By Ahmed Atta
War by proxy: The Syrian model
More than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in four-and-a-half years of armed conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war. More than 11m others have been forced from their homes as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other – as well as jihadist militants from so-called Islamic State.
Pro-democracy protests erupted in March 2011 in the southern city of Deraa after the arrest and torture of some teenagers who daubed revolutionary slogans on a school wall. After security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several, more took to the streets.
The unrest triggered nationwide protests demanding President Assad’s resignation. The government’s use of force to crush the dissent merely hardened the protesters’ resolve. By July 2011, hundreds of thousands were already taking to the streets across the country.
Opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms, first to defend themselves and later to flush out security forces from their neighbourhoods.
Violence escalated and the country descended into civil war as rebel brigades were formed to battle government forces for control of cities, towns and the countryside. Fighting reached the capital Damascus and second city of Aleppo in 2012. By June 2013, the UN said 90,000 people had been killed in the conflict. By August 2015, that figure had climbed to 250,000, according to activists and the UN.
The conflict is now more than just a battle between those for or against Mr Assad. It has acquired sectarian overtones, pitching the country’s Sunni majority against the president’s Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) has added a further dimension.
A UN commission of inquiry has evidence that all parties to the conflict have committed war crimes – including murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearances. They have also been accused of using all tactics of deprivation to cause maximum civilian suffering – such as blocking access to food, water and health services through sieges – as a method of war.
The UN Security Council has demanded all parties end the indiscriminate use of weapons in populated areas, but civilians continue to die in their thousands. Many have been killed by barrel bombs dropped by government aircraft on gatherings in rebel-held areas – attacks which the UN says may constitute massacres.
IS has also been accused by the UN of waging a campaign of terror. It has inflicted severe punishments on those who transgress or refuse to submit to its rules, including hundreds of public executions and amputations. Its fighters have also carried out mass killings of rival armed groups, members of the security forces and religious minorities, and beheaded hostages, including several Westerners.
Chemical warfare and mass exodus
Hundreds were killed in August 2013 after rockets filled with the nerve agent sarin were fired at several suburbs of Damascus. Western powers said it could only have been carried out by Syria’s government, but the regime blamed rebel forces. Facing the prospect of US military intervention, President Assad agreed to the complete removal and destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The operation was completed the following year, but the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has continued to document the use of toxic chemicals in the conflict. Investigators found chlorine was used “systematically and repeatedly” in deadly attacks on rebel-held areas between April and July 2014.
IS has also been accused of using homemade chemical weapons, including sulphur mustard. The OPCW said the blister agent was used in an attack on the northern town of Marea in August 2015 that killed a baby.
More than 4.5m people have fled Syria since the start of the conflict, most of them women and children. Neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have struggled to cope with one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. About 10 percent of Syrian refugees have sought safety in Europe, sowing political divisions as countries argue over sharing the burden.
A further 6.5m are internally displaced inside Syria, 1.2m were driven from their homes in 2015 alone. The UN says it will need $3.2bn to help the 13.5m people, including 6m children, who will require some form of humanitarian assistance inside Syria in 2016. About 70 percent of the population do not have access to clean drinking water, one in three people are unable to meet their basic food needs, and more than 2m children are out of school, while four out of five people live in poverty.
The warring factions have compounded the problems by refusing humanitarian agencies access to civilians in need. Up to 4.5m people in Syria live in hard-to-reach areas, including nearly 400,000 people in 15 besieged locations who do not have access to life-saving aid.
A free-for-all conflict
The armed rebellion has evolved significantly since its emergence in the theatre of war. Secular moderates are now outnumbered by Islamists and jihadists, whose brutal tactics have caused global outrage.
So-called Islamic State has capitalised on the chaos and taken control of large swathes of Syria and Iraq, where it proclaimed the creation of a “caliphate” in June 2014. Its many foreign fighters are involved in a “war within a war” in Syria, battling rebels and rival jihadists from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, as well as government and Kurdish forces.
