The Contagiousness of Regional Conflict: A Middle East Case Study

Several factors contribute to or inhibit the “contagiousness” of regional conflict and irregular warfare, whether conducted at the interstate, extrastate, or intrastate level. Five broad drivers of the diffusion of regional conflict are (1) weak states, (2) anticipated power shifts, regional and domestic, (3) unstable and poorly controlled border regions, (4) large refugee flows, and (5) the religiously-based non-state militant campaign against the state as an organizing principle of world politics. These factors are both endogenous and exogenous to particular states and societies, and must be considered alongside the standard factors considered in international relations literature to be the basis of “dangerous state dyads:” geographic contiguity, absence of alliances, absence of an advanced economy, absence of a democratic polity, and absence of a regionally preponderant power. Two case studies illustrate this argument: the rise of Islamic State, and the awareness of the causes of contagion in regional conflict implicit in Israeli security policy.

Graeme P. Auton
Jacob R. Slobodien
May 26, 2016

As E.E. Schattschneider long ago argued in his landmark study of American politics, control over the scope of participation is at the very core of strategies of political conflict.

“... The outcome of all conflict is determined by the scope of its contagion... every change in the number of participants, every increase or reduction in the number of participants, affects the result... [Therefore,] the most important strategy of politics is concerned with the scope of conflict... So great is the change in the nature of any conflict likely to be as a consequence of... widening involvement... that the original participants are apt to lose control of the conflict altogether.”1

Schattschneider was talking about domestic politics in a democracy, the United States, but the fundamental argument applies equally to less democratic polities and to the spread of conflict in regional systems such as the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, or South America. Indeed, the clean distinction between domestic and “international” politics, between endogenous and exogenous sources of change and instability, is something that can no longer be maintained in most considerations of the interrelatedness of subnational, national, regional and (sometimes) global sources of political conflict.

Increasing attention has been paid to regional conflict systems as the relevant level of analysis for explaining such phenomena as civil war, contagious militant violence, and other forms of instability. At the state level, attention has been focused on “regional security complexes,” groups of states “whose primary security concerns link together sufficiently closely that their national securities cannot realistically be considered apart from one another.”2 However, the spread of regional conflict cannot be viewed only from the state level. Employing a more comprehensive perspective, “regional conflict complexes” have been defined as “situations where neighboring countries experience internal or interstate conflicts, with significant links between the conflicts. These links may be so substantial that changes in conflict dynamics or the resolution of one conflict will have an effect on neighboring conflicts.”3 In the process they may generate massive refugee flows, sources of insecurity in themselves. Myron Weiner has referred to such complexes as, simply, “bad neighborhoods.”4 Clearly, regional conflict mechanisms must be understood at the level of substate and nonstate, as well as state, actors. One of the phenomena we need to examine is the regional diffusion of internal wars.

In this paper we look at arguments about the “contagiousness” of conflict, instability and violence at the regional level. We also look at the actions of regional players (sometimes themselves located outside the affected region) that have contributed to the spread of regional instability, and to policies that have arguably contributed to its containment. We take a brief look at two case studies that illustrate some of these points. Our intention is not to arrive at definitive conclusions, but rather to provide an overview of the parameters of the debate. Since the 1990s there has been substantial scholarship on the issue of regional conflict, much of it prompted by challenges that have emerged since the end of the Cold War.5 While some of this scholarship has arguably been more focused on methodological nuance than on substance, it has nonetheless contributed to the larger debate.6


As we have noted, factors that explain regional conflict are both endogenous and exogenous to particular states and societies. Such conflicts cluster in both space and time; that is, they have both geographic and temporal dynamics. Their “contagiousness” is also arguably driven by cultural factors, such as “parochial altruism” in collectivistic societies, where self-sacrifice and self-effacement are tied to hostility toward those not of one’s own ethnic, racial, or religious group (a phenomenon that is global as well as regional, and that can be a psychological basis for terrorism).7

The political science literature, however, tends to focus on other factors, and much of its analysis embraces a broader understanding of interstate and substate conflict. Stephen Quackenbush, for example, distinguishes between interstate war (conflict between sovereign states), extrastate war (conflict between a state and nonstate actors beyond its borders), intrastate war (conflict between a state and nonstate actors within its borders), and nonstate war (conflict between nonstate actors that does not involve states).8 What is noteworthy is that several of these types of conflict can be conducted simultaneously in the same region. The current conflicts in Iraq and Syria combine features of all four types of war, and this undoubtedly has something to do with the contagiousness of regional instability.

