By Ross Harrison

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



Other Arab states had their own strategic imperatives and responses to U.S. unipolarity. Libya, which had alienated most of its regional neighbors, found itself isolated at the end of the Cold War.

This contrasts with Syria, which multiplied its power through an alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. Tripoli’s response was to essentially switch sides from the resistance front to the United States and relinquish all remnants of its fledgling nuclear program.

In Libya, the connection between the end of the Cold War and the change in the country’s foreign policy is clear, though a direct link to the civil war is more difficult to establish. Gaddafi’s agreement to relinquish his weapons of mass destruction after 9/11 certainly was connected to the rise of American “hard unipolarity.”

This, in turn, made possible the NATO military action that was taken against the regime. But it was the broader themes of the Arab Spring and a desire for Gaddafi’s removal that sparked the uprisings in Libya.


As is now clear, the end of the Cold War produced a unipolar moment, not a unipolar era.

In this paper we have tried to demonstrate how the Middle East adjusted to the reality of American unipolarity, and to explore how this adds some context to our understanding of civil wars. We have also looked at how this unipolar moment led to a reordering of the region at the end of the Cold War, and how this set up a struggle for power that is playing out now in the civil wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

The historical period when the United States was ascendant in the region was but a fleeting moment. The international system and the Middle East have already made the transition from unipolarity to multipolarity.

This happened for a couple of reasons:

First, the U.S. became mired in Afghanistan and Iraq, breaking the ideological certainty that Washington could fashion the Middle East in its own image. This led to at least a perception among regional actors that the United States was retrenching from the Middle East, a view that was reinforced by President Barack Obama’s stated intention to “pivot to Asia.

Second, the entrance of Russia into Syria in 2015 turned what had been a unipolar moment into a new geopolitical reality of multipolarity, with Russia aligning itself with the resistance front of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

Moscow saw Syria as an opportunity to push back against a pattern of hapless U.S.-led efforts to topple regimes, from Afghanistan and Iraq to Libya, correcting for the imbalance that had been created by the end of the Cold War.

And with the U.S. having impetuously withdrawn in 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran nuclear deal is officially known, Russia has assumed a capability previously monopolized by the United States, which is the power to convene.

Even though Moscow has thrown its weight behind Iran and Syria, as the new kingmaker it has some sway with Israel and Saudi Arabia. Because of these relationships it has been working to manage tensions between Israel and Iran, Turkey and Iran, and possibly even Iran and Saudi Arabia, tensions that need to be mitigated if the civil wars besetting the Arab order are to be wound down.

In addition to Russia, this multipolar environment also includes other influencers in the Middle East. China and the European Union, while less involved in the region than the United States and Russia on security matters, do nevertheless play a role as well.

Europe sees the Middle East as strategically important because of issues related to energy, refugees, and terrorism. all of which originate in this region. And China sees the Middle East as a critical part of its Belt and Road Initiative and a supplier for its energy needs.

to continue in part 6


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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