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How Blowback by Armed Groups Is Turning Civil Wars into International Conflicts

April 28, 2022
Peter Krause and Nils Hägerdal


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Peter Krause, Associate Professor of Political Science at Boston College, and Nils Hägerdal, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Tufts University, analyze how civil wars can spread to conflict abroad.

The crescendo of missile and drone strikes into Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are just the latest in a growing trend turning civil wars into international ones: blowback, or violent retaliation at home in response to intervention abroad. Civil war is the most common form of conflict in the 21st century, yet few civil wars have their violence confined within the borders of a single state. Most civil wars involve military intervention by foreign states who arm local proxies and/or launch airstrikes against their local adversaries, making the conflicts longer and deadlier. Often unable to shoot down their planes and unsatisfied by fighting their proxies, these adversaries seek to hit interveners where it hurts most—back at home.

The deadliest and most protracted civil wars in recent history, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen—where the Saudis and Emiratis have militarily intervened—have all spread significant violence to surrounding states. In addition to the blowback attacks by the Houthis against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the war in Afghanistan has caused insurgent violence in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Pakistan. And as we document in a new article, the conflict in Syria triggered a violent bombing campaign inside Lebanon that nearly escalated into another civil war. This example of blowback by a non-state actor (Sunni jihadi groups) against a non-state actor (Hezbollah) reveals the importance of understanding the transnational capabilities and strategies of civil war combatants who increasingly operate across borders and pose significant threats to international peace. This dynamic is particularly salient in the Middle East and North Africa region, where non-state actors like Hezbollah and the Houthi movement now rival state structures in military power and governance capacity. In this article, we argue that non-state armed groups are the most common agents of conflict diffusion, and that the increasing empowerment of these armed groups by state actors will accelerate the trend of internationalized civil wars.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.