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



The green light for proxy war in Syria may come back to haunt the EU

The Anglo-French overhaul of the EU arms embargo on Syria may well turn out to be a turning point in this increasingly bloody conflict. But this should not be taken as a good sign.  The move was justified by the Foreign Secretary William Hague as necessary to encourage a ‘diplomatic solution’ to the war by emboldening ‘moderate’ elements of the disparate anti-Assad opposition. Yet the result of the protracted negotiations in Brussels earlier this week has the potential to turn a domestic rebellion into an externally-funded proxy war that could have a significant impact upon the longevity of violence and the wider politics of the region.

The intensification of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissident groups, including massacres of civilians in the towns of Homs and Houla prompted intense diplomatic debate about the necessity and viability of launching a direct military intervention, potentially under the auspices of the United Nations, to put a stop to the atrocities. Since hostilities broke out the warring factions and their allies have spoken repeatedly about a desire to turn the conflict in Syria into a war by proxy. As far back as February 2012 an Arab League-sponsored ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunisia saw the anti-Assad Syrian National Council (SNC) lobby the delegates of the 70 nations present to allow them to import weapons in order for them to take their fight to the Syrian army and pro-government militias.

Indirect intervention

Even before the reversal of the EU weapons sanctions, both the friends and enemies of Assad’s regime have resorted to indirect intervention in Syria as stalemate at the UN Security Council stalled the possibility of direct intervention. Britain and the United States have already provided millions of dollars-worth of what was labelled ‘non-lethal equipment’ (such as communications devices) over the past year. Allies of President Assad, namely Russia, have also been developing proxy methods by which to bolster their ally. Despite Kremlin denials, shipments of Russian-made weaponry have been intercepted on its way to Syria. Most worryingly of all is the influx of Hezbollah fighters into the country. This has provided Assad’s army with a boost of surrogate manpower and underlines the complex regional picture into which the EU is now wading.

The dangers of Syria’s metamorphosis into a protracted proxy war are contained within a threefold set of consequences for those involved. First is the danger of long-term dependence. Even if the Assad regime falls, any new rulers of Syria may indeed owe their status to decisive amounts of military and financial aid from Western states. This reliance may not necessarily end once a potential victory has been secured. On-going financial support will inevitably be needed to rebuild vital Syrian infrastructure. The EU will certainly have to assess how much involvement it would be willing to have in Syria if and when Assad goes. With a large post-civil war nation-building effort on its hands, any post-Assad government is going to receive offers of help that could spill over into outright dependence if indirect influence over politics in Damascus continues once the war is over.

The second major consequence of the EU’s green light for weapon shipments to the rebels is the elongation or intensification of the violence. There is often an assumption on behalf of interventionist powers that the adoption of a proxy war strategy is the quickest way to bring a war to a swift end by indirectly allowing one side to gain an advantage in terms of manpower, training or weaponry. But the understanding that proxy interventions actually prematurely end an existing conflict belies evidence that on the whole they actually prolong such conflicts largely because a weak warring faction is boosted to the point of creating stalemate. A flood of weapons or surrogate forces into an existing warzone gives one or other of the parties involved further motivation and support to fight on, not collapse or seek negotiation. With Britain and France now boldly declaring their desire to ship arms to the insurgents, Syria seems destined to endure a bloody extension of its civil war.

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend”

Finally, it is worth considering how proxy interventions create the conditions for conflict over-spill and ‘blowback’. To a large degree the recent EU decision is based on the crude political assumption that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Yet this policy runs the severe risk of creating unintended, counter-productive consequences once the war is over. Such ‘blowback’ can be high profile or subtle, immediate or delayed in its manifestation. The nature of likely ‘blowback’ in the Syrian case can only be speculated upon but the potential for its occurrence seems to have played little or no part in the policy calculations of William Hague or his French counter-part Laurent Fabius.

The absence of an endgame to the proxy war in Syria and the potent dangers of interfering in Middle Eastern politics should encourage EU foreign ministers to reflect more deeply on the long-term implications of initiating short-term proxy wars and caution against the expedient use of indirectly intervening in the wars of others. The decision from Brussels to try and influence the war in Damascus could come back to haunt the corridors of European power.

Dr Andrew Mumford‘s book Proxy Warfare was recently published by Polity. 

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

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.