With respect to “dangerous dyads” in interstate conflict—interstate relationships likely to break down into military conflict—Quackenbush has identified six critical factors: (1) the presence of geographic contiguity; (2) the absence of alliances; (3) the absence of more advanced economies; (4) the absence of a democratic polity; (5) the absence of overwhelming preponderance by a single state or coalition of states; and (6) the absence of a major power.9 These factors also contribute to the contagiousness of regional conflict, as is evident in the Middle East, given geographic contiguity, poor economic performance, the absence of strong democratic traditions, and the earlier decision of the Obama administration to remove a strong U.S. presence (a decision now being reversed, because of both the rise of regional anarchy and the intervention of Russia and Iran).

In examining the contextual factors that underlie the contagiousness of regional conflict, we argue that there are ultimately five factors of critical importance, all of them tied in one way or another to earlier analysis of the variants of interstate war:

Weak state structures: “State capacity,” the ability of a state to preserve its monopoly over the legitimate use of violence, as well as its ability to provide public goods that its citizens demand, is a critical factor in the contagiousness of instability and conflict. “If a state is no longer able to maintain its monopoly of violence, it is also unable to protect its territory against rebel groups based in neighboring countries or military interventions by neighbors.”10 The incapacity of weak and failed states significantly contributes to the “portability” of domestic strife, militant violence and civil war. Such states export conflict because they encourage other regional players to get involved, including nonstate entities that may strive to impose their own version
of “order.”

Armed strife within a dysfunctional state compounds the weak state threat in multiple ways. For example, it can revive old sectarian divisions in a neighboring state, as the Syrian civil war and the campaign against the Islamic State (IS) have exacerbated the long-running conflict between Turkey and the Kurds.11 Weak states can be created by internal upheaval (as, arguably, in the case of Syria) or by external intervention (as in the case of Iraq), though in most cases there is some combination of internal and external factors (as in the cases of Libya and Yemen).

The phenomenon of weak and failed states is a self-reinforcing downward spiral, because such states become more vulnerable to the other factors that contribute to the contagiousness of conflict. Neighboring weak states also become vulnerable to each other, and thereby experience a kind of double jeopardy: “domestic characteristics make them more prone to civil violence; equally unstable neighbors then compound the risk.”12 On the other side of the ledger, as K.J. Holsti and Benjamin Miller have argued, increased state strength has historically been associated with reduced regional instability and violence.13 The argument related to “increased state strength” is, of course, fundamentally a structural neo-realist argument; it tells us nothing about the domestic composition of those states that are “strong.”

Shifting power: A standard argument in international relations scholarship is that shifts in relative power, or perceptions of shifts in relative power, can cause heightened interstate conflict and war. “Revisionist” states sometimes challenge status-quo-oriented states if they anticipate a significant shift in the balance of power. This argument is at the core of what is called “power transition theory.”

Alex Weisiger has demonstrated that concerns about future power shifts may also “complicate the resolution of civil wars [and] account for the endemic nature of conflict in violent regions.”14 They do so in two ways: First, the perception of an impending power shift creates an incentive for opposing state and nonstate actors (those opposed to the beneficiary of the power shift) to mount an attack before the shift is consummated. “It is not particularly surprising that competing factions would be willing to resort to war to prevent their opponents from building an effective state that would put them in a position to impose contentious policies unilaterally.”15 Second, the beneficiary of the impending power shift has an incentive to advantage some actors and disadvantage others, as it seeks to accelerate the transition and consolidate its position. This gives rise to a “commitment problem” on the part of all actors involved: “political agreements that would in principle be acceptable to both sides in a dispute may be undermined if the distribution of power is likely to shift in the future, as the side that gains power will be in a position to abrogate the agreement and demand additional concessions.”16

Under such circumstances the party that is disadvantaged by future changes is likely – consistent with E.E. Schattschneider’s paradigm – to seek external support in order to change the scope of the conflict and its eventual outcome. Thus, “shifting power concerns exacerbate and institutionalize regional violence.”17

