Reinventing the Levant: These countries should incorporate themselves into a single economic zone

Author: Jamal Daniel




AMERICAN POLICY toward the Middle East has been a dismal failure for the past thirty-five years, if not longer. Officials have approached policymaking in the Middle East without a clear sense of the region’s history, poverty, predominance of authoritarian rule or intraregional relationships. The failure begins with the concept of “separate peace”—the basis of the 1978–79 U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Egypt and Israel—which never led to a broader settlement. It has continued with Washington’s haphazard response to the tumult of the past five years since the Arab Spring, the rise of Daesh (ISIS) and the continuing stream of dislocations flowing from the invasion of Iraq. Each failure has only deepened the sense that the region is beyond repair. Hence, the American public and many elites are tempted by simplistic solutions—draw back from the region even further; deepen support for authoritarian regimes; take extreme measures to end refugee flows; provide Syrian rebels advanced arms; “carpet-bomb.” The sense of frustration is understandable, but doubling down on failed policies will not work.


There is a yearning for a more organic solution, one in which the governments and the people of the region have equal stakes. And, indeed, there is a model rooted in the region’s history that could be a solution. It enabled nearly four hundred years of peace and prosperity in the Levant. At its core is economic integration, with the free movement of goods and people across a broad swath of territory. Such an approach contrasts sharply with the present-day reality, to put it mildly. But the region is approaching a point of exhaustion, and the United States will have a new opportunity, as it did after the first Gulf War, to advance this model. It will find a receptive region. The habits of integration are deeply ingrained in Levantine culture and reside just beneath the surface, waiting to be tapped. A recent experiment suggests that this model is more than a historical artifact and can be successfully adapted to the modern context.



Six years ago, without American assistance, a movement seemed to be emerging that provided a new framework for economic and political cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean—including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and possibly even Israel—and offered a different vision of regional stability, one essentially integrationist. Though American media and officialdom paid it little attention, it represented the most significant development in the politics of the peace process in some years, and deserves close and careful examination. Now is the time for the United States to reflect on an honest historical accounting of the Mashriq’s (the Arab world east of Egypt) recent history, and then take action. Now is the time to advance “Integration for Peace.”




IN JUNE 2010, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan announced a “free-trade zone” and visa-free travel among the four countries. This development built on the rapid expansion of trade relations between Turkey and its Arab neighbors. Trade among the countries of the Arab League and Turkey doubled between 2007 and 2011, to a value of approximately $30 billion annually. Cities like Gaziantep, which had long languished economically, were booming as a consequence of the rapid and dramatic expansion of trade with Syria and Iraq. One source estimated that half the region’s goods were bound for the Middle East, compared with just a quarter going to Europe. The language of the agreement struck a tone of inclusivity, noting that the “quadripartite mechanism . . . will be open to the participation of all the other brotherly and friendly countries in the region.”


Economically, the region became more integrated than it had been for nearly a century. Turkey rapidly overcame the difficulties of being a relatively resource-poor country by increasing its oil and gas holdings in Iraqi Kurdistan—a remarkable development that allowed Ankara to take a major regional role and lifted many of the limitations on its economic growth. The increased participation of Turkish companies in the region’s economic development, including production-sharing agreements in the energy sector with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, suggests not only Ankara’s increased economic weight in the region but also a new willingness to prioritize economics over political tensions. These deepened economic ties persist, offering a political buffer even as Turkey’s military operations against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurds fray Turkish-Kurdish relations.


Cultural indicators of increasing sympathy and cooperation between Turkey and its Arab neighbors were just as strong as economic incentives. The BBC reported an upsurge of interest in studying Turkish in Gaza and throughout the wider Mashriq. Turkish soap operas and other television productions became hugely popular throughout the Arab world. Tourism between the Arab world and Turkey also increased, especially after the implementation of the visa-free travel zone; Arab travel to Turkey rose by nearly 50 percent in 2010 compared to the previous year.


Unprecedented security cooperation unfolded. In April 2009, Turkey and Syria launched a three-day joint military exercise, exchanging border forces and engaging in activities designed to enhance the military capabilities of both countries. At the same time, the two nations signed a military technical cooperation agreement. These developments caused angst in Israel and the United States, both of which perceived the military exercises as an implicit threat to the former and a turn away from Turkey’s traditionally strong ties to the Jewish state.


