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What is a Proxy War?

By Vladimir Rauta

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.

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inConflict & SecurityInternational Relations


  1. Ira Ira

    Thanks for explaining proxy war. very insightful article.

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