No Clean Hands: Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020
The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft
(July 24, 2021) — The Middle East has suffered immensely from civil wars, especially in the decade following the Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands have died, millions have fled from their homes, and untold numbers have been subjected to poverty and repression in places from Libya to Iraq and Syria to Yemen.
American policymakers have attempted to blame the chaos on “malign activities” by US rivals, but a new paper by Matthew Petti and Trita Parsi, “No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020,” suggests that the picture is more complicated. US partners and allies are behind many of the region’s proxy interventions and have gotten increasingly aggressive in recent years. And they have fought each other as much as they have fought against US rivals. [You can read the entire article below — EAW]
How will — or should — this reality impact US policy, since five out of the six most interventionist states in the region are armed and politically supported by the United States? And what leverage does Washington have to roll back the malign activities of regional powers — friends and enemies alike?
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This timely discussion will include the following participants.
Matthew Petti is a reporter at Responsible Statecraft and research assistant at the Quincy Institute. He is also a 2022-2023 Fulbright fellow. He was previously a national security reporter at The National Interest and a contributor at The Armenian Weekly, Reason and America Magazine. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the US Department of State, or any of its partner organizations. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew_Petti.
Monica Duffy Toft
Monica Duffy Toft is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and Professor of International Politics and founding Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Prior to Tufts, Toft was Professor of Government and Public Policy at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and Assistant and Associate Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Toft is a Global Scholar of the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, a faculty associate of Oxford’s Blavatnik School, a fellow of Oxford’s Brasenose College, a research advisor to the Resolve Network, a member.
Shadi Hamid is a senior fellow in the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World,” which was shortlisted for the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize. He is also co-editor with Will McCants of “Rethinking Political Islam” and co-author of “Militants, Criminals, and Warlords: The Challenge of Local Governance in an Age of Disorder.” His first book “Temptations of Power: Islamists and Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East” was named a Foreign Affairs “Best Book of 2014.” Hamid served as director of research at the Brookings Doha Center until January 2014. Hamid is also a contributing writer at The Atlantic and vice-chair of the Project on Middle East Democracy’s board of directors.
Trita Parsi (Moderator)
Trita Parsi, PhD, is an award-winning author and the 2010 recipient of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He is an expert on US-Iranian relations, Iranian foreign politics, and the geopolitics of the Middle East. He has authored three books on US foreign policy in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Iran and Israel. He is the co-founder and former President of the National Iranian American Council. He received his PhD in foreign policy at Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies, a Master’s Degree in International Relations from Uppsala University, and a Master’s Degree in Economics from the Stockholm School of Economics
No Clean Hands: The Interventions of Middle Eastern Powers, 2010-2020
(July 19, 2021) — Middle East instability is not due to a sole ‘malign actor’…
• Instability in the Middle East has often been blamed on a single expansionist US opponent, whether that be Libya, Iraq, or Iran. However, a qualitative and quantitative view of the region’s conflicts over the past 10 years shows several states to be interventionist to roughly the same degree, contradicting the argument that regional instability is primarily caused by a single “malign actor.”
… nor are US partners innocent — far from it
• Six states have shown themselves the most able to project armed power beyond their borders: Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Iran is highly interventionist, but not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic — and at times even more so. Indeed, the UAE and Turkey have surpassed Iran in recent years.
The US role is also highly problematic
• Washington is not sitting on the sidelines: It is an active player in these regional interventions. In fact, five of the six most interventionist powers in the Middle East are armed by the United States — and also enjoy significant political support from Washington. Fully a third of US arms exports from 2010 to 2020, measured in trend-indicator value, went to the major Middle Eastern powers considered in this study.
Hate the game, not the player
• The data suggest that the most important driving factor in interventionism is regional instability. That is, regional instability appears to drive interventions more often than interventions cause instability.
You can’t blame the Iran nuclear accord for this…
• There is no evidential support for the argument that the 2015 nuclear agreement between five world powers and Iran caused an increase in interventionism driven by Iranian aggression. Iranian intervention remained consistent from the high-water mark of the Arab Spring onward, while other powers’ increasing interventionism was often entirely unrelated to Iran. In fact, much of the regional escalation since 2011 has taken place in battlefields where Iran is not involved, but where Turkey, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are jousting for power.
