THE LEVANT: CHALLENGES TO THE POST-OTTOMAN ORDER
The evolution of the Syrian crisis and its influence upon the neighboring states and the major world actors, the regional consequences of the “Arab Spring” and, not least, the recent announcements about the beginning of the exploitation of the gas resources of the Leviathan offshore deposits are only a few of the reasons to consider with attention the evolution and perspectives of the Eastern Mediterranean region known under the name of Levant.
The Levant region was considered by Samuel P. Huntington to be a main center of the “clash of civilizations” process that “occurs at two levels. At the micro-level, adjacent groups along the fault lines between civilizations struggle, often violently, over the control of territory and each other. Al the macro-level, states from different civilizations compete for relative military and economic power… and competitively promote their particular political and religious values”.
Huntington also noted: “Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1300 years. After founding the Islam, the Arab and Moorish surge west and north only ended at Tours in 732. From the eleventh to the thirteenth century the Crusaders attempted with temporary success to bring Christianity and Christian rule to the Holy Land. From the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Turks reversed the balance, extended their sway over the Middle East and the Balkans, captured Constantinople, and twice laid siege to Vienna. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Ottoman power declined, Britain, France and Italy established control over most of North Africa and the Middle East.
After World War II, the West, in turn, began to retreat; the colonial empires disappeared; first Arab nationalism and then Islamic fundamentalism manifested themselves. [...] This warfare between Arabs and the West culminated in 1990, when the United States sent a massive army to the Persian Gulf to defend some Arab countries against aggression by another. In its aftermath, NATO planning is increasingly directed to potential threats and instability along its “southern tier”.
The main geopolitical events that are re-shaping the Levant are, according to most analysts, the negative consequences of the Arab Spring which led to the destruction of the state structures, as well as the region’s monetary and economic crisis that brought a new chaos in the Middle East and the Maghreb. These add to the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict and to the Iranian nuclear crisis which, notwithstanding the recent opening gestures of the new Iranian president, continue to be a subject of confrontation between leading players from outside the region.
The international major actors are again competing for a redistribution of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. The United States and Israel were key players for the last 60 years, and the United Kingdom and France have been involved in the area for decades, if not centuries. Russia, on the other hand, is attempting a comeback, having abandoned the Mediterranean after the implosion of the Soviet Union. Turkey is also staging a return after nearly a century since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Iran, after creating the so-called “Resistance Axis” (with Assad’s Syria and Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah), is still trying to maintain the status of power in spite of the setbacks caused by the Syrian civil war.
In 2002, the British foreign minister of the time, Jack Straw, noted that many of the “problems we [the United Kingdom] are dealing with [in the Middle East] are a consequence of our colonial past”. Straw was referring to what he called his country’s “not entirely honorable past”, namely its betrayal of the Arabs in the post-World War I period and its imposition of the Sykes-Picot Agreement on the region. Many analysts agree with Straw and stress that by denying Arab aspirations to establish a unitary state in the Levant; by carving the region up into British and French spheres of influence and imposing their colonial authority and regimes of their choosing in each of these newly created “states”; by pitting sect against sect and paving the way for the loss of Palestine, the British and French laid the groundwork for many of the problems the Levant is confronting today.
As the Syrian conflict advances, the risks to the Levant’s stability are escalating. The region harbors a number of “hot” conflicts with no peaceful end in sight (Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine), as well as some “frozen” disputes that may re-emerge anytime (Cyprus-Turkey, with the added aspect of the energy resources exploitation, Egypt-Israel, with the question of the outcome of the changes in Cairo).
Violence has spilled over all of Syria’s borders. The conflict has elevated sectarian tensions in Lebanon, threatening the 1990 Taif settlement that ended 15 years of civil war. It has sharpened ethnic and sectarian frictions in Iraq and engulfed southern Turkey. It has heightened tensions across the Syrian-Israeli border. Violence has also spilled into Syria from across the region.
Regional involvement in the conflict is deepening. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces actively participate in combat operations against the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and in attacks on civilians. Militant Islamists have joined their Syrian counterparts in the armed opposition. Weapons and fighters, often funded by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and wealthy patrons from throughout the Gulf are flowing to the opposition through Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Syrian refugees, now numbering more than a million, flow in the opposite direction, straining the economies and the social fabric of receiving countries.
The conflicts are having a destabilizing impact in Jordan, confronted with the fourth massive influx of refugees in the past six decades, as well as in Palestine, where people are suffering from new and old tragedies. Palestinian refugees from Syria have flooded into Lebanon’s already congested and impoverished camps creating new tensions. Despite the news that another “peace process” might be underway, the Palestinians in the occupied territories see what remains of their lands being chewed up by settlement construction and a barrier wall that snakes deep into the West Bank, while Gaza continues to be strangled by the blockade.
One hundred years after the Levant embarked on its journey to build modern political societies, the experiment appears to have failed. Lebanon collapsed in the 1970s, Iraq disintegrated in the 1990s and 2000s, and Syria is in the process of tearing itself apart. Unlike Egypt, Tunisia, and several countries in other parts of the Arab world, the countries of the Levant (namely Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq) have managed to keep neither nation nor state intact. The Levant (or Mashrek, its Arab name) enters a period of profound division and uncertainty, marked by the atavisms of religion, ethnicity, and tribalism.
In Iraq, the Maliki government has seized upon the opportunity of the American withdrawal to eliminate its opponents, exclude real partners in government, and try to consolidate its narrow hold on power, inconsiderate of the disintegration and near civil war into which it is leading the country. In Syria, the Assad regime is intent on fuelling sectarian civil war and on the other side, the Syrian opposition is being overtaken by a radical jihadist movement that wants to establish an ultraconservative Islamic state. In Lebanon, the so-called Orthodox election law proposes segregating religious communities from each other, effectively suggesting a leap backward to political arrangements of Ottoman times when each sectarian community (Millet) lived a separate political existence without participation in any national project.
The energy factor adds a new dimension to one of the most geopolitically complex regions of the world, since the Levant basin of the Eastern Mediterranean holds an estimate of around 3.45 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 1.7 billion barrels of crude oil. The potential amount of natural gas in the Levant basin would place the region at number 13 in the global ranking of producers, ahead of countries such as China, India and the United Arab Emirates.
Most of the currently known deposits are off the coast of Israel and in adjacent fields of off Cyprus. Additional, still undiscovered fields may be located off the coasts of Lebanon and Syria. In the current geopolitical conditions, however, the energy factor risks to add to the region’s complexity. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, tensions between Israel and Lebanon, the frozen conflict on Cyprus, and difficult relations among Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus, and Greece all complicate efforts to develop and sell energy from the Eastern Mediterranean. The Syrian civil war has injected a new source of uncertainty, and standing in the background is Russia, which is seeking to enter the Eastern Mediterranean energy bonanza, and to maintain its position as the major supplier of oil and gas for European markets.
1. A long and complex history
As Stratfor analysts recently reminded, the Levant was always a magnet for great powers. No Mediterranean empire, whether it was Rome or Carthage, could be fully secure unless it controlled the Levant. On the other hand, if a Mediterranean empire leaves the Levant unoccupied, it opens the door to the possibility of another great power originating to the east seizing the ports of the Levant and challenging the Mediterranean power for maritime domination. In short, control of the Levant binds a Mediterranean empire together while denying a challenger the opportunity to enter the Mediterranean.
In the same line of reasoning, the Levant is also important to any empire originating to its East, either in the Tigris-Euphrates basin or in Persia. For either, security could be assured only by holding the Levant, in order to protect itself against attacks from Mediterranean powers.
The Levant is also important to any power originating to its north or south. When Asia Minor powers such as the Ottoman Empire developed, there was a natural tendency to move southward to control the eastern Mediterranean. The Levant is the crossroads of continents, and lies in the path of many imperial ambitions, being at the convergence zone of the Eastern Hemisphere. A European power trying to dominate the Mediterranean or expand eastward, an eastern power trying to dominate the space between the Hindu Kush and the Mediterranean, a North African power moving toward the east, or a northern power moving south – all must converge on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
In his book The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And It’s Geostrategic Imperatives, former American national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out that Eurasia is the key to control the world and the great battle for global domination would always hover around it, and he added that “the U.S. global hegemony would be achieved through the direct control of the Middle East”. By this, it would be possible to separate Europe from Africa, and to create a rift between Russia and Europe. This would also create an impregnable barrier against Russia’s intentions to access the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and at the same time prevent China from accessing Africa.
