The approach in the Levant should be to hold and manage territory using international military force, deterring further escalations, for the indefinite future until informal zones of influence might crystallise into more robust institutional structures. This may take years, if it ever happens. At the current juncture, the biggest risk is premature US withdrawal.
By Matthew Parish
The modern Middle East was shaped by World War One. The principal two diplomatic events involved in carving up the Ottoman Empire to create the Middle East we see today were the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. The former created complex multi-ethnic states in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and denied statehood to Kurdistan. One hundred years later, all of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq have suffered devastating civil wars, and the Kurdish question has propagated miscellaneous insurgency movements for decades. The Balfour Declaration anticipated a Jewish state in the Middle East, that after World War Two was founded as Israel. The next most important event in creating the modern Middle East was the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, that transformed the country from a pro-western nation to a Shia fundamentalist political bloc. The most recent formative event was the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, that overturned Sunni minority rule in favour of a majority Shia government. Now the entire region is profoundly unstable.
This essay is almost too broad in its sweep. It asks where the Levant might be going next, that question being framed through the lens of historical events rather than the recent political decisions of states intervening in the region. Recent commentary has focused upon individual problems (the Islamic State; Iranian nuclear proliferation); individual politicians (Bashar Al-Assad; Haider Al-Abadi); or individual intervening states (Turkey; Russia; the United States). But there are more sweeping forces at work. The Levant was the zone of confluence between the Ottoman (Sunni) and Persian (Shia) empires. These two branches of Islam have a long history of conflict. Where they met, the Sunnis and Shia were intermingled as is common along empires’ borders. Indeed empires often encourage it, seeing ethnic mixing as a sort of socio-economic glue to fortify the notion of a single political structure.
Imposed atop the religious divide was/is an ethnic and linguistic division, between persons who speak Turkish (or a variant upon it), Arabic, and Farsi (Persian). In what is now Iraq, a majority of the population (at least in the centre and south) are Arab Shia. The Kurds speak a language akin to Farsi, but they are Sunni. They are in territory split between modern-day Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. As one moves west from Iraq, the influence of Shia Islam diminishes but not entirely. What is now Syria is a Sunni-majority region, albeit with an Alawite minority. The Alawis are a ghulat (minority sect) of Shia Islam dating from the 9th century . Also as one moves west, the influence of Christianity increases. Syria has a Christian minority; Lebanon has a significant Christian population. Israel is majority Jewish; the Palestinians are majority-Sunni but with a Christian minority. The Caucasian states, being associated with the Russian Empire through tranches of their history, have developed in slightly different directions but are not irrelevant to an understanding of the Middle Least. Georgia and Armenia are majority-Christian, a number of whom are descended from Ottoman Empire Christians. Azerbaijan is a nation of Shia people who speak a Turkic language. Further north in the Caucasus, in Russian territory, are Chechen and Dagestani people. These are mountainous tribes who have embraced Sunni Islam. So that is our Levantine mosaic.
As with the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990’s, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during and in the aftermath of World War One was accompanied by widespread bloodshed and population movement. The people who had been forcibly integrated in the course of empire decided that they wanted to be forcibly de-integrated. This pattern is common. The territories now comprising Syria, Iraq and Lebanon were to a substantial extent spared immediate civil conflict as Ottoman rule of the Levant was rescinded, because these lands became subject to British and French suzerainty. The victorious European powers at the end of World War One effectively divided the Levant between them as new colonies, an that was the essence of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Because one form of colonialism was replacing another, domestic nationalist political movements were not immediately unleashed and hence civil conflict was averted at least initially.
However as British and French influence subsequently waned over the years and decades, perennial political instability swamped the region. Having divided the Levant into countries on more or less arbitrarily-drawn lines, the Anglo-French governing philosophy was to instal minority-dominated governments in the region and/or multi-ethnic governing structures. As their own imperial authorities waned, the British and the French left a range of domestic government structures that were so unstable the region was plagued by coups, revolutions and instability. Eventually minority-group tyrannies took hold in Damascus (the Alawite Al-Assad family from 1970) and Baghdad (1979-2003). Lebanon collapsed into civil war from 1974 to 1992. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began soon after establishment of the State of Israel in 1947. Iraq descended into civil war soon after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Syria followed suit in 2011. Although the Israel-Palestinian conflict was ostensibly a rallying cause uniting a number of different Arab countries, and Iran, against Israel, the breadth of the Islamic world’s support for the Palestinians was never quite as overwhelming as it might have appeared. A number of states in the region maintained discreet contact with Israel, even if formal diplomatic relations were not always realistic.
