The Struggle for the Levant: Geopolitical Battles and the Quest for Stability
September 18, 2014
The United States and its allies compete with Iran in a steadily more unsettled and uncertain Levant. The political upheavals in the Middle East, economic and demographic pressures, sectarian struggles and extremism, ethnic and tribal conflicts and tensions all combine to produce complex patterns of competition. The civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, and the internal upheavals in Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon all interact and affect the competition between the US and Iran.
The Burke Chair is circulating a second review draft on US and Iranian strategic competition in the Levant. This study shows that the United States faced an increasing level of instability across the Levant, which in turn affected every key aspect of US competition with Iran in the broader Middle East and North Africa. It asks how do the US and Iran compete in the Levant, where do they compete, and what are the forces and constraints that shaped this contest in the past, present, and possibly in the future?
The study is entitled The Struggle for the Levant: Geopolitical Battles and the Quest for Stability and is available on the CSIS web site at: http://csis.org/files/publication/140918_Iran_VIII_Levant_report.pdf
The study examines how the US and Iran compete in the Levant, where they compete, and what forces and constraints that shape their competition:
- The first chapter of this report introduces the analysis.
- The second explores US and Iranian interests in the Levant.
- The third chapter addresses how the US and Iran compete by considering the conventional military balance in the Levant.
- The fourth chapter goes beyond conventional forces and considers an area where Iran has been especially effective over time, namely in shaping the regional asymmetric balance.
- The fifth chapter looks at the history, evolution and current state of play in the Arab and regional state system.
- A complementary sixth chapter looks at the evolution of socio-economic forces that shaped the Arab uprisings and their lingering regional effects.
- The seventh to twelfth chapters examine how the US and Iran compete in each country in the Levant.
- The thirteenth chapter evaluates persistent and emerging challenge or “wild cards” in the region.
- The final chapter derives key implications that are likely to shape future US policy towards the Levant.
The analysis shows that deep socio-economic, political and sectarian cleavages, the pervasiveness of the Arab-Israeli conflict and a cycle of popular protests, all combine to make the Levant a growing challenge to the US in shaping its regional struggle with Iran.
The US Role in the Levant
The US must choose the best way to advance its interests in each area, as well as consider the enduring and emerging regional challenges and wild cards that may come to shape and influence US-Iranian interests and competition in the Levant in the years and decades ahead.
At the same time, the study shows that it is impossible to predict the future outcome of the key trends in any given case. Even the short-term impact of changes in regimes are not predictable, nor is how these changes could affect the underlying drivers of regional tensions. It is particularly dangerous to ignore the risk of replacing one form of failed governance with another one, and the prospect of years of further political instability or upheavals.
The US faces major uncertainties in dealing with each major country in the Levant. The US has long supported the most powerful states in the area – Israel and Egypt – and it has been an ally of Jordan. It has helped them build up powerful conventional forces and anti-terrorism capabilities, and Israel has developed a major arsenal of long-range missile and nuclear weapons. The US has also strongly encouraged Arab-Israeli peace efforts and the peace settlements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan.
The US has, however, seen Egypt undergo massive political upheavals during the last two years, along with 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 a sovereign Palestine, and growing uncertainty about the prospects for a broader Arab-Israeli peace settlement.
The US cannot count on its past links to Egypt and Jordan, must deal with an ongoing civil war in Syria, and must mitigate increasing instability in Lebanon. It also must deal with a growing nuclear confrontation between Israel and Iran, the risk of Israeli preventive strikes on Iran, and major shifts in the very nature of the regional military balance.
The Iranian Role in the Levant
Iran’s efforts to expand its influence in the Levant, Egypt, and Jordan are a key aspect of its strategic competition with the US. Nearly twenty years after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, and five years after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the US and its allies continue to struggle with the realities of Iran’s growing influence in the region and its use of proxy and asymmetric warfare.
The Islamic Republic has developed strong ties with Syria and non-state actors in the region, including the Lebanese Shi’a group Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamist movements like 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 US 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 America must deal with Arab hostility to its strategic partnership with Israel.
The Changing Nature of US and Iranian Competition in the Region
As a result, the US and Iran face an unprecedented level of instability in the Levant – and the rest of the Middle East and North Africa – that affects every aspect of their regional competition. At present, no one can predict the outcome. At the same time, the study also shows that it is impossible to predict the future outcome of the key trends in any given case. Even the short-term impact of changes in regimes is not predictable, nor is how these changes would affect the underlying drivers of regional tensions.