… although US partners’ reaction to the Iran deal appears to have aggravated instability
• One tempting explanation is that the US–Iranian rapprochement as the nuclear accord was negotiated and concluded created the perception that the United States was abandoning regional powers to Iran, incentivizing those powers to act more aggressively in pursuit of their perceived interests. Even so, much of the escalation occurred in conflicts that had little to do with Iran.
What to do? ‘First, do no harm’
• The United States should take no actions that would make matters worse and, in particular, avoid policies that cause any state to collapse, given that the collapse of state authority is a major driver of interventions and instability. In large part, this means simply resisting the temptation to begin new wars. The US should also stay clear of policies that prolong ongoing civil wars or broad-based sanctions that intensify the process of state collapse, and in so doing elicit interventions.
Then, help resolve destabilizing quarrels among our friends
• Given the extensive, destabilizing feuding among US strategic partners, Washington should help manage and resolve rivalries among these partners. The United States has unfortunately been too passive in this regard and has failed to use its extensive diplomatic leverage to bring its friends to the negotiating table — this to the detriment of overall stability in the region.
Finally, focus on systemic change, not specific interventionist states
• The United States should support regional diplomacy with an eye toward the creation of a new, inclusive security architecture since, as noted, instability may drive interventions more than interventions are the sole cause of instability. This will likely be more effective than focusing solely on specific intervening states. A promising burst of regional diplomacy is now evident, and the Biden administration should signal its support for this trend by encouraging those engaging one another to institutionalize this embryonic regional dialogue.
Conventional American wisdom about the region
tends to focus on a singular villain
whose purported raison d’etre is to export chaos.
A central pillar of US policy in the Middle East since the 1980s has been the containment of “rogue” or “pariah” states. While today, the Islamic Republic of Iran is the alleged wellspring of terrorism, previous villains have included Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the Assad family’s Syria. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan called Gaddafi the “mad dog of the Middle East,” with “a goal of a world revolution.”1 A few years later, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said, “Wherever you look, you find the evil hand of Iran in this region.”2
Nearly a decade after that, Iran’s archenemy, Iraq, became the “source of instability in the world’s most unstable region,” as then–National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice put it.3 As the US military was smashing the Iraqi regime to bits, Bush administration officials began to blame growing instability on Syria, a “rogue nation” that exports “killers” and needs “to think through where they want their place to be in the world.”4
Now, more than a quarter-century after Christopher first made Iran the central villain of the region, Tehran is once again cast in this role; General Kenneth McKenzie, who heads the Central Command, calls its “pursuit of regional hegemony… the greatest source of instability across the Middle East.”5 Former officials have gone further, arguing as recently as June 2021 that “Tehran’s destabilizing role in the region is the common factor” behind conflicts from Palestine to Yemen.6
So does conventional American wisdom about the region tend to focus on a singular villain whose purported raison d’etre is to export chaos.
What generally receives less attention is that the United States has actively supported other states trying to project military power outside of their own borders. Oftentimes, the two objectives of rolling back rogue states and supporting US partners have been linked. For example, US support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and for some Turkish interventions in Syria were justified in terms of rolling back Iranian influence in those countries.7
The interventions of pro–US states often look very similar to those of the so-called renegade regimes. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have made ample use of proxies and foreign fighters. Meanwhile, Israel and Turkey are both resettling territory conquered through war — a forcible redrawing of borders that few other states have undertaken in the past half-century. Indeed, research suggests that the US military presence in the Middle East actually emboldens US partners to act more belligerently.8 The promiscuous involvement of multiple different states in each of the region’s conflicts undermines the narrative that any one state can be called the source of regional instability.
This paper addresses the question of interventionism in the Middle East with a comparative study of the involvement of different Middle Eastern powers in armed conflicts outside their borders. In addition to our extensive analyses, it includes a qualitative study of how states project hard power and a quantitative comparison of different levels of state interventionism over time.