Turkish-Syrian cooperation alarmed Riyadh, which viewed it as a threat to the kingdom’s regional influence. From the Saudi perspective, a Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis was bad enough, but an arrangement that brought Ankara into the fold would decidedly diminish Riyadh’s influence and fundamentally threaten its interests. The Saudis swung into action and played no small part in putting a halt to the integration project through the tried-and-true tactic of checkbook diplomacy. In April 2011, the head of Saudi Arabia’s largest commercial lending bank announced that the kingdom would invest $600 billion in Turkey over twenty years. That was soon followed by an announcement from Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company, the Binladin Group, that it was investing $500 million in Turkey’s real-estate sector. In March of that year, Syrian protesters, inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets and were met with a vicious response from the Assad regime. The Saudis saw a chance to deal a devastating blow to Iran’s regional ambitions and eventually funneled money and arms to a range of sectarian actors, some of them bedfellows with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. By the fall, Turkey imposed sanctions on Syria, and the Mashriqi project, which showed such promise, disintegrated.


The United States viewed the project with considerable suspicion. Washington saw Turkey’s turn towards Syria as a sign of increased hostility toward Israel (an anxiety heightened by the Mavi Marmara incident) and perceived tighter economic and political collaboration in the region as a potential threat to American interests. U.S. officials continued to accept divisions in the Middle East, in the British and French tradition. Some American commentators went so far as to disparage these budding alliances as a form of “neo-Ottomanism,” conjuring up eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western fears about a global Muslim takeover. In the United States, there has been no recognition of the historical basis for this integration or any honest assessment of its potential value for the stabilization of the region.


In fact, this short-lived experiment represented a broadly positive development for the nations involved, and for the Middle East more generally. The failure to nurture it was a missed opportunity to insulate the region against Daesh. The incorporation of these countries into a single economic zone is the first step towards reclaiming an identity destroyed by colonization during the first half of the twentieth century. It could provide a path forward towards stability, the defeat of violent extremism, economic development and eventually the normalization of relations with Israel—all goals the United States should support.




THE ESSENTIAL political, economic and cultural unity of the region called the Levant in the West and the Mashriq in the Arab world, which today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and parts of Iraq and Turkey, is an old concept that has been disrupted only in the twentieth century. Prior to the Western interventions that resulted in the creation of the Middle East’s contemporary nation-state system, the Mashriq existed as a political and cultural entity characterized by a cosmopolitan, polyglot culture and an economy based on extensive trading networks.


The Ottoman Empire, which began to expand outward from eastern Anatolia in the fourteenth century and solidified its position by capturing Constantinople in 1453, conquered much of the region now known as the Mashriq beginning in 1516. The Ottomans absorbed the Mashriq by way of major public works, an empire-wide defense system and large-scale taxation schemes. However, the Ottoman administration allowed a good deal of local control, appointing governors from prominent local families and depending on local notables to conduct the empire’s business. The Mashriq developed as a coherent Arabic- and Turkish-speaking region from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. Like the rest of the empire, the Mashriq included substantial religious minorities; its Christian and Jewish populations were governed under the so-called “millet” system, which involved a degree of communal autonomy in return for additional tax obligations. While clearly discriminatory in the modern context, scholars generally consider this system to have been vastly more tolerant of religious minorities than anything comparable in the West during the same period.


During the nineteenth century, as the Ottomans faced challenges from their increasingly powerful European rivals, problems arose in their Mashriqi provinces. The European powers, competing with each other for colonial control across the globe, began to claim “protectorates” over the Ottoman Empire’s minority religious communities, especially its Christians, using this claim to leverage economic and strategic benefits for themselves vis-à-vis the declining Ottoman state. Despite some upheaval, the Arab provinces generally continued to regard the Ottoman Empire as a legitimate ruling power.


Oil was discovered in the Middle East in the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1911, the British navy, assuming it would be able to benefit from the reserves its geologists had found in modern-day Iraq, switched from coal- to oil-burning ships, thus ensuring the centrality of oil reserves in world politics. Around the same time, the scramble for new colonies among the European nations was reaching a frenzied state. During the First World War, European colonial competition resulted in a secret agreement between Britain and France partitioning the Mashriq in the event of Ottoman defeat. Under this 1916 pact, known as Sykes-Picot after its two principle negotiators, Britain would take control of the key Iraqi oil regions as well as strategic Palestine, and France would claim Lebanon and Syria. This agreement was formulated without the knowledge of either Ottoman or Arab representatives. Further, it appeared to conflict with an agreement the British made during the war with the Hashemite noble Sharif Hussein, in which they pledged to support an independent postwar Arab state over much of the same territory in return for local assistance against the Ottomans—a promise on which Hussein made good with his Arab Revolt in 1916. At the end of the First World War, the European powers who had already laid claim to parts of the Mashriq moved in to reap their rewards.


