Malign influence. Destabilizing activities. Proxy warfare. State sponsorship of terrorism. Rogue state.
Americans are used to hearing these terms thrown at US rivals in the Middle East, whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar Ghaddafi’s Libya in decades past or the Islamic Republic of Iran today. The American public is less used to hearing those descriptions for countries like Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which receive generous US political and military support. But what else can we call it when the UAE hires Russian mercenaries to fight in Libya? Or when Turkey recruits Syrian rebels to fight in post-Soviet border conflicts hundreds of miles away from Syria?
In fact, a new report called “No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010–2020” by Trita Parsi and myself shows that Washington’s Middle Eastern partners are responsible for the lion’s share of military interventions in the region. Although Iran was highly aggressive in the first few years after the Arab Spring, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed it in recent years. Other US-backed powers in the region — namely Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel — are catching up. Yet, neither the Iran nuclear deal nor US withdrawal from the region can explain this growing military interventionism. So what can?
EXPLAINING THE INTERVENTIONS
Regional instability seems to be the biggest cause of interventions. When a civil war starts in a place as well-armed as the Middle East, it drags in neighboring states. Each state believes — and is often correct in its belief — that it has to get involved to protect its own interests. But other states (reasonably) see their rivals’ moves as threatening, the opening move in an expansionist game. The result is the same kind of “security dilemma” that drives arms races, a self-sustaining escalation spiral.
Take the Libyan civil war, which we describe in our report. After the international military intervention and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, Qatar attempted to control the postrevolutionary chaos by backing its own favored factions. Meanwhile, the UAE was on a counterrevolutionary spree, backing coups d’etat against what it saw as the dangerous influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. When the UAE-backed strongman in Libya came into conflict with Qatari-backed militias, it ignited a civil war that later dragged in Turkey, Russia, and various European powers.
The United States is not the author of all the Middle East’s problems, and it cannot provide all of the solutions. But US power and US partnerships have played a bigger role in the last decade of proxy warfare than previously acknowledged.
Many of these conflicts are not even between US partners and US enemies, but within the pro-US bloc, which consists of countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE. While much attention has been paid to the Saudi–Iranian and Iranian–Israeli “cold wars,” a conflict has been quietly festering between the Turkish–Qatari and Saudi–Emirati mini-blocs. During the Arab Spring, Turkey and Qatar lined up behind Islamist populist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which Saudi Arabia and the UAE were incredibly suspicious of. Over time, this rift became a violent proxy conflict; Libya is only one of the many countries Washington’s friends have used US protection to go after each other.
The biggest explosion of instability happened soon after the Arab Spring, when several revolutions devolved into civil war. There are many different reasons why several countries spun out of control at the same time, but US interventionism had a lot to do with it. As the University of Alabama’s Waleed Hazbun argues, neoconservatives’ failed attempt to create a new regional order through the Iraq War allowed “processes of state erosion and territorial fragmentation” to spread out of control. Weapons flowed into the region, US rivals became more paranoid, and militant movements had plenty of space to build their underground networks.
Indeed, many of the regional powers borrowed US tactics in their own military interventions. For example, when the UAE wanted to raise a proxy army, it hired former Iraq War contractor Erik Prince to do so. Turkey developed its drone industry because it had seen the data that Israeli and US drones could provide, and wanted those same capabilities in its war with Kurdish insurgents. Even Iran’s tactic of using civilian airliners to move men and material bears an eerie resemblance to the CIA’s own “Air America” in Southeast Asia.
US–Iranian diplomacy may have also made Iran’s rivals more aggressive. There is no evidence that lifting economic sanctions on Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal caused an escalation in Iran’s behavior, as critics of the agreement often claim. However, the agreement indirectly increased US support for other powers’ military interventions. As Saudi leaders complained that the United States was making a “pivot to Iran,” the Obama administration sought to reassure Arab states by backing Saudi Arabia’s ill-fated military campaign in Yemen.
SOME GOOD NEWS
As dismal as all of this data is, the heavy involvement of the United States is actually cause for optimism. Because it arms and protects five of the region’s six most interventionist powers, Washington has an incredible amount of leverage in many regional conflicts, especially the ones between US partners. Already, several rival Middle Eastern powers have begun talking to each other with US encouragement. This kind of diplomacy is a necessary step toward building any kind of broader regional peace.
The United States is not the author of all the Middle East’s problems, and it cannot provide all of the solutions. But US power and US partnerships have played a bigger role in the last decade of proxy warfare than previously acknowledged. In order to contribute productively to stemming the bloodshed, Americans must understand its true sources — without resorting to scapegoats.
Matthew Petti is a research assistant at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, reporter for Responsible Statecraft, and 2020–21 Fulbright fellow.