While there are many criteria by which interventions can be quantified, this study focuses on the number of armed conflicts each state is involved in outside its own borders as well as the nature of each state’s involvement. Is any state or bloc in the region a particularly destabilizing presence? Or do all of the regional states, US friends and foes alike, share some responsibility for regional instability? These are the questions this paper engages. If the goal of US policy is truly to reduce instability in the Middle East, decision-making needs to be grounded in an objective understanding of what and who causes instability.
The past decade has provided many (unfortunate) data points. What began as the hopeful revolutions of the Arab Spring ended with the collapse of the Arab state system. Nations have been turned into blood-soaked battlefields, killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people and rendering millions homeless. Several states have waded into the chaos, launching direct military interventions and proxy wars in hopes of reshaping the outcome of ongoing conflicts. Six states have shown themselves the most able to project armed power beyond their borders: Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
These six powers fall into three loose blocs: Iran leads its “resistance axis,” Qatar and Turkey line up behind Sunni Islamist movements, and the UAE aligns closely with Israel and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, they each conduct markedly independent foreign policies. All of these blocs have engaged in a range of interventions into local conflicts, from launching drone strikes and financing mercenaries to sending troops directly into conflict zones.
This paper finds that all of the powers in question became more interventionist throughout the post–Arab Spring decade and that the greatest spikes in intervention occurred during periods of state collapse. According to the quantitative scores, every power ended 2020 with a higher level of interventionism than it had in 2010, although Iran was cumulatively the most interventionist power of the decade. Three of them — Iran, the UAE, and Turkey — showed comparably high levels of interventionism, especially in the latter half of the decade. These three powers have adopted qualitatively similar methods for intervention, extending the reach of their own forces with local proxies and transnational mercenary armies. And they have often reacted to rather than provoked events on the ground.
This paper builds on a preexisting conflict-scoring system to measure the number of conflicts a state is involved in and the depth of that state’s involvement in these conflicts over a certain period of time.
As noted, the six powers measured are Iran, Israel, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The Arab Spring of 2011 was a turning point in the configuration of Middle Eastern power, and the study examines the subsequent decade of intervention. On one hand, “traditional Arab power centers” such as Egypt and Syria ceased to be “agents of regional change” and became battlefields for outside powers.9
On the other, several powers escaped large-scale internal turmoil during the Arab Spring and became active players in the contests for power that followed. Four of them — Iran, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — were longtime pillars of the regional order. The others — Qatar and the UAE — were newly empowered in the years leading up to the Arab Spring.10
These powers have engaged in and led large-scale military interventions over the past decade, including in territories beyond their immediate neighbors. Although some Middle Eastern powers other than the big six have conducted foreign interventions, they have done so only in neighboring territories, or only as junior members of coalitions. For example, Egypt’s only major intervention has been in Libya, while several smaller Arab states entered Yemen as adjuncts to the Saudi-led coalition.
This paper builds on earlier research by the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research. The HIIK Conflict Barometer classifies all political conflicts around the world in a given year on a scale from 1 through 5, with levels 4 and 5 representing limited war and war respectively.11
The authors examined every conflict recorded by the HIIK Conflict Barometer from 2010 to 2020 in which one or more of six powers was involved. The barometer’s evaluations of these conflicts, as well as media reports, were used to determine whether an outside power was involved. The authors then coded the interventions, with the assistance of Quincy Institute associate Arafat Kabir on a year-by-year basis according to the following scale.
If a state was involved in limited war or war, its intervention was given one of the following codes:
5. Territorial conquest: A state exerts direct control and/or is attempting to absorb another state’s territory captured by force. Such an intervention can include occupation, formal annexation, and/or the resettlement of civilians from the conquering power in the conquered territory. This type of intervention is the most disruptive, as it directly threatens the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the targeted state. Therefore, it is given the highest score.
4. Direct warfare: A state introduces ground forces into combat in support of one side of a war. (Sporadic incidents of cross-border fire are not counted.) Interventions of this type are a level below territorial conquest, as they usually leave local authorities in place. They nonetheless represent a significant projection of power outside of a state’s borders and can have a significant effect on the balance of forces within a conflict.
