The contagiousness of regional conflict: a Middle East case study.

AuthorAuton, Graeme P.
PositionSECURITY - 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.


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...

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