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Washington must think differently about “the region”

By Anthony Elghossain After decades of dormancy, the Levant is rising again. Syria’s war, Lebanon’s seasonal conflicts, and ongoing shifts in Iraq, Egypt and Turkey are restoring the Levant’s characteristic chaos and cosmopolitanism. In turn, instead of continuing to approach the region disjointedly, Washington must resurrect the Levant as an idea. Beirut, Babylon and beyond: The …


By Anthony Elghossain

After decades of dormancy, the Levant is rising again. Syria’s war, Lebanon’s seasonal conflicts, and ongoing shifts in Iraq, Egypt and Turkey are restoring the Levant’s characteristic chaos and cosmopolitanism. In turn, instead of continuing to approach the region disjointedly, Washington must resurrect the Levant as an idea.

Beirut, Babylon and beyond: The Levant emerges and expands as a political order

The Levant is the Middle East’s battleground—home to ideological, social and geopolitical struggles, which overlap nicely with long-running local disputes. Over the coming decades, this struggle will deepen and expand.

Some regimes will crumble or survive as rump factions; others will consolidate their grip. Elements of the old guard will adapt, as elites and counter-elites joust for power. Foreign states will compete for influence (almost as a matter of right).

Money, weapons, technology, people and ideas will flow across borders. States will erode in some ways and solidify in others: Their boundaries and formal agreements will matter less, but their norms, elites, groups and institutions will matter more.

Rival Levantine factions—collections of Lebanese and Syrian elites, political vehicles and foreign patrons—will expand their long struggle over the region’s heart. Alongside Beirut, Damascus will emerge as a stage in its own right. The countries’ intimate, complex relationship will require creative management, particularly as the brutality, social disruption and seductive opportunity of violence take hold.

Over time, the Greater Levant may increasingly resemble and interact with the Syro-Lebanese core. Iraq may splinter or it may settle into a decentralize order: With tribal, ethnic and religious roots, Iraq’s regions won’t submit easily to Baghdad.

In any event, provinces and communities will retain autonomy and develop varied relations with their neighbours. The Kurds have already cultivated foreign investment and tentative relations with groups across the region. The Shiites will look to Iran, as Sunnis remain tied to the Gulf Arabs. All will seek America.

Jordan and Israel will resist. With few resources, a Palestinian majority and a rapidly growing population, the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan would confront a challenging future even in more stable times. Demographically vulnerable, geographically precarious and militarily titanic, Israel worries the new regimes may increasingly challenge its policies and—someday—its right to exist.

But change could favour both countries. In a region dominated by centralized regimes clinging to enforced illusions of homogeneity and vast peripheral powers interested in order, Israel and Jordan were geopolitical anomalies.

If the emerging environment consists of more diverse states, de facto statelets, or competing centres of power within each, then Israel and Jordan would be less at odds with their surroundings. (Palestinian questions will challenge both states, regardless of other outcomes.)

The peripheral powers: Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the Gulf encircling and engaging the Levant

The peripheral powers—Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the Gulf Arabs—have defined the Levant’s contours for centuries. (And parts of Turkey and Egypt would fall under its historical definition.) After the Ottoman collapse, insecure regimes and the Israeli-Arab conflict nurtured insularism and interrupted the Levant.

New opportunities, mainly economic and diplomatic, will attract these powers. New challenges, mainly political and social, will deter and draw them. And so the peripheral powers will drift from encircling to engaging the region.

With an eye to the West, Turkey will increase political and economic ties with Arab neighbours, attempt to manage Kurdish separatism and delicately counter Iran. Of course, Turkey’s power rests on the Kemalist military’s ideological coherence and cooperation with the United States. But economic appetite, cultural affinity and a developing Islamic veneer will pull Turkey toward the Arab world—sometimes as a player, sometimes as a referee.

Despite its tumult, Egypt may grow more energetic. (Under Mubarak, Egypt was steady. Unfortunately, it was also stale.) At home, the Muslim Brotherhood and the political-military establishment will carve out spheres of influence. The Salafists and liberals—a fragmented Koshary Coalition—will probably compete on the fringes and on particular issues.

Fitfully, the country will steward growing trade. Cairo will recover as an intellectual hub; Egypt will regain its voice on Arab-Israeli affairs. To guard order, promote investment and tourism, protect vital energy and trade routes, and support like-minded groups elsewhere, Egypt will eventually reengage the Levant.

Iran and the Gulf Arabs will continue a contest marked by Sunni-Shiite, Arab-Iranian and nakedly geopolitical rivalries. For decades, they’ve struggled in the Levant; now the gloves are off. To the extent possible, Iran will bolster the Assad regime and its base in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, various Shiite factions in Iraq and Hamas in Palestine. (With Iran constrained like never before, more symbiotic relations will develop within its network, as proxies—particularly Hezbollah—increasingly support it and each other.)

Undecided, the Gulf Arabs will support militants and moderates throughout the Levant: exiles and rebels in Syria; emerging Islamists and established elites in Lebanon; the old guard, the Brotherhood and Salafists in Egypt; Baath remnants, tribes and Islamists in Iraq; and Fatah and a host of Palestinian parties.

Chaos and cosmopolitanism in the Levant: A region resurrects itself

For centuries, the Levant has existed as a geographic area and a theatre for competing influences. But since the rise of Arab dictators in the mid-20th century, the Levant’s social and political manners have withered. In Egypt, Nasser killed Alexandria and Mubarak stifled Cairo. The Baghdad of old perished under Saddam. And the Assads quelled Damascus even as they tried, and failed, to tame Beirut—today’s only Levantine city.

Similarly, the Levant has since expired in Washington. Of course, it has survived on letterheads and business cards, in the tangential concessions of policymakers and analysts, and in the tomes of archaeologists, historians and travel-writers. But it’s a shade of an idea: convenient shorthand for a collection of states, not an overarching understanding of the place.

To be fair, compartmentalised thought suited the old order… Syria was stable. Lebanon was a sideshow. Jordan was dependent. Egypt was reliable. Iraq was tame. Turkey was friendly. Israel was; Palestine was not. Moreover, while events in these states influenced those in others, they weren’t—and weren’t seen to be—unfolding in the region’s common spaces.

Change is already underway. To craft policies, allocate resources, cultivate expertise, train and deploy personnel, and manage its interests effectively, Washington must change too.

The Levant: Think about it.

Anthony Elghossain is an attorney at a global law firm in Washington, DC. He blogs at Rational Security and Page Lebanon.

This article originally appeared in NOW

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