The Mideast Crack-Up
Robert Worth, David Goldman, Edward Luttwak, Amos Harel, Nathan Thrall, and Lee Smith on the new Arab map
Q: Who does the rise of mini-states favor most, and whom does it hurt?
Nathan Thrall: The international order and its primary supporters—the United States, the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the body of international law—have a deep anti-secessionist bias, despite all the lip service paid to the rights of nations to self-determination. In many cases, neighboring states fear not only that mini-states could collapse and be replaced by something worse—witness Israel’s reluctance to attempt toppling Hamas or what remains of the Assad regime—but, conversely, that they could succeed in establishing themselves as internationally recognized, independent states. The creation of a state of Palestine would present a severe crisis to Jordan, which would then have to grapple with volatile questions of national identity that for the time being are mostly ignored. The creation of an independent state of Gaza would cause new headaches for Egypt, which fears bearing increased responsibility for the densely populated, refugee-filled Strip. In Syria, the formation of statelets could have destabilizing repercussions in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq. These fears have meant that the rise of quasi-statelets has played mostly to the advantage of revisionist powers that are willing to risk playing by a different set of rules.
Though in principle the United States could profit from the rise of these entities as much as Iran has in Lebanon, Gaza, and Syria, in practice the United States is risk-averse and highly unlikely to do so.
Edward Luttwak: The world that we will see as state power devolves to real communities is not as unstable as it looks. There are tacit understandings, accepted rules, and red lines; conflict is not precluded but channeled. Inter-state relations are mostly stable, while with non-state powers there are long cease-fires and short fights.
Robert Worth: I think the new era of fragmentation will reduce American influence and accelerate the current U.S. withdrawal from the region, for obvious reasons. The Americans like reliable partners, and the prospect of a Middle East peace deal seems dimmer than ever amid all this chaos. For Iran, it offers opportunities and risks. Hezbollah—its most valued client in the Arab world—may suffer, depending on the outcome in Syria. The war in Syria is itself a substantial risk and could be a tremendous drain on Iran’s resources. But Iran is (unlike the United States) very skilled at extending its influence in chaotic and war-torn regions. Iraq may become an even closer ally. Iran has begun to take advantage of Yemen’s chaos to build allies there as well.
I suspect that Israel is most threatened by the prospect of widespread state failure, even if its enemies are distracted for the moment by war. The threats to Israel may become more numerous and less predictable, and Iran will remain a threat. The fall of Assad would be a blow to Iran, but not one that would necessarily benefit Israel. A persistent state of chaos would probably be worse than Assad ever was, and there is no guarantee that a unified and Sunni-led government in Syria would be any less dangerous to Israel.
David Goldman: Washington is the least affected by the devolution of the Middle East. Although American policy blunders accelerated the breakup of Middle Eastern states, America bears the fewest consequences. Moscow has a great deal to lose because the destabilization of the region can spread to the Caucasus. In the past Moscow has relied on Turkey to control Islamists in the Black Sea area. This strategy is increasingly less effective as Turkey backs Islamists in Syria and as the effects of the Syrian civil war expose internal divisions in Turkey (through the Kurds as well as the Alevis). Moscow has to worry about a radicalized and weakened Turkey immersed in conflicts close to its borders and will probably respond by increasing its role in the region in unpredictable, destabilizing ways.
Jerusalem, on the other hand, faces a more complex set of threats than previously. The conventional threat on its borders has all but disappeared, but the threat from non-state actors with sophisticated weapons has increased. Given Iran’s role in Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza, the irregular conflicts on Israel’s borders add up to a set of proxy wars between Israel and Iran that continuously threatens to escalate into a direct conflict.
Amos Harel: Israeli policymakers (this almost seems like an oxymoron) are still grappling with what these developments mean for Israel. At least around Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Palestinian divide is probably looked upon as a Good Thing, since Netanyahu has evidently no intention of strengthening his 2009 Bar Ilan Speech commitment to the two-state solution. Other than that, Israel should be careful to limit its involvement in the mini-states around it, while providing low-profile assistance to the Hashemite king, hoping to prevent his fall. At the same time, it will continue to create confidential channels to relatively friendly groups in the neighboring countries (such as, perhaps, some of the secular opposition organizations in Syria). Any public Israeli assistance would soon become counter-productive for both sides. This year, the IDF’s intelligence people have begun talking about a “changing architecture” in the Middle East. The changes might continue for quite some time.
Lee Smith: American policymakers should stop trying to be so clever figuring out new ways to deal with what seem like new problems in the region—non-state actors, the break-up of the region into smaller cantons, etc.—that are actually not new at all. The reality is that there is very little new under the sun. The United States, like its allies, has an interest in preserving the existing order. They say that if you’re a hammer everything looks like a nail. But for the United States the vital strategic issues in the region really are nails. Accordingly, the United States should embrace its inner hammer.
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The former mayor, who had a deep relationship with Catholicism, will be memorialized in a Mass at St. Patrick’s