With the end of the Cold War the United States lost a sound understanding of the strategic geography of the Middle East. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, US strategy focused, correctly, on historical power centers on the outer rim of the Levant and Mesopotamia. The land in between these power centers – Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – was the arena for proxy war and competition between great powers.

Turkey to the north, Egypt to the south, and Iran to the east are latter-day expressions of geostrategic constants that have shaped the region since the dawn of history. The lands in between, as the nexus connecting three continents, have always functioned as a theater of war, communication routes, and buffer statelets delineating zones of influence between the rival outside power centers. Therefore, the instability and territorial compartmentalization we are witnessing today in the region is not a departure from the historical norm. To the contrary, it’s the natural state.

The region has vacillated between periods of hegemony by a single imperial power and division between rival great powers, such as with the contest between Egypt and the Hittite Empire in the Late Bronze Age, which split the Levant into two spheres of influence serving as buffer zones between the two powers. This would become a recurring pattern across the centuries, where the contest would take place on a north-south axis (e.g., the Byzantines and the Fatimids) or an East-West one (e.g., Rome and the Sassanids). This pattern continued into the modern period and became a feature of the Cold War, as evident, for example, in the divide between the pro-American Central Treaty Organization in the northern tier and the pro-Soviet Egypt-led bloc.

That the triangle of Egypt, Turkey and Iran was central to the US-Soviet contest is no coincidence. These were historical power centers, and they stood in contrast to the polities of the Levant. The salient and enduring feature of the region from Iraq to the Mediterranean is its socio-political fragmentation. ​The polities within this zone, with the exception of Israel, are not true, functioning nation-states.  Those on the periphery are. 

For millennia, Egypt was the power center in the southern Levant. A large state with a strong national identity, Egypt was central to American foreign policy in the 20th century and flipping it from the Soviet orbit was a priority. Despite Egypt’s continued geostrategic importance, the role of primary power in the southern Levant has since shifted north to Israel. In this regard, Israel once again stands as an exception. The polities of the Levant, which lack cohesive national identities, historically were not seats of power. Israel has changed that.

Today, Saudi Arabia complements Israel as a resource-rich coherent nation state on the southern rim of the region, in a strategic alliance with the United States. Its ability to project power into the zone of conflict extending from Iraq to the Mediterranean is more limited. However, its natural resources and tribal and religious reach provides it with considerable assets, which, along with its strategic location, make it a critical state in the US alliance system.

On the northern rim, Turkey continues to play its historical role, if on a much smaller scale than during its past imperial episodes, be they Hittite, Byzantine, or Ottoman. Unlike Israel, Turkey has established buffer provinces to separate it from its enemies in the zone of conflict to its south. Meanwhile, even as Israel’s ability to project military power throughout and beyond the Levant is uncontested, since its experience in Lebanon, it has generally stayed away from creating dependent buffer zones. The short-lived and guarded case in southern Syria in recent years is a case in point.

These three critical states surrounding the zone of conflict from Iraq to the Mediterranean are the pillars of the US position in the region — a position which has been undergirded by garrisons and naval power. And although in recent years the US has worked closely with substate tribal and ethnic groups like the Kurds — the latter themselves functioning as buffer statelets with regional orientations between Iran and Turkey — American strategy in the region during the Cold War was, soundly, geared toward coherent nation states. It has been this alliance with the major states — Egypt and Turkey, the historical centers of power, and the newer regional powers Israel and Saudi Arabia — which, after pushing out the Soviet Union, has so far kept other great powers at bay.

In contrast, Iran has focused on the easily penetrated, segmented polities of the Levant and Iraq. Iran has used the sectarian fragmentation of these societies to clone its revolutionary instruments — what can be dubbed “the Hezbollah model” — where there are large Shiite Muslim communities. Iranian-controlled military, social and political entities then proceed to take over the entire government, as in places like Lebanon and Iraq.

Iran’s project in Syria is often described as a “land bridge” — an apt description of the function of the Levant. It is through Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories — which have historically served as the routes of Persian westward expansion — that Iran can position itself strategically against its adversary regional power, Israel. But the Iranians understand that the dominant power in the region is the US. Acutely aware of strategic and sectarian geography, by attacking the state pillars of the American alliance, Iran is gunning for America’s position in the region.

The Russian venture in the Levant also exploits the overlap of segmentation and geography — as Russia and the other great powers had done in the twilight of the Ottoman empire. Today, Russia is more of an opportunistic actor looking to reclaim some of its older stature. Russia’s re-entry to Syria is predicated on the protection of the Alawite minority regime against a Sunni population open especially to Turkish influence. But it is strategic geography that is of the utmost concern to Moscow. Patronage of the Alawite ruling family affords Russia a foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean and a pressure point on the southern border of one of the pillar states of the American alliance system, Turkey.

With its economy faltering, Russia risks little of its own assets in Syria, relying instead on Iranian footsoldiers.  Nevertheless, it has been able to force Turkey to accommodate its interests and has created a friction between Washington and Ankara in the process. As the land between the two power centers in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria also gives Russia leverage over another American ally, namely Israel. Abetted by a strategically obtuse American policy, Russia’s understanding of basic geostrategic realities has allowed it to transform a weak hand into a major opportunity.

Having multiple outside powers simultaneously in competition over the theater of the Levant and Iraq, each carving out a zone of influence, is hardly novel. The Middle East is inherently unstable and, lacking a center, draws in these powers by its very nature. Its segmented societies are very adept at using outside powers to advance their own interests against their local rivals, even at the most parochial level. While the Russians have avoided it, the US has entangled itself in this dynamic increasingly since the end of the Cold War.

The US can contend with the longstanding dynamic of outside power competition in the theaters of the Levant and Mesopotamia, which has defined the region, if it proceeds wisely. The US remains the dominant actor in the region. However, its vision is confused. Since the end of the Cold War, US policy has shifted from the power centers of the outer rim to the unstable inner circle of the Levant and Iraq. Instead of focusing on strengthening its geostrategic assets — the nation state pillars of the outer rim — it has given itself to pursuing grand projects in the quicksand of the zone of conflict in between the outside power centers: from the peace process to democratization to counterterrorism and state building.

The US has convinced itself that the way to fend off challenges in and from the region is to try and put the broken region together. Actors like Iran take advantage of weak states, US policymakers maintain. And they have resolved that the solution to the problem of weak states is to invest in building and strengthening their “state institutions” — even in places where such institutions have never existed.

Meanwhile, the lesson of the region’s strategic geography is that the lands in question are not real states. Rather, they are battlefields, land links, and buffer zones or spheres of influence. They are not the proper foundation for a stable regional order. Indeed, they are inherently unstable. Should this matter to the US? Not in and of itself. The US objective is to contain that inherent instability. As such, a sound US approach to the region needs to internalize the structural realities of strategic geography and focus on building an order of real states around the zone of conflict.

Tony Badran is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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