The Middle East and North Africa is a region governed by regimes vulnerable to multiple forms of influence and intervention from foreign powers. At the start of 2018, in Syria alone, the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria held power in Damascus while the rest of the country was subject to several international interventions amid ongoing civil war, US special forces pursued Islamic State (ISIS) militants while Russia supported the Assad regime with aerial bombardments on rebel-held towns and cities, Iran and Hezbollah provided additional military support to the regime while Saudi Arabia channeled aid to Syrian rebel groups, Turkey began confronting Kurdish militias supported by its NATO ally the United States, and Israeli airplanes struck Iranian targets inside the country. By the spring of 2018, the United States, Britain, and France had ordered limited strikes on military targets in response to the Assad regime's reported use of chemical weapons against civilians.
Elsewhere in the region, Yemen suffered an ongoing military intervention by Saudi Arabia against Houthi rebels supported by Iran, while Saudi Arabia's ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) supported a third faction. (1) Amid continued factionalization and violence between secular and Islamist militia forces in Libya, Russia sought opportunities to forge military and economic ties with the eastern Libya-based General Khalifa Hifter, who was already backed in part by France, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt. (2) The United States, which led the coalition that ousted the regime of Moammar Qaddafi, reportedly reached out to General Hifter's faction, although his apparent poor health threatened the extent to which a unified military may establish authority outside the eastern portion of Libya. (3)
Each of these examples is drawn from conflicts that originated during the Arab Spring of 2011, a wave of popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes without precedent in the region. In Syria, Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and Bahrain, the Arab Spring uprisings created patterns of domestic conflict that were eventually met with militarized forms of violent repression that were either supported by or confronted with international interventions from a variety of foreign powers.
This study asks two fundamental questions. First, under what conditions did foreign powers intervene militarily in domestic conflicts after the Arab Spring began? Second, what was the impact of international interventions on regime outcomes in each of these cases? We find that a distinct pattern emerged after the Arab Spring in how foreign powers intervened militarily in the domestic affairs of states in the Middle East and North Africa: the decisions of regimes to mobilize their national militaries for campaigns of violent repression against popular uprisings were deeply linked with international interventions. Indeed, each case of militarized repression in the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Spring was accompanied by an intervention by one or more foreign powers. Over time, foreign powers came to play decisive roles in determining regime outcomes in each of these cases.
While many recent studies of political development in the Middle East and North Africa have yielded deep insights into how the dynamics of state-society relationships have been transformed by the Arab Spring, the factors that account for variation in regime outcomes remain a subject of debate. (4) Scholars who take a structural perspective have identified variables such as regime type, the economic resource base of the regime, and the degree to which communal ties are exploited in staffing of the regime's armed forces as key factors that determined whether popular uprisings could be effectively combated to preserve regime authority. (5) In contrast, an emerging literature has focused its attention on studying how the strategies of regime leaders across the Middle East and North Africa reflected learning and adaptation of lessons from the experiences of those who faced mass protests early during the Arab Spring so they could better preserve their authority. (6) To date, this literature has not yet fully incorporated international variables as a focus of analysis or debate. While several studies have referred to the influence of international actors in the Arab Spring uprisings, none has systematically explored the conditions under which foreign powers intervened directly into domestic conflicts or how such interventions interacted with military repression to affect regime outcomes.
The lack of centrality of international factors in these analyses is understandable; it is still difficult to anticipate the interventionist actions of foreign powers and to assess their impact on domestic conflicts. Great-power states certainly have the ability to overthrow the types of autocratic regimes present throughout the Middle East and North Africa when they demonstrate a capacity and willingness to do so (as in the case of the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq). Yet theorizing has too often assumed that these power imbalances exist without stipulating the domestic conditions that may make such interventions likely or identifying the different tactics and resources that may be used when foreign powers commit to intervene. This analysis thus represents a starting point in examining the conditions under which international interventions have become likely and offers a framework for accounting for the impact of international interventions on regime outcomes in the Middle East and North Africa after the Arab Spring. In so doing, this analysis aims to conceptualize the conditions under which further interventions are likely to take place and proposes a set of arguments to account for the effectiveness of interventions in achieving the aims of various foreign powers related to regime outcomes.
During the Arab Spring, each regime confronted by mass protests selected from a variety of repressive and concessionary tactics in an effort to survive in power. In five cases--Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen--regimes eventually resorted to using violent repression with participation from national military forces. However, these regimes experienced a variety of outcomes related to their ability to preserve their authority. These outcomes were greatly impacted by the nature of international interventions they faced from foreign powers. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE supported the military crackdown on Pearl Square in March 2011 to stabilize the monarchy. In 2013, Saudi Arabia and the UAE helped coordinate the effort of the Egyptian military (which was initially neutral) to seize power in a coup d'etat and then violently repress the Muslim Brotherhood. In Libya, military repression was confronted by an international coalition involving NATO allies the United States, France, and Britain that led to the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. In the absence of an international effort to rebuild a post-Qaddafi Libyan state, secular and Islamist militias have sustained confrontation with one another while foreign powers have increasingly sought ties with General Hifter. In Syria and Yemen, multiple international interventions have led to prolonged periods of civil war. In Syria, a coalition of Russia and Iran (and Hezbollah) has preserved the authority of the Assad regime, while regional powers such as Saudi Arabia support disparate opposition elements. The United States focused its efforts on rooting out ISIS-held territory instead of attacking the regime directly, an action it has taken on only two occasions, both of which took the form of limited strikes to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weapons. In Yemen, interventions have played out as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as civil war has divided the country between the armed Houthi movement supported by Iran and the forces loyal to President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, whose presidency was negotiated into existence largely by Saudi Arabia to replace the former dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh. As of 2018, the Iran-backed Houthi movement kept control of the capital city of Sanaa while President Hadi remained safeguarded in Riyadh and the Saudi military continued to defend his regime. (7)
We argue that the nature of international interventions best explains the outcomes for the regimes in question. Foreign powers intervened both to support and to confront existing regimes, providing explanations of why certain regimes survived, collapsed, or came to share territorial sovereignty with oppositional groups during prolonged civil wars. While it is true that foreign powers did not initiate any of the conflicts that emerged from the Arab Spring and several regimes experienced complex turnovers of power and losses of sovereignty, in cases where foreign powers intervened, their actions altered domestic power balances and proved decisive for regime outcomes.
In the past, there have been examples of regime use of militarized repression in the Middle East and North Africa that did not trigger international interventions (such as the Hafez al-Assad regimes bombing of Hama in 1982). However, since 2011, all instances of militarized repression in the Middle East and North Africa have involved interventions by foreign powers that had significant consequences for regime outcomes. For the purposes of this analysis, we refer to intervening foreign powers as great powers or as regional powers. Great powers are states with the capacity to intervene in domestic conflicts in multiple regions around the globe. The United States is the clearest example. Allowing for the United States' global military superiority, other great powers would include repeat interveners Russia, Britain, and France and the fifth permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China. (While China has long sought to maintain an explicitly noninterventionist foreign policy, the opening...