begin Doctrine into practice once again with Operation Outside the Box. This time, they took out a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert at Deir ez-Zur, this one built to serve another authoritarian, virulently anti-Israel dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Like Hussein, Assad has deployed chemical weapons, in this case against his own people. 


The Israelis had discovered the possible existence of the Syrian reactor a year before. Knowing Syria’s secretive collaboration with North Korea, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence directorate shared their suspicions with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Mossad director Meir Dagan, on the other hand, didn’t think Syria had the technological sophistication to build a reactor. But after Israel hacked the computer of a Syrian official, it was clear that Assad was constructing a reactor modeled on the North Koreans’ installation at Yongbyon. 


Once again, Israel was staring a threat to its very existence in the face. And, as was the case in Iraq, Syria’s possession of nuclear capabilities threatened the stability of the entire Mideast. 


Destroying a nuclear reactor isn’t for the faint-hearted. These types of preemptive attacks can go wrong at so many points: operationally, strategically, politically, holding the potential to escalate tensions across the region and result in severe blowback on Israel. The Israelis consulted their allies, and at first asked Washington to undertake the mission. President George W. Bush refused, but told Israel he would not stand in its way. 


The IAF fighters took off for Syria in the dead of night. The 17 tons of explosives they delivered to the reactor obliterated it. 


21st century tactics against Iran 


Over the course of more than a decade, Israel has been linked to a dozen or more (some sources say as many as 20) attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. These include delivery of the Stuxnet virus and other cyberattacks, as well as a mysterious explosion at Iran’s advanced uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in 2020. The Natanz strike, the result of a painstakingly planned and daring strategy, did serious damage to Iran’s nuclear program. 

There are a number of other publications that can help you gain a broader perspective on world events, particularly in volatile regions such as the Middle East. This will help increase readers’ familiarity with the full range of dialogue taking place in scholarly, diplomatic, policy-focused, and humanitarian circles today.  



Although each of the following often offers granular detail and a high level of discussion, they are also accessible to the generally educated reader with a basic understanding of Mideast history and politics. Here are just a few of the best-known and most influential news sources for this region: 



  1. The Middle East Forum



The Middle East Forum (online at MEForum.org) is well-known for its solid news and opinion pieces about this crucial part of the world. The MEF’s website offers deeply researched articles on a wide range of domestic and international issues as they play out across the region.  



Its focus is on promoting Western values of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. It also takes a strong position in support of Israel, emphasizes the case for Palestinian and global acceptance of the Jewish State, and promotes constructive engagement on containing the nuclear threat posed by Iran and countering the world-wide problem of Islamist terrorism.  



  1. 2. The Middle East Journal



The Middle East Journal (MEI.edu), published by the Middle East Institute, is the oldest currently published, peer-reviewed publication covering post-World War II developments throughout the region. Ever since 1947, the Journal has offered original research accompanied by incisive analysis and citations to additional sources.  



Contributors include area experts, experienced foreign policy hands, and scholars with international reputations. The Journal’s book reviews—although often covering extremely specialized, even niche, topics—are worth regular perusal, acquainting readers with more detailed treatments of the topics discussed in its articles.  



There’s a problem with the Journal, though, and it has to do with the fact that the funding sources of the Institute automatically call its objectivity into question. The United Arab Emirates has contributed tens of millions of dollars in recent years, and Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Qatar are other major donors.  



Although its leadership has publicly committed to the value of editorial independence—and although the MEI bills itself as “non-partisan”—expect a viewpoint often more in line with a traditional “Arabist” outlook, or with the current interests of large donor nations.  



  1. 3. Foreign Affairs



Foreign Affairs, published since 1922 and available online at ForeignAffairs.com, promotes itself as “not just a magazine, an education.” Its editors work to provide readers with a one-stop shop with comprehensive views of current and historical events. The focus is global, with a heavy emphasis on Middle East coverage, simply because of the importance of the region.  



The magazine is a product of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which promotes itself as a non-partisan, independent think tank. Over the generations, this magazine has served as one of the leading watering holes for both conservative and liberal establishment policy influencers. Multiple United States Secretaries of State have written for Foreign Affairs, as have luminaries like the late Colin Powell and, several generations ago, W. E. B. DuBois.  



Recent articles have dealt with the rise in sectarianism in the wake of American withdrawal from the Mideast; the machinations of strongman leaders like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; and the historic lessons we can draw from Henry Kissinger’s Middle East policy.  



  1. 4. Foreign Policy



Foreign Policy (ForeignPolicy.com) magazine can be considered somewhat akin him to Foreign Affairs. Founded in 1970 and published by The FP Group (a division of a holding company formerly known as The Washington Post Company), this magazine got its start as a deliberate alternative to the mainstream foreign policy press during the tense times of the Vietnam War.  



The co-founders were wealthy financier Warren Demian Manshel and political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, author of the influential—and controversial—1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. (Ironically, Foreign Affairs magazine published Huntington’s original statement of his Clash of Civilizations thesis.) 



Like Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy states that its aim is to offer comprehensive news and commentary on geopolitics and international relations. Its recent Mideast sections have included articles on how Russia’s attack on Ukraine affects Middle Eastern affairs; how economic devastation in Lebanon is driving people to join jihadi groups; and an analysis of the election debacle in Libya.  



  1. 5. The Jerusalem Post



Looking at media actually based in the Middle East, the Jerusalem Post (JPost.com) stands out among newspapers for its high degree of professionalism and its thorough coverage of regional and global affairs. Founded in pre-State Israel in 1932, the Post works to adhere to a rational centrist worldview, with a focus on exposing political corruption. Today, it’s Israel’s oldest—and largest-circulation—daily paper, read by political, economic, and cultural leaders worldwide.  



Recent articles have closely followed developments in Iran’s nuclear program, offering interviews with, and op-eds by, individuals at the top levels of Israeli government. Another focus has been on Israel’s fraught relationship with Russia in regard to Syria, and yet another on concerns surrounding the Taliban’s renewed power in Afghanistan.  



If it affects Israel, you’ll read about it in the Post.  


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.