Unstable and poorly controlled border regions: Closely related to the weak state phenomenon is the problem of porous borders, particularly where there is a “transborder kinship of identity groups” that can lead to a regional spillover of violence (as has happened in both the Balkans and the Middle East).18 Interstate borders that do not represent the actual geographic division between ethnic and identity groups can be significant conduits for conflict, as is often the case when such borders are imposed by outsiders (one thinks of, for example, the Middle East borders conjured by the British and French under the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, the 1893 Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan, or the numerous examples of “artificial” borders that resulted from European colonization of sub-Saharan Africa). Border regions are often a significant distance from a state’s capital and its political epicenter, and it is not unusual for subnational conflicts with a high potential for contagion to begin in such regions.

O’Loughlin, Raleigh, and Witmer, using spatial analysis, have concluded that “separatist conflicts... are more likely in sparsely populated regions near the state border, and in territories without significant rough terrain.”19 Poorly controlled borders are an even greater factor when (1) similar socio-economic conditions exist on both sides of the border, (2) the border separates weak or failed states, (3) there is “transborder kinship” between identity groups, and (4) there are significant
refugee flows.20

Large refugee flows: Large cross-border flows of refugees can have an impact on the spread of instability, militancy, and ethnic conflict. As Nadine Ansorg has written, “refugees extend the networks of rebel groups and enable transnational diffusion of combatants, weapons and ideologies.”21 These effects are impacted by the policies of recipient states, and can be exacerbated by humanitarian aid, which can benefit combatants as much as refugees (such is clearly the case when militant groups have de facto control over a population’s access to aid).22

It is hardly surprising that some countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Pakistan, and—now—the member states of the European Union have taken an increasingly hard-nosed look at the risks posed by refugees. When the flows are as massive as those recently experienced by the EU (or Jordan), important questions are raised about fundamental social stability as well as about the political “contagion” problems associated with large-scale population movements.

In Jordan one-quarter of the population comprises Palestinian, Syrian and Iraqi refugees; in Lebanon, one-fifth; and both countries face significant issues of national cohesion attributed to the refugee crisis. Jordan confronted these issues even prior to the Arab Spring and the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars.23 In Lebanon, the refugee burden has increased poverty and unemployment, while negatively impacting the financial stability of the Lebanese government.24 Meanwhile in Lebanon, conflict between supporters and opponents of the Assad regime in Syria has intensified sectarian divisions. Even Turkey wrestles with growing instability as it confronts the violence in Syria, Kurdish militancy, and its own refugee problem.25

Liberal states, such as the majority of those in the European Union, have thought themselves immune to the effects of refugee movements, though there is little evidence to support this sentiment. Unsurprisingly, some researchers have found a statistical correlation between refugee flows and the onset of civil war.26

The nature of nonstate militancy: Nonstate actors responsible for the spread of regional conflict have adapted their objectives with regard to an increasingly besieged state system, and clearly reject the logic of that system in a way that promotes the cross-state contagiousness of militancy. As Barak Mendelsohn has argued, groups such as al-Qaeda and Hizb-ut-Tahrir challenge the organizing principles of world politics as they seek the global predominance of religion over the state.27 The fundamental problem is not the political organization of Islam, but Islam itself, which rejects the Westphalian notion of the secular state not only as an institution, but also as an idea:

“The current phase of this enduring struggle [between religion and the Westphalian state system] is taking place against the background of the state’s weakening control in various spheres, and the ascendance of globalization. To some extent the religious challenge is a response to the poor condition of the state, the destabilizing effects of advancements in technology on the fabric of societies, and the failure of the Western-implanted nation-state to convey a strong social identity and moral purpose in many post-colonial states. Technological progress, facilitating the dissemination of ideas with greater ease and unprecedented scope, may make this challenge more potent in comparison to previous challenges....”28

Beyond these groups’ opposition to the state system, rivalry among them is itself a vehicle for the regional diffusion of conflict.

