With the collapse of several artificial nation-states created by the victors of the First World War, the entire region from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf has entered a prolonged period of instability.
The Syrian and Libyan states has ceased to exist; the Iraqi State is near collapse; the Lebanese state is hostage to Iran; the Turkish state has just survived a military coup and is descending into authoritarian rule; and Saudi Arabia will not be able to buy domestic peace much longer if oil prices remain low. Egypt survived a revolution and counterrevolution to return to the status quo of military rule, but depends on subsidies from the Gulf States.
Non-state actors now occupy the political and military space left vacant by the collapse or decline of nation-states. That is emphatically true in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, and increasingly true in Turkey. The most fanatical and determined of these actors play the decisive role—Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria and the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, and ISIS and al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria. Ethnic and sectarian divisions that were contained by the region’s autocracies have turned into vehicles for existential war. With a military-age population of nearly 30 million, the region has sufficient cannonfodder to continue the war for another generation, even without the involvement of foreign fighters from the Caucasus, Western China and Southeast Asia.
That is why Israel cannot presently give up control of Judea and Samaria, and will not be able to give up control in the foreseeable future, whether or not it wants to.
The problem lies not with the settlers but with the unsettlers. Radicalization has replaced long-established states with non-state sectors. What passes for "Palestine" is a collection of radicalized non-state actors in search of a state. The IDF presence in Judea and Samaria limits the extent to which these non-state actors can be drawn into the conflicts that surround them. The departure of the IDF would leave Iran, Turkey, ISIS and al-Qaeda free to compete for control of the various armed entities controlled by the Palestine Authority, with their estimated (in 2007) 176,500 men under arms. Surrounded by fail states, a putative State of Palestine would become a prefabricated failed state.
Why did the states of the Levant and Mesopotamia fail so thoroughly and so suddenly? The Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 brought nearly a century of relative stability to the Levant and Mespotamia. Britain and France proposed to divide the Arab provinces of the soon-to-be-defeated Ottoman Empire along lines that disrupted ethnic and confessional continuity. Syria and Lebanon, the French sphere of influence, separated the Sunnis of Mesopotamia from their coreligionists and tribal cousins in the Levant by an apparently arbitrary border. Iraq, ruled first by a Hashemite monarchy installed by the British and then by the Ba’ath Party, allowed a Sunni minority to rule a Shi’ite majority. After the Second World War Iraq and Syria became virtual mirror images: the same Ba’ath Party ruled both countries, except that the Syrian Ba’athists were led by a deviant Shi’ite sect, the Alawites, while the Iraqi Ba’athists were Sunni.
This arrangement was crafted for a premodern society with a small middle class, in which military service offered social advancement to the rural poor. It could not survive modernization indefinitely; In Syria, for example, the Syrian civil war was preceded by a crisis in the country’s agricultural sector that displaced hundreds of thousands of farmers from their land. The incipient crisis of modernity, though, encountered fatal policy errors by the West.
Left undisturbed, the Sykes-Picot system might have lasted for some decades to come. In countries characterized by longstanding and bitter ethnic and confessional divisions, minority rule had three virtues. First, the other minorities supported minority rule as a matter of course: Syrian Christians aligned with the Alawites against the Sunni majority and Iraqi Christians aligned with the Sunni Ba’athists against the Shi’ite majority. Second, the oppressed majorities, namely Syrian Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ites, knew that the minority government could only persecute them up to a certain point and no further.
Third, the Iraqi state ruled by a Sunni officer corps created a natural balance of power in the region, offsetting the ambitions of Turkey and, most importantly, Iran.
Except for the Iran-Iraq War of 1988, conflicts in the region after 1918 were limited in scope and duration, and, most importantly, rarely led to regime change, although they frequently motivated a change at the top of the regime. Even the American invasion of Iraq in 1991 left Saddam Hussein in power, because Washington wished to maintain the regional power balance.
The old power balance in the region was destroyed in 2007, when the United States stood midwife to majority rule in Iraq, sponsoring a Shi’ite government friendly to Iran, and leaving Iraq’s Sunnis at the mercy of the Shi’ite majority. The Sunnis responded with a terror campaign against American forces and Shi’ites. The United States countered with the "surge" of 20072008, whose most important measure was to put as many Sunnis as possible on the payroll of the American military through the "Sunni Awakening" and the "Sons of Iraq." As long as large numbers of America forces remained on the ground, the insurgency remained dampened. When the last US ground troops left in 2011, theSunni resistance reemerged under the most radical leadership available.
