How Proxy Wars Work

And What That Means for Ending the Conflict in Syria

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

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

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