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In Syria, the French created a state with a sizeable Sunni Arab majority, a large Alawite community dominating its Mediterranean coast, a compact Druze community in its southern mountains, and smaller numbers of Christians, Jews and others sprinkled throughout. The French rejected a British-allied Hashemite monarchy early on, and imposed direct control, initially from Paris, later from Vichy. At the end of the Second World War, France handed control to a weak, Sunni-dominated parliament. 20-plus years and several coups later, the Syrian Ba’ath party seized power and an Alawite faction seized control of the Ba’ath. By 1970, the Alawite Ba’athist Hafez Assad had consolidated the power handed to his son Bashar upon his death in 2000. Syria remained a brutal Alawite dictatorship until its current civil war broke out in 2011. Its population, like Iraq’s, fractured immediately along ethnic lines.

The French also carved the Lebanese state out of its Mandate for Syria. By design, Lebanon was a multi-ethnic confessional republic, with power shared unequally among its Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities. As an uneasy marriage of Western-looking and Arab cultures, the Lebanese state was always weak. Changes to the demographic balance among its constituent communities, coupled with the arrival of PLO-led Sunni refugees from Jordan in 1970, pushed it beyond the breaking point. It dissolved into a bitter, sectarian civil war in 1975. Though that war nominally ended in 1991, the country has never recovered fully. Syrian and Iranian dominance have elevated Hezbollah, a Shia terrorist militia, into the de facto government. Lebanon’s recognised government is little more than a fig-leaf allowing countries and international organisations to pretend that they’re not dealing with Hezbollah. Like the citizens of Iraq and Syria, Lebanese citizens identify almost exclusively with their traditional, ethnically-defined nations rather than with the Lebanese state.

Palestine was always destined to be the most interesting part of the Levant. By the end of the 19th century, the Zionist movement had committed to reasserting Jewish independence in the historical Jewish homeland. Jewish investment reshaped the economy of this long-neglected backwater; Jewish and Arab immigration swelled its population. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, the British officially blessed the Zionist dream of a Jewish state in Palestine. The San Remo Conference of 1920 incorporated that blessing into international law; the League of Nations charged the British Mandatory with the development of a Jewish homeland.

In 1921, the British carved out the eastern three-quarters of Mandatory Palestine to form Transjordan (since 1949, Jordan). They brought a Hashemite ruler to sit on its throne — Sunni royalty from Mecca to rule Levantine Sunnis. Eighty years of underinvestment in nation-building kept alive the tension between the two Sunni factions — though even at its worst, it paled in comparison to the inter-ethnic fighting that devastated Jordan’s neighbours. To the misplaced surprise of many, this sole post-Ottoman Levantine Arab state lacking ethnic minorities has proved to be the most durable of the bunch. Its Hashemite monarchy has already celebrated its centenary (per the shorter Islamic year). It current ruler appears intent upon avoiding the fate that has befallen his neighbours. In 2002, King Abdullah II became the first Arab leader to invest in explicit nation-building. His “Jordan First” initiative set out to inculcate a sense of “Jordanianness” among the Kingdom’s citizens.
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Mitch S.
April 5th, 2018
11:04 PM
Excellent article pointing out the folly of the Western "statist" approach to the Middle East. But before looking to nationalism as a road to cease fires and peace, it's important to consider the influence of religion in the area. Yes Muslims are divided into Sunni, Shia etc, but they are still united in the belief in Islam's need to dominate especially in the greater Middle East (the "Ummah"). So secularists such as Nasser and Sadaam Hussein along with religious hardliners such as the Iranian Ayatollahs, saw ending the Jewish state as a vital act that would bring them power and prestige in the Mid-East and throughout the Muslim world. Even looking at the "nation-state" of Israel, the influence of religion must be kept in mind. The Jewish nation settled in Israel because of the religion's 2000 plus year dream of "the promised land". Secular imperial ambitions don't have that staying power. The Jews aren't imperialists because the religion is focused on the land of Israel with no aspiration for greater conquest. Still, religion has had an affect on the secular state's policy. Religious Jews don't look toward taking over Jordan or Egypt but there are religious Jewish groups who see it as forbidden to give up parts of the "Holy land" once Jews are in control. So taking Jews from parts of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and putting them in non-Jewish hands is something they strongly oppose, making such a deal more politically difficult (though I believe those groups don't have the power to stop such a deal on their own). Indeed the death of Yitschok Rabin can be seen as a result of religious passion rather than a purely political act. So what could possibly create conditions for some kind of peace? I agree the nation state is a good route but the religious imperative will have to be held in check. One possibility is accepting a view that world domination is the ultimate goal - but not for the current life. It is only something to be achieved after divine intervention. Just as Jews believe in the coming of the Messiah and Christians in the return of Jesus. In fact there is a small minority of Jews that believe the return to the Holy Land is only for messianic times and they oppose the current Jewish state. This would be the best possible way and while I hardly have the knowledge of Islam to speak with any authority, I have heard this is an approach some Muslims accept. The other, and perhaps prerequisite step would be to remove the religious obligation to drive the Jews out of Israel (or subjugate them) by making it seem impossible. I don't know how much is Arab practicality or Islamic doctrine but when Israel is seen as an undefeatable the door opens for negotiation. When Israel is put under pressure and appears vulnerable negotiations end. This is another thing Western states continually misunderstand. Israel's ties to the West, especially the United States are seen as a vital part of it's defensive power by the Arab world. When Western leaders try to create an atmosphere for peace by holding back support of Israel and reaching out to hardline regimes such as Iran it raises the possibility that Israel may not be invulnerable and there may be a religious obligation to pursue it's destruction

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