The newly formed League of Nations set up a system of “mandate” states in the Mashriq, which would theoretically progress towards independence under European guidance. In reality, the mandate system represented a thinly veiled colonial takeover. With Russia dropping its claims after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and with U.S. support for self-determination seriously weakened by its limited role in the war and by Woodrow Wilson’s illness during the peace talks, Britain and France were free to divvy up the region at will. In 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres sketched the national borders of the new Middle East and chopped the Mashriq into separate national entities for the first time. The French took the new states of Syria and Lebanon, whose borders were drawn to ensure an unstable predominance of Maronite Christians who would have to depend on French colonial assistance to maintain political power. The British took Palestine and the new state of Iraq—an ahistorical amalgamation of the three disparate Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. Two years later, due to the exigencies of European Zionist immigration and the claims of the Hashemite family, the British divided Palestine into two mandates: a much smaller Palestinian state and Transjordan (later Jordan). The basic map of the contemporary Mashriq had been drawn without reference to historical precedents or consultation of any kind with its inhabitants.


These borders remain the basis of the Mashriq’s nation-state system, most of whose members achieved independence by the late 1940s. The founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent scattering of the Palestinian Arab population across the globe further cemented this Western-created system. France and Britain drew borders without considering whether the new states had the natural resources necessary to sustain themselves; in Syria, the borders were drawn deliberately to exclude the reserves of oil it needed for economic development. Consequently, all these nations have suffered from an impoverishment that has made the development of a functioning civil society virtually impossible. With the failure of the communist and socialist models that seemed the only path to economic development in the 1950s and 1960s, it has increasingly appeared that in the almost complete absence of economic opportunity, authoritarian rule is the only possible mode of government.


The West has generally not considered the economic unsustainability of the Mashriq a problem. After the withdrawal of the European imperial powers from the Middle East during the 1940s and 1950s, Western attention turned to the oil-rich Gulf. Intervention on behalf of Israel constitutes the only sustained American engagement in the Mashriq over the past sixty years. The United States has elected to ignore or downplay the underlying problems and potential of the Mashriq, instead focusing its efforts on currying favor with the Persian Gulf states that contain half the world’s oil reserves. Misguided American priorities aside, the borders drawn by the European powers have proven problematic in both economic and political terms, contributing to communal tensions, authoritarian rule, economic stagnation and political instability.




THERE WERE, of course, a number of protests over the arbitrary and often cruel division of the Mashriq. In Palestine and Syria, from 1918 through the early 1920s, a faction known as the “Southern Syria” movement (for the belief that Palestine constituted the southern part of Syria) argued against drawing random borders with the purpose of dividing the region between Britain and France. During the mandate itself, Antoun Saadeh, founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, decried the division of the region and called for the unification of “Greater Syria.” He drew on emerging European nationalist—including fascist and totalitarian—philosophies to propose a new modern, secular and nonconformist state in the Mashriq.


As the mandate period came to an end, another ideology was emerging, one that would become the dominant political doctrine of the postwar Middle East. Pan-Arabism, which viewed the Arabic language as the central thread of a viable regional identity, gathered strength in the aftermath of the bloody independence battles and the postmandate political confusion. After 1948, pan-Arab leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser staked their political lives on opposition to the Jewish state and declared Arab solidarity, stretching from North Africa through the Mashriq to the Gulf. The shifting of power in the Arab world led to the abandonment of “Greater Syria” in favor of a pan-Arabism devoted to a Soviet-facing economic philosophy and, of course, vitriolic objection to Israel’s existence.


Arab nationalism did not make good on its promises. The pan-Arab regimes that took over in Iraq, Syria and Egypt during the 1950s became just as corrupt as the elite-dominated governments they had overthrown. Pan-Arabism met its end in 1967, when a coalition of Arab states led by Nasser lost the Palestinian territories, Sinai and the Golan Heights to Israel in a humiliatingly quick and thorough military defeat. Henceforth, many in the Arab world would begin to feel that their only remaining option for a viable supranational political organization lay in the Islamist movements beginning to gather steam. Islamism gained a foothold because state and pan-Arab nationalisms had failed so dramatically.