In some cases, regional conflicts may not involve states at all. As Manwaring has argued, “some nonstate actors (insurgents, private armies, terrorists, transnational criminal organizations, and gangs) are, in fact, engaged in hegemonic war (conflict), as if they were nation-states attempting to overthrow or control one another.”29 In Syria the al-Nusra Front and IS sometimes work in opposition to each other, as do jihadist groups in Libya, where the state has all but vanished, as conflict lingers. At the same time, as Patrick Cockburn makes clear, nonstate actors could not have been nearly as effective were it not for their state-based sponsors (including Saudi Arabia in the case of the Sunni uprising in Syria):

“None of the religious parties that took power, whether in Iraq in 2005 or Egypt in 2012 [now deposed], has been able to consolidate its authority. Rebels everywhere look for support from the foreign enemies of the state they are trying to overthrow. The Syrian opposition can only reflect the policies and divisions of its sponsors. Resistance to the state was too rapidly militarized for opposition movements to develop an experienced national leadership and a political program... [Moderate opposition lacked] any vision of a nonauthoritarian nation-state capable of competing with the religious fanaticism of the Sunni militants of ISIS and similar movements financed by the oil states of the Gulf.”30

It is not surprising that the current “global conflict” scenario, in its challenge to the state system as an organizing principle, combines features of what Stephen Quackenbush characterizes as interstate, extra-state, intrastate and nonstate wars.31 As Mendelsohn argues, traditional boundaries of conflict have been dramatically challenged. While these boundaries have always been questioned to some degree, the current scale and intensity of the challenge may in some respects be unprecedented in modern history, and it undoubtedly is a factor in the spread of destabilizing
regional conflict.32

Other factors: Literature on the diffusion of regional conflict has sometimes focused on a range of additional factors, including environmental degradation, temporal links between substate conflicts, and (as noted earlier) the cultural contagiousness of conflict that differs across different types of societies. Some recent work has focused on “temporal lags” between conflicts in the same region, arguing that the onset and termination of separate substate conflicts in a region are temporally linked, and that the causal time frame in the link between conflicts does not have to be as short as is sometimes expected.33 In general, it can be argued that particular regions, for a variety of reasons, experience periods of violence and offsetting periods of peace.

Environmental factors, including water and resource depletion, climate change, and susceptibility to epidemics, contribute significantly to the onset and spread of conflict, particularly in less developed regions that are poorly equipped economically to manage such challenges.34 In sub-Saharan Africa, the links between environment, contagious disease, and conflict have been evident.


What are the practical implications of our analysis? In the Middle East, each of the factors outlined above can be seen in the rise of the Islamic State and in the ineffectiveness of western policies that contributed to the rise of IS. An awareness of these factors can also be seen in the foreign and security policies of the region’s most besieged established state, Israel.

Islamic State

The emergence of IS clearly brings together all of the factors outlined above. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States brought an end to the Ba’ath regime of Saddam Hussein, which—regardless of (or, more likely, because of) its undemocratic and occasionally violent characteristics—had arguably held together a fractious Iraq under the control of its Sunni minority. It is interesting to ask what might have happened if the United States had left the Hussein government in place. Would that government have ultimately shared the fate of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and become engulfed in civil war, or would the survival of Hussein have assured that of Assad through the prolongation of a strong state-centric system in the Middle East? While it is tempting to attribute the Syrian civil war and the mortal weakening of Assad’s Alawite regime to the 2011 Arab Spring, it is also necessary to take into account the contagious effect of events in Iraq, where, particularly after the U.S. withdrawal, with its unfortunate timing, the Sunni/Ba’ath uprising against the Shia-dominated Nouri al-Maliki government lent sustenance to the Sunni revolt against Assad. In the end, weak state structures in both Iraq and Syria permitted militant upheavals in both countries to succeed and come together in the form of IS.

During the early period of the Syrian civil war, many “foreign fighters” were “in reality Syrians who fought in Iraq with Sunni Arab insurgent groups.”35 U.S. policymakers did not anticipate the collapsing house of cards that resulted from U.S. actions in the region, any more than they anticipated the boon to Iran’s geostrategic position embodied in Iraq’s Shiite successor regime. The establishment of that successor regime also resulted in anticipation of a power shift favoring Iran, which added more fuel to the Sunni revolution.36 It did not help, of course, that in the complex geopolitics and religious struggles of the region, Tehran materially supported the Assad regime and encouraged Hezbollah to join the fight against Sunni Syrian opposition groups. Weisiger’s argument about anticipated power shifts clearly applies to the dramatic events that have unfolded not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in the Persian Gulf
since 2003.37

The contribution of unstable and poorly controlled borders to the spread of regional militancy is also demonstrated by the rise of IS, whose center of strength is in northeastern Syria and northern and western Iraq, though it has projected its reach to the outskirts of both Damascus and Baghdad.38 In 2011-12, Iraqi smugglers working across the porous border between the two countries were a major source of arms flowing to Syrian opposition groups (Lebanon was the other major source).39 Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of IS’s declaration of a caliphate is that it overturns nearly a century of Middle East history going back to Sykes-Picot and the establishment of the internationally recognized border between Syria and Iraq.