3. Indirect warfare: A state materially intervenes on behalf of one side of a war without introducing ground troops into combat. This type of intervention can include material relationships with proxy forces, operations by proxy forces, airstrike campaigns, and/or the introduction of military advisers/trainers who do not participate in combat. These interventions are nonetheless disruptive, if less directly so than those involving ground forces participating in combat.
If a state was involved in a conflict below the level of a war, its intervention was given the following code:
2. Low-intensity intervention. This category designates actions that would otherwise fall into one of the categories above but are part of a low-intensity or frozen conflict short of war.
Note: As an artifact of an earlier version of this coding system, there is no category 1 for interventions.
The codes for each of a state’s interventions in a given year were added up to produce the state’s intervention score for that year.
In cases where a power intervenes in a territory with multiple conflicts, all of the conflicts that the power or its proxies are involved in are counted as a single conflict and assigned the highest intensivity of the group, unless otherwise noted. Conflicts are counted separately if they lack significant overlap in actors, territory, or the issues at stake. See the appendix for an explanation of each conflict counted separately in this way.
This coding system does not distinguish between “invited” and “uninvited” interventions. Almost every intervention considered was “invited” by a local authority, and intervening states often got around the absence of an official invitation by recognizing a different government than the one previously in control of the territory intervened upon. In many conflict zones, the governing states simply became “mostly symbolic placeholders, with limited practical role in governing.”12
In some cases, states attempted to conceal or downplay their involvement in a conflict. In others, states attempted to fabricate or exaggerate their rivals’ culpability for a conflict. This study establishes a set of criteria for filtering through such claims:
• States’ claims about themselves or their allies are taken as credible unless proven otherwise; claims about rivals are not taken as credible unless backed by other evidence.
• The claims of neutral parties — such as U.N. expert panels or states uninvolved in the conflict — are taken as credible unless proven otherwise.
• Anonymous claims in the media are taken as credible only if they are backed by at least three sources, and those sources are officials speaking about their own state or their state’s ally.
A state’s support for a proxy is considered to have begun with the first credibly reported instance of material support reaching the proxy. It is considered active for each subsequent year until there is a credibly reported break in the relationship, according to the above criteria, or an end to the conflict.
If a state does not admit to having troops engaged in combat, such an intervention is considered to have begun with the first credibly reported combat casualty according to the above criteria, and to have ended after the last credibly reported combat casualty in a year. Land forces deployed to a territory at war but engaged in noncombat support (such as training) for one of the combatants are considered to be part of a proxy intervention.
Meet the Interventionists
US Partners Are Increasingly Interventionist
The data provide three key takeaways about intervention by Middle Eastern powers over the past decade. First, they suggest that instability was a cause as much as an effect of regional powers’ interventions. The overall increase in interventions became a self-sustaining process once it was set in motion. Interventions rose after the intensity of regional violence increased, and continued to rise and then level off after violence began to subside. Second, Iran is highly interventionist, but in this it is not an outlier. The other major powers in the region are often as interventionist as the Islamic Republic and at times more so. Iran is the only member of a cluster of highly interventionist powers that has not received significant US support.
Third, there is no support for the narrative that the 2015 nuclear agreement between five world powers and Iran caused an increase in interventionism driven by Iranian aggression. Iranian intervention remained consistent from the beginning of the Arab Spring onward, while other powers’ increasing interventionism was often in arenas entirely unrelated to Iran.
Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran
Three Middle Eastern powers — Turkey, the UAE, and Iran — all have comparably high levels of involvement in foreign conflicts over the past decade. Iran’s level of involvement has been consistently high, while the interventionism scores of the UAE, Turkey, and Israel have increased significantly over time, especially within the past six years. Israel’s level of involvement has also risen over time, but less quickly than those of the other powers.
Many of these interventions have taken place in conflicts following or related to the Arab Spring, although a few interventions have taken place in unrelated arenas, such as the Afghan war and Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Among the region’s major powers, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had consistently lower levels of military involvement. Israel occupies a place between the two clusters. Overall, none of the six powers has stayed out of the post–Arab Spring fray, and all have participated in direct and proxy conflicts beyond their own borders.
