The US and a Crumbling Levant

by Emile Nakhleh

The international media is currently mesmerized by the advance of Daesh (ISIS or ISIL) on the Syrian city of Kobani near the Turkish border, but Arab states and the US need to look beyond Kobani’s fate and Daesh’s territorial successes and defeats. The crumbling Levant poses a greater danger than Daesh 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 its 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 Daesh’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—Daesh, 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 thus presents itself: 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 Gulf Cooperation Council (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. Daesh 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-Daesh 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 Daesh’s territorial advances.

Kobani aside, what should the Arab states and the United States do about the future of the Levant?

1)  Iraq.  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 Haider al-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)  Syria.  If Washington remains committed to President Bashar al-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 Daesh is convincing and should be accepted and acted upon.

If removing Assad remains a serious policy objective, is the US-led coalition contemplating the implementation of a no-fly zone and a security zone on Syria’s northern border any time soon to facilitate Assad’s downfall?

3)  Lebanon.  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 Daesh 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?

Unless Lebanon gets its political house in order, religious sectarianism could yet again rear its ugly head in that fragile state and tear the country apart.

4)  Palestine.  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)  Iran and Saudi Arabia.  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 US and other Western powers. Israel would not be able to escape such a conflict either.

The Saudi government claims that it opposes Daesh. Yet one would ask: Why hasn’t the Saudi clerical establishment denounced—forcefully and publicly—Daesh’s ideology and rejected the so-called Islamic State Caliphate? Why is it that thousands of Daesh-jihadists are from Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf countries?

6)  Development.  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. Services in these fields are badly needed. But thousands of young men and women have yet to be trained to fulfill these needs.

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 Daesh 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. Yet one could ask why the US should make such a commitment. If Daesh 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.

Photo: A woman reacts as smoke rises from the Syrian town of Ayn al-Arab, known as Kobani by the Kurds, after a strike from the US-led coalition as it seen from the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern village of Mursitpinar in Turkey on October 13, 2014. Credit: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Emile Nakhleh

Dr. Emile Nakhleh was a Senior Intelligence Service officer and Director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Program at the Central Intelligence Agency. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a Research Professor and Director of the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico, and the author of A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World and Bahrain: Political Development in a Modernizing State. He has written extensively on Middle East politics, political Islam, radical Sunni ideologies, and terrorism. Dr. Nakhleh received his BA from St. John’s University (MN), the MA from Georgetown University, and the Ph.D. from the American University. He and his wife live in Albuquerque, New Mexico.



  1. Mr Nakhieh puts some of this in perspective, at least from his view point. Of course, anyone with a whiff of sense, knows that you don’t go into a field with a 1,000 bee hives and tip them over and beat them with a stick, with the intent that they-the bees- will allow you to do so without attacking you in return, in some way, shape, form. Of course, considering that the idiots in Washington believe they have all the answers, seem to have taken the cue from the bees, in that they all want to be recognized as having the answer to an unanswerable problem created by stupidity, ineptness, ignorance, in any order you want. Any way one looks at it, failure is just that, failure.

  2. I simply do not understand the Washington establishment view that Assad has to be toppled.
    It makes no sense.
    If he goes, what next? Another Afghanistan? Who, in their right mind, would want that?
    Having toppled Saddam Hussein, now look at Iraq. Is that what everyone wants for Syria?
    Assad – like Saddam before him – may be an absolute tyrant but – as was said before about Saddam – he is at least “our” tyrant, if we in the West want him to be.
    In both cases, they made sure that religious extremism played no role in their societies.
    Surely, we would prefer a secular regime in both places, rather than the religious divisions?
    In Egypt, a secular regime has been re-established – at huge personal and reputational cost.
    Turkey’s elite antipathy towards Syria is because they want to restore the Ottoman Empire.
    It is easy to see why they favour that outcome – but must we in the West go along with it?
    I find US foreign policy in this area is an absolute mess – and it shows no signs of improving.

  3. Lots of “ifs” and wishful thinking requiring lucidity and intelligence. The USA has proven to be incapable of affecting positively anything in the Middle east. I doubt the USA would ever admit and learn from its mistakes. The USA’s leadership operates with the arrogance of the “exceptional’ country. Therefore I don’t think any of the suggestion the author is giving will ever be a reality.

  4. “5) Iran and Saudi Arabia. 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 US and other Western powers. Israel would not be able to escape such a conflict either.”

    I agree with the first part, that the U.S. should really engage both of those meddling parties and help them to behave (which does require behavior modification of all three parties). The second part I can only agree to with a caveat. While I agree that the sectarian wars could easily lead to an all out military confrontation, Saudi Arabia won’t be a direct party to that (unless attacked by Iran). Why? If you look at the history of Saudi Arabia, they do not have what it takes for a full and direct military confrontation with anyone other than tiny rebel groups in their backyard (such as in Bahrain). They have never shown the courage to do that overtly. For instance, they have avoided direct confrontation with Israel when other Arab countries were directly confronting her, nor have they done that in the case of Iraq when Saddam invaded Kuwait and then began rocketing Saudi Arabia, and it certainly won’t be true in the case of Iran. If you remember, Israel had no fear of retaliating against Saddam when he did the same with them, and it took a good deal of holding back by the U.S. to get them to leave it up to the U.S. to retaliate, because Israel is not afraid of getting its hands dirty. Saudi Arabia is terrified of that. While Saudi Arabia is good at buying big guns and expensive aircraft, as well as being good at secretly funding and arming others, it doesn’t have the courage and confidence of other neighborhood countries such as Israel, Egypt or even Syria for direct confrontation. For its defense needs it usually runs like a kid to the U.S. and hides behind us. And we certainly have provided that kind of cover. So, you are right that it’ll drag us into it, but it won’t be after Saudi Arabia’s direct military confrontation as one might think. Rather, it’ll be through behind the scenes machinations.

    The U.S. has two powerful weapons in its arsenal for pushing other nations to cooperate. One is the threat of military invasion, and we have used that weapon way too many times to the point its effect is wearing thin. The second weapon is the threat of NOT defending or funding misbehaving client states such as Saudi Arabia and Israel. Once we play that card both of them would learn to align their policies to what serves America’s interests first, not theirs. The U.S. has hardly ever utilized that most effective weapon and it has cost us dearly. That’s why so many of us wonder, whose interests are we really trying to protect, ours, or someone else’s?

  5. Nation-building always looks great in an article. It never turns out the way anyone thinks it will.

Comments are closed.