In fact, if we are to follow the logic laid out by Barak Mendelsohn, entities like IS, Al Qaeda, and Hizb-ut-Tahrir resolutely reject the significance of sovereign state boundaries. As the Assad regime in Syria and the Maliki (now al-Abadi) government in Iraq became weaker, their ability to give reality to state frontiers diminished. Ultimately, the unenforceability of the border between Syria and Iraq was more a result than a cause of the rise of IS. Now, of course, the borders of Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey are also under pressure.

Finally, IS has been both a beneficiary and a cause of massive refugee flows, as demonstrated recently by the flood of Syrian and Libyan (but also Afghan) refugees into Europe. Within the Middle East, refugees have been a vehicle for diffusing conflict and challenging state resources and legitimacy, and it is unlikely that IS is unaware of that dynamic. As noted earlier, Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon are numerically at the head of the global list (exceeded only by Pakistan) of those states accommodating refugees. The refugee flow into Jordan and Lebanon is particularly troublesome because it is very difficult, practically, to isolate that flow from the cross-border movement of fighters.

Refugee camps also constitute an opportunity for the projection of IS power within Syria and potentially to Lebanon and Jordan. During the first week of April 2015, IS captured as much as 90 percent of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus, a development that helped to project IS influence into the southern part of Syria. As Jeffrey White and Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute For Near East Policy noted in 2015, “Success or failure in Syria’s largest Palestinian camp could reverberate politically elsewhere in the country.”40


For Israel, the larger lessons of regional conflict diffusion outlined here have been incorporated into the canons of foreign policy. As Simon Murden argued fifteen years ago: “Realism—the logic of anarchy, self-interest, power politics, and war—has been the dominant perspective within Israel’s national security community... Israel was forged by means of war in the midst of someone else’s world. Insecurity has been the dominant experience, with policy developing in response to imminent threats and real conflict. Realism was common sense in Israel.”41 Realism has translated for the Israelis into a pragmatic orientation that recognizes the necessity of strong states on the country’s borders, even if those states are less than democratic and pursue policies ultimately hostile to Israel’s interests. This pragmatic orientation has been tied to a fourfold strategy necessitated by Israel’s geostrategic position: (1) deterrence involving prompt and sometimes dramatic response; (2) fragmentation of adversaries; (3) strong ties to the United States; and (4) a fundamental understanding of regional dynamics. 42

For Jerusalem, dealing with nonstate adversaries that answer to no one, such as Hezbollah, has been more difficult than contending with established governments. “Power vacuums” of the sort that have been created in parts of the Middle East, and that have constituted an open invitation to nonstate religiously-motivated militants, have always been fundamentally inimical to Israel’s security interests. This was obvious in Israel’s past security operations in southern Lebanon, where it was prepared to leave, but only if the region came under positive Lebanese government control and could not be used as a platform for terrorism.43

Israel was able to deal on its own terms, sometimes forcefully in the case of Syria, with the regimes of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo and Hafez al-Assad/Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Its strategy from the beginning has been to discourage collective Arab action, and in recent decades it has clearly sought the “decoupling” of Egypt from such combined action. The Arab Spring, which brought a Muslim Brotherhood-backed government to power in Egypt between June 2012 and July 2013, was greeted with skepticism and concern in Jerusalem, while, as Shmuel Bar has argued, “the U.S. was perceived as ‘band-wagoning’ with the Arab Street and unwilling to project power to support its traditional allies.”44 Khaled Elgindy of the Brookings Institution noted, “For Israeli officials, the toppling of Hosni Mubarak... led to the rise of Islamist forces hostile to Israel and an increasing vacuum along its southern border, which cast doubt on the long-term durability of the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty.”45

