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Middle East is still in shambles, but the UN’s attention has moved on for now

Analysts lament world leaders appearing to accept region’s nations being wrecked and divided for the foreseeable future: ‘You can’t be safe if your neighbors’ house is on fire’

A man walks through a heavily damaged hospital in the city of Afrin, Syria, on June 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)
A man walks through a heavily damaged hospital in the city of Afrin, Syria, on June 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — There was a time not long ago when uprisings and wars in the Arab world topped the agenda at the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York.

With most of those conflicts in a stalemate, the world’s focus has shifted to more daunting global challenges such as the still raging coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as well as new crises in Ethiopia’s embattled Tigray region and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

But the situation in the Middle East has deteriorated significantly in more countries and in more ways in the last two years. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are teetering on the brink of humanitarian catastrophe, with skyrocketing poverty and an economic implosion that threatens to throw the region into even deeper turmoil.

“The region’s been crowded out by other global crises, but there’s also a sense of Western hopelessness after so many years of crisis,” said Julien Barnes-Dacey, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

After more than a decade of bloodshed and turmoil sparked by Arab Spring uprisings and an Islamic State terror group onslaught, most of the region’s Arab countries have settled into a military stalemate or frozen conflict, accompanied by worsening economies, rising poverty rates and heavier repression.

In Yemen, an ongoing six-year war has spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving the country on the brink of famine. The head of the UN food agency warned on Wednesday that 16 million people there “are marching towards starvation.”

Libya, torn apart for years by rival militias backed by foreign governments, is struggling to find unity. From its shores, more and more desperate people are risking their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe.

Members of a delegation’s entourage wait outside a security checkpoint on the sidewalk in front of the United Nations headquarters, in September 21, 2021, during the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York. (AP/John Minchillo, Pool)

Iraq, Syria and Lebanon — once countries that made up the cultural heart of the Middle East — are all witnessing a significant economic unraveling, spurred among other things by corruption and political leaders focused on preserving their own interests rather than meeting their people’s basic needs.

The most shocking fall in the past two years has been Lebanon, a tiny, multi-religious nation on the eastern Mediterranean with the highest per capita proportion of refugees in the world.

The country has been in freefall since a financial crisis began in late 2019, plunging about three-quarters of the population into poverty in the past months and triggering a brain drain not seen since the 1975-90 civil war days.

The crisis was accelerated by a massive explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 that killed more than 200 people and destroyed parts of the city.

Long proud of their entrepreneurial skills, Lebanese now struggle to get electricity, fuel or medicine, and most households can hardly scrape together enough for their next meal.

Motorcycle drivers wait to get fuel at a gas station in Beirut, Lebanon, on August 31, 2021. (AP Photo/ Hassan Ammar, File)

“If you’re a Lebanese civilian, there is probably more likelihood to die from medicine shortages in 2021 than there was from a bullet in the 1970s and 1980s,” said Joyce Karam, a Lebanese journalist and adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University.

“The economic devastation is eating at the pillars of the state in a way that is getting to a point of becoming irreversible.”

A complete collapse in Lebanon could send a new wave of refugees to Europe. In Iraq, a country gripped by poverty, poor infrastructure and an unresolved displacement issue, desperation could lead to renewed violence.

Also getting little traction so far this year is this summer’s 11-day Gaza war, the latest round of fighting between Israel and the Hamas terror group that rules the territory.

Thousands of rockets rained down on Israeli cities, killing 13 people, with most projectiles intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. In Gaza, thousands of homes were destroyed or severely damaged and 250 people were killed, with Israel saying that most of them were members of terror groups and international bodies saying that almost half were civilians.

Neighbors gather in a clearing strewn with debris from an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, on May 26, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

“How many more homes will be lost? How many more children will die before the world wakes up?” Jordan’s King Abdullah said in pre-recorded remarks to the UN General Assembly.

While many UN General Assembly gatherings in the past 10 years were characterized by a flurry of diplomatic activity in an attempt to find a political solution for crises in Middle East countries, none of them are expected to feature prominently in this year’s meetings in New York.

“Western actors feel out of ideas and energy in terms of focusing high-level attention on putting the region on a better track, particularly given wider global challenges,” Barnes-Dacey said.

A combination of war-weariness, donor fatigue and a long list of other world problems has forced Syria, Yemen and other Middle East conflicts to take a back seat, with world leaders seemingly resigned to live with wrecked and divided nations for the foreseeable future.

In his first address before the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, US President Joe Biden did not mention the Arab world’s festering crises, focusing instead on global issues of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, tensions with China and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Malnourished girl Rahmah Watheeq receives treatment at a feeding center at Al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen, November 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed, File)

Karam, the Lebanese journalist, said that the Biden team has its hands full between COVID-19, exiting Afghanistan and pivoting to Asia.

“But they’re running the risk of letting these crises fester and being forced to step in later when they become out of control or a threat to US interests,” she said.

Still, analysts say that neither Europe nor the West can afford to ignore the economic implosion happening in the Middle East.

“For Europe, having much of its eastern and southern border turning into one huge arc of crisis is first of all a lost opportunity of staggering magnitude,” said Heiko Wimmen, project director for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group.

He said that destabilization will project itself into Europe and, to a lesser degree because of the distance, the US, by fueling desperation, migration and instability, at the same time giving momentum and credibility for far-right ideological tendencies.

He said that while the US may want to extract itself from the region, the Europeans don’t have this luxury.

“You can’t be safe if your neighbors’ house is on fire,” Wimmen said.

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