What is a Proxy War?


Storming out of Syria and taking control of key cities in a matter of days, the Islamic state of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has shown that Iraq’s stability could be very easily measured on the Richter scale. But state fragility, democratic deficits and measures of success in democracy promotion, are hardly the hot topic. Proxy wars are.

Left, right and centre, the media started using “proxy wars” and “proxy warfare” to describe what is happening in Iraq. Dusting the Cold War archives paid off: a catchy phrase, a newspaper seller, a tool for finger pointing. Any while journalistic zeal is usually overdoing it, this time they surely nailed it. What the ISIS is doing in Iraq is a fully fledged proxy war which hides centuries old Sunni-Shiite rivalry and spreads over many borders. All of this, however, makes for some pertinent questions: What is proxy warfare? Who is actually fighting in the Middle East? Why are they fighting? Oh, and let’s not forget, how do we stop it?

To put it simply, proxy wars are indirect interventions. To complicate things, proxy wars are indirect interventions in which a Beneficiary uses a Proxy against a specific Target. The labels used until now to speak of the parties involved in indirect wars vary from “client” and “patron” to “principal” and “pawn”, and are essentially tributary to the Cold War quest for bloc building. But proxy war history is lengthy, almost mythical, and heavily complicated by archival secrecy, and as a foreign policy tool its origins lay with George Kennan’s notion of psychological warfare, used against the Soviets.

What we see today, however, is much more than that and I argue it comes in two forms: 1) projecting a rivalry on an ongoing conflict by indirectly supporting a party (Guatemala in 1954, Afghanistan during the 1980s, Iraq now), and 2) using a third party to fight your conflict (Sudan’s use of the Arab rebel military group Janjaweed as a proxy agent in Darfur, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Ethiopia supporting the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army against the authority in Khartoum).

What makes them different is the different logic of indirect action that they follow. When using a conflict for their own interests, states substitute the war context. By providing economic and military assistance they further a conflict directed not necessarily at the party the proxy is fighting, but at their own rival. However, when they use a third party, not only do they substitute themselves, but they also delegate. Simply put, they empower a proxy to directly fight their enemy. In both cases, the result is a chain of dependencies, whose main strengths are plausible deniability and risk minimising.

So what is happening in Iraq? Like so many countries in Africa and Latin America, Iraq is a place of dumped rivalries. What complicates the picture is that besides decades long Western-Eastern ideological confrontation, the country is riddled with its own divides. And it’s not only the country, but the entire region. As former spokesperson for the US defence department J.D. Gordon said, what we are seeing now is a “proxy war between Saudi Arabia and the Iranians which is now spilled over into Iraq and there will be a lot more violence in the months, years to come.” On a local level, the conflict in Iraq brings forth Sunni claims for greater political representation and power-sharing. On a wider more regional level, Iraq becomes the background for projecting the complex and historically rich conflict between the Shia and the Sunni, with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states funding ISIS and other rebels first against Syria and now against the government of Iraq (the latter being know to frequently align with Teheran).

Then if ISIS is co-dependent and the Saudis are the enablers, what is the right course of action? Turned into a question of counterinsurgency, there are not that many options. Unilateral direct intervention would create public outrage, and with Obama shifting focus onto East Asia it’s unlikely to happen (the 275 authorised military personnel sent to the US Embassy in Baghdad hardly makes the case for Iraq II, and despite Baghdad officially asking the US for airstrikes, talks point to limited targeted airstrikes similar to those in Yemeni and Pakistan). Indirect intervention is already happening, as archives will inevitably show decades from now. However, to stabilise the situation, a first step is to isolate ISIS by cutting the links between the proxy and the funding states (although intelligence sources reveal that their assets are now worth $1.5 billion). Secondly, there should be increased military collaboration with the extremely well organised and capable Kurdish pesh merga militia, while cautioning Turkey to look at the bigger picture and not just at possible Kurdish separatist repercussions. Lastly, the US has to bring to the table the people who have mastered indirect wars, have regional credible intelligence, and, strangely, who should have already been at the table since the fall of Saddam Hussein: Iran. Iran is no stranger to indirect intervention, its involvement in supporting Hezbollah and Hamas being well known. As shocking as the prospects of a US-Iran Axis of Good are, this the next logical step. After all, if the enemy of my enemy is my friend, a common enemy is a good start for them to be friends.