Levant: a term as complex as its history and civilization
The Levant, which is considered as the birthplace of European civilization, is a term as complex as the realities it designates.
In geography, the Levant refers to the area in Southwest Asia, south of the Taurus Mountains, between the Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian Desert in the south, and Mesopotamia in the east. It is also defined as a geographic and cultural region consisting of the eastern Mediterranean littoral between Anatolia and Egypt that includes Cyprus, Palestinian territories, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and parts of southern Turkey (Aleppo Vilayet). The Sinai Peninsula is sometimes included, though it is considered rather as a land bridge between the Levant and northern Egypt. The Levant has also been described as the crossroads of western Asia, the eastern Mediterranean and northeast Africa.
The term Levant comes – through the French levant (rising) – from the Latin verb levare (lift, raise). Similar etymologies are found in Greek (Anatolē, from which also comes Anatolia), in Germanic (Morgenland – “morning land”), in Italian (as in “Riviera di Levante”, the portion of the Liguria coast east of Genoa), Spanish Levante and Catalan Llevant (the place of rising). In English, the term is first recorded in 1497, with the meaning of the East in general or “Mediterranean lands east of Italy”.
During history, the name of Levant was applied to a part or the whole of the region. In the 16th century, after the English merchant ships appeared in the Mediterranean, the English merchant company signed an agreement (Capitulations) with the Turk Sultan and the English Levant Company was founded in 1581 to trade with the Ottoman Empire. In 1670, the French Compagnie du Levant was founded for the same purpose. In 19th century travel writing, the term incorporated eastern regions under governance of the Ottoman Empire, sometimes including Greece. After World War I, under the French Mandate from 1920 to 1946, Syria and Lebanon were called the Levant states.
The Levant is home to a complex and diverse population, with the largest ethnic group being the Arabs (most of them Sunni Muslims) but there are also many other groups, including the Jews, most of whom immigrated to the State of Israel, when it was established in 1948. The populations of the Levant also share cuisine, some customs, and a very long history. The Levant Muslims, Christians, Circassians and Christian Maronite Cypriots populations speak Levantine Arabic, also known as Mediterranean Arabic. In Israel Hebrew, English and Russian are spoken by the Jews who observe laws, traditions and customs of Judaism. Greek and Armenian communities have retained their own languages and customs based usually on their religion mainly. Greeks constitute the majority of the population on the island of Cyprus and form groups in Lebanon, Syria and Israel, with majority of Greeks in Cyprus and Israel being Greek Orthodox Christians, whereas Lebanon and Syria have Greek Muslim populations.
In terms of religion, beside the Sunni Muslims there are Christian Arabs belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church, Maronites belonging to the Eastern Catholic and Oriental Orthodox churches, Assyrian peoples belonging to the Assyrian Church of the East (autonomous) and the Chaldean Catholic Church. There are also Yazidi Kurds, Shiite Muslims (Alawites, Twelvers, Nizari and Druze Ismailis), Armenians belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church. There are a few Arab and Armenian Protestant Christians. There are Latin Catholics called Levantines or Franco-Levantines. There are also Adyghes, Turks, Samaritans, and Nawars.
A millenary history leading to the current-day situation
The Levant is a part of the so-called “Fertile Crescent”, the crescent-shaped region containing the fertile land of Western Asia, and the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa. The modern-day countries with significant territory within the Fertile Crescent are Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestinian territories, besides the southeastern part of Turkey and the western part of Iran.
The region is often called the cradle of civilization since some of the earliest known civilizations arose and flourished using the water supplies and agricultural resources available in the Fertile Crescent. The Eastern Mediterranean was the region from which agriculture spread towards Egypt and North Africa, Europe and the Caucasus, in the so called “Neolithic Revolution” that started over 10,000 years ago, spanning over millennia. At the same time, it is the originating place of the “Abrahamic religions” – Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Around 3,000 BC, the first cities and city-states emerged. Later on, large empires in Egypt, Mesopotamia, or Persia were established, whose extension varied, often times rendering the Eastern Mediterranean coast an in-between-zone.
Since the early ages, the Levant was targeted by powerful actors around the region, beginning with the Persians who tried to conquer Greece (492-449 BC). By the 4th century BC, Persia had fallen into decline, but the Greek city-states also had weakened each other through in-fighting. In 338 BC, the rising power of the Macedonians overcame Greece, and under Alexander the Great, the Macedonians turned their attention eastward. Alexander conquered the Levant and Persia in little more than a decade. Following Alexander’s death (323 BC), his empire was carved up by his feuding generals and most of the eastern part went to the descendants of Seleucus I Nicator. By 141 BC, the Parthians had established themselves as an empire, after the Seleucid model, and had conquered all of Iran and Mesopotamia. The Seleucid kingdom continued to decline and its remaining provinces were annexed by the Roman Republic in 64 BC as the Iudaea Province. The Parthians were constantly at war with the Romans over the Levant regions, but in the 3rd century AD, the province of Persia rose up in revolt, and defeated the last Parthian emperor in 224 AD.
In 391, the Byzantine era began with the permanent division of the Roman Empire into East and Western halves and the Byzantine Empire took control over the Levant until 636, when it was conquered by the Arabs and became a part of the Caliphate. By 650, Arab forces had conquered all of Persia, Syria, and Egypt.
The Levant under the Ottoman Empire
The Ottomans – the Turks who came from western Anatolia and put an end to the Byzantine Empire in 1453 – united the Levant under one ruler for the first time since the reign of the Abbasid caliphs of the 10th century. The Ottoman Empire included most of the territories of the Eastern Roman Empire, as well as regions that the Byzantines never ruled. In 1516, the Ottomans conquered Syria, and in 1517 Egypt, to be followed by Iraq in the next half century.
Having been stopped in the late 17th century in their efforts to conquer Europe, the Ottomans steadily retreated from 1700 to 1918, and the Middle East became increasingly inward-looking and defensive. By the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was known as the “sick man of Europe”, and the financial control of the European powers turned into territorial conquest. The French annexed Algeria in 1830 and Tunisia in 1878. Also in 1878, as the result of the Cyprus Convention, the United Kingdom took over the government of Cyprus as a protectorate from the Ottoman Empire.
The British occupied Egypt in 1882, though it remained under nominal Ottoman sovereignty. The British also established effective control of the Persian Gulf and the French extended their influence into Lebanon and Syria. In 1912, the Italians seized Libya and the Dodecanese islands, just off the coast of the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia.
The final days of the Ottoman Empire were marked by the coming to power in 1908 of the so-called Young Turks (officially called the Committee for Union and Progress), who initially established a constitutional monarchy, but soon became a ruling junta which tried to force a radical modernization program onto the Ottoman Empire. Their plan entailed imposing the Turkish language and centralized government on a multi-lingual and loosely governed empire, which caused an upsurge in Arab nationalism. The plan drove the empire ever deeper into debt, and the junta’s decision to form an alliance with Germany cost the empire the support of Britain, which protected the Ottomans against Russia throughout the 19th century.
The post-Ottoman partitioning: planting the seeds of the current-day conflicts
As was the case with the great empires that preceded them, the Western powers sought to become dominant in the Levant at the expense of the weak central government of the Ottoman Empire. The former empire’s partitioning was planned in several agreements made by the Allies early in the course of World War I, although the powers disagreed over their contradictory post-war aims and made several dual and triple agreements. The main elements that were to shape the so-called post-Ottoman order in the Levant were the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration. Other secret agreements were concluded with Italy and Russia, but after the Russian Bolshevik Revolution, Russia did not participate in the partitioning.
The British and French split between them the eastern part of the Middle East (also called “Greater Syria”) with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, officially known as the Asia Minor Agreement. It was a secret agreement between the governments of the United Kingdom and France – with the assent of Russia – that defined the spheres of control and influence in the Middle East if the Ottoman Empire was to be defeated in the World War I. The treaty was negotiated between November 1915 and March 1916 and concluded on 16 May 1916. It effectively divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of future British and French control or influence.
