By Ross Harrison

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



Using Islam to target the perceived injustices of colonialism and other forms of international intervention has a precedent in the Middle East. In the Arab and Iranian experience mosques have long been the center of resistance against outsiders. In the cases of Egypt and Iran, the mosque as a source of resistance goes back to the late 19th century.

The Salafist jihadi international terror organizations that have arisen over previous decades grew out of some of the same ideological traditions as more mainstream groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. But these new organizations used more violent means and sowed sectarian conflict as a way to challenge the identity boundaries of the region.

In a way, al-Qaeda and ISIS can be thought of as another part of the “resistance front” targeting the asymmetry of power in the Middle East that favors the U.S. The belief is that the U.S. should be targeted, as it is an oppressor of the Muslim masses that props up Arab authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Some groups like ISIS also attack the colonial legacy, trying to erase the boundaries that were established in the aftermath of World War I. While it is a different kind of resistance front than the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, nonetheless these groups emerged to fight what they saw as the excesses of American unipolarity.


Countries located in ‘bad neighborhoods’ … are increasingly likely to experience armed conflict themselves, compared to a country located in a region that is predominately at peace.

The emergence of a resistance axis in the Middle East after the Cold War as a counterweight to U.S. dominance created the contours of a new regional order. It wasn’t an Arab-dominated regional order, as had been the case in the 1960s, but rather a broader system pitting U.S.-backed Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran, Syria, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah, with Turkey at various points acting as a bridge between the two camps.

Until the Arab Spring broke out, this emerging regional order could be described as a victimless rivalry between two opposing camps. The rivalry consisted of activities like Saudi Arabia and Israel lobbying Washington during the George W. Bush administration to take a hardened stance against Iran. Iran responded by using Hezbollah to undermine Saudi interests in Lebanon and the broader region.

But for the most part the competition between these two camps was a jostling for regional power, not the lethal rivalry between two enemies it would later become. Eventually, the resistance front led by Iran and U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia would be on opposing sides as the civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq turned into broader proxy conflicts.


There are two ways to think about the relationship between the post-Cold War regional order and the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. One is that the regional powers, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, jockeyed for position by backing different sides in the civil wars.

While this is one dynamic at play, regional power involvement in the civil wars was more complex than this one-dimensional proxy war view. In addition to the regional powers pushing themselves into the civil wars, they were pulled into these conflicts by a dynamic this author has labeled “vertical contagion.”

Much of the work on how civil wars spread describe “horizontal contagion” where the violence crosses state borders, based on factors like rebel groups operating in more than one country, terrorism, refugee flows, and arms transfers.

The Arab Spring phenomenon, where protests in Tunisia had a contagion effect on Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Libya, and the sequence of civil war outbreaks across the Arab world are examples of this phenomenon.

Also, should the civil wars in Syria and Iraq spread to Jordan or Lebanon, this too would also be a form of horizontal contagion. But vertical contagion involves the conflict spreading, not just laterally to neighboring fragile countries, but also upward to stronger regional powers.

There are two levels on which to consider the phenomenon of vertical contagion. The first is how factors like the compression of time, the fog of war, and “bad neighborhood” effects have drawn in regional actors like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Israel.

When we talk about contagion in this light, we aren’t suggesting that the violence itself spreads to these major regional powers, but rather that the effects of the violence of the civil wars are imported into these countries in the form of refugees (to Turkey and Israel), the strengthening of hardliners (in Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia), and terrorist attacks (Iran and Turkey).

The second layer of vertical contagion is the most interesting part of this phenomenon and the most relevant to the prospects for ending the conflicts: The individual civil wars in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Iraq have spawned a conflict at the regional level that is connected to, but also distinct from, the individual country-level wars.

The dynamic of this kind of vertical contagion is that the individual country-level civil wars morph into a broader war among the major regional powers, where common interests in a stable and prosperous Middle East give way to a competition for regional dominance. Let’s unpack this second type of vertical contagion a bit further. As stated previously, a new regional order started to emerge at the end of the Cold War.

It started out as a bipolar structure pitting a resistance front led by Iran against U.S.-supported regional allies such as Saudi Arabia. Since that time, other regional actors, such as Turkey and Israel, have asserted themselves in this new regional order.

Vertical contagion means that the country-level civil wars have turned this struggle for power within the emerging regional order from a victimless rivalry into a destructive competition which has lethal implications for the entire Middle East.

Unlike the country-level wars, where the battles are about who governs territory, the regional civil war is about which country asserts dominance over the region. In other words, the civil wars aren’t just fueled by the regional order; they are in the process of shaping that order. This analysis of vertical contagion, where the civil wars spread to engulf the region, has significance for the prospects of ending the current violence.