The ousting of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013 by General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi and the subsequent election of a non-Islamist government in Cairo was treated in Israel with quiet relief, as those developments reduced (at least for now) the threat of instability on the southern border. In a similar vein, Israel had managed over the years to work with the reality of Bashar al-Assad, and events in Syria since 2011 have been largely inimical to Jerusalem’s interests. Israel is deeply concerned about the outcome of Syrian civil war, but “does not support either of the two main sides... neither the Iranian-led radical axis [Assad and Hezbollah] nor the radical Sunni axis led separately by Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra.”46

In responding to the growing threat to Israel’s position on the Golan Heights, Jerusalem has indicated “resolve and persistence while, at the same time, seeking to avoid a wide-scale escalation.” In the interest of preserving a secure border, Israel has avoided “open intervention or taking sides in the bloody Syrian conflict.”47

In short, Israeli policy has been fully cognizant of the problem posed by weak state structures in its neighborhood, as well as the problem posed by the anticipated power shift toward Iran. Jerusalem has a preference for working with traditional state regimes, even if those regimes are fundamentally hostile to the Jewish state. At the same time, Israel has been aware of the need to maintain its own borders, as it has been of the challenge to its own “state capacity” posed by the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.48 The Palestinians remain, according to UNHCR data, the largest single refugee group in the world, and Israel’s repeated armed confrontations in Gaza have served as a reminder of the potentially destabilizing impact of unresolved refugee situations. Hamas, grounded in the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot survive as an independent entity without a globally recognized refugee issue.

As Israel confronts the contagion of regional conflict across large swathes of the Middle East, its choices are few. It can seek to hold regional governments—Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt and Iran—accountable for the support they provide to nonstate entities that generate violence and instability, but its options for doing so are limited. It can seek to delegitimize the radical Islamist narrative, but its ability to do so is hampered by the fact that it is one of the targets of that narrative. In the short term, though, Israel can only with great difficulty affect the outcome of the conjoined civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and its most effective strategy is to preserve a vigilant, very-well-armed isolation from them. It can also seek to play a role in the evolving geopolitical balance of the region, a source of widespread perceptions of impending power shift, but its ability to do so will be hampered until Jerusalem’s relationship with Washington takes a more positive turn. Although it might seem that Jerusalem’s best tactical option is to seek rejuvenated cooperation with Egypt and Turkey, its long-term interest lies in supporting the robustness of state structures in the Middle East, though there are undoubted exceptions to this.


We have provided a broad theoretical overview of the reasons for the diffusion of regional conflicts. There is an increasingly wide literature on this subject, which focuses on matters as diverse as psychology, religion, economics, social issues, and politics. Here we have focused on five broad “drivers” of the contagiousness of regional conflict: (1) weak states, (2) anticipated power shifts, (3) unstable and poorly controlled border regions, (4) large refugee flows, and (5) the religiously-based nonstate militant campaign against the state as an organizing principle of world politics.

In the latter part of this paper we have shown how these factors played out in the Middle East in the creation of IS, and how they have in a de facto sense been incorporated into Israel’s security policies. The diffusion of regional conflict is ultimately a matter of state legitimacy, endemic instability, susceptibility, and exposure, and state policies intended to limit regional conflict need to address those factors.

In conclusion, we find inconsistencies with these lessons in the prosecution of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, particularly under the Obama administration. To an uncomfortable degree, Washington has in the Middle East promoted the very kind of state weakness that is conducive to the contagiousness of regional conflict. It is not clear that these consequences have been understood, particularly since the driving force behind policy has sometimes been ideological. The administration of George W. Bush sought and implemented regime change in Iraq, at points oblivious to the geopolitical consequences (particularly in its treatment, under L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority, of former Ba’athist political and military leadership).49 The Obama administration, in part because of its early misreading of the Arab Spring, has sought regime change in Libya, Syria, and Egypt, with baleful consequences in the first two and renewed intergovernmental alienation in the third.

