Civil wars and spillover

Editor’s Note: As part of this year’s U.S.-Islamic World Forum, currently happening now in Doha, Qatar, many of our participants are writing posts on Markaz to share their thoughts on one of the diverse topics discussed at the Forum. We hope you will join us by watching live webcasts or following the conversation on Twitter with #USIslam15.

Many civil wars spill over into neighboring countries, and the Middle East is particularly prone to this problem. The Middle East is now home to civil wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. All of these are getting bloodier, and once-stable countries like Egypt are seeing growing violence. These wars are sowing death and misery at home, but they also are creating dynamics that affect neighboring states, increasing the risk of the violence growing.

Understandably, millions have fled these conflicts, seeking safety and a better life. The latest civil wars have produced massive refugee flows, worse than what the region has seen in its post-World War II history. Refugees are a humanitarian problem and deserve the support of the international community. However, they are also a security problem. Over time, the presence of disaffected young men with no jobs and few prospects in their new home is fertile soil for militant groups. Particularly when these refugee camps are near the border and are the population is concentrated, they may be a home or at least rear base for militant groups who seek recruits, sanctuary, and other forms of support. Not surprisingly, both regimes and their host countries view the refugees with concern and may seek to disperse them, recruit rival groups, or otherwise stir the pot. As always, the innocent will suffer the most.

Civil wars also spill over in the form of terrorism. The Islamic State is a terrorist group that has regional ambitions (and perhaps international ones), and countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia are in its sights. Groups will use terrorism to punish their enemies, demoralize populations, and inspire their own supporters, among other goals. The Islamic State has also deployed considerable resources to the campaign in Libya, supporting civil war there. Rival groups like al-Qaida may also step up terrorism in an attempt to compete with the Islamic State. Terrorism can weaken and discredit governments, worsen sectarianism and other tensions, and otherwise make even greater levels of violence likely.

Civil wars also upset the politics of neighboring states. At times refugees and terrorism cause the problems, but in part the violence next door often is linked to politics at home. This is particularly true in the Middle East where religious and national communities cross borders and what happens in one land seldom stays confined there.

Not surprisingly, these and other forms of spillover often lead neighboring states to intervene. We have seen this already in Syria, with Iran and Hezbollah backing the regime and Gulf states, Turkey, and the United States providing various levels of support to the opposition. Saudi Arabia has also intervened in Yemen, and the Libyan civil war has also seen outside intervention. Such intervention, particularly if it involves supporting a weak player or if there is intervention by multiple states on all sides of the conflict, often increases the level of violence and prolongs the war.

For the United States, the risk of spillover is a vital concern. Syria has already metastasized into Iraq, and Yemen has sucked in Saudi Arabia. It is impossible to predict the specific course of these and other civil wars, but we can predict that if they are allowed to fester unrest risks spreading further and worsening the violence in an already troubled region.