It is particularly dangerous to ignore the risks of replacing one form of failed governance with another one, or the prospect of years of further political instability driven by internal dynamics defining the future of each country. Iran, the US and their allies, can exert influence but no outside power can dominate the course of events relative to the internal challenges that divide each state. It is possible, however, to analyze the key factors driving the upheavals, look at the emerging patterns and how they affect Iranian competition with the US, and raise key policy issues.
Internal Power Struggles and Instability in Egypt, Jordan and Syria
There seems to be little near term prospect for stability in Egypt or Jordan. Egypt faces a mix of political, economic, demographic, and religious tensions that may keep it divided and unstable for the next 5 to 10 years – although there is real hope that some form of meaningful democracy and effective governance may emerge more quickly. Meanwhile, Jordan faces deep political, economic, demographic, and tribal strains. Its current regime may still survive, but meaningful reform has at best only begun, and is complicated by emerging security threats tied to instability and extremism in Syria and Iraq.
In short, important as the roles of Egypt and Jordan in the military balance may be, it is other non-military factors which will do far more in the near term to shape their futures, their alignment with the US, and the stability of their commitments to peace with Israel.
Syria faces a similar challenge from political, economic, demographic, and religious tensions, as well as sectarian divisions. Assad’s mishandling of popular unrest, failure to reform, and ruthless suppression of his own people has led to more than three years of civil war, is tearing Syria apart, making its economic problems far worse, and may divide the country along sectarian lines.
The Impact of Radical Changes in the Regional Military Balance
The military competition between the US and Iran in the Levant has long been shaped by their respective ties to different regional powers and non-state actors. Both the US and Iran have worked hard to nurture security partnerships and relationships with regional state and non-state actors to promote their regional interests, project power, and shape the broader regional balance of power.
Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Syria have all built up strong conventional forces, but their relative capacity for asymmetric warfare has become steadily more important as non-state actors have come to play a growing role in the region, and both state and non-state actors have come to rely on asymmetric warfare and threats. Moreover, the civil war in Syria, the overthrow of Mubarak, and increasing tensions in Jordan and Lebanon are all having a major impact on the conventional balance while internal struggles are empowering non-state actors.
US military aid to Israel has insured its preeminence in the regional conventional military balance. Neither Egypt nor Jordan now actively competes militarily with Israel. Syria was forced to abandon efforts to achieve strategic parity with Israel in favor of strategic deterrence in the 1980s, and is now caught up in a civil war that seems certain to leave it a far weaker military power at its end.
This, however, is only part of the story. The dynamics of civil conflicts and popular protests have all but shattered the regional conventional military balance. Nowhere is that more the case than in Syria. After years of protests, violence, and an increasingly sectarian civil war, the Syrian military is no condition to compete directly with any of the other regional militaries.
In contrast to the declining significance of the conventional regional balance, the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war provided the first major indication of the growing significance of regional competition in asymmetric forces. While countries such as Syria have focused on building up their strategic deterrence against Israel, non-state armed groups – such as Iranian and Syrian-backed Hezbollah and Hamas – have become key players in the regional asymmetric military balance.
This threat must be kept in proportion. Boasts by Hezbollah and Hamas about defeating Israel in a future conflict are propaganda fantasy, not reality. Israel, the US and key regional allies do not face anything approaching critical or existential threats from today’s armed groups. Such non-state actors do, however, pose a risk to US preferences on regional stability and the development of the Arab-Israeli peace track, which in turn informs US concerns about their future development and roles in regional security politics.
The Quest for Stability in a Region in Crisis
Any apparent stability in the area between the 1973 War, the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the uprising in Tunisia in 2011 was clearly over and is likely to be over for well over a decade. The US needs to be conscious that no amount of development assistance can correct or fix underlying socioeconomic and demographic forces that had become compounded over decades, and that it may take decades to find some form of stability.
The US could also not ignore the steep rise in regional sectarianism in a region spanning well beyond the Levant from North Africa to Afghanistan. Iran repeatedly turned to sectarian affiliations and its Shi’a clients in its efforts to balance against the US and its regional allies. However, key US allies – like Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – have also resorted to leveraging Sunni-Shi’a divisions in their own bids to shape dynamics in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq and in the broader balance of power with Iran.