In September 2014, a US-led coalition launched air strikes inside Syria in an effort to “degrade and ultimately destroy” IS. But the coalition has avoided attacks that might benefit Mr Assad’s forces. Russia began an air campaign targeting “terrorists” in Syria a year later, but opposition activists say its strikes have mostly killed Western-backed rebels and civilians.
In the political arena, opposition groups are also deeply divided, with rival alliances battling for supremacy. The most prominent is the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, backed by several Western and Gulf Arab states. However, the exile group has little influence on the ground in Syria and its primacy is rejected by many opponents of Mr Assad.
Origins of the proxy war
With neither side able to inflict a decisive defeat on the other, the international community long ago concluded that only a political solution could end the conflict in Syria. The UN Security Council has called for the implementation of the 2012 Geneva Communique, which envisages a transitional governing body with full executive powers “formed on the basis of mutual consent”.
Talks in early 2014, christened Geneva II, broke down after only two rounds, with then-UN special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi blaming the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss opposition demands.
Mr Brahimi’s successor, Staffan de Mistura, focused on establishing a series of local ceasefires. His plan for a “freeze zone” in Aleppo was rejected, but a three-year siege of the Homs suburb of al-Wair was successfully brought to an end in December 2015.
At the same time, the conflict with IS lent fresh impetus to the search for a political solution in Syria. The US and Russia led efforts to get representatives of the government and the opposition to attend “proximity talks” in Geneva in January 2016 to discuss a Security Council-endorsed road map for peace, including a ceasefire and a transitional period ending with elections.
Proxy war in Yemen
Yemen–Iran relations pre-2015;
Relations between the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY, 1967–90) and Iran changed dramatically from hostility — until the downfall of the Shah — to cordiality with economic links after the 1979 Iranian revolution. The Yemen Arab Republic (YAR, 1962–90), by contrast, due to President Saleh’s closeness to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime, had tense relations with Iran most of the time, despite the fact that both regimes shared a common sect of Islam: both are Shi’a though Yemeni ‘Fiver’ Zaydism is, in its rituals, closer to Sunnism than Iranian ‘Twelver’ Shi’ism.
In its early years, the Republic of Yemen, under Saleh, maintained good relations with Iran: President Khatami made an official visit to Sana’a in 2003 where numerous bilateral agreements were signed. A Sana’a street was even named ‘Iran street’ and an Iranian hospital was opened. However, after 2004, as part of his search for Saudi and US support in his anti-Huthi wars, Saleh unsuccessfully did his best to persuade the world that the Iranian regime was deeply involved in supporting the Huthi movement. Relations between the two states deteriorated and both the Iranian and the Yemeni regimes engaged in petty actions designed to irritate the other.
During the transitional regime which followed the 2011 popular uprisings, and while the Hadi regime cooperated with both the Houthi movement and Saleh’s General People’s Congress, the issue of Iranian involvement with the Houthis was in abeyance. By contrast, during this period, Iran gave both financial and media support to some Southern separatists.
Saudi Arabia and Yemen before 2015
Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s immediate neighbour to the north, has played a prominent role in Yemeni affairs since the state’s creation in 1932. During the civil war in the YAR (1962–70), the Saudi regime actively supported the Zaydi Imam against the Sunni republican movement backed by Nasser, demonstrating yet again that politics supersede sectarianism, even in the strongly sectarian Salafi Saudi regime.
Among its many interventions, then and in following years, the Saudi regime financed the major northern tribes [again Zaydis] strengthening their position relative to the central state; later, once the republican movement had been emasculated and Nasserist influence removed, it also financed the YAR state, to maintain its desired balance of keeping Yemen just strong enough yet prevent it becoming a threat.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia remained hostile to the PDRY throughout that state’s existence, though this hostility weakened over time but did not disappear: mutual diplomatic recognition in 1976 failed to bring about the financial and economic support hoped for in Aden. As the Saudi regime was less than enthusiastic about Yemeni unity, in 1994, it encouraged its former enemies in the Yemeni Socialist Party to secede by promising diplomatic recognition to the independent regime. It then abandoned the secessionists to their fate when it reneged on its promise.