The political crisis known as the "Arab Spring" amplified the sectarian war in Mesopotamia. The Arab rebellions of 2011 began with an incipient food crisis in Egypt and a water crisis in Syria. Subsidies from the Gulf States keep Egypt on life support. Half of Syria’s 22 million people have been displaced and perhaps 400,000 killed. The overflow from Syria has destabilized the surround countries as well as Western Europe. Nearly 2 million Syrian Sunnis have taken refuge in Lebanon and 2.5 million in Turkey. Refugees comprise almost half of Lebanon’s total population of 4 million, shifting the demographic balance to the Sunnis—while the mass Sunni exodus tilts the balance tilts the balance of power in Syria toward the Alawites and other religious minorities, who are largely allied with Iran. Jordan, meanwhile, has taken in 1.26 million Syrian Sunnis, making Palestinians a minority inside Jordan for the first time in a generation. A region that struggled to find sustenance for its people before 2011 has now been flooded with millions of refugees without resources or means of support. They are living for the most part on largesse from the Gulf States, and their young men are prospective cannon fodder.
ISIS and al-Qaeda cannot be eliminated by the usual military means, only contained. With Iran’s ascendancy in the region after the 2015 nuclear agreement, the Sunni extremists have become the spearhead of Sunni resistance to Shi’ite ambitions in the region. The Gulf States and Turkey cannot embrace them, but neither can they permit them to be destroyed. Turkey has an additional move to back the Sunni resistance as a counterweight to the Syrian Kurds, who threaten to conquer the north of Syria from the Mediterranean to the Iraqi border and link up with their Iraqi compatriots in a new Kurdish state.
Freed from the constraints of the SykesPicot states, ethnic and confessional groups in the region are fighting an existential war. What explains the passion and abandon with which Sunnis, Shi’ites, Persians, Arabs and Kurds bring to this war? The answer, I believe, lies in a deep sense of civilizational fragility. The peoples of the region have been thrust suddenly into the modern world. Woken from the long slepe of traditional society, they find themselves confronted by social forces that put their future existence in jeopardy.
Freed from the constraints of the SykesPicot states, ethnic and confessional groups in the region are fighting an existential war. What explains the passion and abandon with which Sunnis, Shi’ites, Persians, Arabs and Kurds bring to this war? The answer, I believe, lies in a deep sense of civilizational fragility. The peoples of the region have been thrust suddenly into the modern world. Woken from the long slepe of traditional society, they find themselves confronted by social forces that put their future existence in jeopardy. It is difficult to measure the impact of modernity, but one failsafe gauge of the social transformation now underway is the sudden demographic transition underway in most of the country of the regions. Arab, Turkish and Persian birth rates are falling from premodern to post-modern levels, and the result is a sudden aging of their populations. The fall in Muslim birth rate is most extreme in Iran and Turkey, with different but related consequences. When Ayatollah Khomeini took power in 1979, the average Iranian woman had seven children; today the total fertility rate has fallen to just 1.6 children, the sharpest drop in demographic history. Iran still has a young population, but it has no children to succeed them. By mid-century Iran will have a higher proportion of elderly dependents than Europe, an impossible and unprecedented burden for a poor country. Iran’s sudden aging will be followed by Turkey and Tunisia.
A review of the recently-released 2015 population data shows that the demographic scissors between Kurds and Turks continues to widen. Despite Erdogan’s exhortations on behalf of Turkish fertility, the baby bust in Turkish-majority provinces continues while Kurds sustain one of the world’s highest birth rates. Even worse, the marriage rate outside of the Kurdish Southeast of the country has collapsed, portending even lower fertility in the future.
According to Turkstat, the official statistics agencies, the Turkish provinces with the lowest fertility rates all cluster in the north and northwest of the country, where women on average have only 1.5 children. The southeastern provinces show fertility rates ranging between 3.2 and 4.2 children per female.
Even more alarming are Turkey’s marriage statistics as reported by Turkstat. Between 2001 and 2015, the number of marriages in Istanbul, the country’s largest city, fell by more than 30%, and by more than 40% in the capital Ankara. Most of the northern and northwestern provinces report a decline of more than half in the number of marriages. Not only are Turkish women refusing to have children; they are refusing to get married. The plunge in the marriage rate among ethnic Turks makes a further sharp decline in fertility inevitable.