Ungoverned and under-governed spaces have become fertile ground for increasingly radical Salafi-Jihadi groups like ISIS, Jabhat al-Nursa and Egypt’s Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Combined with the scale of regional Gulf competition, the Levant may yield even more space within which Salafi-Jihadi groups can try to consolidate their expansion in the Levant in the wake of regional protests in 2011.
Neither the US nor Iran can afford to ignore groups like ISIS, or to strategically compete to nowhere. Many of the key decisions made by Iran and its Gulf opponents between 2011 and 2014 are the definition of tactics and not strategies. Conflating the two puts both opponents like Iran, and allies like Saudi Arabia, in equal jeopardy and in ways that the US is unlikely to benefit from in either case. The US will have to work with the broadest possible mix of players to create the kind space that may eventually allow for some degree of stability across the Levant.
As the country by country analysis shows, however, this is only part of the story. US military assistance and aid efforts must be linked to political and economic efforts as well. The US must be prepared to deal with the full range of factors driving instability in each country in the Levant as well as Egypt, and serious as some potential military risks may be, the political, economic, religious, and social upheavals may ultimately prove to be more important.
While Syria has been a challenge for US policy-makers for decades, the current round of instability is unprecedented. The situation in Syria is not predictable enough for the US to be able to develop a sustainable strategy in the short term. The US and key regional allies have steadily sought to increase pressure on the Assad regime and provide different levels of support to anti-Assad political and insurgent forces. Through these actions, the US and its regional allies are pursuing several aims, not the least of which is to weaken Iran’s role as Syria’s sole major state ally, while at the same time finding ways to halt the spread of military Jihadi grounds in Syria and beyond on favorable terms. This makes Syria the key local prize for the US, Iran and their respective allies.
- Despite the continued militarization of the opposition and initial tactical successes against Assad’s forces in an increasingly sectarian civil war, there is no clear US response to this increasingly dangerous phase of instability in Syria. Regime forces and allies have shown an ability learn on the battlefield, and the forces buttressing the regime will continue to close ranks around Assad. The window for US or Western covert and overt assistance may have come and gone, and could also further deepen tensions with Russia, China and other members of the UN Security Council who do not want to see a repeat of steps taken in Libya.
- The US cannot ignore the regional spillover effects should Syria destabilize further and it needs to adopt a strategy based on containing Syrian instability. How events do and do not play out in Syria will have deep and unforeseen consequences on the precarious sectarian balance in Lebanon, the security of Israel along its northern and eastern flanks, the stability of Jordan at a time of increased internal unrest, and pressure along Turkey’s southern flank as Ankara tries to contain increasingly assertive Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish groups. A collapse in Syria – controlled or otherwise – may hold the promise of breaking Iran’s umbilical cord to Levant, but it also promises to expose both budding and strategic US allies to waves of uncertainty for years to come.
- While the US may have had reasons to support and grant recognition to some opposition forces that were more moderate or more representative of popular forces in Syria, that will not translate into a more stable Syria at peace with its neighbors in either the short or long term. Based on the current internal Syrian balance, there is no real world basis on which to make the argument that a post-Assad Syria was imminent as of 2014 – let alone that it will make peace with Israel, renounce claims to the Golan Heights, or stop providing assistance to Palestinian elements operating in and outside the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
- Despite growing pressure and rhetoric in 2013 and 2014, there was still only very limited support in the US, Europe, and the Arab world for direct intervention in Syria. Syria is not Libya. If a window to strike Assad existed, it was before the consolidation of radical Salafi Jihadi groups in Syria with an eye on Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Assad’s Syria also enjoys strong political, financial and military support from Iran and Russia. These factors complicate any calculus on military intervention in Syria, whether in terms of the level of potential military opposition, or with regards to the risk of high civilian casualties.
- There still are reasons why the US might directly (or indirectly) take the lead in such efforts. The withdrawal of US troops from Iraq has left many unanswered questions about the future prospects for a stable Iraq, let alone a stable Syria, and the US already finds itself conducting airstrikes against ISIS militants in Iraq that could just as easily be in Syria. Instability in Iraq and Syria presents Washington with the opportunity to undermine Iran’s regional posture, weaken or change the leadership of one or both of its key regional allies, and potentially downgrade the Islamic Republic’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict through Hezbollah.
