Thursday, 27 January 2022
Up-to-the-minute perspectives on defence, security and peace
issues from and for policy makers and opinion leaders.

     |      View our Twitter page at     |     


The crisis in Egypt is already having a negative effect on Syrian civil war and contributing to further destabilisation of wider Middle East. Important as events in Cairo are, they distract Western attention from the much bigger game being played out in Syria which significantly risks changing the Levant after a century of relative territorial stability, according to a new paper from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). (More on next page)

The Remaking of Syria, Iraq and the Wider Middle East, written by RUSI's senior associate fellow Professor Gareth Stansfield analyses the impact the Syrian civil war could have on the future of the Middle East state system across the Levant. The report warns that ongoing conflict may prompt the fragmentation of the region's twentieth-century defined states. Stansfield outlines how Lebanon, Jordan - and the interests of Israel and Turkey - could all be profoundly affected; but the most important casualty of the war is potentially Iraq, with inter-communal conflicts driven by deeply held and murderous sectarian hatreds that continue to stalk its political landscape today.

'Is Syria on the verge of collapse? And could Iraq, in particular - as well as
Lebanon, Jordan and Israel - survive this eventuality? The answer is a tentative Yes
to the first question and a probable No to the second,' writes Stansfield.

'There seems to be growing regional and international acceptance of the possibility
of erasing the once-rarefied, externally imposed boundaries that have divided
peoples as much as they have united them, with greater emphasis on the need for
state structures to be tied more authentically to the peoples they encompass.'

'Therefore, if it is now no longer possible to simultaneously maintain the integrity
of the extant state system while advocating democratisation - which may result,
among other things, in the removal of existing dictatorships - then a different, and
even more worrying, set of questions need to be posed. The problem now is how to
ensure that the ongoing, escalating instability in Syria and Iraq does not
deteriorate further into a region-wide war.'

'This is not mere speculation. Jordan's delicate political stability is vulnerable
to instabilities in its wider environment, while Lebanon remains deeply fractured.
Israeli action is increasingly plausible, both against Hizbullah in south Lebanon,
now that the latter is actively involved in Syria, and against Iranian nuclear
targets, now that Iran is pursuing its strategic interests through direct
intervention in Iraq and Syria. In parallel, the Arab Gulf states are also
intervening in Syria and Iraq, but by proxy. Meanwhile, renewed turmoil in Egypt
adds fuel to the fire in Syria - encouraging regime and rebels alike - while
threatening simultaneously to divert international attention. And all of this is
happening within a context of wider inertia at the level of the international
community, caused by an East-West stand-off in the UN Security Council, with Russia
and China finally standing up to what they perceive to be neo-imperialist,
high-handed Western strategy, expressed in an ex cathedra manner that they no longer
deem acceptable.'

'Of far greater concern in Western capitals is the stability of Syria's Levantine
neighbours - Lebanon, Jordan and, of course, Israel - not least because of their
proximity to Europe. In particular, there is concern over the very real threat posed
by the possibility of state failure or of the emergence of ungoverned space in
Lebanon, which could easily be exploited by Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Sunni
Islamist militants alike (although they would likely be as entertained by each
other's presence as they would be by the presence of Israel to the south or Europe
to the west). Similarly, the Kingdom of Jordan may prove unable to survive
significant instability without substantial external help, while the possibility
that Israel might be tempted - in an environment of geopolitical flux - to take
provocative action to strengthen its borders and enhance its security is also of
major concern to Western policy-makers.'

'In short, the future map of the Middle East is likely to be confused, confusing and
changeable. Yet the legacies of twentieth-century states will prove difficult, if
not impossible, to dispel, raising the question of who will be in control of the
remnants of their structures, their narratives and their futures. These are the
pressing issues that Western states should now be addressing, rather than concerning
themselves with the pitfalls of intervention in situations where the opportunity to
usefully intervene has long since passed.'

Professor Michael Clarke, RUSI's Director-General, in his foreword to the study
writes: 'A year ago, the war in Syria might have been constrained by strong Western
action, but it is increasingly clear that the world is confronting a crisis that
extends far beyond Syria, threatening to deteriorate into a regional conflict. Now
part civil war, part proxy war, it has also become a great power struggle between
Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between the US, Russia and China.'

'But with each passing month the conflict becomes more complex and diplomatically
intractable, and the renewed crisis in Egypt will only make it worse,' Clarke

'While the agony within Syria looks set to continue for some time to come, the
Levant is on the verge of recasting itself around the epicentre of the crisis. Syria
might eventually emerge from this trauma more or less intact as a state, but the
same cannot be said for its neighbourhood. The winners and losers from Assad's civil
war will extend far beyond Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.'

To read the briefing paper The Remaking of Syria, Iraq and the Wider Middle East:
The End of the Sykes-Picot State System? in full please visit

Professor Gareth Stansfield is the Al-Qasimi Chair of Arab Gulf Studies and Professor of Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, where he is the Director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies and Director of Research in the Strategy and Security Institute. He is also a Senior Associate Fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at RUSI.

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on the Defence Viewpoints website. However, if you would like to, you can modify your browser so that it notifies you when cookies are sent to it or you can refuse cookies altogether. You can also delete cookies that have already been set. You may wish to visit which contains comprehensive information on how to do this on a wide variety of desktop browsers. Please note that you will lose some features and functionality on this website if you choose to disable cookies. For example, you may not be able to link into our Twitter feed, which gives up to the minute perspectives on defence and security matters.