Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters A crown made with toy soldiers, January 30, 2014.

How Proxy Wars Work

And What That Means for Ending the Conflict in Syria

With U.S.-made antitank missiles finding their way to Syrian rebels and Russian fighter jets pummeling the same rebels and supplying the Bashar al-Assad regime with antiaircraft missile systems, it might seem easy to describe the battle in Syria as a proxy war. But that phrase gets tossed around too carelessly and comes with some dangerous myths.

First, describing the Syrian quagmire as a proxy war implies that the conflict is mainly about larger fissures in the region, especially the rift between Sunni and Shiite, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Second, it suggests that the conflict will be resolved chiefly by outside actors hashing out their differences at the table. Third, the phrase indicates that the conflict is an incredibly high-stakes game involving existential issues on which compromise is impossible.

As the history of past proxy wars teaches, though, all three assumptions are wrong. To bring the fighting in Syria to an end, all parties involved will need to get real about what a proxy war is—and what it isn’t. Proxy wars do not miraculously extinguish themselves without some measure of bottom-up attempts to make peace among local fighters or a fundamental shift in the conflict’s balance of power on the ground.

Smoke rises from what activists said was a military position of forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after clashes with Army of Islam fighters, outside Douma, near Damascus September 13, 2015.

Smoke rises from what activists said was a military position of forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad after clashes with Army of Islam fighters, outside Douma, near Damascus September 13, 2015.

COLD WAR THINKING

The term “proxy war” conjures images of the Cold War, when outside powers—namely, the United States and Soviet Union, but also regional players—treated local combatants as pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of guerrilla conflicts in Latin America became de facto conflicts between the Soviet Union and the United States. Ditto wars in Angola, Chad, and Vietnam.

Just as it was unthinkable in those days that Washington and Moscow would get tangled in a conventional war, it is hard to imagine the United States and Russia going to war today. And, in fact, proxy wars are prevalent when the costs of traditional interstate war are high. And so, Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces and rebels from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) can go at each other’s throats with little risk of regional escalation.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on the U.S. strategy in Syria during a speech at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, November 12, 2015.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on the U.S. strategy in Syria during a speech at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, November 12, 2015.

Proxy conflicts also tend to be fought in weak or failing states with porous borders. Fragile states lack the coercive means to put down rebellions without outside support, and rebels cannot credibly challenge even weak regimes without arms from abroad or sanctuary across borders. Civil wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan from the 1980s are cases in point.

Because of these dynamics, proxy wars tend to be thought of as drawn-out conflicts sustained less by local grievances than by larger tectonic forces. But that assumption may have it backward. In fact, local actors in many proxy wars play their external backers, not vice versa. Rebels adjust their messages to align with regional heavyweights, creating a kind of bidding war among rebel factions.

Even during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were barely able to decipher the ideological leanings of their various Third World clients—mostly because those leanings changed. When Washington withheld aid to Nicaragua and Cuba, for instance, Managua and Havana became much chummier with the Soviet Union. After Moscow cut aid to Somalia, Mogadishu began to espouse Western capitalist beliefs. As the international relations theorist John Lewis Gaddis wrote in We Now Know in 1997, during this era, both rebel groups and regimes “learned to manipulate the Americans and Russians by laying on flattery, pledging solidarity, feigning indifference, threatening defection, or even raising the specter of their own collapse and the disastrous results that might flow from it.”

The same is true today. Assad, for one, has positioned the Syrian regime as a secular bulwark against Sunni fanaticism, which has helped him attract military support from Russia and Iran. After Assad suffered a series of military setbacks in 2012, for example, he exaggerated the jihadist threat to get Russia and Iran to send more arms, funds, and even foot soldiers. But such arms were also going toward fighting Christians, Kurdish, and other local actors.

Syrian rebels, likewise, can secure a steady flow of cash, arms, and other assistance from the Gulf by fitting their conflict within the larger narrative of regional sectarian conflict. Formerly Baathist party soldiers and other secular rebels have grown out their beards and trumped up their Islamist bona fides on YouTube to outbid their rebel peers.

Proxy war or not, the bulk of the fighting in Syria is not about the regional balance of power. Most fighters (ISIS excluded) are driven by parochial—even personal—issues. For example, according to recent survey work, the University of Maryland researcher Vera Mironova and High Point University’s Sam Whitt found that rebels were motivated primarily by revenge and regime change, not by religion or larger regional issues. Ex-fighters surveyed in Syrian refugee camps told me much the same in 2013. For Ahmad Hasan, a taxi driver from Aleppo, it was the late-night visits by secret police and bribes that pushed him to join the opposition, after months of remaining neutral. “It was becoming unbearable,” he said. “So much corruption, everyone was about to explode. We couldn’t trust anyone.” 