- Some analysts have proposed trying to separate Syria’s security establishment and the Alawite community away from the Assad regime. While the approach is sound in principle, the US may need to accept that the chances of doing so are slim. The passage of time and the level of bloodshed have made it more difficult to conceive of a post-Assad Syria devoid of retaliatory measures against the Alawite community. While many Alawites may not like or support Assad, the potential loss of their political and economic autonomy is a key barrier to defections. Even in a scenario where a dominant opposition proved magnanimous in victory, there is little sign that Assad’s base – and the other minorities that support the regime – is betting on such a favorable outcome.
- While events in Syria are challenging to Iran, the strategic choices of the Islamic Republic and its chief ally in the region Hezbollah are evolving in an effort to deal with events in Syria and potential shifts in the regional balance of power. While “Plan A” is to try and maintain Assad in power and fend of his local and regional opponents, “Plan B” in the event Assad falls seems to be the prevention of the emergence of a stable Syria under Sunni rule in Damascus. There is continued evidence in 2014 that the IRGC’s Quds Forces, aided by Hezbollah are actively training and equipping mainly Alawite and Shi’a tens of thousands of irregular forces into what appears to be a deeply ideological Jaysh al-Shaab or “People’s Army” meant to take pressure off Syrian regular and special operations forces and fight for the interests of the Alawite community and other allied factions in Syria.
- As the corrosion and decay of Syria’s state and national security structures continues to grow, the militarization of the struggle for Syria all but ensures that militia economics and warlordism will a dominant feature in Syria for years to come. The Syrian military already underwent a process whereby it was stripped down to its most loyal –and predominantly Alawite – core. If the military does not survive institutionally in the long term, or if it does not regain some semblance of national legitimacy, the prospects for demobilizing Syria’s growing archipelago of militias and fighting groups will be extremely slim.
- Syria’s insurgent groups – which are far more likely to have influence in Syria than either external or local political opposition forces – are poor vehicles to socialize, advance, and consolidate external (principally Western) efforts to secure pluralism and stable politics in Syria. Again, while many insurgent groups include Army defectors, many if not most insurgent groups in Syria still remain local militias in what has become a national struggle. Neither they nor the many more civilians-turned-guerilla-fighters are anywhere near ready to internalize and implement any form of lasting transition plan in Syria. This in turn will also further complicate a lasting cessation of hostilities, the creation of a stable and credible government in Damascus, or a Syria that will actively protect it minority groups.
- The rise of jihadi and militant Islamist factions and fighting groups in Syria with ties to Al-Qaeda like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra present another key challenge. While the Syrian armed opposition remains deeply fragmented despite its growing size, Islamist and jihadi units have better access to weapons, are attracting recruits frustrated by the uneven pace of the conflict, and are moving far quicker to consolidate their forces. The presence of ideological and radical forces in Syria’s civil war was always going to be a challenge so long as more moderate factions were unable to overcome their internal divisions and gain access to more military resources.
- While groups like ISIS threaten regional opponents of the US and Saudi Arabia – like Assad’s Syria, Iran and Hezbollah – the adage that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend” does not apply to intolerant extremist groups with transnational aspirations. The presence of these groups in the Levant is instead a case of “the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy.” Neither the Assad regime nor Iran are party to the September 11, 2014 “Jeddah Communique” which brings together an array of regional and Levant states with the intent of combating the spread of ISIS. However, separately, together, or by agreeing to disagree, the US and Iran – but also Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the GCC states and Turkey – will all have to fight the threat from the expansion of groups like ISIS into ungoverned spaces in the Levant.
- The impact of external actors will grow more critical as Syria’s civil war continues to evolve. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have been active supporters of the armed insurgency against Assad, including indirectly supporting some of the more hard line elements fighting Assad. Meanwhile, the US and European states have been important sources of external pressure and coalition-building against the regime in Damascus. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran, and China continue to wield influence with Assad in a bid to maintain what remains of the regional status quo. There is significant daylight between the competing nations supporting either side of Syria’s civil war. However, as with other similar conflicts – such as Lebanon’s 15-year civil war – external support by competing external actors will be critical to any effort to legitimize a new political order in Syria.
- At present, the best Assad’s regional and international opponents could hope for would be more representative Sunni-led leadership that takes into account the foreign policy priorities of the United States, the Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia, and Iran. At worst, Syria would remain unstable and could deteriorate into a deeper regional sectarian conflict – a conflict which could in turn draw its neighbors – especially Lebanon and Iraq – into a cycle of regional proxy warfare. What is certain, however, is that in any scenario, Syria’s regional role has been severely weakened by a three years of unrest.
