Reinventing the Levant

Image: A sign at the border in Syria. Photo by Paul Keller, CC BY 2.0.

These countries should incorporate themselves into a single economic zone.

September-October 2016

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.