By Ross Harrison

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





The alliance with the Soviet Union helped Syria patch over some of the legitimacy deficiencies that had plagued it since independence. Soviet aid packages helped shore up the country’s political-economy by spurring the growth of the public sector, from which flowed benefits to the regime’s social base.

Despite the fractious nature of the Syrian political system, evidenced by the number of coups that took place before the ascension of Hafez al-Assad to the presidency in 1971, the support from Moscow buttressed state capacity.

There was also an ideological component to the relationship between Moscow and Damascus. The expansion of the public sector at the expense of private enterprise, the emergence of a vibrant Communist party in Syria, and the socialist tenets of the Ba’ath party, were ideological manifestations of the relationship between Syria and the Soviet Union.

One could argue that the alliance with the Soviet Union also had a “disciplining effect” on the Syrian political system, sidelining potential challengers to the regime.

While there was a formidable challenge from the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982, which was brutally quashed, the social contract enabled by the state’s relationship with Moscow kept Syria reasonably stable, particularly starting in the 1970s under former President Hafez Al-Assad.

While the state continued to struggle with overcoming divisions and settling on a legitimacy formula in its formative years, exacerbated by the failure to defeat the fledgling Israeli state in 1948 and the botched merger with Egypt a decade later, the alliance with the Soviet Union provided an ideological, financial, and military support system.

Through the transfer of security-related equipment and weaponry, Moscow also facilitated the transformation of the regime into an authoritarian police state.


One could make an argument that the Cold War prolonged the civil war in Lebanon, which started in 1975. With the United States supporting Israel’s involvement and the Soviet Union backing Syria, the conflict in Lebanon quickly internationalized such that resolution proved to be almost impossible.

Syria was caught on the horns of a vexing dilemma when it came to Lebanon, evidenced by the fact that it switched sides during the war. Because of its historical ties to the Arab nationalist movement, the legitimacy of the Syrian state depended on a strident foreign policy.

But the weakness of the state made pursuing an aggressive foreign policy perilous to the regime’s stability, case in point being the devastating loss of the Golan Heights to the Israelis during the 1967 war.

Soviet military and economic aid enabled Syria to take more aggressive stands against Israel and meddle in the civil war in Lebanon, without serious risks to the state or regime. In other words, this alliance helped leaders partially square the circle between an inherently fragile state and an assertive foreign policy.

Even with Soviet support, Hafez al-Assad followed a circumspect path in Lebanon, favoring policies that reinforced the state and eschewing policies that threatened stability.

An example of this was how he approached the Palestinian cause in Lebanon. He wanted to preserve a Palestinian resistance for later bargaining with Israel, while balancing this against the risk that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) might lead to a total collapse of the Lebanese state, which could blow back to Syria.

To reduce this risk Hafez al-Assad fielded his own Palestinian force, as-Sai’qa, as a hedge against more independent PLO groups, such as Fatah and the even more radical Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The Soviet Union also had a direct effect on the civil war in Lebanon, by acting as a spoiler in effort to end the fighting. In the zero-sum-game mentality of the Cold War, Moscow had an interest in pushing back against any Lebanese initiative to end the war that might redound to the advantage of the United States or its regional allies.


While Egypt had stronger political fundamentals than Syria, its domestic and foreign policy options were also heavily shaped by its alliance with the Soviet Union, which was forged after a failed attempt by Washington to strike an arms deal with Nasser. Moscow gave Egypt the military wherewithal to intervene in

the 1960s civil war in Yemen on the side of the republicans, against the U.S.-backed Saudi and Jordanian support for the monarchists. While fellow citizens who recognized one another Egypt’s involvement was inspired by and became part of Nasser’s pan-Arab agenda, the relationship with Moscow was instrumental. The Soviets were involved directly in activities like financing the building of the strategically important port of Hodeida (which today is seen as a fulcrum of the current Yemen civil war).

Although it would be an oversimplification to paint the civil war in Yemen in the 1960s as simply a proxy war, as local actors willingly exploited and drew resources from the superpowers to prosecute their own agendas, the United States and the Soviet Union certainly played a role by helping regional actors like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, respectively, play out their ambitions vis-à-vis one another on the backs of a Yemeni civil conflict.


Enlightened thinkers like Fénelon who believed in Europe’s cultural unity feared that all wars between Europeans would become civil wars, because they were fought within the bounds of a community of fellow citizens who recognized one another as such”.

During much of the Cold War the Middle East was an Arab-centric region. One reason for this is that the Arab world quickly became contested by the United States and the Soviet Union, each staking out allies as part of the global power struggle. In contrast, non-Arab states Israel, Turkey, and Iran (until 1979) leaned hard towards the West.

This competition between the superpowers split the Arab world into two ideological camps. Allies of the Soviet Union saw themselves as part of a world-wide revolutionary struggle against what was viewed as Western hegemonic designs on the Middle East. This aligned with and reinforced the fiery revolutionary rhetoric of Egypt’s President Nasser, who built his country’s legitimizing formula on a stance of resistance against the West. In contrast, the United States supported more local ideologically conservative regimes, such as the monarchies of Jordan and Saudi Arabia, as well as Israel.

This ideological framing had real consequences in Lebanon, where in the 1950s and 1960s Sunni Muslim groups inspired by Nasser reflected a growing pan-Arab sentiment, against the more conservative, Western-leaning, state-centric Maronite-controlled government. This set up the divisions of the first Lebanese

civil war of 1958, which was fought over competing visions of Lebanon and the region. The Maronite Christian president advocated leaning towards the Western-orchestrated Baghdad Pact, while the Sunni Muslim prime minister was a supporter of the United Arab Republic, which from 1958-1961 represented Nasser’s intent to unify Egypt and Syria under a single Arab nationalist banner.

This split drew the Americans into Lebanon in 1958, setting up conditions for the longer civil war that started in 1975, which drew in both the United States and Soviet Union, and their allies Israel and Syria, respectively.

Asher Orkaby summarized eloquently how the Cold War, and particularly the United States, framed out regional struggles and local civil wars:

President Dwight Eisenhower’s Middle East policy, known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, supported and united the conservative Arab regimes of Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia, placing them as an ideological counter to ‘Nasserism.’ By June 1957, Eisenhower succeeded in polarizing the Arab world and creating a ‘royalist axis’ of conservative regimes that were willing to counter and criticize Egypt and Syria. The 1958 coup in Iraq and the U.S. military intervention in Lebanon conversely discredited U.S. intentions in the Middle East and strengthened Nasser as the anti-imperialist power.”

to continue in part 3


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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