- Continued political upheaval and civil war mean that Syria’s economic outlook will only continue to decline. Even in a scenario where key players in the merchant class put their full weight against the Assad regime, there is still no clear sense of an end state in 2014 either on where Syria was going or which players could and would be at the helm. It is also difficult to measure the impact of external rents and aid provided to Assad from Russia, China, Iran and what other few allies the regime still had.
None of the dynamics now shaping Syria’s future are simple, definitive or predictable. All illustrate how Syria’s internal battle for power is tied to broader regional Sunni-Shi’a fault lines that neither the Sunni Gulf states, Iran, nor the US can take for granted. The longer Syria lingers caught in civil war and political uncertainty, the more likely it seems the country will emerge as a continuing arena for proxy competition.
However, even with Arab, Turkish or Iranian support, any US-led intervention – political, military or otherwise – would have to take stock of the scale of Sunni-Shi’ite regional polarization and the level of acrimony between the Southern Gulf states and Iran to determine the benefits and potentials costs of deeper US involvement in the Levant.
Both the armed opposition and the regime and its supporters are undergoing a rapid process of political Darwinism and it is not possible to clearly determine who the key players in Syria will be months from now, let alone in 2014 and beyond. What is certain, however, is that regardless of if or when Assad falls or is replaced, Syria will struggle with the militarization of society and the expansion of Islamist and radical forces for years to come. The US would then face increasing difficulty in both staying out of and competing with Iran in Syria.
Israel will be a key factor in US-Iranian competition and the recent cycle of instability in 2012 and 2014 will remain critical to how both countries develop their bilateral relationship and security ties.
- A ring of growing instability now exists around Israel. By contrast to this, however, Israel was the only Levant state not faced with the threat of at least one form of domestic upheaval. The US will continue to provide Israel with both political and military security guarantees to bolster their strategic partnership. The US and Israel must also continue to coordinate their efforts to minimize and curtail Iranian influence in the broader Levant.
- At the same time, and despite recurring setbacks, the growing cycle of regional unrest accelerated the need to bring Israeli-Palestinian negotiations on a two-state solution to fruition. Popular sentiment across the Arab world, US preferences, the need for a lasting peace, the recent Palestinian UN bid for statehood, and the longer-term strategic interests of both Israelis and Palestinians all argue for such an initiative. A vast gulf of mistrust between Israel and the Palestinians exists, and there was no certainty in 2014 that any efforts will succeed. At the same time, the failure to try may put an end to the Arab League peace initiative, force Egypt and Jordan to distance themselves from their peace agreements, strengthen Iran’s efforts to spoil peace efforts, undermine the US role in the Arab world, and further radicalize the Palestinians at a time when rational minds should prevail.
- With US support and aid, Israel developed the making of a true “edge” in terms of countering the asymmetric threat from Palestinian and possibly Hezbollah missile fires. However, every “edge” has to factor in the possibility that asymmetric and non-state opponents may adopt often low-cost and low-tech tactics to deal with or to degrade high-cost and high-tech Israeli countermeasures. “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014 showed Israel, its allies and its opponents that the best response to the Iron Dome missile defense system was to find another means of causing Israeli military attrition.
The US cannot take risks with Israel’s security but it must take account of the fact Palestinians play an important role in US competition with Iran and in dealing with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
- As with Israel, the US needs to work hard to bring the PA back to negotiations on a two-state solution. The PA’s UN bid initially did much to buoy the position of President Abbas, however, this effect largely degraded by 2013 and Hamas has since taken the spotlight due to its perceived military prowess against Israel during “Operation Protective Edge” in 2014. The Quartet, led by the US, must push ahead with peace efforts before moderate factions before more marginal. The alternative is a degeneration of the Palestinian position to a point that strengthens Palestinian opponents of the West and invigorates Iran’s spoiler role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- The Palestinian Islamist wildcard has proven crucial to projecting Iranian influence in the Levant as a means of impacting the Arab-Israeli conflict. Relying on groups like Hamas was also an important means of shoring up much needed Sunni support for Iran in the region. A very public break between Syria and Hamas was a setback for Iran, but in 2014 the Islamic Republic cultivated ties with other Palestinian Islamist groups. So far, Tehran has also rejected a deeper isolation of Hamas for siding against the Assad regime, and claimed some public credit for accomplishments during fighting in 2014.