It points to the reality that ending the country-level civil wars is not possible without disentangling what Wallensteen and Sollenberg have described as a “regional conflict complex”

In other words, without some form of cooperation between the regional actors, there is little likelihood of any kind of sustainable peace in the countries now embroiled in civil war, and any reconstruction efforts will prove to be futile.


Here we will look individually at the countries now in civil war, focusing on the role played by global and regional powers.


In many ways Iraq was the first shot across the bow of resistance against the rise of American power. As the Cold War was waning, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein challenged the Western-backed political order in the region by invading Kuwait in the summer of 1990.

Given that he had alienated almost all of the other regional and international powers, the Iraqi leader was isolated and this early attempt at resistance failed. With the attacks on the U.S. homeland September 11th, 2001, and the invasion Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington showed it had developed zero tolerance for a posture of resistance.

The connection between the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the civil war that ensued is clear. Not only was the regime of Saddam Hussein toppled, but the entire Iraqi state was collapsed.

De-Ba’athification and the dismantlement of the military essentially removed the pillars that had held the country together, sending disenfranchised Sunnis into the opposition, and plunging the country into civil war.

Had the United States worked to prevent disenfranchisement on the part of the Sunnis, the worst of the violence that broke out in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul might have been forestalled.

While a different approach to the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq might have prevented this crisis, once unleashed the forces of disunity took on an inexorable life of their own.

The effect of the Iraqi conflict was profound in other ways too. The invasion of Iraq unleashed a violent Sunni response, from which al-Qaeda benefited and ISIS emerged. While ISIS came late to the game in Iraq and Syria, it certainly added to the complexity of the conflict, drawing in the United States and Turkey. Once ISIS turned towards Iraq from Syria in 2014, capturing Mosul and large swaths of Anbar Province, the civil wars in Syria and Iraq became in many ways a single battlefield.

The vertical contagion phenomenon introduced in the previous section was evident in the civil war in Iraq as well. After the U.S. invasion, Iran was drawn into Iraq, taking advantage of an opportunity to extend its influence into the Arab world, but also to counter a threat from ISIS, which was poised to gobble up large swaths of Iraqi territory.

Saudi Arabia also has recently re-engaged with Iraq as part of its struggle with Iran for the heart and soul of the Middle East. Turkey, too, was pulled into the civil war vortex, intervening to attack the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) in the north of the country, coddle the Kurds friendly to Ankara in the Kurdistan Regional Government, and have the Shi’i-led government in Baghdad take account of Turkey’s regional interests and ambitions. The results of Iraq’s May 2018 elections indicate a desire on the part of Iraqis to remain neutral in this struggle.


The rising star of the Shi’i majority in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and the disenfranchisement of the country’s Sunni minority wasn’t lost on the Sunni majority in Syria, which since 1970 has been governed by leaders from the Alawite Shi’i sect. And it also wasn’t lost on Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which initially saw the Syrian civil war as an opportunity to try to reclaim leadership of the Arab world from Shi’i Iran.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had a demonstration effect on Syria. Even though it was widely thought that Syria’s inclusion in the resistance front against a U.S.-dominated regional order made it immune to the fate that had beset many other Arab states, Syria showed that the civil wars hit Arab countries, irrespective of which side of the new regional order they were on.

The moment of American unipolarity in the Middle East had an impact on the Syrian civil war in other ways too. The departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 under pressure from the U.S. put added stress on the Syrian system. Its corrupt intelligence service, which had been exploiting Lebanon for decades, now turned its sights on towns in rural areas of Syria, sparking discontent and eroding the base of support for the regime.

It was the rural areas where the first demonstrations broke out in 2011 that would ultimately lead to civil war. Syria’s eviction from Lebanon by the U.S. had another effect on the civil war that would follow. A line can be drawn between the release of the Damascus Declaration, a joint statement issued in October 2005 by members of the Syrian opposition pushing for reform and disengagement from Lebanon, and the Syria civil war.

Many of the signatories ended up forming the Syrian National Council in 2011, which became a focal point of the opposition in the early days of the war. In terms of vertical contagion, Syria has drawn in all regional and international actors, including Turkey, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the United States and Russia.

In many ways Syria has become ground zero of the regional battle. While it appears that Iran has the upper hand in Syria due to the lack of any significant opposition to the Assad regime, parts of the country are likely to remain contested for some time.

Turkey is still playing a role, and one of the biggest wildcards for Syria is the relationship between Iran and Israel. The possibility that these two countries could do battle on the back of the Syrian civil war underscores the degree of uncertainty about Syria’s future.

to continue in part 5


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.


Related Articles