The UK’s engagement with the Middle East and North Africa

Will Todman testified before the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee as part of its inquiry into the United Kingdom’s engagement with the Middle East and North Africa on March 26, 2024. He argued that the United Kingdom can play a leading role in defining the terms of the next phase of international engagement in Syria.

Remote Visualization


The UK’s interests in the Levant

The UK has a core interest in preventing the collapse of states in the Levant. Syria and Lebanon are the closest to collapse, and each faces severe economic challenges and ongoing political instability. If Syria collapsed, Daesh would likely capitalize on the power vacuum to regroup, Syria would become a venue for increased international competition as actors scramble to secure their security and geopolitical interests (oil fields, military bases etc), and a renewed wave of Syrians would seek refuge in Europe. Numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in small boats would likely spike. If Lebanese security forces collapsed, inter-communal violence would spread, radical Shia and Sunni groups alike would surge, armed groups would force refugees back to Syria, and migrants would attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

Aid cuts to the Levant have undermined the UK’s interests there, as they have contributed to worsening humanitarian conditions and increased the chances of state collapse. The UK cut ODA by 85% in Lebanon and by 70% Syria between 2020 and 2023. The UK lacks deep partnerships with the most consequential actors on the ground. However, the UK can still leverage its relationships and strategic advantages to play a productive role in the region.

The UK’s engagement in the Levant

The prospect of a positive breakthrough in Syria is very low. The tools the UK and its partners have deployed, including sanctions, to facilitate a process for political reform have failed. However, recent normalization agreements between Arab states and Syria have revealed that engaging with the Assad regime is similarly fruitless. Russia and Iran have the most leverage over the regime, but they have shown no interest in wielding that leverage to improve conditions for Syrians.

In the impasse, Syria is becoming more unstable. Daesh is becoming more active in central Syria, protests are spreading in southern Syria once again, and the economic crisis is sharpening. Although the UK should not squander its leverage by unilaterally lifting sanctions, it must pursue new efforts to increase the resilience of communities in Syria to prevent total societal collapse. At the same time, it should continue the slow process of pursuing accountability in international courts.

In Lebanon, the UK is striving to prevent total collapse through security assistance, humanitarian assistance, and efforts to encourage political and economic reform. Security assistance has been effective. It has provided more than £100m to the Lebanese Armed Forces since 2009, with a focus on building border security to prevent spillover from Syria, and it has also trained internal security forces. Despite aid cuts, the UK maintains influence in the humanitarian sector, including by serving as co-chair of the informal donor working group. The UK’s efforts to encourage reform have not yet borne fruit as the Lebanese political elite remains stubbornly unwilling to compromise.


The 2023 Integrated Review Refresh made few references to the Levant. It mentioned Syrians as the third largest national group crossing the Channel and highlighted the enduring threat of Islamist terrorist groups in the region to the UK and its overseas interests. However, several of the broader strategies outlined in the Refresh would allow the UK to engage more productively in the Levant.

The UK government should increase its collaboration with Gulf states in the Levant. Although the UK should not attempt to dictate how Gulf states should intervene in the Levant, it should seek to identify promising avenues for collaboration in pursuit of shared interests. For example, it should deepen its partnership with Qatar on education in Syria and Lebanon and share best practices from its recent interventions in the sector.

The Integrated Review listed climate change and the environment as its first thematic priority, but the UK is insufficiently involved in adaptation efforts in the Levant. Although fragile states represent a challenging context for these interventions, adaptation measures are particularly important where weak governance compounds the effects of climate change. The UK should strive to support more creative environmental projects in the Levant at the local level that are sensitive to conflict dynamics, bolster resilience, and build the foundations of better governance.[1] In doing so, it must resist the impulse to replicate adaptation strategies that worked elsewhere, and instead engage with local civil society groups to advance context-appropriate solutions that account for the region’s unique political, social, and economic challenges. The government should then capitalize on its convening power with other international donors, development actors, and private sector investors to scale up promising interventions.

The UK also has an important opportunity to capitalize on the FCO-DFID merger to become a thought leader on aid interventions in challenging political environments. The UK’s establishment of the Aid Fund for Northern Syria is a promising sign that the government appreciates the political realities of aid access in Syria and the need for novel mechanisms to reach those in need. As international donors begin to look beyond humanitarian assistance despite the lack of progress on the political track, the UK should play a leading role in defining the terms of early recovery in different parts of Syria in the new phase of international engagement. In order to facilitate greater access for aid actors in Syria, the government must make more progress on its derisking strategy and do more to limit financial institutions’ overcompliance with the requirements of sanctions.

The government should also increase its efforts to repatriate British citizens from detention camps for the relatives of Daesh fighters in northeast Syria and support the reintegration of other detainees from Syria and Iraq. U.S. officials described the detention camps as containing a Daesh “army in waiting” and the UK must accelerate efforts to neutralize the threat while the U.S. military still has a presence in the area.

[1] See Will Todman, “Powering Recovery: Reform, Reconstruction, and Renewables in Conflict-Affected States in the Arab World,” CSIS, March 3, 2023,

Will Todman
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program