The Balfour Declaration encouraged the international Zionist movement to push for a Jewish homeland in the Palestine region. Historically known as the site of the ancient Jewish Kingdom of Israel and successor Jewish nations for 1,200 years between approximately 1100BC-100AD, the region now had a large Arab population inhabiting the region since the 7th century. When the Ottomans departed, the Arabs proclaimed an independent state in Damascus, but were too weak, militarily and economically, to resist the European powers for long, and Britain and France soon established control and re-arranged the Middle East.
By the partitioning (30 October 1918 – 1 November 1922), the conglomeration of territories and peoples that comprised the Ottoman Empire was divided into several new nations, creating the modern Arab world and the Republic of Turkey. The Treaty of Sèvres (1920) formally acknowledged the new League of Nations mandates in the Middle East, the independence of Yemen, and British sovereignty over Cyprus. France was granted a mandate over Syria and Lebanon and the United Kingdom over Mesopotamia and Palestine. The Ottoman government signed the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, but after the Turkish War of Independence, the treaty of Sèvres was re-drawn the new Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 was ratified, solidifying most of the territorial issues.
Under the League of Nations mandates, Syria became a French protectorate, and the Christian coastal areas were split off to become Lebanon, another French protectorate. Iraq and Palestine became British mandated territories. Iraq became the “Kingdom of Iraq” and incorporated large populations of Kurds, Assyrians and Turkmens, many of whom had been promised independent states of their own. Palestine became the “British Mandate of Palestine” and was split in half. The eastern half of Palestine became the “Emirate of Transjordan” and the western half was placed under direct British administration. The already substantial Jewish population was allowed to increase. Initially this increase was allowed under British protection. Most of the Arabian Peninsula fell to another British ally, Ibn Saud, who created the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
The Levant populations soon began to oppose the colonial rules and in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, Syria and Egypt made moves towards independence. In Palestine, the conflicting forces of Arab nationalism and Zionism created a situation the British could neither resolve nor extricate themselves from. The rise to power of Adolf Hitler in Germany had created a new urgency in the Zionist quest to immigrate to Palestine and create a Jewish state there. For Arab and Persian leaders, a Palestinian state was also an attractive alternative to British, French, and perceived Jewish colonialism and imperialism.
After World War II: New states and conflicts in the Levant
Although the Levant region (mainly Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East states on the Arabian Peninsula) were relatively unaffected by the World War II, the war and the subsequent re-positioning of the power actors brought important changes, with most of the Levant states becoming independent: Lebanon (22 November 1943), Syria (1 January 1944), Jordan (British mandate ended 22 May 1946), Iraq and Egypt (1947 – British military withdrawal), Israel (1948 – British military withdrawal), Cyprus (16 August 1960).
The struggle between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine culminated in the 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine and create an Arab state and a Jewish state in the narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. While the Jewish leaders accepted it, the Arab leaders rejected this plan. On 14 May 1948, when the British Mandate expired, the Zionist leadership declared the State of Israel. In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War that immediately followed, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia intervened and were defeated by Israel. About 800,000 Palestinians fled from areas annexed by Israel and became refugees in neighboring countries, thus creating the “Palestinian problem”, which has plagued the region ever since. Approximately two-thirds of 758,000 – 866,000 of the Jews expelled or who fled from Arab lands after 1948 were absorbed and naturalized by the State of Israel.
The end of the European powers’ control in the Levant and the creation of the state of Israel, as well as the Cold War with the USSR and the increasing importance of the oil industry marked the post-war developments in the Levant.
The United States –the dominant force in the oil industry starting from the 1950s – became a guarantor of the stability of the region and tried to oppose the radical revolutions that brought anti-Western regimes to power in Egypt in 1954, in Syria in 1963, in Iraq in 1968 and in Libya in 1969. To counter these regimes – that gained popular support through their promises to destroy the state of Israel, defeat the “western imperialists”, and bring prosperity to the Arab masses – the U.S. felt obliged to defend the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran and the Persian Gulf emirates, whose methods of rule were almost as unattractive to western eyes as those of the anti-western regimes. In this context, fundamentalist and militant Islam began to develop.
The fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in the early 1990s had several consequences for the Levant. It allowed large numbers of Soviet Jews to leave the former communist states, further strengthening Israel. It also cut off the source of support to the anti-western Arab regimes, weakening their position. It opened up the prospect of cheap oil from Russia, driving down the price of oil and reducing the west’s dependence on the Arab states. It discredited the model of the authoritarian state socialism which Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq had followed since the 1960s, leaving these regimes politically and economically stranded.
By the 1990s, many analysts saw the Levant as not just a zone of conflict, but also a zone of backwardness. Many Arab countries counter-claim that the lack of progress that would come naturally from these nations is a direct result of Western foreign policy and a strong Israel. By the end of the 1990s, the Middle East as a whole was falling behind Europe, India, China, and other rapidly developing market economies, in terms of production, trade, education, communications and almost every other criterion of economic and social progress. An often quoted assertion is that if oil was subtracted, the total exports of the whole Arab world were less than those of Finland. In the opening years of the 21st century, all these factors combined to raise the regional conflicts to a new height, and to spread their consequences across the globe.
2. Syria: “spillover” effects that challenge the post-ottoman order
Analysts agree that, with the civil war in Syria, the post-Ottoman Empire state order is being challenged. The post WWI ethno-sectarian fault lines are also under increasing strain in Lebanon and Iraq, and their collapse would likely usher in an extended period of uncertainty, conflict, and volatility as regional actors struggle to consolidate a new political order. The end of the post-Ottoman order would be a direct and immediate challenge to the strategic interests of Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, as well as to the US and Europe. Should a process of state collapse disrupt oil production in Iraq, its effects would be even more widely felt, including among countries such as India and China, which are reliant on Iraqi oil.
Syria has become an epicenter of regional conflicts and competition in the Middle East, in such a way that made some observers to remind that Armageddon – the place where the final battle will be fought that will mark the end of time – is a place located thirty kilometers to the east of the Mediterranean Sea, which is also the passage connecting Egypt with Syria and the lands to the north.
It was also noted that the place (whose name comes from the word “Har-Megiddo”, consisting of the Hebrew word Har – mountain or hill – and Megiddo, a Canaanite word meaning an army’s camp or the place where an army takes up residence) was the scene of many battles in history, from the advance of Thutmose III as far back as 1468 BC, to that of General Edmund Allenby in World War I. Megiddo (Armageddon) is also the battleground where, in case of an attack, massed Israeli forces, close to lines of supply, can defend against dispersed Syrian forces.
Armageddon is mentioned, under different forms, in all the three Abrahamic religions. In Judaism, references can be found in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 38, 39 and Zachariah 12), and, for the Christians, in the New Testament (Revelations 16/12-16). Muslims also believe that there will be a great battle in the region of Greater Syria (Bilâd al-Shâm – the countries of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan), between the Muslims and the “Romans”.
Regional balance of power politics, religious and ideological clashes, and unrequited nationalist aspirations have fused, transforming what began as a peaceful uprising for dignity and democracy into an ethno-sectarian conflict that is increasingly difficult to contain within the boundaries of the Syrian state that were set down, with only modest subsequent changes, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement in May 1916.
Syria: at the fault lines’ crossroad
An important regional player before the civil war, Syria finds itself in an arena in which a multitude of local and foreign actors compete. The volatile regional fault lines that run through Syria have ruptured during this conflict, and the course of events will profoundly shape the future of the Levant.
Regardless of the fate of the House of Assad, Syria as the world has known it no longer exists. The country’s ethnic, sectarian and political diversity, long kept in check by a minority regime through repression, co-optation and pan-Arab secular Ba’athist ideology, is asserting itself in unprecedented ways.
Syria finds itself at the intersection of the Arab world’s most critical fault lines. The first is the breakdown of the social contract between government and society, which led to the various Arab revolts. The second is the intensifying struggle over regional dominance between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The third is the growing Sunni-Shiite divide, notably in Iraq and Lebanon, but increasingly felt inside Syria. The fourth is the rise of political Islamism and its implications for the identity of Arab states and for secular and non-Muslim groups. The final one is the balance between ethnic groups within multi-ethnic Levantine societies, whereby minorities, once marginalized by the Arab majority, seek to assert their identity.
