Why Proxy Wars in the Middle East Are (Probably) Here to Stay

By Barbara F. Walter

Anti-aircraft fire over Sanaa, Yemen. By Ala'a Assamawy.
Anti-aircraft fire over Sanaa, Yemen. By Ala’a Assamawy.

Between 1992 and 2008, the duration of civil wars became significantly shorter than they have been at any time since 1945. The reason was simple. The end of the Cold War finally convinced the United States and the Soviet Union to stop funding proxy wars in small countries around the world. Money to rebels and to governments dried up and so did their ability to fight. The result? Combatants were suddenly willing to negotiate with each other and a greater number of wars were settled (e.g., Mozambique, Cambodia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala).

This post-Cold War trend has reversed. Money is pouring in to all of the combatants on every side of every civil war in the Middle East and North Africa. This will almost certainly have two effects. One is that these wars will be longer than they otherwise would have been. Another is that serious attempts to negotiate are unlikely as long as funding continues.

Is there anything the U.S. can do to end proxy funding, especially from the major sources – Iran and Saudi Arabia? The answer is probably not.

Governments will continue to fund proxy wars as long as they believe there is an advantage to doing so. The advantage is real: if Iran can fund its preferred side to victory, it gains an advantage in its regional power struggle with Saudi Arabia. The same is true for Saudi Arabia.

Not only that, but the two sides are embroiled in a classic security dilemma. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia could remain uninvolved in the civil wars in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya, but doing so could also enable their rival to make gains at their expense. Proxy war is a way to protect oneself from this undesirable outcome.

There is a large literature in political science about how to halt a security dilemma. The problem is that these conditions don’t exist in the Middle East today. States will cooperate with each other but they’re much more likely to do so if they have, as Robert Jervis put it, “compatible ideologies, are similar ethnically, [or] have a common culture.” None of these conditions exist in Iran and Saudi Arabia today.

In addition, cooperation is more likely if the two states are not predisposed to view the other as hostile and if their governments feel relatively secure – two features that are again absent in both of the current regimes.

The one bit of hope we have is that economic inducements could make a difference. Jervis convincingly argued that cooperation between two rivals may still be possible if one can significantly increase the rewards to be gained from good behavior. Change the payoffs for intervening in a conflict versus staying out, and you change to incentives to keep meddling. I’m not an expert on foreign policy, but this is one calculation I would seek to manipulate to try to shorten these wars.

  1. It seems rather naive to assume that the United States (and other great powers) are not involved in the wars of the Middle East. The United States especially inherited the Middle Eastern imperium of Great Britain, and has not yet given up on it in spite of high cost and poor rewards.

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