By Jonas Ecke
We’re living in a new era of proxy warfare, where multiple powers fund local proxies with disastrous consequences. We need to break the cycle.
The end of the Cold War was one of the few historical moments in which people around the world looked forward to a future that promised to be more just and peaceful for everyone.
The Berlin Wall was finally torn down, following years of tireless civil society activism in one of the world’s few peaceful revolutions. Liberal democratic systems seemed to be spreading everywhere, compelling Francis Fukuyama to craft the (nowadays often-scorned) argument that “The End of History” – and consequently the cessation of constant conflict – had finally arrived with the falling of the Iron Curtain.
The promising world ‘peace dividend’, a term initially coined by US president George H.W. Bush and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, was on everyone’s lips. Hope was in the air.
The Soviet Union and United States vowed to work together to further cut down on a nuclear arsenal that could have blown up the world many times over. And they also seemed to be hard at work getting rid of another major – and often underestimated – impediment to peace: proxy wars, the type of war waged in the developing world for most of the Cold War, from Latin America to Central Asia to the Horn of Africa.
These were wars in which the Soviet Union and US did not directly fight, but paid and favored local fighters, often through highly classified operations and byzantine financial networks that have inspired generations of spy novelists. Before the Cold War, colonial regimes paid local proxies to advance their agendas and “divide and conquer”.
As the Cold War finally came to a close, it was hoped and anticipated that weapon donations would be replaced by UN Peacekeepers and a new generation of NGO activists.
Indeed, the new crop of peacemakers seemed to be more liberated. Free from the stifling imperatives of geopolitics, they could implement deals that had previously died prematurely at the conference tables of diplomats, anxious over the advances of an enemy superpower. The tit-for-tat strategies that would reap destruction seemed to be a thing of yesteryear.
The “War to End all Wars” is a coinage that stems from the First World War. In the global public imagination: the Cold War would be the real “War to End all Wars.” Following its conclusion, an era of enduring peace was within immediate reach. Or so it seemed.
A new era of proxy wars
Fast forward 28 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and few such promised realities seem to have materialized. On the contrary, we have entered a new era of proxy wars.
According to some commentators, the conflict in Syria at the doorstep of Europe is a heart-wrenching case-in-point for a new type of intractable Middle Eastern proxy war in which not two, but multiple regional and global powers have become drawn into conflict.
This is a conflict which finds its roots in an uprising against the dictatorial regime of president Assad, whose government, according to media accounts and studies, has committed unspeakable crimes against humanity, such as the use of barrel bombs, chemical weapon attacks and forced starvation campaigns.
Between 312,001 and 470,000 Syrians have died with millions displaced.
In analyzing the Syrian conflict, we should, of course, not lift the moral onus off the Assad regime, nor create wrong moral equivalenies, as Syrian commentators such as Alia Malek, Sami Alkayial and Yasser Munif have warned.
Sadly the Syrian conflict has become, to quote Mehdi Hasan, “the ultimate political and sectarian Rorschach test of our time.” Similarly, as Alia Malek points out:
“[A] lot of people are kind of placing Syria as a character, as a bit character, into their larger sort of geopolitical narratives of what is happening in this world. Whether you’re objecting to intervention by outside powers, you know, Syria just becomes like the latest theater to have that discussion. Whether it’s a discussion about sectarianism and whether Sunnis are being killed by Shia, it just becomes […] a way to look at Syria in that sense. But I’m—I’ve always advocated for looking at Syria for the sake of Syrians and creating a country that is stable and safe and free for all its people.”
Such cautionary words notwithstanding, the internationalization of the Syrian conflict has made it more intractable. Though the Syrian conflict has been described as a proxy conflict between the US and Russia, the most prominent of the powers contending for influence in Syria are regional.
Part of the reason for this support is that Iran, Shiite sectarian arch-enemy of the Gulf monarchies, supports the Syrian government as well as local Hezbollah and even Iranian fighters who entered Syrian territory. Because of the Sunni Iranian involvement, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab Emirate countries have provided financial support to some of the supposedly moderate groups—the ones also vetted and backed by the US—, and allegedly also to some of the more radical groups.
Qatar is accused of supporting the radical Al Nusra Front, which is considered an offspring of Al Qaida. EU countries and the United States support Kurdish fighters, while they are militarily opposed by Turkey, reportedly allowing DAESH fighters entry into the territory of neighboring Syria to maintain a counterbalance to Assad.
The outbreak of intractable proxy wars is a problem that is not confined to Syria. Not too far away and in the same region, the country of Yemen has been engulfed in a proxy war involving Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the US. It’s a war that has often escaped public attention and media scrutiny, despite the attempts of NGOs such as Oxfam to bring the suffering of Yemeni civilians to the attention of western publics.
According to UN estimates from August 2016, at least 10,000 have been killed or wounded in the conflict. According to experts, containing Iranian influences within the region also played a role in the Saudi decision to go to war in Yemen. In so doing, the Saudi military has received many of its weapons, including cluster bombs, from the US and EU countries, along with concrete tactical support from US military personnel.
Across the Gulf of Aden, where Yemen is located, the failed state of Somalia is recovering from a proxy war of the post 9/11-era.
Following the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration decided that it would be necessary to oust the Islamic Courts that had created some stability in a country historically beset by conflicts.
These conflicts had both a local and international dimension, especially in the 1980s when Somalia served as the theater for a Cold War proxy conflict. With US backing, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, leaving behind a trail of human rights abuses.
While the conflicts in Yemen, Somalia, and Syria are more readily identifiable proxy wars, even the supposedly classical military operations of the post 9/11-era had elements of proxy wars. After all, it wasn’t Russian military forces alone that annexed East Crimea. Russia’s ‘little green men’ (military personnel, unmarked) entered the area, formed local militias, pushed a pro-Russian agenda, then called for a vote on annexation.
The same goes for western invasions. It wasn’t the international ISAF Forces that singlehandedly defeated the Taliban in late 2001, but the US-backed Northern Alliance, initially made up of Tajik fighters.
Though precise accounts of the fall of the Libyan state diverge, according to many credible narratives it was not a NATO airstrike but rebels supported by NATO airpower that executed Colonel Gaddafi on the streets of Misrata in March of 2012. Even before the invasion, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar competed for influence by arming different militias in a country that has long been a chessboard of global and regional politics.
According to an analysis by Frederic Wehrey in the Washington Post, similar dynamics still plague the country. In the case of the Iraq invasion, which had initially been fought without indigenous proxies, US planners attempted to recruit local conscripts to bring stability following the post-invasion chaos.
The so-called “Anbar Awakening”, vigilantes cooperating with US forces, quenched some of the post-war violence and facilitated the eventual troop withdrawal from Iraq, though both were only temporary.
Recent western military invasions may not have been proxy wars in the classical Cold War sense: that is, competitions between two proxies for greater powers fighting in the same territory. Instead, proxy forces were relied on to topple regimes.
An early definition of proxy wars, formulated by Karl Deutsch, considered them “an international conflict between two foreign powers, fought out on the soil of a third country.”
A more recent one by Andrew Mumford considers proxy wars “conflicts in which a third party intervenes indirectly in order to influence the strategic outcome in favor of its preferred faction.” Following this newer definition, the more recent regime change operations as well as the annexation of East Crimea, and the long and tragic ripple effects that would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands if not more, could be considered proxy wars.
Jonas Ecke currently serves as the Advisor for Refugee Integration at the University of Potsdam.