King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz negotiated a final border agreement between the Republic of Yemen and Saudi Arabia in 2000. This was quite favourable to the Yemeni regime giving it potentially oil-rich desert areas in exchange for permanent recognition of Saudi control over Jizan, Asir and Najran provinces, which the Imamate had lost in the 1934 war as discussed by Ash Rossiter. Yemen’s continued dependence on Saudi Arabia for financial support jeopardised the nation’s ability to develop independent policies, despite the fact that Saudi Arabia and other GCC states were compelled to accept the presence of a formal republic within the peninsula.
Yemen in the Saudi–Iranian Rivalry
In March 2015, when launched, Decisive Storm was described as having a single aim “to restore the legitimate government of President Hadi after takeover by Houthi militias”. Mohammed bin Salman, then Minister of Defence, certainly expected to boost his political clout within the Kingdom through the rapid victory of his air force equipped with advanced and expensive American and western firepower. But, as his military coalition sank into the quagmire now in its fourth year, Iran’s role is now the dominant subject while the ‘legitimate’ Yemeni government is rarely mentioned. While other important aspects of this rivalry are discussed in detail in other papers, one of the reasons for this change in narrative is the need to justify the coalition’s failure to achieve its military objectives despite its superior arsenal including troops from many nationalities, aerial power and international diplomatic coupled with technical support.
While Iran widely publicises its political support for the Houthis, its actual involvement is far more debatable, particularly with respect to training and the supply of ballistic missiles which the Houthis are increasingly frequently launching against targets in Saudi Arabia. Alongside ground incursions on Yemen’s north-west border with Saudi Arabia, these missiles are the Houthis’ military retaliation against the more than 16,000 coalition air strikes which have caused massive destruction in Yemen, let alone the air and naval blockade responsible for the country’s disastrous humanitarian situation.
Iran’s limited support is trivial by comparison with the claims made by the Saudi-led coalition and its western allies which now assert that the Houthis are nothing more than Iranian proxies, neglecting Houthis’ demonstrated independence from Iran when they ignored Iranian advice to stay out of Sana’a and avoid attacking Aden. The missiles were pretty unsophisticated, little more than souped up old Soviet scuds. A sober assessment of Iranian involvement and use of the Yemen issue in its rivalry with Saudi Arabia also presents Iranian internal debate about Yemen and the Houthis. This diversity of views is currently absent in Saudi Arabia, where Mohammed bin Salman stifles alternative views apart from his own.
Many questions deserve further discussion: given the importance of the Saudi–Iran rivalry in each of these states’ internal politics. Is there any prospect for a peaceful settlement in Yemen in such a ‘proxy war’ context? To what extent might concessions in Yemen be used to avoid escalation of conflict between the two shores of the Gulf? Is the current US administration interested in solutions, rather than escalation? What ‘deals’ might be struck in the overall context of Saudi Arabia’s interventions elsewhere, Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria? And plenty more…
Libya, the model proxy war
Recent reports of Egyptian military aircraft bombing Islamist militant positions in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi have highlighted once more how the Mediterranean state has become a contested site of regional proxy wars. The projection of Middle Eastern rivalries onto Libya’s fractured landscape has a long pedigree, dating back to the 2011 revolution and perhaps even further, when Muammar Gaddafi’s propaganda apparatus portrayed the country as a plaything at the mercy of predatory imperialists. During the uprising, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar jostled for influence, with their respective special forces supporting disparate revolutionary factions with intelligence, training and arms.
Initially, the choice of actors had less to do with ideological affinity and more with expediency, history and geography. Libyan expatriates residing in each country shaped the channeling of funds and weapons.
As the revolution wore on, these interventions had a profound effect on its trajectory and aftermath. The availability of outside patronage reduced incentives for factional cooperation and consensus-building on the ground. It sharpened preexisting fissures in the anti-Gaddafi opposition: Revolutionary factions competed for arms shipments, withheld foreign intelligence and targeting data from one another, and tried to outmanoeuvre one another in the revolution’s endgame – the liberation of Tripoli.