To a significant degree, Washington has worked against its own ends as its policies have destabilized the region, an important lesson for neo-realists who argue that states seek to maximize their opportunities for achieving clearly articulated, rank-ordered strategic goals. While the architects of the Bush administration’s foreign policy attempted to cloak Middle East regime change in the mantle of U.S. national interest, Obama’s inner policy circle has had a more difficult time making the same claim. It has attempted to do this in part by denying the challenges to regional stability, just as it has worked to deny the significance of jihad to western security.50

Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria clearly seeks the objective of limiting the spread of regional conflict. The Putin government is less interested in rescuing Bashar al-Assad personally than in “saving the central authority of the Syrian state... in the hope of stemming the spread of chaos.”51 As Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center has argued, “the issue to them [the Russians] is to save the Syrian state, to prevent it from unraveling the way Libya unraveled, Yemen unraveled.”52

Though, obviously, a secondary purpose for Moscow is to reassert its role as a significant player in the Middle East, it is difficult to brush over philosophical differences with Washington about the importance of state stability (irrespective of the political complexion of a regime) in stemming regional chaos brought about by “confessional” groups and other nonstate actors who, through instruments such as terrorism, seek the overthrow of the existing international system.


1 E.E. Schattschneider, The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1960), 3-4.

2 Barry Buzan, People, States, and Fear: An Agenda for International  Security in the Post-Cold War Era (Boulder: Lynn Rienner, 1991), 190.

3 Peter Wallensteen and Margareta Sollenberg, “Armed Conflict Complexes, 1989-97,” Journal of Peace Research 35 (5), 1998, 623.

4 Myron Weiner, “Bad Neighbors, Bad Neighborhoods: An Inquiry into the Causes of Refugee Flows,” International Security 21, 1996, 5-42.

5 See Wallensteen and Sollenberg, “Armed Conflict and Regional Conflict Complexes, 1989-97,” 621-634; Barry Buzan and Ole Waever, Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Jacob D. Kathman, “Civil War Contagion and Neighboring Interventions,” International Studies Quarterly 54, vol. 4, 2010, 989-1012; David A. Lake and Patrick M. Morgan, eds., Regional Orders: Building Security in a New World (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997); Norrin M. Ripsman, “Two Stages of Transition from a Region of War to a Region of Peace: Realist Transition and Liberal Endurance,” International Studies Quarterly 49, vol. 4, 2005, 669-93; Halvard Buhaug and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Contagion or Confusion? Why Conflicts Cluster in Space,” International Studies Quarterly 52, 2008, 215-33; Nadine Ansorg, “How Does Militant Violence Diffuse in Regions? Regional Conflict Systems in International Relations Peace and Conflict Studies,” International Journal of Conflict and Violence 5, vol. 1, 2011, 174-87; and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Transnational Dimensions of Civil War,” Journal of Peace Research 44, vol. 3, 2007, 293-309.

6 See, for example, Mark J.C. Crescenzi, Kelly M. Kadera, Rachel Myrick and Lindsay Reid, “Conflict Environments and Civil War,” unpublished paper, June 25, 2015; and John O’Loughlin, Clionadh Raleigh & Frank D.W. Witmer, “A Review and Assessment of Spatial Analysis and Conflict: The Geography of War,” unpublished paper, 2010.

7 See Michele Gelfand,, “The Cultural Contagion of Conflict,” Philosophical Transitions B of the Royal Society 367, 2012, 692-703; and J.K. Choi & S. Bowles, “The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War,” Science 318, 2007, 636-40.

8 See Stephen L. Quackenbush, International Conflict: Logic and Evidence (Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2014), 20-43, esp. p. 34.

9 See ibid., 2-19.

10 Ansorg, “How Does Militant Violence Diffuse in Regions?” 181.

11 See Zack Beauchamp, “The Kurdish War: How ISIS and Syria Are Reigniting an Old Conflict in Turkey,” Vox, October 15, 2014.

12 O’Laughlin, Raleigh and Witmer, “A Review and Assessment of Spatial Analysis and Conflict,” 12.

13 See K.J. Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; and Benjamin Miller, States, Nations, and the Great Powers: The Sources of Regional War and Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

14 Alex Weisiger, “Shifting Power and Regional Conflict: Explaining Persistent Regional War,” unpublished paper, 2.

15 Ibid., 24.

16 Ibid., 8. See also James D. Fearon, “Commitment Problems and the Fear of Ethnic Conflict,” in David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds., International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), 107-26.

17 Ibid., 34.

18 See Ansorg, “How Does Militant Violence Diffuse in Regions?” 175.

19 O’Loughlin, Raleigh and Witmer, “A Review and Assessment of Spatial Analysis and Conflict,” 13. See also H. Buhaug & J.K. Rod, “Local Determinants of African Civil Wars, 1970-2001,” Political Geography 25, vol. 3, 2006, 315-35.