Regional actors also have incentives to intervene. Syria sits at the intersection of every major strategic axis in the Arab East. It is a key member of the strategic alliance linking Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, with support from Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government. Although Syria ended its military presence in Lebanon in 2005, it continues to exert significant influence in Lebanese affairs. It has played a central role in the ‘resistance front’ against Israel. Its relationship with Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy prior to the uprising was correct but cool: it has subsequently been strained by Jordan’s support for Syria’s opposition and by the presence in Jordan of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Syria is also part of regional axes of competition and confrontation: between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for influence in the Levant; between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states; and between Turkey and Kurdish groups seeking greater autonomy from both Arab and Turkish governments. Additionally, Syria is a long-term strategic ally of Russia and an equally long-term strategic adversary of the US. Among the four countries designated by the U.S. as “state sponsors of terrorism” in December 1979, Syria is the only one that is still on the list.
Shiite – Sunni fault lines
From a geopolitical perspective, the confrontation in Syria is generally a Sunni-Shiite one. The Shiite side seems to have more military power, while the Sunni side seems stronger in its demographic surroundings and alliances. Iranian and Shiite power have reached their maximum in Iraq, while the Sunnis, with the help of the Gulf countries, are trying to strengthen their power from Baghdad to the north. The Sunni movement in Syria has reached the peak of its power in northeastern Damascus, while minorities have held the west of Syria from Turkey to Jordan. In Lebanon, it is now likely that the Maronite-Shiite coalition will succeed both geographically and politically.
According to some analysts, the area on both sides of the Syrian-Lebanese border is paying for the mistake made by François Georges-Picot and Sir Mark Sykes at the beginning of the last century, when Shiite communities were split between Syria and Lebanon. The Syrian revolution has thus reanimated conflicts across an international border that was never fully demarcated when Syria and Lebanon emerged as independent states in the post-Ottoman period.
Another conspiracy theory – that emerged during the civil war in Lebanon – mentions a secret plan to divide the Middle East into ethnic and sectarian states, legitimizing in the process the nature of Israel as a Jewish state among Christian, Sunni, Shiite, Alawite and Kurdish states. This theory was developed by Lebanese politician Raymond Eddé, who accused Henry Kissinger of hatching a plan to divide Lebanon along such lines. Since then, it has re-emerged frequently as a way to explain sectarian conflict in the region.
In Lebanon, the Sunni – Shiite rivalry, which had been muted until the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, has emerged as a major dividing line within the country. Lebanon has veered from one crisis to the next ever since, as the dream of a sovereign and independent state has all but disappeared. In Iraq, the sectarian conflict that followed the 2003 invasion has not been recognized as a civil war, but it’s hard to think of it in other terms. In Syria, the uprising against the Assad regime turned into a civil war in which sectarian divisions are becoming increasingly evident.
An interesting trend is showing in the case of the Shiite militia Hezbollah, for which the main enemy seems not to be anymore Israel, but the rebels in Syria. The shift represents a radical departure from the group’s traditional position, since the fight against the “Zionist enemy” was Hezbollah’s motivation for operating as an independent military power within the state. Shiites and Sunnis in Lebanon have always been able to unite in their fight against Israel as a common enemy, which offered a political advantage to Hezbollah. But with Shiite militias now slaughtering Syrian Sunni Muslims, support for the Hezbollah is waning in Lebanon.
In fact, Hezbollah is also fighting in Syria for its own survival, since it has to keep the routes open for its weapons deliveries from Iran. Observers agree, in fact, that the Levant conflicts’ end will decide the dominating group in the Middle East: Iran and its Shiite partners in Syria and Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies. The Palestinians, whose cause both sides claim to defend, only play a minor role, some Hezbollah representatives even suggesting that they “liberate their country themselves”.
Other worrying signs about the escalation of the Sunni – Shiite clash are the attempts by Gulf countries to upset the situation of the Arab minority in the al-Ahwaz region of Iran, to reopen the Arab-Alawite Iskenderun territory issue, which was taken over by Turkey, or the establishment of a Turkish-Kurdish agreement to increase Turkish influence in Iraq and Syria under Sunni politics. Pressure is also being felt in the case of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or Kuwait, or the Houthis in Yemen, and Jordan is being used to pressure south Syria.
Christian minorities: not only “collateral victims”
Although the war in Syria is, at its core, a civil war within Islam, the Christians, who account for 10 percent of the population (or more, if Iraqi refugees are counted) and who have not taken up arms in this conflict are the most vulnerable, since they have no militias or army to protect them. They have already suffered massive reprisals and attacks, including the recent bombing by the rebels of the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, north of Damascus. The rebels accuse the Christians of being supporters of Assad’s regime.
Many Syrian Christians fled to Lebanon, and those who remained expressed their fear of “ethnic cleansing”, stressing that they are not simply suffering collateral damage, but being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign similar to the “ethnic cleansing” in the Bosnian war. They fear becoming victims of the same kind of targeted anti-Christian violence that resulted from the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This persecution, known in the area as the “American solution,” caused a massive exodus: of the 1.5 million Christians who lived in Iraq in 2000, less than 300,000 remain today. According to several reports, the rebels in Syria committed violent acts against Christians, including beheadings, rapes and murders of pregnant women.
When the insurgents occupied the strategic central town of Qusair in 2012, about 7,000 Catholics were forced out and their homes were looted. Another 200,000 Christians have fled the northern city of Aleppo. Almost all of the 50,000 Christians in the conflict-torn city of Homs also fled violence and persecution by the rebels. Many moved to Damascus, Lebanon, or some Western countries where Syria’s Christians tend to integrate easier than Muslims.
Among the spiritual leaders of the Syrian Christian minority there is growing concern that, by overlooking the rebels’ violence against them, the West’s real intention is to displace the Christians of the East. Berlin has already opened the door for around 5,000 displaced Syrian Christians, and this experience will be followed by other similar steps on the part of Austria, Denmark and other European countries. A number of European officials, when being told about the tragedy of Syrian Christians facing the threats of the Sunni radical forces supported by the West in Syria, mentioned the recent German experience as “encouraging”. In fact, it would mean the displacement of more than 2 million people.
During a conference held Monday, Sept. 2, in a Christian monastery in Mount Lebanon, representatives of the 11 Christian churches in Lebanon, along with a number of Lebanese Christian intellectuals and politicians were unanimous to declare that the only certain and inevitable result is that the launch of the first rocket on Syria by NATO will be the end of Christians in this country. The churchmen opposed to the US policy in particular and the West’s policy toward Syria in general, calling it “the Iraqi experience all over again”.
Weapons’ smuggling for the West Bank
In the context of the Syrian crisis, Jordanian authorities recently reported several cases of weapons’ smuggling (anti-tank missiles, surface-to-air missiles and assault rifles) that indicate a possible effort of Iran, Syria and their local proxies to build up militant capabilities in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. The incidents are also worth noting, since Hamas and Iran are seen as trying to repair their relationship after a period of strain.
Since Jordan is the primary supply route for weapons (mostly from Arab Gulf suppliers) for the rebels in southern Syria, the incidents were noted because the weapons’ direction was from Syria into Jordan. The investigations showed that the smugglers were Palestinians from Syria, affiliated with the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command”. The weapons were allegedly obtained from Syrian army warehouses and were to be transported through Jordan to Hebron in the Fatah-run West Bank.
Though the secular, left-leaning “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command” is at ideological odds with Islamist Hamas, those ideological lines can be blurred in such operations, especially when they are undertaken at the behest of the groups’ Syrian patrons. Hamas has a limited presence in the West Bank, but it does enjoy support in some of the surrounding villages in the Hebron Hills, where the weapons were likely to be stored.
According to a Stratfor analysis, the smuggling operations were similar to earlier cases when Iran was working through Syrian intelligence and local Palestinian proxies, among which the “Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command”. The weapons’ transport indicate that Iran and Syria are trying to use their local networks to build up weapon caches in the West Bank so that eventually Palestinian militant factions can try to ambush Israel Defense Forces patrols. The incidents seem to indicate Iran’s intention to build up a proxy a presence in the West Bank to threaten Israel. This strategy also falls in line with Hamas’ interest in undermining Fatah, especially as the Fatah-led Palestinian National Authority engages in more peace negotiations with Israel that fail to acknowledge Hamas’ authority in the Gaza Strip.
