The Arab world is suffering through the bloodiest period in its modern history, with, according to conservative estimates, more than 350,000 people killed since civil wars began in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, and Syria.

In addition to the catastrophic death toll, Ariel Ahram, associate professor atVirginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs, points out that “these wars have damaged critical infrastructure and created huge numbers of refugees and displaced persons, increasing regional instability and concern in the global community.” 

Ahram is the author of "Proxy Warriors: The Rise and Fall of State Sponsored Militias" (Stanford University Press, 2011) and teaches Middle East politics and international security in Virginia Tech’s graduate programs in the National Capital Region.

Ahram and Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution Doha Center, were recently awarded a $400,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York to improve knowledge of outside interventions in the civil wars in the Middle East.

Ahram and Alaaldin will oversee a large collaborative project aimed at exploring ways to de-escalate the current conflicts. Their project, Exiting Proxy Wars in the Middle East, will study how civil wars in the Middle East have been impacted by intervention from outside powers who seek to recruit local forces, aligned with either the government or rebels, to act as proxies.

“In proxy wars, outsiders see the opportunity to forward their agendas at very little risk because others do the bulk of the fighting and dying,” said Ahram and Alaaldin. “But proxy wars can get out of control very quickly. Regional players like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have played a far more prominent role in these conflicts than in recent decades. Russia has become more directly involved in these arenas, particularly Syria. The U.S., meanwhile, has been more reluctant to commit.” 

Visiting Fellow
Ranj Alaaldin, visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution Doha Center

To help address the increasing involvement of outside parties in civil wars in the Middle East, Ahram and Alaaldin will conduct research on conflict termination as well as the specific civil wars in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. They plan to use this research to inform the development of diplomatic solutions for conflict mitigation and resolution.

“Our approach aims to elucidate the often hidden costs and risks associated with proxy wars and identify areas of mutual interest or ‘win-win’ scenarios among intervening outside parties,” Ahram and Alaaldin said. They hope these discussions can “help build a new normative consensus about how to manage and limit proxy conflicts in order to improve accountability and reduce flagrant violations of humanitarian law.”

Specifically, Ahram and Alaaldin will invite subject matter experts to write comprehensive reports on Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya and to present them at a workshop at Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region facilities in Arlington, Virginia. A follow-up conference will be held at the Brookings Institution Doha Center, incorporating scholars, journalists, and other thought leaders within the region.

For more information about this project, contact Ariel Ahram ( 


Written by Yancey Crawford