Reinventing the Levant

Reinventing the Levant

These countries should incorporate themselves into a single economic zone.

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.