Refugees: new burdens for the Levant countries
The Syrian refugee crisis also became a serious burden for the Levant. In one year, the number registered refugees grew up to almost 2 million, without counting several millions internally displaced persons (IDP). This generated a sizable refugee population in at least five countries – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey – none of which intending to grant Syrians permanent residency. Some of the countries of destination are also active participants in the Syrian crisis or are undergoing civil strife of their own. The displaced people are human markers of the Syrian conflict’s potential to redraw the map of the region and stir up sectarian animosity in neighboring countries.
Despite the spread of refugees across five countries, Lebanon has borne the brunt of the exodus, with over 750,000 refugees registered or awaiting registration. The Lebanese government claims that more than a million Syrians were already in Lebanon before the fighting became intense. A World Bank report whose highlights have been released finds that the total economic impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is devastating, with the Lebanese economy suffering cumulative losses of $7.5 billion (as mentioned by Reuters, September 19, 2013).
With the newly displaced refugees have also come large numbers of Palestinians who resided in camps and towns in Syria since 1948. They are legally prohibited, as Palestinians, from formal employment in over 70 professions. Lebanon is home to some 425,000 Palestinian refugees. The Palestinians must deal with these particular difficulties on top of the multi-dimensional crisis for all refugees.
The flood of refugees is further destabilizing Lebanon, since the front between Sunnis and Shiites runs right through the heart of this state, making Lebanon the focal point of a conflict that threatens to engulf the entire region. The Shiite Hezbollah militia uses Lebanon as a base for its struggle against the “Zionist enemy”, as well as for launching military operations against the predominately Sunni rebels in Syria.
Collapse or “Balkanization”?
The evolution of the civil war in Syria leaves no doubt about the end of the current state and many analysts already speculate about its collapse.
Other observers point that, although there is little reason to imagine that regionalization can be checked, this does not necessarily mean that the Syrian state is doomed, or that the conflict will lead to the collapse of the post-Ottoman state order in the Levant. They estimate as more likely a process of “Balkanization”: the territorial fragmentation of Syria along ethno-sectarian lines within existing state boundaries, with the regime controlling part of the country along the main corridor from Damascus to Homs and the opposition Syria’s northern, eastern, and southern provinces. Such an outcome leaves open possibilities for both a future reconsolidation of national authority and the preservation of the post-Ottoman state order in the Levant.
The “Balkanization” would also reassure the regional actors which – although prepared to back local clients or allies, or even participate in the conflict – have a strong interest in preventing spillover from destabilizing their own internal politics. This shared interest contributes to a collective, if implicit, understanding that the Syrian conflict is best kept within Syrian borders.
In the case of Lebanon, political instability seems to grow, the country being run by a caretaker government since Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned last March. The Sunni parties refuse to work together with Hezbollah, which is the strongest political force in the country and which insists on being part of any new government. Meanwhile, the Christian parties sometimes support Hezbollah and sometimes back the Sunni alliance.
With so many political divisions, Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam has not yet managed to form a cabinet. The parliamentary elections, which should have taken place in June, have been postponed by nearly one and a half years.
Consequences in the region
According to some analysts, the end of the Assad regime would weaken the Iran-led “Resistance Axis” (Iran-Syria-Hezbollah) against Israel and limit Iran’s possibilities to project its power into the Arab East.
For Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, although their interests are not neatly aligned, the defeat of the Assad regime – a major setback for Iran’s regional ambitions – would create the possibility of an Islamist-dominated successor government more sympathetic to Turkey and the GCC on regional issues.
For Syria’s Kurds and their counterparts across the border in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey, the regime’s demise would create new opportunities to press demands for Kurdish autonomy and expand the reach of a near-sovereign Kurdish entity.
In Israel, initial ambivalence about the Syrian uprising has given way to a pragmatic acceptance of the regime as a source of regional instability that should be replaced. The Israelis realize that any intervention in support of either the opposition or the regime would be counterproductive, and they will have to adjust to whatever future government emerges.
3. The Major Powers: competing interests in the Levant
The diplomatic actions that led – for the moment – to a peaceful outcome of the Syrian chemical weapons’ issue, followed by the telephone discussion between the U.S. and Iran’s Presidents are the most recent indications that the Levant continues to be an important battleground of the strategic interests of the major international actors. This competition among different, sometimes opposed interests, is influencing but is also influenced by the political upheavals in the Middle East – the civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, and the internal troubles of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon, as well as by the economic and demographic pressures, sectarian struggles and extremism, ethnic and tribal conflicts.
In the current situation, analysts agree that, while major actors and their allies can exert influence, no outside power can dominate the course of events relative to the internal challenges that divide each state of the Levant. Although no global or regional power seems interested to directly involve itself in a situation that nobody can claim the possibility to control, the “great powers” United States and Russia, as well as the main regional actors (Turkey, Iran) and actors for which economic interests prevail (China, the European Union) are directly or indirectly present and acting in the Levant.
The United States
As a global superpower, since the end of WWII and during the Cold War confrontation with the communist USSR, the United States worked hard to shape regional trade, security, socio-economic and political dynamics in the Levant.
While many analysts pointed out that, in the last years, the U.S. strategic interests were shifting towards the Asia-Pacific region, the strategic guidance issued by the Obama administration in January 2012 stresses the importance of the Middle East: “the primary loci of these threats are South Asia and the Middle East”. It continues to state “to support these objectives [in the Middle East], the United States will continue to place a premium on U.S. and allied military presence in – and support of – partner nations in and around this region”. Moreover, access to Central Asia remains important in American policy toward China.
On the economic level, the United States considers the hydrocarbon resources in the Levant as being of strategic importance, not only for its allies in the region (notably Israel) but also in the perspective of decreasing Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. The U.S. is involved in the exploitation of gas and oil in the Eastern Mediterranean through Noble Corporation, an American company with substantial Israeli interests, which is the leading offshore drilling contractor.
The United States conceives the Mediterranean as “a highway” for the projection of U.S. power “deep into the heart of the land mass of Eurasia and Africa”. Through NATO and its alliance with Israel, the United States dominated the region during the Cold War and Washington considers Turkey and Israel the U.S.’s most valuable allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially in the context of the diminishing power of other U.S. allies in the region, Egypt and Jordan, due to the internal situation.
The U.S. has seen Egypt undergo massive political upheavals during the last two years, as well as growing instability in Jordan. It also has seen growing divisions between Israel and the Palestinians, a steady drop in the prospects for a near-term peace based on a secure Israel and sovereign Palestine, and growing uncertainty about the prospects for a broad Arab-Israeli peace settlement. Consequently, the U.S. cannot count on its past links to Egypt and Jordan, must deal with the civil war in Syria and an increasingly unstable Lebanon. It also must deal with a growing confrontation between Israel and Iran on the nuclear weapons’ issue, including the risk of Israeli preventive strikes on Iran, and major shifts in the very nature of the regional military balance.
Therefore, although, apparently the United States is withdrawing from the Levant, it is definitely not interested the emergence of a regional hegemonic power that might destabilize the region. The U.S. is also interested in ensuring that neither the Sunni nor the Shiite win, but it needs a way to manage the Islamic world without being in a constant state of war.
Not surprisingly, analysts in Washington even suggested that a decisive outcome for either side in the Syrian conflict would be unacceptable for the United States, since an Iranian-backed restoration of the Assad regime would increase Iran’s power and status across the Middle East, while a victory by the extremist-dominated rebels would inaugurate another wave of Al Qaeda-type terrorism.
By having Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Hezbollah allies in war against Al Qaeda-aligned extremist fighters, four of Washington’s enemies would be prevented from attacking U.S.’s interests. One of the proposed methods to achieve this goal was to arm the rebels when it seems that Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they seem to be winning.
For the moment, analysts follow the recent U.S. foreign policy initiatives, after the diplomatic solution in the case of Syria’s chemical weapons and President Barack Obama’s declarations that peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, along with Iran, are to be a priority of his second term in office.
In what has been called the Obama “evolving doctrine”, the Middle East came back on the U.S. foreign policy agenda, with three “blockbusters” of international crisis diplomacy: the planned destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons, the hopes for putting an end to the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the overdue peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The risks of approaching such complex issues is great, since failing on them would mean risking America’s dominant position, which has always consisted of a mixture of diplomatic strength and military superiority. If Obama fails, he will not only lose his influence in the Middle East, but he will also have to accept that the threat of military violence against countries like Iran will lose its credibility.