- While US and Iranian competition does play a role in shaping Palestinian politics, internal Palestinian and broader regional dynamics will be far more critical. Fatah is trying to roll back the growing preeminence of Hamas in Palestinian politics and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hamas, meanwhile is working to roll back its isolation vis-à-vis one-time friendly regional Arab states. Both patterns are uphill battles for Fatah and Hamas, and both work to Iranian and US advantage on either side of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
- The development and integration of tunnel warfare and an effective irregular warfare force equipped with rockets that could be fired from hidden launch sites complicated the optics of the Iron Dome missile defense system – especially when rocket fires were ultimately secondary to attacks by ground forces deep within Israel coupled with high IDF attrition rates
- Despite these gains, Syrian unrest, tensions with Iran and the loss of favorable with Egypt under President Sisi all presented Hamas with a choice between its regional credentials as a Sunni Islamist movement and its long-time regional partners Iran and Syria. So far Hamas has managed to recalibrate ties with Tehran and recent military “non-failures” and relative successes in 2014 against Israel have offset the effects of regional unrest and the loss of ties to Damascus, Cairo and much of the Arab world.
None of this changes the fact that Hamas and all Palestinian factions must deal with worsening socio-economic realities, a region that will be unstable for years, and continued Israeli responses to efforts by Hamas and Hezbollah to sharpen their asymmetric military capabilities. Meanwhile, Israel has few viable options in a region undergoing generational change and instability. Siding with opposition forces in Syria could help Iran and its allies link regional developments to accusations of so-called US and Israeli plots to reshape regional politics.
US policy towards Egypt and Jordan should focus on aiding their stability and development. Iranian influence and interference can only take hold if Egypt and Jordan fail to develop their own path toward stability, and if the US fails to support them in these efforts. It may take them take each state a decade or more to achieve the level of stability and development their peoples need, and the US must show the strategic patience to work with both states in what may often be periods of unrest and turmoil.
- President Morsi’s exit from power in 2013 meant that Egypt would go through a cycle of instability as it reconciles itself with the indirect return of the Egyptian military to domestic politics, the Muslim Brotherhood’s re-branding as a terrorism organization and the uncertain role of other Islamist political forces in future governments. The US government and Congress must both remain flexible as President Sisi tries to restore stability to Sinai and the broader country– a move that is crucial to ensuring stability across the Levant and the broader Middle East and North Africa
- Military aid from the US, and financial assistance from the Gulf states, are crucial to stabilizing post- revolutionary Egypt. The US must continue to nurture its military-to-military relationship while recognizing that Egypt’s economic needs must also be addressed. While funding from the Gulf can help sustain investment and macroeconomic indicators, and while the US and other Western democracies can provide the sort of socio-economic aid that bolsters governance and state accountability at least in principle, only the oil-rich Gulf states have the fiscal flexibility to invest large amount of capital to help stabilize the broader Egyptian economy.
- “Operation Protective Edge” showed that Egypt under Sisi was far less forgiving of Hamas and its activities in the Gaza strip. While the US benefits from an Egypt that could work to isolate militant Palestinian groups, Egypt’s ability to communicate with such factions was what made Egypt a remarkable all in Arab-Israeli affairs. Cairo should strike the right national balance between pressure and engagement – especially insofar as Egypt can engage with groups that the US government simple cannot either.
- In the wake of ISIS’ persecution of minority groups in Syria and Iraq, recurring sectarian tensions between Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians now sit in a much broader context. The continued deterioration of communal ties will likely have an increasingly negative effect on the country’s internal stability. While accounting for 10% of the Egyptian populations, at some 10 million strong the Copts remains the largest Christian community in the Levant. With the rise of sectarian tensions in Syria and Iraq, continued sectarian recrimination in Lebanon, and the depletion of Christians in Iraq and the Palestinian Territories, the US and Egypt must both do more to prevent the communal and primordial politics from becoming a source of instability in a region in a deep state of flux.
- The internal upheavals that overthrew the Mubarak regime in 2011 and the Mori government in 2013 will continue to create serious new uncertainties about Egypt’s longer term stability. No one can take Egypt for granted, regardless of the trajectory of politics and governance in Cairo. It may be far more stable than Syria in terms of internal violence, but Egyptian security was relative in 2014.