Pan-Arabism and, later, Islamism attempted to deal with the traumatic loss of identity the Mashriq suffered in the aftermath of the First World War. The Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, once linked culturally, politically and economically, had been violently shattered and placed under oppressive and often brutal colonial regimes. These newer regional and religious conceptions of identity tried unsuccessfully to replace the sense of history, pride and belonging that had been destroyed by the violence of the early twentieth century. The region can be healed only by rejecting these failed attempts at constructing new alliances based on pan-Arabism and Islamism and, instead, focusing on reclaiming its vibrant, cosmopolitan, pre-1920 identity.




OFFICIAL AMERICAN discussions of the Mashriq seem to assume that the failure of democracy there derives from flaws in the civic culture or the divisions wrought by primitive sectarian identities. These mistaken conclusions, rooted in Europe’s misguided imperial division of the Mashriq, have led to recurring and costly interventions throughout the region—in Iraq and, more subtly, in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan—that have failed completely. Washington needs a new approach to decisively break this pattern.


The United States first needs to recognize the West’s role in creating the disastrous geopolitical situation in the Mashriq and unpack each state’s economic and political baggage. Priorities include: identifying each state’s natural-resource scarcities and the consequent political divisions; acknowledging the arbitrary borders that have fractured communities culturally, ethnically and religiously; and recognizing the psychological traumas and loss of identity that accompanied the forced remapping of the Mashriq.


Economic incapacity, caused by haphazard resource allocation in the aftermath of World War I, forms the core of the Mashriq’s political problems. In the case of Syria, the loss of oil-rich lands to Iraq was devastating; the cultivation of separately governed “statelets” severed producers from markets and splintered local communities; and the subsequent impoverishment of the people gave way to a minority regime that continues to rule the country today. The founding of tiny Lebanon, with a large population and almost no natural resources, resulted in perpetual dependency on remittances. The small state of Jordan continues to depend on Western financing to buttress its monarchy and maintain stability. Israel, the most economically successful of the lot, is not immune to these challenges. It has relied heavily on aid from the West since its founding and continues to require immense financial and military support from the United States. The Palestinians’ dire economic straits have reached a humanitarian boiling point—particularly in Gaza—a situation that inevitably fuels violence borne of desperation.


In 1945, six Arab countries—Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Yemen—undertook another ill-fated bid to unify when they came together to found the Arab League. The decision to base the institutions of pan-Arabism in Egypt signaled the organization’s orientation away from the Mashriq and towards North Africa and the Gulf—a focus that became even starker in 1979, when the capital of the Arab League was temporarily moved to Tunis as a consequence of Arab anger over the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty.


The league provides a kind of sifting mechanism for the problems of the Arab world. The West works with and through the league as necessary and especially when it serves broader U.S. strategic interests, such as in the 1991 Gulf War. But the league has done very little to assist the nations of the Mashriq, and its record on the Palestine question (with the possible exception of the Saudi-led 2002 Arab Peace Initiative) is lackluster. The league’s approach to economic issues surrounding oil, as evinced by the 2006 decision to admit Venezuela as an observer, betrayed an increasingly muddled and distant agenda. It has, likewise, not achieved any significant degree of political or economic integration among its member states, which remain extremely disparate. The inability of the Arab League to solve or even begin to address the political, cultural and economic difficulties of the Mashriq reflects the failures of the Arab nationalist model. Given its legacy as a talk shop and showcase of Arab divisions—not to mention regional identities trending toward the local—the league is unlikely to emerge as a force for stability.




THE ONE part of the Levant that has captivated American policymakers is the state of Israel. Israel has enjoyed huge amounts of economic, political and military support from the United States, especially since its occupation of Palestinian territories after the 1967 war. U.S. administrations have expended exorbitant amounts of energy and resources in trying to negotiate a “peace process” intended to stabilize the region.


Such efforts have repeatedly fallen short, largely because they have not conceptualized the conflict within the Mashriq’s colonial history. Even if the Israelis and the Palestinians were to sign a peace deal, Israel’s hostile relations with its neighbors would continue to threaten its position. Any lasting solution must therefore also consider Israel as a central part of the Mashriq, recognize its cultural and historical importance to the history of the region, and offer it genuine economic and political integration. Successful economic exchange and development must be considered essential to any peace settlement.