Russia was an active player in the Levant since 1769, except for short intervals due to external causes. The Soviet Union deployed a forward Mediterranean Squadron of the Black Sea Fleet and obtained naval facilities in Arab countries. When the Soviet Navy had to abandon its bases in Egypt in 1977, the Syrian port of Tartus became the main Soviet support base in the Mediterranean. In 1991, the Mediterranean Squadron ceased to exist, but since 2007, the Russian Fleet again regularly sends small task forces into the Mediterranean. Tartus is the only remaining Russian naval facility outside the former Soviet Union. Although it only consists of one floating dock in working order and some other support facilities, according to the Commander of the Russian Fleet Vice Admiral Viktor Chirkov, “the base is vital for us, it worked, and will continue to act”.
Analysts agree that, after having been a discreet presence in the Mediterranean for the last two decades, Russia is preparing a comeback, trying to recover its influence in the region. Some observers argue that, in the context of the Syrian conflict, even without a military presence in the area, Moscow managed to impose its interests at the UN on the issue of the Syrian chemical weapons and thus to obtain precious time for its ally, Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, Russia’s alliance with Iran seems more fruitful after Washington made an unprecedented opening to the Islamic Republic and apparently got nothing in exchange.
On the other hand, other Middle Eastern actors seem to re-direct themselves towards Russia, in the context of the seeming “retreat” of the U.S. from the region. Recently, the government in Iraq signed a 4 billion dollars weapon deal with Russia that includes fighter jets. The new authorities in Egypt also reacted to the U.S. threats of suspending the military assistance: the first visit of the Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, was to Moscow, followed by a visit to Cairo of a Russian delegation interested “to evaluate the potential for Russian tourism in Egypt”.
The Kremlin is also pursuing a policy of economic and geostrategic penetration in Greece and Cyprus. The Greek-Cypriot financial crisis and the growing energy interests in the Eastern Mediterranean provide Russia with new opportunities to restore its influence.
In 2011, Russia granted Cyprus a loan of €2.5 billion. In 2012, Nicosia requested a second loan that could amount to €5 billion. This financial support is not only aimed at securing the vast sums of money Russian oligarchs have deposited in Cypriot banks. It is also linked to demands for a key role in the development of Cyprus’ prospective energy boom that would allow Russia to block an alternative to its control over Europe’s gas supplies.
Enhancing its influence in Greece and Cyprus also strengthens Russia’s position vis-à-vis Turkey. It undermines Turkey’s plans to take part in the exploitation of Cypriot energy assets and strengthens Russia’s bargaining position towards Turkey in their bilateral energy dealings threatening to undermine Turkey’s ambition as an energy hub.
In the case of Turkey, analysts note the AKP government’s ambition to become a regional power actor, an alternative model for the Arab countries emerging from the upheaval of the Arab Spring.
However, it is already apparent that Turkey’s foreign policy of “zero problems with the neighbors” has not delivered the expected results. Turkey’s relations with Israel, Syria, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, and Iran seem to be on a descending trend.
In the case of Syria, before the Arab Spring, Turkey considered Syria a close ally in the Arab world, especially since Iraq pursues increasingly pro-Shiite policies under the influence of Iran. Tensions increased when refugees began pouring into Turkey and Syria brought down a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft in July 2012. Now, Turkey considers the Assad regime a liability and it is the principal channel of support to the rebels. Syria’s civil war is increasingly “spilling over”. Moreover, instability in Syria and a weak central government in Iraq have a direct impact on the Kurdish problem in Turkey.
In sharp contrast with the 1950’s Shah’s regime, the Islamic Republic of Iran was from the beginning hostile to the U.S. interests in the region, contested Arab states it saw as U.S. clients, sought to forge an alliance with Assad’s Syria, opposed the state of Israel and became a fervent supporter of the Palestinian cause. In the decades that followed, Iran’s influence grew constantly on the regional geopolitical and military balance, particularly on the role played by Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians.
Iran has become a long-range missile power, is seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons, has built up a major asymmetric force in the Gulf, and has created special units like the Quds Force to build up friendly and proxy forces like Hezbollah and those of the Moqtada Al-Sadr. As a result, Iran threatens the security of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other pro-Western regional actors and plays a major role in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. Iran also could selectively use its energy resources and continued membership of OPEC as a source of leverage and influence against the West.
In its quest for a regional hegemony, Iran deepened its alliance with Syria while building on the increasing politicization of Lebanon’s Shiite community and exploiting the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Syrian-Iranian axis was shaped by both countries’ regional isolation and common interests. The Al-Assad regime considered a strong Syria-Iran axis as a means of exerting leverage in dealing with Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel from positions of relative strength. The partnership in Syria in turn provided Iran with the geographic and political means through which to increase its influence in the Levant and its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The strategic partnership between Iran and Syria still remains a cornerstone of Iran’s policy in the Levant, in spite of the Syrian civil war and Assad’s more uncertain ability to stay in power. The loss of Syria as a strategic partner and asset in the Levant would signal a significant downgrading of Iranian interests and strategic posture in the broader Levant. Iranian support for the al-Assad regime is likely to continue as long as Tehran sees any opportunity to maintain its ailing ally in power.
Beside its strong ties with Syria, Iran also supports non-state actors in the region, including the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas in what Iranian and Syrian leaders have dubbed the “Resistance Axis.” The end result is a growing power struggle between Iran and several key Arab states as well as growing competition between the U.S. and Iran for influence over both state and non-state actors.
At the same time, Iran continues to exploit Arab-Israeli tensions in ways that make it an active barrier to a lasting Arab-Israeli peace, while the U.S. must deal with the impact of rising tension between Israel and the Palestinians and a new round of fighting in Gaza that has increased Arab hostility to the U.S. strategic partnership with Israel. At the same time, the rising tension between Iran and the Arabs has pushed Arab regimes back towards closer ties with the U.S., as well a raised regional tension between Sunnis and Shiites/Alawites and Arabs and Kurds. Iran and the U.S. now compete in a proxy war in the Levant that is centered around the civil war in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, influence on the Palestinian movement, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is a struggle whose outcome is extremely uncertain because of the broad pattern of instability in the Middle East, the nuclear arms race between Iran and Israel, and the risk of Israeli preventive strikes on Iran.
The European Union
Although traditionally present in the Levant (through the UK and France) and even, through Greece and Cyprus, part of the Eastern Mediterranean, the European Union seems to lack a strategy or an effective political project for the Eastern Mediterranean. Even more, the European Union seems to be in retreat in the Eastern Mediterranean. The economic crisis in the EU has undermined its position and the appeal of the European model. If Greece and Cyprus were to leave the Euro zone, even if they would remain EU members, this would be perceived as the EU disengaging from the Eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, Turkey has all but given up its ambition for EU membership.
The situation in Greece is particularly worrisome for the EU, since the geopolitical consequences of a “Grexit” would be just as profound as the financial and economic ones. Greece lies on the geostrategic crossroad between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and between Europe and the Middle East. Greece also might become a significant transit route for gas and oil from Russia, the Caspian and the newly discovered energy sources in the Eastern Mediterranean. Furthermore, together with Cyprus, Greece is the most south-easterly outpost of the EU in a region of considerable instability.
Analysts stress the need for the EU to develop a comprehensive strategy addressing economic issues, energy interests and the Arab Spring. An economically viable exploitation of recently discovered hydrocarbon deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean depends on the progress in solving three protracted conflicts in which the EU is deeply interested, namely the Middle East peace process, the Cypriot question and the Greek-Turkish rivalry. The EU needs to find a balance between preserving its relationship with Israel, supporting Greece and Cyprus without alienating Turkey, and containing Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Failure to make progress in these problem areas will not only jeopardize fully exploiting the energy deposits, but will also heighten the risk of international conflict.
Political reluctance to launch grand new strategies is on the rise in the EU, due to the economic crisis. The EU continues to analyze the events in the Eastern Mediterranean almost exclusively from an economic and financial viewpoint and approach mainly the challenges that threaten the immediate social and economic fabric of the Union, such as migration. The geopolitical importance of the region hardly plays any role, preventing the EU to develop a comprehensive strategy. Yet the Eastern Mediterranean remains of paramount interest to the EU. On the positive side, it promises to reduce energy dependence on Russia. On the worrying side, the outcomes of the Arab Spring and the economic and financial crisis could result in the EU’s southern flank mired in instability for a protracted period.
