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God spare us the woes of ‘humanitarian considerations’

Eyad Abu Shakra

Published: Updated:

Whosoever, like me, is an avid follower of Western TV channels dedicated to geographical and historical investigations, often has their pleasure interrupted by advertisements of charitable and humanitarian initiatives and organizations, that abound on such channels. These advertising messages range from combatting incurable diseases and endemic epidemics, to poverty and hunger, through appeals for securing clean drinking water and protecting endangered animals or those suffering from cruelty.

Personally, I have absolutely no objection to supporting the lofty goals of these advertising messages, especially those produced by reputable international institutions, such as UNICEF, the Wild Environment Protection Fund, and others. What concerns me, however, despite being absolutely sympathetic to and supportive of their cause, is that some of these ads inadvertently overlook those responsible for many cases of suffering that should neither be regarded nor treated as if they were natural disasters.

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For instance, I do not wish of course for an international organization such as UNICEF to remain silent to the suffering due to the famine in Yemen or contaminated drinking water in troubled African countries—but to treat such cases as if they were caused by earthquakes or hurricanes, misses the point. Although donations to victims of crises of political origin may temporarily relieve suffering, they actually lead to two perilous outcomes; distraction and sedation, by overlooking a reality that must be ended once and for all. International humanitarian appeals to help our kin in Yemen will not bear fruit at a time when the international institutions in charge of political and security fail to stop a detriment such as Iranian expansionism in the southern Red Sea, especially since the price tag of ballistic missiles and drones used by the Houthis against the Yemeni people and the territories of neighboring countries is sufficient for resolving the ordeals of poverty, hunger and disease in our beloved Yemen.

Incidentally, in this regard, we behold the US’s official justification for contravening the economic blockade on the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria as to allow the supply of Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Syrian territory. Dorothy Shay, US Ambassador in Beirut, justified violating the embargo -- backed by sanctions under the Caesar Act – due to on the “humanitarian needs” of the Lebanese people languishing under Hezbollah’s chokehold, that is, Iran’s chokehold, amid the fuel shortage that is weighing on the transportation, medical, education, and other sectors. On this note, I argue that since the United States is an institutionally-run country, we can infer that a decision of this nature was made at the highest levels in the Department of State and the Pentagon, and received the blessings of the White House.

As in the case of Yemen, where most of UN envoys busied themselves with all the details of the Yemeni crisis except for the strategic role played by the Houthi insurgency in the southwest of the Arabian Peninsula. Albeit the “humaneness” of the US initiative -- and the French initiative before that -- deliberately ignores the direct cause of the political crisis, it can clearly spot the urgency of the humanitarian aspect in Lebanon. Thus, the seemingly humanitarian issue has become somewhat of a “fig leaf” for masquerading ambiguous international political approaches, in keeping with the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran in Vienna.

On the other hand, approaches in Syria and Iraq are not very different from those in Yemen and Lebanon, save for minutiae. In Syria, Paris stepped aside, leaving the protection of Eastern Christian minorities to Moscow. Washington changed the definition of "useful Syria" for oil considerations from west to east and shifted its attention to the areas east of the Euphrates. Previously, during the Obama and Trump administrations, the US leadership had also altered its priorities in Syria, by going from deterring a regime that it used to place on terrorism watchlists, to confronting ISIS exclusively.

Consequently, “confronting ISIS” in Syria replaced “humanitarian considerations” in Lebanon in order to justify turning the blind eye to the crux and root of the problem. This comes despite the fact that Washington -- from the reality of its presence in the areas east of the Euphrates – bears witness to the processes of demographic change, especially in the south of Deir ez-Zour province (particularly in the cities of al-Bukamal and al-Mayadin), to secure the Iranian corridor from Tehran to Beirut. Moreover, the US is undoubtedly fully aware through its Israeli ally of similar efforts exerted in southern Syria, whether in the vicinity of the capital Damascus, or in the three southern border provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and As-Suwayda.

On to Iraq, as it gears up for elections that many observers deem unlikely to bring about effective solutions to the continuing political intractability, and the assiduous march of the Popular Mobilization Forces statelet against the Iraqi state. This is the sobering reality, despite Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to preserve the legitimacy of the state, Iraq's national identity and its Arab relations. Here, too, ISIS operations appear at a “seasonal” pace, as if they’ve been planned to enflame the Shia sectarian cord and provide pretext and ammunition for the Popular Mobilization Forces’ statelet whenever the militant group’s influence wanes on the street.

Furthermore, there is the scheduled US withdrawal from Iraq, which many expect to be achieved in light of the Iraqi government's conclusion of a truce with Iranian-backed Iraqi militias that prevents these militias from targeting locations where American forces are stationed. The truce comes within a strategic agreement signed between Baghdad and Washington in late July. Iraqi observers hope that the agreement will constitute a political victory for al-Kadhimi that will strengthen, on the one hand, his position in the battle to head the next government, and on the other hand, will curry favor with Tehran as the Iranian leadership is biting its nails in wait of the US withdrawal.

In the face of this disturbing Middle Eastern scene, US and European preoccupation with details becomes apparent in order to avoid addressing the core issues – maybe because there are no concrete agreements on them. Perhaps this is revealed by the three following cases:

First, is the intersection of interests and the ceilings of external influence in Syria, especially Iranian influence, which everyone is trying to avoid discussing, and limiting negotiations with Tehran to the technical aspects of the nuclear agreement.

Second, is the manner by which the US withdrew from Afghanistan that shocked Washington's NATO allies and sent alarm bells ringing about America’s level of commitment and understanding of its tactical interests.

And third, the sudden US-French dispute sparked by Australia’s cancellation of the French submarines deal, and its decision instead to join an east Asian alliance that includes the US and Britain and aims to address the Chinese threat in the region and in the Pacific Basin.

A region awash with complexities and problems, whose challenges are not limited to humanitarian issues, which – notwithstanding their importance – remain an outcome and not a cause. So long as the great powers abandon their responsibilities and are preoccupied with their narrow interests, they may not survive for long from the repercussions of misaddressing the suffering of others.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.