Local expert offers in-depth look at Middle East civil wars
Lunch & learnReshaping the Middle East

Local expert offers in-depth look at Middle East civil wars

Ross Harrison spoke at World Affairs luncheon

Ross Harrison speaking at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh luncheon on Sept. 17. 
Photo by Jim Busis
Ross Harrison speaking at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh luncheon on Sept. 17. Photo by Jim Busis

The World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh welcomed Ross Harrison to the Omni William Penn on Tuesday, Sept. 17, for a lunchtime lecture.

Harrison is a senior resident fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and a faculty member at both Georgetown University and the University of Pittsburgh, where he teaches strategy and Middle East politics.

Harrison’s talk, “Civil Wars: The Future of the Middle East and Implications for Global Security,” examined the current state of the Middle East and the civil wars engulfing Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya.

These civil wars, Harrison stated, are “the first time the Middle East is getting a vote in terms of its own future.” As he explained, the region’s boundaries and political fortunes were largely set after the World War I by both French and British mandates. These mandates were responsible for demarcating much of the region as it is today.

That vote, according to Harrison, is the Middle East’s push back, not only against these mandates but also the involvement of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia, which have complicated relations since the Cold War.

In Harrison’s analysis, the civil wars and the shape of the Middle East are being primarily shaped by four regional actors: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel.

Harrison provided a brief summary of the civil wars taking place in the region.

In Syria, he explained, despite claims by both Russia and the government, the civil war “is not over.” The Syrian government has become weaker, with only tenuous control over some of the region dependent on outside forces.

Iraq represents the best-case scenario in the Middle East with the formal civil war over. But underlying tensions from before the war remain.

Yemen’s future is bleaker, according to Harrison. Even without the outside involvement of different powers, his assessment included a rare promise: “I can’t promise many things about civil wars in the Middle East, but if you ended Iranian involvement in Yemen, and Saudi Arabia’s, and the United Arab Emirates … the civil war would still be ongoing.”

Lastly, Libya is unique because it has two groups claiming to be the legitimate government — one internationally recognized by the United Nations and other countries and another backed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. This conflict is sensitive to regional powers and might be solved if these various powers were able to push the two groups together.

Harrison highlighted six reasons why the world should pay attention to these civil wars:
1. Humanitarian disasters. He identified the conditions as “breeding grounds for disease and terrorism.”

2. The civil wars in individual countries are now morphing into regional wars. As an example, he cited the recent attack on the Saudi Arabian oil production facilities. Harrison pointed out that while we don’t yet know who is responsible for the attack, “the likelihood is that Saudi Arabia and Iran will exchange blows, and maybe even the United States.” Before these civil wars, the two countries were rivals but have now become “blood enemies,” Harrison explained, in effect creatinng proxy wars in the region.

3. The United States and Russia are in competition in the Middle East, creating a new cold war. Before these civil wars, “the United States was the only superpower” in the region. Russia, however, re-engaged once the Syrian civil war began to protect its interests.

4. The crisis could spread into both Lebanon and Jordan, the countries Harrison terms the “most vulnerable” in the region. That would extend the current regional war even wider with “more moving parts.”

5. The security vacuums created by the civil wars and the failed states involved have attracted non-state actors like ISIS and Al Qaeda. These organizations are likely to serve as “spoilers” to any lasting peace in the region.

6. The civil wars are changing the Middle East. “We are seeing a Middle East transforming itself. Not by any one leader, not by a few leaders.” These wars are a “violent renegotiation of the Middle East as we know it. These civil wars will lead to a reorganization of power.”

Along with Paul Salem, Harrison is the editor of the newly published book “Escaping the Conflict Trap: Toward Ending Civil Wars in the Middle East.”

The book is divided into three overarching themes: focused accounts of the civil wars in the region, the historical and geopolitical drivers of civil wars in the region, and topical contributions.

Although the book’s subject matter is daunting, its slim and focused approach allows readers to easily consume the material presented. And while its focus is toward the academic, its structure enables the reader to read only those chapters they find of interest.

Harrison concluded his talk by saying, “The civil wars are cutting a new path; they are the birth pangs of a new region. The United States can be a spoiler, but it can’t create a new Middle East … That’s not currently where we are. The United States is attempting to tilt the balance in favor of one or two of the actors against another … The future of the Middle East is going to depend on the four regional powers going from part of the problem to part of the solution.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@

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