By opposing an international resolution against Syria, China positioned itself as a supporter the Assad regime, an attitude that may be explained by the fact that the fall of Syria would mean that Iran would be significantly weakened. Therefore, the Middle East would be closed to Russia, China and Iran. With Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, strengthening their ties to the U.S., China’s venturing into the high seas would be difficult without American consent.
Since a global player such as China would not accept that its routes be under the control of another power, China needs the Middle East to reach Africa. This would explain the good relations between China and Sudan, the former’s gateway to Africa, which would put extra emphasis on the necessity of Syria’s independence from the West. Hence we can understand the reasons why China’s foreign ministry declared that “Syria is a very important nation in the Middle East and it has to remain stable, and all problems have to be resolved internally without any external intervention that would lead to complications”.
4. The Eastern Mediterranean oil and gas resources: between catalyzing unity and fuelling disputes
The discovery of large offshore fields of natural gas and oil in the Eastern Mediterranean region generated great expectations for the countries, mainly Israel and Cyprus, which hope to become important players in world energy markets. In the midst of intense geopolitical antagonism in one of the most volatile and conflict-affected areas in the world, various initiatives are taking place, with ramifications beyond the region.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimated the Levant Basin has a mean probable undiscovered natural gas resources of 122 trillion cubic feet. The discoveries started in 1999, with the largest fields being located in Israel and Cyprus. Together the estimated recoverable reserves in these fields total more than 40 trillion cubic feet. The US Geological Survey (USGS) also estimates that the entire Levant Basin holds a mean approximation of 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil.
Leviathan, the biggest of the Levant gas fields with 18 trillion cubic feet of estimated recoverable reserves, was discovered in 2010 and could start production by 2016. Tamar, with an estimated 10 trillion cubic feet, started production in 2013, four years after its discovery.
Offshore natural gas discoveries in the Levant Basin have the potential to significantly alter energy supply dynamics in the eastern Mediterranean region and could spur natural gas exports in the near future. Uncertainty over the location and configuration of export infrastructure persists, but several proposals are making progress despite complications posed by regional security problems, territorial disputes, and macroeconomic uncertainty.
A large share of the newly discovered energy resources will help meet domestic demand in the countries of the eastern Mediterranean, but there could be enough surplus natural gas to spur exports from Cyprus and Israel. Determining how and where to export natural gas remains a topic of continued debate, with several proposed export routes competing for political and economic support.
Among the factors that may influence such exports the main one is the regional insecurity, but also territorial disputes, such as the one between Israel and Lebanon, which jeopardize joint development of potential resources in the area and could limit cooperation over potential export options, as well as the economic conditions in both exporting countries and destination markets like Europe and Asia.
Israel: from David to Goliath
After the discovery of large natural gas reserves in the offshore Tamar and Leviathan fields, for the first time in its history Israel is able to disengage from its reliance on Egyptian gas imports. Israel also has a great potential for oil finds in its deep offshore reservoirs, and intends to develop a major shale oil prospect the Shefla Basin, south-east of Jerusalem, which could yield some 250 billion barrels. Such a figure would place Israel into the “top-3”, behind Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, with the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves.
Israel’s transformation into a significant energy producer is not without its challenges. The offshore fields make the subject of several territorial disagreements, mainly a maritime boundary dispute with Lebanon concerning 330 square miles in the Leviathan Basin that Lebanon declared that it is also part of its own protected economic zone.
Robbie Sable, a professor of international law at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, has stated that the claim may be complex due to Lebanon’s border with Israel being indented, making it harder to establish where Israel’s sea boundary ends and Lebanese waters begin. However, in August 2010, Lebanon submitted to the United Nations its official view regarding the maritime border, indicating that it considered the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields to be outside Lebanese territory, though it indicated other prospective fields in the region may be within Lebanese territory, and the U.S. expressed support for the Lebanon proposal.
Some experts speculated that the Leviathan fields could extend even further north than presently mapped, off the Syrian coast, closer to the Russian naval base of Tartus, in which case Syria may also have a claim over the resources.
Another difficult problem faced by Israel is the eventual export of its gas on international markets.
The most economical variant in the short-term would be the construction of an undersea pipeline allowing Israeli gas to reach European markets through Turkey. An Israel-Turkey pipeline would be less expensive to build than new LNG facilities and would contribute to the diversification of Europe’s energy supplies by bringing a new source of non-Russian gas to Europe. The U.S. attempts to mend the ties between Israel and Turkey, which were severely strained since the May 2010 incident when an Islamic Turkish organization tried to break the Gaza blockade, were based on the assumption that Turkey should be assisted in becoming an energy hub between the European Union, the Middle East and Caucasus.
Such a pipeline, however, would likely either run off the coasts of Lebanon and Syria, or go to Turkey through Cyprus. Both options are fraught with perils and finding investors willing to build a pipeline will be challenging, and even if built, the pipeline would be difficult to secure. In the current situation, an Israel-Turkey pipeline would exclude Lebanon and Cyprus. Politics will keep Lebanon from connecting up to any Israeli pipeline, and Turkey won’t have a connector to Cyprus.
On the other hand, Israel is interested to achieve, in the long term, its energy autonomy and is maintaining an open channel of potential energy cooperation with Cyprus and Greece.
Cyprus: natural gas might bring a political solution with Turkey
Over the past few years, the discovery of the Block 12 field that is estimated to contain 8 trillion cubic feet of gas has prompted Nicosia to pursue the East Mediterranean gas pipeline, a plan to transfer gas to Greece and Italy. The move could be a crucial one for the diversification of European energy imports.
Cyprus’s own gas fields, mainly in the Aphrodite basin in the Eastern Mediterranean, represent another potential source of conflict. Turkey has not recognized the Republic of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone where exploration is currently under way. Ankara has pressured companies seeking to do business there, and recently began its own exploratory drilling off of the de facto Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus without permission from Nicosia. The revenues from Cypriot energy could benefit communities on both sides of the island, but only if a political agreement can be worked out in advance.
Negotiations are said to be underway concerning the frozen Cyprus issue between the Greek and Turkish sides, and reports suggest that all interested sides have put natural gas on the table. Ankara allegedly proposed a resolution to the problem and withdrawal of its military under the condition that Cyprus gas be exported to its territory before it is transferred to international markets.
For its part, Cyprus is part of the so-called Energy Triangle, an agreement with Israel and Greece for the establishment of a gas pipeline from the Aphrodite (Cyprus) and Leviathan (Israel) to liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Vasilikos (Cyprus) by 2919. Cyprus and Israel agreed to a joint extraction of natural gas by the American company Noble Energy in order to reduce the financial burden of extraction. Another interesting project is the so-called “Eurasia electricity interconnector”, a 2,000 MW line that will be used to transfer electricity to the European Union after being produced by the natural gas power plant. The European Union has agreed to back the project as a “project of common interest”. The cable is estimated to cost $1.5 billion and could be ready by early 2016.
The Cypriots and the Israelis have agreed in principle but have not definitely decided on the Vasilikos terminal. A debate is already underway in Tel Aviv to create its own LNG terminal either in Haifa or in Eilat, for reasons of security and autonomy. Moreover, for an eventual export to the Asian markets an LNG terminal in Eilat in the Red Sea has a definite advantage for Israel. If the Israelis decide not to pursue the Vasilikos project, Nicosia will face a dilemma of either postponing an investment decision or accepting the Turkish offer, which is coupled with political benefits.
Moscow and its energy companies are also seeking a larger role in the Eastern Mediterranean. Russian companies, including Gazprom and Novatek, bid on development rights off of Cyprus, with Novatek initially winning a concession to develop the so-called Block 9 that was withdrawn by Cyprus in December 2012.
Such moves are combined with the Russian attempts to control the infrastructure that delivers gas from the Caspian and Central Asia to Europe, as shown by the interest of Gazprom, Neguzneft and the Sintez Group in participating in the privatization of the Greek gas supplier DEPA and the natural gas transmission network operator DESFA. This would give Russia a say in Greece’s pipeline system that will transport gas from the Caspian and Central Asia to the Adriatic for further distribution to Italy and beyond. For that reason, Russia is contesting the EU’s Third Energy Package, which would restrict Gazprom’s control over European pipelines.