As I reported in my 2011 book Why Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too), Muslim countries that achieve a high rate of adult literacy jump from infancy to senescence without passing through adulthood. Like their Iranian, Algerian and Tunisian counterparts, Turkish women reject the constraints of Muslim family life as soon as they obtain a high school education. The shock of sudden passage from traditional society into the modern world has produced the fastest-ever fall in fertility rates in the Muslim world.
Turkey and Iran, ostensibly the two most stable powers in the region, are the most fragile in the long term.
By the middle of the century, Iran’s elderly population will rise to roughly half its working-age population, followed closely by Turkey. Israel’s elderly dependent ratio, by contrast, will peak at around 30%. Iran will have a higher elderly dependency ratio than Western Europe, with roughly a tenth the per capita GDP. It will be the first country in the world to get old before it gets rich. Poor countries universally have had high birth rates and a large young population to support a small proportion of elderly. Iran’s economy will collapse no matter what it does now, and the Iranian leadership is painfully aware of what awaits it.
Demographics are not the cause of the region’s instability, but a symptom: the cause is the dissolution of the bonds of traditional society as modernity overwhelms Iranian health officials estimates that 12% of Iranian women are infected with chlamydia, for example. The collapse of the Turkish marriage rate cited above is another gauge of adverse social change.
In summary, the regional political structures that kept pre-modern populations under control broke down at precisely the point that modernity began to transform Muslim societies. The Levant, Mesopotamia and Persia face an existential crisis that is not imagined: the old way of life cannot continue and the young people of those countries refuse to perpetuate it.
The receding demographic tide in the Arab world has not spared Arabs in Judea and Samaria. The Palestine Authority, though, has inflated population numbers for political reasons, partly to justify more aid and partly to support the notion that a Palestinian state on the West Bank is inevitable.
A 2006 study by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies showed that the West Bank and Gaza population in 2004 was only 2.5 million, rather than the 3.8 million claimed by the Palestinian authorities. The numbers were falsified by double-counting Arab residents of East Jerusalem, West Bank Arabs who had moved inside the Green Line after marriage to Israeli Arabs, Palestinians living overseas, and others. Most of all, the PA invented large numbers of births that never occurred.
As the report argued:
The Palestine Central Bureau of Statistics] projected that the number of births in the Territories would total almost 908,000 for the seven-year period from 1997 to 2003. Yet, the actual number of births documented by the PA Ministry of Health for the same period was significantly lower at 699,000, or 238,000 fewer births than had been forecast by the PCBS. The size of the discrepancy accelerated over time. Whereas the PCBS predicted there would be over 143,000 births in 2003, the PA Ministry of Health reported only 102,000 births, which pointed to a PCBS forecast 40% beyond actual results.
After the Begin-Sadat study used health ministry records to refute the estimates of the PA’s statistical bureau, the Palestinian health authorities stopped publishing birth records. There is no hard source of data to compare to the PA’s population umbers. The Palestine Authority continues to over-count births in the West Bank by 30,000 to 60,000 annually, according to Ambassador Yoram Ettinger (ret.). Respectable Western sources ignore the PA estimates. The CIA World Factbook in 2015, for example, put the Israeli Jewish fertility rate at 3.11 vs. 2.91 for West Bank and Samaria Arabs. As Ettinger observes, "In October 2015, Israel's Jewish fertility rate is higher than in any Arab country, other than Yemen, Iraq and Jordan (e.g., Egypt – 2.8 births per woman, Syria – 2.6, Saudi Arabia – 2.1)." Israel’s robust fertility profile also is a symptom: Israel is the only industrial country in the world to reproduce at above the replacement rate of 2.1 live births per female, and by a substantial margin. It is a gauge of Israel’s long-term social and economic viability in contrast to the civilizational decline around it.
Time is on Israel’s side. Conditions in Syria and Iraq will continue to deteriorate. The radical vanguard of the sectarian war in the Middle East will continue to export terrorism to the West. Turkey will remain unstable and will struggle with ethnic and demographic pressures. Iran is a declining country in the medium term; its militaryage population will fall by nearly 10 million during the next ten years due to the collapse in the birth rate of the past decade and a half. For the foreseeable future, the only functioning government on the West Bank will be Israel. The alternative is to turn Judea and Samara into a Petri dish for terrorism and ethnic and confessional war.