By Ross Harrison

Power dynamics between the major global and regional powers have indirectly influenced the civil wars currently plaguing the Middle East.



By analyzing the impact of the Cold War, its end, and the regional and domestic dynamics it produced, this paper argues that the shift in the distribution of power caused by end of the Cold War, as well as the resulting American unipolarity, facilitated the creation of two opposing camps, one comprising the U.S. and its allies and the other an “axis of resistance.”

These two opposing poles later competed for regional primacy in the civil wars of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and this struggle for power is laying the foundation for a future regional political order.


* While the end of the Cold War wasn’t a direct factor in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen’s descent into civil war, the loss of their Soviet patron put stress on each country, affecting their capacity to cope with the social, economic, and political pressures of the Arab Spring.

* American unipolarity at the end of the Cold War created an “axis of resistance,” made up of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, against perceived efforts by the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, to impose their will on the region.

* “Vertical contagion” is a phenomenon of the country-level civil wars morphing into regional-level conflicts engulfing Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel, where interest in a stable Middle East give way to competition for regional dominance.

* In order for stability to return to the Middle East, international powers will need to cooperate with the major regional powers on a regional security architecture. Instead, the Trump Administration has doubled down on its support for regional U.S. allies and escalated hostility towards Iran.


A large proportion of the post-World War II civil wars have been ‘internationalized’ in the sense that one or more nations intervened in the conflict on the side of the government or rebels.”

There is little dispute that the Middle East has been one of the regions of the world most deeply penetrated by outside powers. What has sparked controversy is the impact this external interference has had on how the region, and the countries in it, have evolved.

Commenting in the 1970s, Egyptian academic Samir Amin argued that the political-economy of the Middle East had been in a chokehold of dependence on the global, Western-dominated economic system.

According to this line of thinking, the exploitive nature of the system kept countries in a chronic state of abject poverty, a condition which could eventually percolate to the surface in the form of civil conflict or even revolution.

Other analysts have focused more on the regional effects of interventions by global powers, looking at civil conflict as a byproduct of state fragility engendered by the arbitrary drawing of the political map of the region after World War I.

Writers of this ilk also tend to assign blame to the superpowers for pursuing their ambitions vis-à-vis one another during the Cold War in a region replete with fragile and tentative states.

Extending this logic out, both European and superpower interventions came at the expense of the political and economic health of the region, leading to societal discontent, and ultimately insurrection.

This paper will not enter the debate about the overall impact outside powers have had on the Middle East, but will double down on the question of the role global and regional geopolitics have played in the civil conflicts currently plaguing the region.

The focus will be less on the specifics of the interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Instead we will step back and look more at how the power dynamics between the major global and regional powers have indirectly influenced how civil wars in the Middle East have played out.


It will be argued that while local grievances and the regional dynamics of the Arab Spring were what sparked the civil wars in the Middle East, it is also important to consider how the disbandment of the Soviet Union and the resultant collapse of the Cold War power structure put all the states in the region, but particularly the erstwhile Soviet allies, under stress.

We will chronicle how the loss of the region replete with fragile and tentative Soviet Union as a benefactor compelled states. Extending this logic out, both Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen to scramble in the face of new political and economic realities, some of which translated into stresses that came to the surface decades later during the Arab Spring.

We will also examine how the reality of American unipolarity at the end of the Cold War ultimately led to the creation of an “axis of resistance,” consisting of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, against what these actors saw as efforts by the United States and its allies, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Israel, to impose their will on the region.

It was these two opposing poles which later competed for regional primacy in the civil wars of Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. And it was this struggle for power which laid the foundations for a new regional political order.

While this regional competition played out in the civil wars, it is misleading to simplify this as merely a proxy war dynamic. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have in fact treated the civil wars as venues for competition.

But this paper will argue that the regional powers don’t just “push” themselves into these conflicts, as a proxy war would suggest, but also get “pulled” in based on threats (and in some cases opportunities) created by the civil wars.

This will be described as “vertical contagion,” where beyond just exploiting the civil wars top-down, regional and international actors get drawn into the vortex of a “conflict trap.

These distinctions in how we define the relationship between regional and international powers and the civil wars are more than semantic. How we look at this relationship has real implications for the challenges of forging the cooperation necessary globally (and regionally) to advance the cause of peace in the countries racked by civil war.


To properly assess the global context of the civil wars today, it is essential that we look at what has changed over time, starting with the early days of the Cold War.

The onset of the Cold War was the “big bang” moment of the modern Middle East. At the same time the United States and Soviet Union were ramping up their global competition, almost all Arab states were making the transition from being under the thumb of European colonialism to becoming independent sovereign states.

In other words, there was a collision between two profound historical forces: The Cold War global conflict heating up, and Arab states entering the headiest, but also most vulnerable, period of their histories.

The clearest evidence of the influence the U.S.-Soviet rivalry exerted on the political order of the Middle East is that the region started to mirror the bipolar structure of the international system.

The major manifestation of this “mimicking effect” was the emergence of an Arab Cold War, which pitted Egypt’s populist Arab nationalist leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser (backed by the Soviet Union), against more conservative Arab states such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia (allies of the United States).

The different sides of this Arab Cold War competed for influence in the civil wars in Lebanon in the 1950s and Yemen in the 1960s. This rivalry was also a theme in Iraq’s 1958 revolution, and the United States and Soviet Union both intervened indirectly in the Lebanese civil war which started in 1975.


Unpacking how the domestic politics of states were influenced by the Cold War helps explain how these same states suffered a decline in capacity during the post-Cold War period. This ultimately impinged on their ability to meet the growing demands of their populations, and perhaps also hampered their ability to resist the slide into civil war.

Each of the fledgling independent states that emerged from colonialism struggled with stability due to internal and external pressures. Because of this, most felt compelled to seek support from either the United States or the Soviet Union.

Countries which aligned themselves with the United States, like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iran, gained regime security from this alliance, but at the expense of regime legitimacy.

Given the U.S. support for Israel, Arab regimes paid a domestic legitimacy price for being on the receiving end of American largesse. But the gains in regime security helped offset the legitimacy liability, signaling to opposition groups that the United States would shore up the regime against domestic challenges.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, didn’t have this drag on the legitimacy of its Arab allies given that its revolutionary brand overlapped with the Arab nationalist agendas of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

Moscow tended to back countries (e.g. Nasser’s Egypt) which built their legitimizing formulas on a stance of resistance against the United States and perhaps and its regional allies.

Arab countries aligned with the Soviet Union saw themselves as part of a world-wide struggle against what was viewed as Western hegemonic designs over the Middle East. While these states still had legitimacy issues, their relationship with Moscow wasn’t the source of them.

to continue in part 2


Ross Harrison is a non-resident senior fellow at MEI and is on the faculty of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the faculty of the political science department at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been published in The National Interest, Al Monitor, and The Middle East Journal.


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