In the Eastern Mediterranean region, a spectacular move was made in February 2013, when Gazprom and the Israeli companies signed a letter of intent giving the Russians exclusive rights to purchase and export to the Asian markets LNG from the Tamar field. The main Israeli company, Delek, said that they would develop detailed plans for the project before taking the final investment decision.
Not only are gas prices in Asia around 50% higher than in Europe, but supplying Eastern Mediterranean gas to Asia would ensure that this new production does not become a competitor to Russian gas in Europe.
Russia is willing to invest in a five billion dollars floating LNG facility, also because building an LNG plant in the Eastern Mediterranean would allow it to increase its share of the global LNG market, which currently hovers at just 5%.
In addition to their marketing agreement at Tamar, Russian companies are also interested in Israel’s much larger Leviathan field, as well as Lebanon’s offshore, where Gazprom submitted an unsuccessful bid for the right to explore earlier this year. Of course, given Russia’s interest in preventing competition for its gas in Europe, there are legitimate questions about whether Gazprom would actually follow through on developing any concessions it wins in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Overall, prospective energy projects in the Eastern Mediterranean have been entangled in political and corporate games, while political risks in the region have been increasing. Last but not least, the prospect of long-term gas production in the Mediterranean is hindered by global political and corporate interests in the energy sector who do not want to be left on the sidelines, and do not want to see their market shares decrease in light of new suppliers. Thus, if a thriving gas production market in this region is going to develop, it will take time.
5. Conclusion: new “maps” for the Levant and the Arab world
At the moment, the post-Ottoman state order in the Levant seems likely to survive the possible Balkanization of Syria, although the divisions and conflicts that resulted have spread deeply across the Levant, amplifying local frictions and threatening the fragile stability of both Lebanon and Iraq. The longer the Syrian conflict continues, the longer the major powers avoids taking the risky steps that are needed to solve the problem; the deeper Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe takes hold, the more likely it becomes that Syria will fragment, and that its Balkanization will be the precursor to an extended period of region-wide violence and turmoil that could overturn the century-old post-Ottoman state order in the Levant.
The political ramifications of the Syrian crisis to the wider Mediterranean zone will be substantial. As the number of refugee increases, so does the radicalization of an unknown number of rebels and their supporters, all while global powers fail to form a consensus on how to stabilize the region. It is also natural to assume that developments will be influenced further in Iraq and the Saudi Peninsula, as well as in Greece and the Balkan Peninsula, due to interactions based on common denominators, such as geopolitical interlinks, ethnic compositions, state interests and world energy markets.
Syria’s war is considered a turning point in a process where the centrifugal forces of rival beliefs, tribes and ethnicities are pulling apart the map of the modern Levant, a region defined by European colonial powers a century ago and defended by Arab autocrats ever since.
Any medium-term prognosis needs to consider the extent of political and sectarian factionalism, humanitarian dislocation, societal cohesion, state capability and foreign meddling. Most analysts say it is impossible to make a firm prediction about the situation in Syria, and where the conflict is heading. However, Syria appears unlikely to recover its national unity and stability in the medium term.
Syria is practically divided into three identifiable regions, each with its own flag and security forces: a narrow state along a corridor from the south through Damascus, Homs and Hama to the northern Mediterranean coast controlled by the Assads’ Alawite sect; in the north, a small Kurdistan, largely autonomous since mid-2012; and the main Sunni-dominated heartland.
Syria’s unraveling would set precedents for the region, beginning with Iraq which so far resisted falling apart because of foreign pressure, regional fear of going it alone and oil wealth that bought loyalty, at least on paper. But analysts agree that since Iraq is the fault line between the Shiite and the Sunni world, everything that happens in Syria has repercussions on the political landscape in Iraq. Over time, Iraq’s Sunni minority may come closer to eastern Syria’s Sunni majority and form a de facto so-called “Sunnistan”, while Iraq’s south would become “Shiitestan”. Similarly, although the dominant political parties in the two Kurdish regions of Syria and Iraq have longstanding differences, when the border opened in August, more than 50,000 Syrian Kurds fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has announced plans for the first summit meeting – announced for 15 September 2013 – of Kurdish representatives from some 40 parties in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran.
The process is matching the splitting trend in other countries after the “Arab Spring”, when Arabs not only wanted to oust dictators, but also wanted power decentralized to reflect local identity or rights to resources.
Libya’s uprising also reflected Benghazi’s quest to partly separate from domineering Tripoli. Tripolitanians look to the Maghreb (western Islamic world), while Cyrenaicans look to the Levant (Mashriq, the eastern Islamic world). The Cyrenaica National Council in eastern Libya declared autonomy in June. Southern Fezzan also has separate tribal and geographic identities. More Sahelian than North African in culture, tribes and identity, it could split off too. So Libya could devolve into two or even three pieces.
After ousting its longtime dictator, Yemen launched a National dialogue in March 2013, but in a country long rived by a northern rebellion and southern separatists, enduring success may depend on embracing the idea of federation and promises to let the south vote on secession. Arabs are also speculating about part of South Yemen’s eventually merging with Saudi Arabia. Yemenis could benefit from Saudi riches and in turn, Saudis would gain access to the Arabian Sea for trade, diminishing dependence on the Persian Gulf and fear of Iran’s virtual control over the Strait of Hormuz.
Some scenarios even involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia, a country that merged rival tribes by force under Wahhabi Islam. The kingdom seems secure, but it still has disparate cultures, distinct tribal identities and tensions between a Sunni majority and a Shiite minority. The so-far suppressed internal divisions could surface as power shifts to the next generation of princes, and the country could break into the five regions that preceded the modern state.
Analysts are skeptic about the prevalence of the factors that could keep the Middle East from fraying: good governance, decent services and security, fair justice, jobs and equitably shared resources, or even a common enemy. And the longer Syria’s war rages on, the greater the instability and dangers for the whole region.
 Samuel P. Huntington: The clash of civilizations? in Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, p.22, Summer 1993: “on both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilizations” (p.32)
 After the name of its negotiators, French diplomat François Georges-Picot and British Sir Mark Sykes, see infra.
 The “National Reconciliation Accord”, negotiated in Taif (Saudi Arabia) and designed to end the civil war in Lebanon. It tried to accommodate the demographic shift to a Muslim majority, reassert Lebanese authority in South Lebanon and provide a timeframe for the Syrian withdrawal.
 Stratfor: The Geopolitics of Israel: Biblical and Modern, Analysis, 14.05.2011
 Zbigniew Brzezinski: The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And It’s Geostrategic Imperatives, Basic Books, 1998. The author formulates a Eurasian geo-strategy for the United States, stressing that it is imperative that no Eurasian challenger should emerge capable of dominating Eurasia and challenge America’s global pre-eminence. The analysis focuses on the exercise of power on the Eurasian landmass in a post-Soviet environment. In the chapter dedicated to what he refers to as the “Global Balkans”, Brzezinski makes use of Halford J. Mackinder’s “Heartland Theory”.
 The Declaration, dated 2 November 1917, was a letter from the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour to Walter Rothschild, (2nd Baron Rothschild), a leader of the British Jewish community, for transmission to the Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland. It mentioned that “His Majesty’s government views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”. The “Balfour Declaration” was later incorporated into the Sèvres peace treaty with the Ottoman Empire and the Mandate for Palestine.
 Raymond Émile Eddé (15 March 1913 – 10 May 2000), son of former Lebanese President Émile Eddé, was a Maronite politician, leader of the Lebanese National Bloc. His supporters called him “Lebanon’s Conscience”, since he was a nationalist who opposed the French Mandate and later Syrian, Israeli and Palestinian military intervention in Lebanon. He also opposed the plans to partition Lebanon into ethnic and religious mini-states, and he accused the then U. S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger of conspiring to destroy Lebanon.
 Also known for being one of the three places in the world where Aramaic (the so-called “language of Christ”) is still spoken.
 “Balkanisation”, as different from state collapse, involves the emergence of new, most likely competing, political orders in parts of a former unitary state, with functioning formal institutions of governance. Collapse involves state failure, the absence of formal institutions of governance.
 US Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (1947) Adm. Forrest Sherman quoted in, Gardner, Lloyd C.: Three Kings: The Rise of an American Empire in the Middle East after World War II. New York: The New Press, 2009: 19