This may seem like an unlikely scenario, especially in the face of arguments that the security barrier has allowed Israelis to relegate the ongoing conflict to a back-burner issue. But in fact, Israel has much to gain from regional economic and political integration. Such a solution would allow it to establish a lasting peace with the Palestinians as well as its Arab neighbors, especially Lebanon, with which Israel has been intermittently at war for the better part of three decades—a conflict that has taken an immense toll on the Israeli psyche as well as costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars. Integration for Peace would provide Israel with regional allies against its greatest foe, Iran, perhaps eventually building new strategic lines of communication with Tehran, and reinvigorating relations with Ankara. It also offers Israel the opportunity for major regional economic development, opening up huge new markets for Israeli goods and services. But above all, it represents an opportunity for the normalization of relations and the permanent legitimization of Israel in the eyes of its neighbors. The genuine acceptance of Israel as an economic partner of the Arab states of the Mashriq would enshrine a new regional order.


The states of the Mashriq must shift from outdated anti-Israel rhetoric, which served for so many years to prop up the failing institutions of Arab nationalism, and instead recognize Israel as a potential partner in a major economic redevelopment of the region. Integration for Peace offers the most promising path towards regional security and prosperity. This sort of cooperation could lead to sustainable partnerships between Israel and its Arab neighbors, a desirable outcome for U.S. national interests.



PIECEMEAL SOLUTIONS to the so-called “Middle East problem” have failed repeatedly. Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan (reached at great financial and diplomatic cost to the United States) have reaped little in terms of broader integration. Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat’s agreement, despite leading to a Nobel Peace Prize, failed to deliver a genuine peace between Israelis and Egyptians. Similarly structured individual peace arrangements with the Palestinians or with Israel’s two northern neighbors would likely suffer from the same tunnel vision.


The region has been in a state of cold war since the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the last time that the Israeli army engaged another conventional force in limited war—in contrast with actions against nonstate actors like Hezbollah and Hamas. Israel has existed in a tense atmosphere for nearly three decades, facing down Syria, Lebanon and various Palestinian groups. The Camp David Accords, in retrospect, look more like an armistice than anything else; any additional piece-meal peace would be no different.


A Mashriq-wide peace process should supplant the “Land for Peace” approach with an Integration for Peace framework. Such a model would include land settlements between Israel and the Palestinians (based on pre-1967 borders), as well as among Israel, Lebanon and postwar Syria. Offering Israel a phased path to full integration in a Mashriq market could function as a catalyst.


The United States has proven incapable of advancing the Israeli cause in the post–Arab Spring landscape. But a war-weary America must play a role in reimagining the Mashriq. The incorporation of these countries into a single economic zone allowing the free movement of goods, services, labor and capital, based on a European Union–style single market, is the first step towards reclaiming an identity that was lost in the violent colonization of the Middle East.


Reimagining a new Mashriqi identity, based on a common history of cosmopolitanism and a commitment to a shared economic prosperity, is viable. Integration for Peace has pre–twentieth century antecedents and represents an alternative to the recent Islamist trend. It rejects the sectarianism that has come to characterize the Middle East (which developed primarily as a response to colonial and neocolonial legal and political systems), burying the concept of a Sunni-Shia divide in favor of a vision based on the region’s much longer history of tolerance and diversity. Far from presenting a threat to the United States, this new vision holds promise for a stable and productive Mashriq, with benefits for the Middle East as a whole.


The United States, though wounded by its invasion of Iraq and a damaged reputation throughout the Middle East, remains the only feasible mediator. But it must break from the pattern of trying to solve crises in isolation. The United States and Russia, whose role in Syria makes it an indispensable player, should initiate a combination of bilateral and multilateral tracks with the strict intention of discussing the region’s interlocking, inseparable crises holistically. These conversations would involve not only regional government officials, but would also engage leading intellectuals and economists to outline a path toward integration in the postwar decade. The endgame is integration.


The European Union, in spite of its many imperfections and uncertain future, offers a modern-day example of success in the wake of a disastrous conflict. In an era of tight budgets, a market-based approach offers an attractive alternative for reconstructing Iraq and Syria, creating jobs and bringing refugees home. The United States must seize the opportunity to reassert itself as an honest broker in the Mashriq—much as it did in postwar Europe. The seemingly endless stream of crises from Syria, Turkey and Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands a bold, new approach.


A renewed sense of collective identity based on shared economic interests may hold the key to healing a divided region desperately in need of a shared vision of a more peaceful and prosperous future.



*Jamal Daniel is chairman of Crest Investment Company and founder and publisher of Al-Monitor, winner of the 2014 Free Media Pioneer Award.



Source: National Interest


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