The data both corroborate and refute conventional US wisdom about the region. If the traditional US view of the Middle East were true, the data would have shown that one power was significantly more interventionist than the others. The data show that Iran was indeed an aggressively interventionist power, especially in the first few years after the Arab Spring. However, Iran is part of a cluster of other highly interventionist powers.
All of the major interventionist powers in the Middle East,
except for Iran, have received extensive US support for decades.
Additionally, Iran’s total interventionism score declined after 2014; the data do not provide evidence to support the claim, made by some American and regional commentators, that Tehran escalated its interventions after the 2015 nuclear agreement.13 In fact, the interventionist activities of the UAE and Turkey have surpassed Iran’s in recent years. In other words, there is no single interventionist actor, but a set of competing interventionists that have jostled to the front as the decade went on.
All of the major interventionist powers in the Middle East, except for Iran, have received extensive US support for decades. The United States has not backed all of their interventions, but it has continued to protect and arm these states nonetheless. Fully a third of US arms exports from 2010 to 2020, measured in trend-indicator value, went to the major Middle Eastern powers mentioned in this study. Saudi Arabia was the world’s largest importer of American weapons in this time period.14
Of these powers, Turkey is the only US treaty ally in the Middle East — and was the most interventionist power by the end of the decade following the Arab Spring. Other regional powers have extensive military partnerships with the United States. The UAE has participated in NATO–led coalitions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya, earning itself the affectionate nickname “Little Sparta” among US military officials.15 US intelligence services have provided targeting data to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and Turkish forces in northern Iraq.16 Washington is not sitting on the sidelines: It is an active player in these interventions.
The largest gap between Iran and its rivals was in 2014. Iranian forces were engaged in combat in Iraq and Syria; the Islamic Republic was also supporting proxies in a limited war in eastern Lebanon and full-scale wars in Yemen and the Palestinian territories. That year marked the peak of Iranian interventionism during the decade in question. Although Iran’s interventions in Syria and Yemen continued to grow in sophistication and visibility, Iran neither expanded nor shrank the geographic reach of its operations.17 Any further movement in Iran’s interventionism score reflected the fluctuating intensity of the conflicts it was involved in.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul.
By 2017, the UAE and Turkey had surpassed Iran in their interventionism scores. In 2010, the UAE’s foreign engagements were limited to supporting the NATO–led intervention in Afghanistan and an attempt to set up an anti-piracy police force in Somalia. But by the end of the decade, Emirati forces were also involved in Libya and Yemen, while Emirati-trained forces were fighting in Syria and the Sahel.18 Turkey actually experienced a sharp decline in interventionism at the beginning of the decade, due to the end of NATO–led operations in Libya and the beginning of the Turkish–Kurdish and Serbian–Kosovar peace processes. However, the breakdown of the Turkish–Kurdish peace process — coinciding with the rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS — led to deepening Turkish interventions in Iraq and Syria. Turkey continued to expand its interventions in subsequent years, putting ground forces in Libya and Somalia as well as proxy militias in Nagorno–Karabakh.
The lowest intervention scores in 2017 — 13 for Saudi Arabia and 12 for Qatar and Israel — were about the same as the highest 2010 score, that of Iran.
Qatar and Saudi Arabia have a comparatively low number of interventions but have invested in nonmilitary influence while partnering with more militarily active states. Both kingdoms invested heavily in the export of ideology before and during the post–Arab Spring conflicts, including through media outlets, development aid, and religious institutions. As to their partnerships with more militarily active states, Turkey has been Qatar’s partner and the UAE has been in Saudi Arabia’s.19 In some cases, Saudi or Qatari soft power has helped lay the political groundwork for Emirati or Turkish military involvement.
For example, Qatar has been providing extensive aid to Somalia, while Turkish troops train the Somali military.20 In other cases, the pairs have carried out military interventions in tandem. Saudi Arabia and the UAE initially intervened together in Yemen, for instance, although their proxies have also clashed with each other quite violently.21 To an extent, the Qatari–Turkish and Saudi–Emirati partnership can be thought of as divisions of labor, with a wealthy state’s soft power functioning as a force multiplier for a more militarily active state’s hard power interventions.