After the US invasion of Iraq, the prevailing dynamic in the Middle East ceased so much to be the Israel-Palestinians conflict, but instead the emerging conflict between Sunnis and Shia for domination of the contested Levant. As the minority Sunni government fell in Baghdad, to be replaced with a majority Shia government, the Shia political movement saw its opportunity to acquire greater influence in the region. Baghdad and Tehran, formerly implacable foes In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war (1981-88), now became close allies. Damascus had friendly relations with Tehran, the Alawite regime feeling ideological proximity with the Iranian Shia. Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister (a consociational power-sharing arrangement between Sunnis, Shia and Christians had emerged following its Civil War) was assassinated in 2005. This led to the Syrian peacekeeping / occupational force in Lebanon being driven out of the country through popular revulsion at the Syrians, who were widely held responsible for the murder. When the Syrian Civil War began, the Syrian government called upon Iran for military support. Hence the Levant because a battleground in the historical religious dispute between Shia and Sunni Muslims. Russia stepped into the Syrian Civil War to support the Alawite government in Damascus, fearing that its collapse in favour of a majority-Sunni regime would jeopardise Russia’s only Mediterranean military base, on Syrian territory.
Russia’s intervention proved decisive to a degree, reinforcing Damascus and creating the spectre of a Shia arc of influence stretching from Tehran via Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut. The Sunni forces in both Syria and Iraq then combined, with Sunni financing from the Gulf, to try to create a new Sunni-dominated territory called Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (“ISIL”). The territory thereby formed, with its own primitive governing structures, was so obnoxious in its disregard for human rights that a US-led international drive was developed to eliminate it. In the meantime, the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq took advantage of the chaos to seize territory in northern Syria with a Kurdish plurality, and called it “Rojava” (Kurdish for “west”). The Kurds also achieved territorial advances in Iraq, from which they were later partially pushed back (or voluntarily withdrew once it became clear their US allies would not support their continued occupation). Turkish armed forces then entered northwestern Syria to repel Kurdish forces from parts of Rojava and replace them with a Sunni-majority government in the region. At the time of writing, fighting over Rojava remains underway.
What do we do now? Perhaps the first question is to ask who “we” are. The reason the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have lasted so long, despite fairly comprehensive ethnic cleansing, loss of life and population movement, is because no consensus has been found upon the future for the region. Everyone involved in the region believes there is still plenty to fight for. Another iteration of a Sunni proto-state (that is to say, an Islamic State without the same egregious levels of human rights abuses) is the subject of discussion in the region. The Kurds are still fighting for an internationally recognised independent state. Russia believes it has won in Syria, and applies its military forces to reinforce that victory. The Shia government in Baghdad feels approximately in control of a highly dysfunctional state, but it cannot reach a workable agreement with the Kurds about exploration of petrochemical resources and division of revenues. Unless and until that happens, Iraq will remain at the very least chaotic. Turkey has said it will continue pushing back against the Kurdish Rojava until the Euphrates River, but there is no guarantee it may not go further. The Israelis regard Iran, and Shia Islam, as far more dangerous and hostile to their interests than Sunni Islam. They feed this antipathy into their ally the United States, that operates a vehemently anti-Iran policy: effectively one of containment. This places Baghdad in the middle between Washington and Tehran. Fear of Tehran dominating politics in Baghdad keeps the United States engaged in Iraq. Lebanon limps on, trying to prevent the Syrian conflict from spilling over onto its territory.
