As the international media is mesmerized by the Islamic State’s advance on Kobani or ‘Ayn al-Arab on the Syrian-Turkish border, Arab states and the United States would need to look beyond Kobani’s fate and the Islamic State’s territorial successes and defeats. The crumbling Levant poses a greater danger than IS and must be addressed — first and foremost by the states of the region.
The British colonial term Levant encompasses modern-day Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine, with a total population of over 70 million people. The population — mostly young, unemployed or underemployed, poor, and inadequately educated — has lost trust in their leaders and the governing elites.
The Levant has become a bloody playground for other states in the greater Middle East, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey. While dislocations in the Levant could be contained, the regional states’ involvement has transformed the area into an international nightmare. The resulting instability will impact the region for years to come regardless of IS’s short-term fortunes.
The Levantine state has become marginalized and ineffectual in charting a hopeful future for its people, who are drifting away from nationalist ideologies toward more divisive, localized, and often violent, manifestations of identity politics. National political identity, with which citizens in the Levant have identified for decades, has devolved mostly into tribal, ethnic, geographic, and sectarian identities. The crumbling state structure and authority gave rise to these identities, thereby fueling the current conflicts, which in turn are undermining the very existence of the Levantine state.
The three key non-state actors — IS, Hezbollah, and Hamas — have been the beneficiaries of the crumbling states, which were drawn up by colonial cartographer-politicians a century ago.
Although the so-called deep security state has been able to maintain a semblance of order around the national capital, the state’s control of territories beyond the capital is fading and is rapidly being contested by non-state actors.
This phenomenon is readily apparent in Baghdad, Damascus, Ramallah, and Gaza, partially so in Beirut, and less so in Amman. Salafi groups, however, are lurking in the background in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine ready to challenge state authority whenever they sense a power vacuum.
Political systems in the Levant are often propped up by domestic ruling elites, regional states, and foreign powers for a variety of parochial and transnational interests. More and more, these ruling structures appear to be relics of the past. A key analytic question is how long would they survive if outside economic, military and political support dries up?
Levant regimes comprise a monarchy in Jordan; a perennially dysfunctional parliamentary/presidential system in Lebanon; a brutal, teetering dictatorship in Syria; an autocratic presidency in Palestine; and an erratic partisan democracy in Iraq. They have subsisted on so-called rentier or “rent” economies — oil in Iraq, with the rest dependent on foreign aid. Providers of such aid have included GCC countries, Iran, Turkey, the United States, the EU, Russia, and others.
Corruption is rampant across most state institutions in the Levant, including the military and the key financial and banking systems. For example, billions of dollars in US aid to Iraq following the 2003 invasion have not been accounted for. According to the New York Times, American investigators in the past decade have traced huge sums of this money to a bunker in Lebanon.
The collapse of the Levant states in the next decade is not unthinkable. Their borders are already becoming more blurred and porous. The decaying environment is allowing violent groups to operate more freely within states and across state boundaries. IS is causing havoc in Iraq and Syria and potentially could destabilize Jordan and Lebanon precisely because the Levantine state is on the verge of collapse.
As these states weaken, regional powers — especially Saudi Arabia plus some of its GCC junior partners, Iran, and Egypt — will find it convenient to engage in proxy sectarian and ethnic wars through jihadist and other vigilante mercenaries.
Equally disturbing is that US policy toward a post-IS Levant seems rudderless without a strategic compass to guide it. It’s as if US policymakers have no stomach to focus on the “morning after” despite the fact that the airstrikes are proving ineffective in halting IS’s territorial advances. Kobani aside, what should the Arab states and the United States do about the future of the Levant?
1. If the Sunnis and Kurds are to be represented across all state institutions in Iraq, regional states with Washington’s help should urge Prime Minister Abadi to complete the formation of his new government on the basis of equity and fairness. Government and semi-public institutions and agencies must be made accountable and transparent and subject to scrutiny by domestic and international regulatory bodies. Otherwise, Iraq would remain a breeding ground for terrorists and jihadists.
2. If Washington remains committed to Assad’s removal, it should end its Russian roulette charade toward the Syrian dictator. Ankara’s view that Assad is more dangerous in the long run than IS is convincing and should be accepted and acted upon. If removing Assad remains a serious policy objective, is the coalition contemplating imposing a no-fly zone and a security zone on Syria’s northern border to facilitate Assad’s downfall?
3. If Hezbollah and other political parties do not play a constructive role in re-establishing political dialogue and stability in Lebanon, it won’t be long before the IS wars enter the country. Are there regional and international pressures being put on Hezbollah to end its support of Assad and disengage from fighting in Syria? The upcoming presidential election would be a useful barometer to assess the key Lebanese stakeholders’ commitment to long-term stability. If no candidate wins a majority, does Washington, in conjunction with its Arab allies, have a clear plan to get the Lebanese parliament to vote for a president?
4 . If the Obama administration urges Israel to facilitate a working environment for the Palestinian national unity government, to end its siege of Gaza, and dismantle its 47-year occupation, Palestine would no longer be an incubator of radical ideologies. An occupied population living in poverty, unemployment, alienation, repression, daily humiliation, and hopelessness and ruled by a corrupt regime is rarely prone to moderation and peaceful dialogue. On the contrary, such a population offers fertile recruiting ground for extremism.
5. It is in the United States’ interest to engage Iran and Saudi Arabia — the two countries that seem to meddle most in the Levant — in order to stop their proxy wars in the region. These sectarian wars could easily lead to an all-out military confrontation, which would surely suck in the United States and other Western powers. Israel would not be able to escape such a conflict either. The Saudi government claims that it opposes IS. Yet one would ask why hasn’t the Saudi clerical establishment denounced — forcefully and publicly — the IS ideology and rejected so-called Islamic State Caliphate? Why is it that thousands of IS jihadists are from Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Gulf countries?
6. Since Levant countries face high unemployment, it’s imperative to pursue serious job creation initiatives. Arab states, with Washington’s support, should begin massive technical and vocational education programs and entrepreneurial initiatives in the Levant countries. Young men and women should be trained in vocational institutes, much like the two-year college concept in the United States.
Vocational fields that suffer from shortages in Levant countries include plumbing, carpentry, home construction, electricity, welding, mechanics, automotive services, truck driving, computers and electronics, health services, hotels and tourism, technology management, and TV and computer repairs.
In addition to vocational training, wealthy Arab countries should help the Levant establish funds for entrepreneurial, job-creation initiatives, and start-ups. A partnership between government and the private sector, with support from the US and other developed countries, could be the engine that drives a new era of job creation and economic growth in the region where the IS cancer is metastasizing.
Let’s be clear, the United States has significant leverage to help implement these policies should American leaders decide to do so. One could ask why should the US make such a commitment? If IS is primarily a threat to Levantine countries, why can’t they deal with it?
These are fair questions but, as we have discovered with Ebola, what happens in Liberia doesn’t stay in Liberia. A crumbling Levant will have ramifications not just for the region but for the United States and the rest of the world as well.
Emile Nakhleh is a research professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”