ENDGAME

Another myth about proxy wars is how they end. “The fighting will only cease,” wrote Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in a New York Times op-ed, “when the United States, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia feel the negative consequences of the war and conclude that it is in their best interests to end it.” But that assumes that fighters are entirely dependent on outside support and that outside actors’ preferences are more important than those of the actual combatants.

Some wars can continue indefinitely, even with very little in the way of sophisticated weaponry or external financing filling each side’s coffers. For example, Somalia’s civil war has refused to burn itself out, despite a lack of major power sponsors and the intermittent presence of UN peacekeepers. Similarly, it is hard to imagine the various factions in Syria laying down their arms even in the absence of third-party meddling or a grand peace bargain.

And cajoling outside players to curb their support for their various clients or proxies doesn’t typically work. Angola’s bloody civil war did not end with the collapse of the Soviet Union or removal of Cuban and South African forces. Rather, it petered on for another decade. Likewise, over 20 years after the Taif Agreement ended the Lebanese civil war, the country is arguably still waiting for the next sectarian conflagration.

In Syria, too, Washington has emphasized peace talks in Geneva and now Vienna, even though such talks have been considered a sideshow among most Syrian fighters. Simply put, the war will not end with these players sitting down at the table. In fact, what little survey data exist suggest that it will end with some kind of “ugly stability” with one side victorious, since rebels want regime change and most civilians want greater rights and a return to some semblance of normalcy. Indeed, even if U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was able to strike a deal in which the Saudis, Qataris, Iranians, and Russians agreed to forgo all future support for their respective factions in Syria, the violence might de-escalate some, but the war would not burn itself out overnight. Its root causes—widespread local corruption and lack of political freedoms, to name just a few—are simply too complex.

HIGH STAKES

The “proxy war” framing also implies that the stakes for outside powers are so prohibitively high that they cannot afford to lose. Why budge if, as many analysts argue, Syria is the central front in a larger war between Sunnis and Shiites? Or why expect anything but a long, drawn-out conflict if, as Khouri suggests, “Russia and America are fighting, in Syria, the last battle of the Cold War”?

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enter a hall during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, October 20, 2015.

This line of thinking overstates both American and Russian stakes in the conflict. Russia is motivated partly by counterterrorism (it fears Islamist extremists pouring across its border in the south Caucasus) and partly to protect a longtime ally in the region. But were the Assad regime to fall tomorrow, Russia’s own security and position in the world would be largely unaffected.

The same could be said of the United States, whose main interests include weakening Iran, protecting Israel, and preventing Syria from becoming a launch pad for international jihadist attacks. If Assad and Russia won, the U.S. position in the region, both geostrategically and economically, would not look much different from the way it did in 2010. If the rebels won, Syria might be less favorable toward Iran and look more inviting for jihadists, but other weak states in the region—Yemen, Iraq—would also fit the bill.

Here, both sides could learn from the Guatemalan civil war, when the United States and its proxy military regime refused to back down, even after decades of fighting and thousands of “disappeared,” despite Washington’s arguably tenuous stake in the conflict.

OVERPOWERED

Outside powers cancontrol a conflict’s momentum by choosing to militarily intervene or not. But so long as no side is talking seriously about a major ground campaign or peacekeeping mission, the war will be decided primarily by Syrians—not by Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva. And the interests of most Syrians have little to do with larger sectarian fissures in the region.

So how do proxy wars end? It happens when either side achieves an overwhelming preponderance of power and can militarily defeat the other side, or when both sides agree that it is in their interest to stop fighting. The Vietnam War ended not because of a U.S.-Soviet truce, after all, but rather from the pullout of U.S. forces and subsequent fall of Saigon. The same could be said of Angola’s civil war after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Likewise, Syria will be resolved only by a massive shift in the war’s balance of power, resulting in all-out victory by one side (which seems unlikely), or by a true agreement hatched among its warring factions. As the military strategist Edward Luttwak argued in a 1999 Foreign Affairs article titled “Give War a Chance,” it doesn’t pay off for outside powers to prematurely impose negotiations on the fighters themselves or for regional backers to forge or force a grand bargain. In Syria’s case, any agreement will most likely start with a series of localized cease-fires to build trust between the sides, which admittedly have had a mixed record in rural towns near the Lebanese border as well as in Idlib Province.

The point is not that states should stay on the sidelines—that would be unrealistic—but rather that Washington must confront the realities of this multidimensional war. To fall for the old proxy war myths is to drag out the war indefinitely.

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