- Political unrest and instability between 2011 and 2014 in Egypt have also led to greater militancy and armed activity in the Sinai Peninsula with implications not only for security there but also for the future stability of Egyptian-Israeli bilateral ties. Post-Morsi Egypt has seen escalating violence between the Egyptian security forces and militants, smugglers, and Bedouin tribes. Whether or not the Egyptian authorities can impose order there could also impact stability and non-state armed activity in neighboring Gaza as well.
As with Egypt, Jordan is too important to the US and its Gulf allies not to make every effort to help it avoid prolonged instability.
- Here too, the US needs to continue to support security and economic assistance programs to the Hashemite Kingdom, while supporting peaceful democratic reforms as well. It should also continue to support Gulf efforts to integrate Jordan into the Gulf Cooperation Council as one measure to limit regional instability and bolster the Kingdom’s security.
- Events in Syria also have potential direct and indirect effects on other regional actors. Jordan’s King Abdullah was among the first regional leaders to openly call for Assad to step down. However, more than three years of Syrian unrest have left Jordan struggling to insulate the kingdom from the corrosive effects of Syria’s increasingly divisive civil war. In addition, Jordan continued to struggle to deal with the growing impact of more than a million displaced Syrians in the Kingdom.
- In parallel to political dissent tied to Syria, Jordan has slowly become a key regional exporter of militant Jihadi fighters. In early 2014, some estimates placed the number of Jordanian Salafi-Jihadi fighters in Syria at between 700 and 1,200. A more recent June 2014 estimate put the number of Jordanians fighting in Syria at closer to 2,400 – half of whom had joined ISIS.
- The Hashemite monarchy, a key US regional ally, is likely to come under growing pressure from both hardline Islamist groups – like ISIS in Iraq and Syria –at a time when the Kingdom is struggling to cope with systemic micro and macro-economic challenges, a growing budget deficit, a ballooning Syrian refugee population, and the growing penetration of Salafi and jihadi groups into the broader Levant.
After with Syria and Iraq, Lebanon was one of the countries most affected by the side-effects of popular unrest, civil war, massive migration, heightened sectarians and the potential a further degradation in national sovereignty. While there were serious risks of instability in 2014, opportunities also existed for both Lebanon and the US to better manage the country’s precarious security politics.
- In the wake of regional protests starting in 2011 and the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, the US-Lebanese bilateral relationship has increasingly become defined by both countries’ need to cooperate on regional security, intelligence sharing and dealing with emerging and common threats from militant groups inspired by Al-Qa’eda with operational links to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.
- While Lebanon cannot compare with other regional states in the conventional military balance, the country – especially its armed forces – remains important to preserving what remains of a shattered regional security architecture, mitigating the expansion of groups likes ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, and limiting the role of South Lebanon as a launch pad for missiles and other threats against Israel.
- The US should not take sides or ideological positions in Lebanon; US policy should remain focused on the fact that Lebanon will remain the problem child of US foreign policy. This entails a pragmatic policy that seeks to minimize Lebanon’s geopolitical profile and contain the risks posed by Hezbollah and other forces hostile to US interests in the Levant. The US must continue to capitalize on the fact that Iran’s relationship is with Hezbollah while its own relationships can be with a broader range of Lebanese institutions and political forces.
- The US should seek to support the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon in ways that will not reinforce negative perceptions of the US as well. Given the depth of divisions in Lebanon, the US will not score points in its competition with Iran if the Tribunal cannot eject perceptions that it is a Western political tool meant solely to undermine Syria and Iran in the Levant.
- The US should continue to support UNFIL and the LAF based on their real world impact on security politics along the Blue Line. This means accepting first that the UN force’s role as a regional punching bag for both the Israelis and the Lebanese is conducive to stability along Israel’s northern flank. It also means accepting that while the LAF is not the non-sectarian military force that many in the US hoped it would be, it remains critical to keeping a lid on Lebanese instability.
- Given the weaknesses of Lebanese political allies and the limits of US policy in Lebanon, long term military diplomacy remains crucial to maintaining US influence in Lebanon and sustaining the US’s place in security politics in the Levant. Furthermore, the scale of challenges Lebanon is likely to face from growing asymmetric threats will likely merit higher levels of external aid The State Department, with the support of Congress, should considering providing levels of FMF and other military aid at least moderately in excess of some $75 million per year over the FY2012-FY2014 timeframe for Lebanon to avoid the real prospect that US security assistance and cooperation programs will run out of unallocated funds before the start of 2013.