Everybody tries to avoid talk of redrawing borders, for fear of the “Srebrenica effect”. As soon as it becomes clear that new external or internal borders are shortly to be drawn (as became apparent during the war in and Herzegovina in the summer of 1995), there is a risk of unleashing massive ethnic cleansing by military forces. This is done to try to pre-empt the borders shortly to drawn. If new international or internal boundaries were to be drawn in the Levant, then it is not clear where they would be drawn and every actor would draw them in different places. In such circumstances, a “summit with maps”, in which every power involved meets to redraw the regional political geography in a grand bargain, hardly seems likely. Many civil wars fight themselves to a stalemate, whereupon a troubled peace emerges, initially supervised by peacekeepers and later reinforced with political institutions. In the Levant, the stakes seem high: oil, and a historical fissure within Islam. The Levant is a singular region of civil conflict in which the usual tools of international peace-building do not seem capable of deployment.
Moreover nobody seems willing even to de-militarise. The Americans tried that before. They regretted it: they were soon back in the fray, directing the effort to eliminate the Islamic State. The Russians will not de-militarise either, all too aware that the Syrian President in Damascus now survives only at their sufferance. Turkey would like to militarise Syria as much as possible, to foreclose any potential further Kurdish land grab that might jeopardise the territorial integrity of political stability of the Kurdish regions of south-eastern Turkey,
Because nobody can comprehensively defeat all their opponents – too many Great Power and regional power interests are involved – and no grand bargain is possible either – the Levant must be recast in a different way. The first point to bear in mind is that this is, and alway has been, an extremely troubling region. That is unlikely to change. Hence the Levant is a problem to be managed, not to be solved. It has proven possible to manage the Levant in the past. The Sykes-Picot Agreement is often much maligned as the source of the region’s problems. But that may not be fair. It replaced a earlier accord, the Treaty of Sèvres, that would have created an independent Kurdistan at the end of World War One. The reason this plan was abandoned was because it began to be understood that a Kurdish Republic would create even more problems. Its borders would need to be carved from the territories of other states. It would be landlocked and at the mercy of those other states. They would likely invade. Its proposed borders were indefensible. This was before the vast oil fields were found under Kirkuk. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was not a deal between the victorious allies to carve up the spoils of war. There were no spoils in the Levant. There were only troubles. Sykes-Picot was a burden-sharing agreement. Both the British and the French wanted out of the Levant as soon as they could. It is now commonly accepted that when the United States decided that they wanted into the Levant in 2003, they made a mistake. But mistakes must be lived with.
The Levant is likely subject to indefinite international military and political interest, given the strategic buffer status it occupies between Sunni and Shia blocs; current Iranian resurgence and determination to develop militarily, involving acquisition of nuclear weapons; Turkey’s ongoing conflict with the Kurds; a desire to exploit Iraqi (and even Iranian) oil reserves; and Tehran’s hostility towards Jerusalem which, while it might seem irrational on the part of Iran appears to be a mentality that will remain part of the Middle Eastern political landscape indefinitely. No formal agreement upon its division being realistic, an informal status quo must take hold in which Syria and Iraq are divided into spheres of influence and Jordan is supported financially to alleviate the political instability currently infecting the only comparative Levantine success story to date.
Foreign military forces must not be withdrawn. They should be left in place as guarantors of peace. If we follow the Anglo-French approach after Sykes-Picot, of withdrawing too quickly, the region will descend once again into chaos. The Levant, for now, needs to remain an armed garrison. Some state-building can be done, in the Great and Regional Powers’ respective spheres of influence. But do not dream of attempting a de facto re-establishment of Syria and Iraq as centralised states. There is no precedent. When Syria and Iraq were centralised states, they were shockingly bad ones half together only by the most abominable dictators running authoritarian regimes.In the era of social media, it is not clear that the level of control of information necessary to run a police state is possible anymore. Syria and Iraq may simply prove impossible to return to anything approaching a semblance of the status quo ante.
The approach in the Levant should be to hold and manage territory using international military force, deterring further escalations, for the indefinite future until informal zones of influence might crystallise into more robust institutional structures. This may take years, if it ever happens. At the current juncture, the biggest risk is premature US withdrawal. The Americans may wonder why they are in the region at all; the answer is because if they withdraw then the Levant will once again deteriorate rapidly. The Americans tried this before, after their surge. They were soon back. With the Levant, once one is in there is no easy way out. The Americans must stay where they are, hopefully having their troops do the minimum save keep the peace. This is important for their allies; for the stability of the region; to maintain a balance of power; and to promote geopolitical stability in the world’s most unstable subcontinent.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 articles on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.