The total number of military interventions has increased over time, especially after the middle of the decade. The two largest increases in interventionism occurred from 2010 to 2011 and from 2014 to 2015. The first coincided with the Arab Spring, as several new revolutions erupted across the region, with many of them followed by postrevolutionary conflicts. Cumulative interventionism declined in the following year and then rose gradually until 2014–15, when it suddenly jumped by 16 points due to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, the breakdown of the Turkish–Kurdish peace process, and Israeli airstrikes against ISIS–aligned militants active in the Sinai.
The initial increase and the post–2018 levelling out of interventionism correspond with an increase and levelling out of the number and intensity of conflicts across the region. In 2010, the HIIK Conflict Barometer counted two full-scale wars and six limited wars in the Middle East and Maghreb region. In 2011, the number of full-scale wars suddenly jumped to eight. By 2018, the peak of the instability, that number had risen to nine full-scale wars in the region. In 2020, the number of full-scale wars fell slightly, to seven, which was still dramatically higher than it had been at the beginning of the decade.
A similar pattern holds for the rise and fall of combat deaths in the region.
The dramatic increase in interventionism in the middle of the decade describes several simultaneous escalations by different powers in the post–Arab Spring conflicts. Every state’s interventionism increased from 2013 to 2015, and three conflicts in particular became venues for escalating interventions: the ISIS insurgency, the Turkish–Kurdish conflict, and the Yemeni civil war. ISIS appeared as a territorial entity in the summer of 2014, taking Mosul and nearly overrunning several other Iraqi cities; Iran quickly launched a direct military intervention on behalf of the Iraqi state.
The next year, Israel similarly launched an air campaign to help Egypt fight off ISIS in the Sinai.23 The rise of ISIS also caused a resumption of the Turkish–Kurdish conflict, reflecting the Turkish state’s anxiety about the role of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in the fight against ISIS in Syria and violence inside Turkey that the Syrian conflict caused.24 Finally, several states intervened in the Yemeni civil war, which escalated significantly after 2014, as will be considered in the next section.
The decline in interventionism from its peak in 2017 was slight. In many ways, that year was an outlier. Saudi Arabia led an international pressure campaign to force Qatar to capitulate on a variety of foreign and domestic issues — also forcing a Qatari withdrawal from Yemen — and kidnapped Saad al–Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister. (As it did not involve armed force, the Saudi–Qatari crisis is not recorded as a military intervention in the data.) Iraqi Kurdistan also attempted to secede from Iraq, causing Turkey to withdraw its support for Iraqi Kurdish forces.25
Finally, the Trump administration closed the main program for international support of Syrian rebels at the end of the year.26 While Qatar and Turkey vowed to maintain support for the opposition in Syria, and the UAE had already begun supporting the Kurdish-backed Syrian Democratic Forces through a separate track, Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to refocus on confronting Iran in other areas.27 However, despite certain powers’ adjustment away from specific theaters, the underlying dynamic of proxy conflict among regional powers did not change, and most of those powers’ major interventions continued.
Interventionism levelled off after 2018, with the cumulative score fluctuating between 92 and 98 over the next few years. With the exception of the second Nagorno–Karabakh war, the region did not see any new conflicts in 2019 and 2020, although violence in Iraq and Libya escalated. Perhaps the process of state collapse had run its course; by 2018, every country in the Middle East and North Africa except for the Persian Gulf monarchies was suffering from a war, limited war, or violent crisis.
One plausible interpretation of the data is that states were reluctant to abandon their strategic investments but also saw few new opportunities to expand their activities. Indeed, previous examples show how difficult it is for a state to draw down from a proxy intervention.28 On the other hand, a sense of diminishing returns seems to have come over the region. As a Syrian defector close to Saudi intelligence told Al Jazeera in June 2021, “The prevailing attitude can be defined as, ‘times have changed, the Arab Spring is history and the region is transitioning towards a new future, with new geopolitical characteristics.’”29 Middle Eastern states have maintained their involvement in foreign conflicts as these conflicts de-escalate, but there seems to be little appetite or opportunity to begin new interventions.
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