20 Ibid., 11.

21 Ansorg, “How Does Militant Violence Diffuse in Regions?” 182.

22 Ibid.

23 See Shadi Hamid and Courtney Freer, “How Stable Is Jordan?  King Abdullah’s Half-Hearted Reforms and the Challenge of the Arab Spring,” Brookings Doha Center, November 2011, 4.

24 See “Lebanon Bears the Brunt of the Economic and Social Spillovers of the Syrian Conflict,” World Bank, October 4, 2013, 24.

25 See Ceylan Yeginsu, “A Sense of Instability Settles Over Turkey as Vote Nears,” The New York Times, September 15, 2015, p.A4.

26 See Idean Salehyan and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, “Refugees and the Spread of Civil War,” International Organization 60, 2006, 334-66.

27 Barak Mendelsohn, “God vs. Westphalia: Radical Islamist Movements and the Battle for Organizing the World,” Review of International Studies 38, 2012, 590.

28 Ibid.

29 Max G. Manwaring, “The Strategic Logic of the Contemporary Security Dilemma,” Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, December 2011, 4.

30 Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (New York and London: Verso, 2015), 149-50.

31 See Quackenbush (2014), 2-19.

32 See, for example, Max Boot, Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present (New York: Liveright Press, 2013). Challenges to the state system are as old as the state system itself.

33 See Crescenzi et al. (2015), 2, 6-9; Corinne Bara, “Not Always Contagious? Explaining the Timing of Conflict Diffusion,” Annual Meeting of the Peace Science Society, Philadelphia, October 10-11, 2014. To some extent both of these studies focus on a temporal learning model.

34 See Crescenzi et al. (2015), 16; also Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011); and David Ciplet, J. Timmons Roberts and Mizan R. Khan, Power in a Warming World: The New Global Politics of Climate Change and the Remaking of Environmental Inequality (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015).

35 Joseph Holliday, “Syria’s Armed Opposition,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2012, 32.

36 See Cockburn (2015).

37 See Weisiger, “Shifting Power and Regional Conflict.” Weisiger’s case study focuses on the Southern Cone of South America, which went through its own period of intense violence during the 19th century.

38 Interestingly, as recently as 2012 the principal geographic focus of the Syrian conflict was in the swath of territory between Damascus and Aleppo, not the northeast. See Holliday (2012).

39 Ibid., 30-31.

40 Jeffrey White and Andrew J. Tabler, “The ISIS Takeover of a Palestinian Refugee Camp Near Damascus Shows How the Group is Expanding in Syria,” Business Insider, April 10, 2015.

41 Simon Murden, “Understanding Israel’s Long Conflict in Lebanon: The Search for an Alternative Approach to Security During the Peace Process,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 27, vol. 1, 2000, 26, 29.

42 As Brym and Andersen explain, “Israeli counterinsurgency doctrine holds that the persistent use of credible threat and disproportionate military force results in repeated victories that eventually teach the enemy of the futility of aggression.” Robert J. Brym & Robert Andersen, “Rational Choice and the Political Bases of Changing Israeli Counterinsurgency Strategy,” The British Journal of Sociology 62, vol. 3, 2011, 482. Arguably, the strategy has not worked well in the case of Hezbollah.

43 Murden (2000), 35.

44 Seminar presentation, Tel Aviv University, June 2011.

45 Khaled Elgindy, “Egypt, Israel, Palestine,” The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Brookings Institution, August 25, 2012

46 Brigadier General (res) Yossi Kuperwasser, “Israeli Security Policy in Syria,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, April 28, 2015, 1.

47 Ibid., 2-3.

48 See Hirsh Goodman, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival (New York: Public Affairs, 2011).

49 See Frederic Wehrey, Dalia Dassa Kaye,, “The Iraq Effect: The Middle East After the Iraq War,” RAND Corporation, 2010, 75-103.

50 See Stephen Coughlin, Catastrophic Failure: Blindfolding America in the Face of Jihad (Washington DC: Center for Security Policy Press, 2015).

51 Steven Lee Myers and Anne Barnard, “Assad Finds Chilly Embrace in Moscow Trip,” New York Times, October 22, 2015.

52 Ibid.