Abu Ali, an 84-year-old whom activists say is the oldest Free Syrian Army fighter in Deir al-Zor, Syria, runs to avoid snipers loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, October 2013.
Kalil Ashawi / Courtesy Reuters

To explain recent conflicts in countries such as Syria or Sudan, observers have been quick to point their fingers at proximate causes specific to our times: the power vacuum created by the end of the Cold War offered opportunities for rebels to fill the void; the recent globalization of trade flooded the developing world with cheap arms; rising global consumer demand generated new struggles over oil and minerals; jihadist groups spread using networks of fighters trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet such explanations miss a bigger picture. If we extend the time horizon beyond the Cold War to include the

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