Vladimir Rauta is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham researching proxy wars. He tweets @VladimirRauta


Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East

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The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies is now an institutional columnist for the Global Policy Journal. The first in this series of posts comes from Dr Andrew Mumford who has written about the increasing amount of indirect assistance the West is giving to rebel movements in the ‘Arab Spring’. Stemming from research done for his forthcoming book Proxy Warfare (to be published by Polity in 2013), Andrew defines a proxy war as the indirect involvement in an existing conflict by a third party wishing to influence the strategic outcome. As such, he argues that we can see how the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, particularly in Syria, have been significantly shaped by such ‘arms-length’ intervention by Western nations, who have provided material and logistical help to the rebels. Such developments, Andrew explains, have a wider significance on the direction of diplomacy and conflict in the Middle East and reveal broader trends in the shifting nature of warfare.

You can read Andrew’s full article online:  ‘Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East’.

The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies (IAPS) is the major centre of the University of Nottingham for research and postgraduate teaching on the Asia-Pacific. The Institute is a University-level research centre and currently affiliated with the School of Politics and International Relations. It brings together more than thirty full-time staff members, visiting scholars and students to foster Asian scholarship across disciplinary boundaries. The mission of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies is to promote advanced research in the humanities and social sciences, support and co-ordinate postgraduate teaching and enhance understanding of Asia-Pacific across the University of Nottingham and in the broader community. The Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies enjoys a generous bequest from the late Sir Stanley and Lady Nancy Tomlinson.

Talkin’ ’bout a revolution?

The current Arab ‘revolutions’, pose anew some venerable questions of revolutionary transformation, not least whether they will result in fundamental changes to economic life in the region or, as Antonio Gramsci might have recognised, a restoration of the old political order.

In 1917 one rather renowned contemporary revolutionary figure, V. I. Lenin, opined that, ‘The basic question of every revolution is that of state power’. So what makes a revolution; and can the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and possibly elsewhere in the Middle East be seen in revolutionary terms?

Generally, when considering modern revolutions it is usual to highlight certain structural conditions that might shape forces for change — so-called ‘objective’ factors of economic crisis and inequality, poverty, or exploitation — alongside a series of conjunctural circumstances that arise in the moment, due to the historical peculiarities of a place or space.

In my own work Unravelling Gramsci: Hegemony and Passive Revolution in the Global Political Economy, these aspects are deployed to understand Gramsci’s notion of ‘passive revolution’. This refers to social conditions that are not literally passive but are often violent transformations. Further, the term captures how processes of revolutionary rupture become displaced, thwarted, and averted leading to a continuation of the old political order and, commonly, the furtherance of capitalist accumulation processes.

How might the mix of the structural and conjunctural explain today’s Arab ‘revolutions’? And are these pivotal moments better understood as uprisings or revolts (or passive revolutions) leading to a series of reforms rather than a fundamental revolutionary change in power?

First up, on those structural issues, one can highlight the role of the food price crisis in both Tunisia and Egypt. The surge in world food prices, linked to wider speculation on the global commodity futures markets, helped to trigger both uprisings and has been a key factor in past and present ‘food riots’ across the developing world. In 2011, world food prices reached their highest peak in the last thirty years. Given that North Africa imports half its wheat and world wheat prices soared by 50 per cent in 2010, no wonder bread prices have underpinned — but not solely determined — discontent.

What of those cloudier conjunctural factors? Many in the West draw attention to the importance of internet activism – Egypt’s was supposedly a ‘Twitter Revolution’, personified by Wael Ghonim. To overemphasise that aspect, though, would be to fall into a technological determinism whilst overlooking the courage of direct social protest and risk of life against state violence, torture, and imprisonment.

It would also lose sight of other factors, such as odious political regimes and Western complicity; human rights abuses; and kleptocratic states that have contributed to a charged political environment.