- As the Syria conflict drags on, so too will pre-existing tensions in Lebanon along Sunni-Shi’a lines. Lebanon’s Sunnis have broadly sided with the mainly Sunni uprising against Bashar al-Assad, while Lebanese Hezbollah and the Shi’a more broadly support the Assad regime. Both sides have sent fighters to Syria, albeit Hezbollah’s deployment was both more deliberate and better planned out. However, the sad irony is that while Lebanese factions may turn the tide in Syria, all of the underlying challenges in Lebanon will still be there, and more likely, with get far worse over time.
- Other challenges that will expand if unchecked are the weak underling socioeconomic and demographic fundamentals of Lebanon. While Lebanon did adopt a more liberal economic model than most of its neighbors, the analysis illustrated massive income, job access and employment gaps between the mainly rural north and Tripoli on the one hand, and places like Beirut on the other. The US should recognize that these enduring human patterns contribute to Sunni militant recruitment and to growing Sunni resentment of the country’s Shi’a community. With US support, the Lebanese government must find ways to leverage both Lebanon’s own economy and its ties to countries within the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) – like the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK and France – to help offset some of these underlying trends.
- Effective planning and support are critical if the LAF and the government of Lebanon are to make good on the military’s core national security priorities in 2014, which are tied to internal stability operations, counter-terrorism and border management. To that end, in 2013 the LAF formulated a five-year capabilities development plan (CDP). The CDP was the first major strategic document produced by the LAF to address critical mission areas, minimum force capabilities, targets in terms of professionalizing LAF standard operating procedures, and linking the overall effort to budgeting and future funding in both an inter-agency and a civil-military environment. The US can and should support current and future steps that Lebanon may take to plan for an uncertain military future.
- The LAF in 2013 and 2014 became an integral part not only of Lebanese but also regional and international efforts to produce and sustain key metrics of relative stability. To that end – and with British and US support – the LAF expanded its deployment to the North and North Bekaa in the first major deployment of its kind in post-independence history. This also included the standing up of two new border regiments, backed by a planned initial total of 12 fixed Sangar-style fortified forward operating bases (FOBs) intended to detect, deter, deny and defend against future militant incursions from across the Lebanese-Syrian frontier.
- Clashes between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and JAN and ISIS militants in August 2014 served to highlight what can happened if competing Lebanese political forces cannot set aside some of their differences. Ungoverned and under-governed spaces in Lebanon’s north and north-east continued to serve as staging grounds for raids into neighboring Syria in 2014. However, these spaces also presented a real threat to both mainstream Sunni and Shi’a political forces in Lebanon. The US, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other key states all need to be conscious of the fact that the unfettered presence of such militant groups presents an equal opportunity threat in Lebanon, and that if left unchecked, could unravel Lebanon’s limited but important role in what remains of the current Levant security architecture.
- The next attack against Lebanese military targets along the border with Syria is not a matter of if but when. As such the government of Lebanon, the US, the UK, Saudi Arabia and France all should work to accelerate the deliveries of military equipment, ammunition and training requested by the LAF. These include increases in the LAF’s ability to effectively target fires at range with systems like the AGM-114 Hellfire, and acquiring more fixed wing ISR/CAS platforms to build up the LAF’s ability to “net” its forces and to counter some of the effects of sparse and challenging terrain in the northeastern Lebanese-Syrian mountain hinterlands.
- Hezbollah is likely to continue supporting the Assad regime and Iranian interests in Syria in early throughout 2014. However, these efforts will likely continue to focus on Hezbollah’s “train and equip” effort with Syrian irregular units under the auspices of the National Defense Force, “hunter killer” missions in the anti-Lebanon mountain and Qalamoun mountain chain, and the defense of key sites tied to either Shi’a demographics in the region and the protection of key religious sites, including the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine on the outskirts of Damascus.
In the end, the choices thus far of Lebanon’s leading Sunni and Shi’ite factions attest to the stark reality that Lebanon’s opposing political forces cannot escape the negative effects of competing on either side of Syria’s civil conflict. Syria and Lebanon are tied together by geography, demographics, unstable regional alignments, and deepening Sunni-Shi’a regional tensions. Neither Lebanon’s Sunnis nor its Shi’as have yet to definitively come to what might be a very bitter lesson in dealing with instability in the Levant: that the Lebanese tail cannot safely and successfully wag the Syrian dog.