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.
The causes of proxy wars
To bring these complex wars to a halt, we have to be very precise about what keeps them going. Saudi Arabia and Iran, probably the two main players in proxy wars in a destabilizaion of the Middle Eastern region that is steadily increasing, fund proxy forces to bolster their versions of Islam—Sunni and Shiite Islam, respectively. It is safe to assume that from the perspective of Riyadh and Teheran, furthering sectarian interests, inextricably intertwined with access to resources and geopolitical influence, are of more importance than peace in the region.
Global unregulated capitalism pours kerosene on a Middle East that is already in flames.
But it is not only sectarian strife—often highlighted in the western media—but also global unregulated capitalism that pours kerosene on a Middle East that is already in flames.
Western weapon companies see the newly emerging proxy wars as momentous opportunities for increased revenues. During a 2015 conference of Lockheed Martin in Palm Beach Florida, its executive vice president Bruce Tanner predicted “indirect benefits” from the war in Syria. Similarly, as the Intercept reports, Raytheon chief executive Tom Kennedy spoke of “a significant uptick” for “defense solutions across the board in multiple countries in the Middle East.” Referring to Saudi Arabia, Kennedy elaborates, “It’s all the turmoil they have going on, whether the turmoil is occurring in Yemen, whether it’s with the Houthis, whether it’s occurring in Syria or Iraq, with ISIS.” And sure enough, stocks for arms have soared in recent years.
But it is not only weapons but also oil which disincentivizes policy makers from de-escalating proxy wars. As Christopher Davidson, who the Economist called “one of the most knowledgeable academics” writing about the Middle East, shows in his 688-page long tome “Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East,” how many covert operations in the Middle East were historically supported to advance the explicit geopolitical or economic interests of the funders. According to Davidson, the emergence of the US as a major oil producer has motivated US policy makers to let Saudi forces engage in exhausting proxy wars throughout the region so that a weakened Saudi Arabia is forced to sell its state assets.
Oil and weapons play a role in the decisions made by states, even when lives are at stake.
Whatever the precise motivations, aside from the publicly touted humanitarian rationales, oil and weapons play a role in the decisions made by states, even when lives are at stake.
But whatever the argument, the evidence in support of proxy wars as an effective means in the interest of peace is scarce. At least this is the case if one follows the analysis coming from the proverbial mouth of the horse, the CIA. The spy agency has funded proxy fighters for most of its history. Reportedly President Obama, at least an initial skeptic in the use of proxies, was interested in finding out if funding insurgents generally accomplish the stated strategic goals and commissioned an internal study.
The report concluded that conflicts were not decided in the interest of the US following the funding of proxy actors, unless, according to the report, US personnel were on the ground along with the proxies. The notable exception—according to the study—was the support for the Mujahidin against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. However, although the Mujahidin did ultimately chase the illegally invading Soviet forces out of the country, Afghanistan did not regain stability. One thing to come out of this instability was the merging of the Mujahidin into Al Qaida: the very same enemy the US fights in the current global 'War on Terror'. This is not just one war, but multiple new proxy wars that cause immense suffering and which have, according to the Global Terrorism Index, contributed to an almost nine-fold increase in deaths caused by terrorism between 2000 and 2016. If we consider the entire historical context, the Afghanistan example serves, at best, as a very cautionary tale.
(From Jonas Ecke, opendemocracy.net, 5/19/17)