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With Syria and Iraq engulfed in deep sectarian civil war that has already helped give life to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Levantine order is in a state of implosion. Even if state borders are preserved, the region has entered a phase of violent transformation that is radically reshaping the entire landscape, empowering actors and forces, both local and regional, fundamentally opposed to the status quo ante.
The roots of the current crisis can be traced back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq which handed power to the Shia majority. Not only did this have significant domestic implications, reversing longstanding Sunni control of the county, but it also pushed the country into Tehran’s orbit where it had previously been seen as bulwark against Iranian ambitions of regional expansion. In many ways, neither the country’s Sunni minority nor regional Arab states ever fully accepted this transformation – nor did the new Shia order seek to accommodate them – and the country has endured a state of effective civil war ever since.
The conflict in Syria is act two of this same struggle, with peaceful protests for change quickly morphing into a broader regional struggle, driven in part by the desire of Syria’s Sunni majority to undo brutal minority Alawite rule, but also by the ambition of regional powers to reverse Iran’s growing influence in Syria and shift the regional balance back in their favour. The descent into conflict in Syria has helped reinvigorate the struggle for power in Iraq, while also opening up similar questions in Lebanon where the Sunni population chafes at their loss of historic power to the Iranian backed Shia Hezbollah movement.
Against this backdrop, and as the question of Sunni identity and leadership has been thrust into the limelight in the face of a series of perceived regional humiliations, violent conflict has provoked the rise of ISIS. Unlike local and regional actors who largely still view the ongoing conflicts through the prism of the existing nation state system, ISIS’s vision extends to the collapse of the entire regional order and its replacement with a transnational Sunni caliphate. Already it has sought to impose this new order in the swathe of cross-border territory under its control in Syria and Iraq.
Engulfed by these overlapping conflicts, the entire Levantine order is being fundamentally challenged and increasingly hollowed out. Deepening violence, geographical and sectarian fragmentation, the rise of non-state armed actors and transnational ideologies are laying the ground for a radical reshaping of the entire region. While state actors, both in the region and in the West continue to focus on the sanctity of the region’s territorial integrity, the reality on the ground is moving swiftly in the opposite direction, in part as a direct result of the policies they are themselves pursuing.
ISIS may be the most visible manifestation of this trend, but in many ways it is only a reflection of the deeper shifts underway, and even if eventually defeated these forces will continue to tear at the region. It remains to be seen if and how the region can eventually be stabilised, with widening implosion rather than de-escalation the more likely immediate prospect, potentially portending to an even more destructive act three. But when the dust finally settles the region will be confronted by a very different geography of power.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.