We also need to take account of additional specific events and conflagrations in the moment of the conjuncture: Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation and the subsequent street demonstrations in Tunisia; the counter-space of Tahrir as a site of civil resistance in Egypt; and the intransigence of rebel elements in Benghazi, Tobruk, and Misrata in defiance of the Gaddafi regime.

On that basis, where does that leave the Arab ‘revolutions’? Are we witnessing an Arab 1848, or 1989, or 1789? Historical analogies are difficult to make stick, precisely due to the different mix of structural and conjunctural factors throughout history.

Where, moreover, are these ‘revolutions’ going? Zhou Enlai, when asked in the 1950s what had been the consequences of the 1789 French Revolution, allegedly said that it was still too early to tell. Avoiding hasty conclusions, then, in the middle of current events is perhaps wise.

Whether these ‘revolutions’ will amount to fundamental social, political and economic transformations or, instead, the restructuring and consolidation of capitalism remains therefore an open question.

History, clearly, has not ended but is in the making, again, and again.

Adam Morton

French theory, Tunisian practice

Question: what connects a 26-year-old Tunisian market-stall holder, who died in 2011, with a French civil engineer who died in 1922?

Answer: a theory of revolution – written by the latter and put into practice by the former, a man who just wanted to sell tomatoes.

The stall-holder was Mohamed Bouazizi, whose story is now well known. Bouazizi had a handcart from which he sold fruits and vegetables to the inhabitants of Sidi Bouzid. On December 17th 2010 market officials demanded a bribe that Bouazizi was unable or unwilling to pay. The officials confiscated his produce and his equipment, and he was slapped in the face by a female inspector.  He went to both the town hall and the central government building to complain and to get his goods returned, but he was brushed aside. The final act of his short life was self-immolation. He died on January 4th.

The civil engineer was Georges Sorel. Late in life, after retiring from service to the French state, Sorel turned his mind to political theory. He read Marx and developed a theory of class struggle and the role of violence in it. His best known work, Reflections on Violence, first appeared in 1905-6.

Sorel may seem to glorify proletarian violence, which he tells us, is ‘a very fine and heroic thing’. But this is no vindication of mindless thuggery. Sorelian violence is a highly idealised act of war, in which everything ‘is carried out without hatred’. In fact ‘a great development of brutality accompanied by much blood-letting is quite unnecessary’; a few very particular acts of violence will suffice. Sorel was fascinated by the early Christian martyrs and their willingness to endure violence for their beliefs. There ‘was no necessity for the martyrdoms to be numerous in order to prove… the absolute truth of the new religion’.

‘Truth’ here bears no relation to facts, indeed ‘no ideology was ever more remote from the facts than that of the early Christians.’ ‘Truth’ instead relates to belief in a myth. That may seem self-contradictory, but ‘myth’ here does not mean ‘untrue’, a myth captures a complex set of ideas in a simple, colourful form that has the power to mobilise revolutionary action. This is faith not rationality.

For Sorel, the proletariat would never grasp a complex sociological analysis of class, so they needed a simple, inspiring myth, and that was the idea of the general strike. Proletarian martyrs for the general strike, persecuted by the bourgeoisie, would mobilise the masses. This was Sorel’s insight – even if the economic conditions were in place for the class war, you needed the human element to set things going.

Unfortunately for Sorel’s reputation he inspired Mussolini, who advocated the myth of the nation. Perhaps, now, Sorel keeps better company, with the myth of democratic freedom acting as the catalyst for insurrection. Bouazizi’s violent death has served to make him the inspirational political martyr that Sorel believed necessary to inspire revolution; as thousands of Tunisians protestors chanted: ‘Farewell Mohamed, we will avenge you’.

An increasing number of Arab dictators are finding themselves submerged under the shockwaves of the Tunisian democratic revolution. There is a certain irony here, given Sorel’s contempt for parliamentary democracy, but the story brings to mind J B Priestley’s observation that if you could understand why a retired civil servant had written Reflections, you could understand the modern age.

Mathew Humphrey