But the intra-regional tussling of the 2011 revolution pales in comparison to the intensity of today’s proxy war. Back then, the factions and their foreign backers were at least united in the common goal of toppling a universally despised tyrant. Today, the outside powers are engaged in a struggle far more divisive and consequential: a war of narratives.
A dangerous scenario looms ahead. Backed by Egypt and the UAE, the Libyan government is extending the narrative of its counter-terrorism struggle against jihadists in Benghazi to include what is effectively a multi-sided civil war in Tripoli and the western mountains – of which Islamists are only one player. It is a multifaceted struggle that is only partially understood, and for which the literature on proxy interventions does not fully account.
Political scientist Karl Deutsch posited an early definition of proxy wars as: “an international conflict between two foreign powers, fought out on the soil of a third country; disguised as a conflict over an internal issue of that country; and using some of that country’s manpower, resources and territory as a means for achieving preponderantly foreign goals and foreign strategies.” Recently, Andrew Mumford criticised this definition for being “too state-centric”, arguing instead that proxy wars are “conflicts in which a third party intervenes indirectly in order to influence the strategic outcome in favour of its preferred faction”.
In the Libya scenario, however, neither definition is satisfying because they leave out the crucial element of narrative.
The Sisi effect
The inflection point in Libya’s post-revolutionary narrative arguably came from outside the country, in the rise of incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in neighbouring Cairo. Without meaning to intervene, at least initially, the Egyptian strongman cast a long and ultimately polarising shadow over Libya’s turbulent politics. In both word and deed, he was an exemplar to embattled and desperate segments of the Libyan population: The ex-regime officials, key eastern tribes, federalists and younger liberals, who began idolising the military uniform, the proverbial “man on horseback,” as the salvation for the country’s worsening violence and, less nobly, a way to exclude their ideological opponents from power.
To be certain, the maximalist positions and immaturity of Islamist politicians in Libya’s dysfunctional parliament, and especially their channeling of funds to revolutionary militias and, in some cases, US-designated terrorist groups like Ansar al-Sharia at the expense of the regular army and police, bear much of the blame for this desperation. But the narrative shift imparted by the “Sisi Effect” meant that previous debates in Libya about dialogue, disarmament and reintegration were replaced with the more toxic and unyielding discourse of a “war on terror.” And perhaps most importantly, the rise of Sisi created a new chapter in Libya’s narrative script, waiting for an actor to play it.
That actor, as is well known, is General Khalifa Haftar, the septuagenarian commander of Libya’s disastrous intervention in Chad, defector, and 20-year resident of northern Virginia who returned in 2011 in an unsuccessful bid for military leadership. In May 2014, Haftar announced the launch of Operation Dignity, a coalition of eastern tribal militias, federalists and disaffected military units, which began shelling the positions of Ansar al-Sharia and Islamist militias in and around Benghazi. In both tone and action, Haftar tried to align himself early on with Egypt’s military regime, which has been fighting its own Islamists in Egypt. Haftar also directly called on Egypt to use “all necessary military actions inside Libya” to secure its borders. At the same time, he declared Operation Dignity to be aimed at preventing Islamists from threatening “our neighbours in Algeria and Egypt”, further emphasising the regional aspect of his campaign. There were echoes of neo-Nasserism in his rhetoric. He claimed that he and Sisi agreed that fighting terrorism was a way to “emphasise our Arab identity”. He vowed that he would not permit any anti-Egyptian militants to exploit Libya’s eastern border as a safe haven.
Egypt has very real security concerns about the porous Egyptian-Libyan border. Multiple media reports and UN probes have long singled out the border as a major entry point for weapons and militants destined for the Sinai, Gaza and onward to Syria. Gunmen reportedly based in Libya killed 21 Egyptian border guards in July. But as I recently argued, Egypt’s motives in Libya follow a time-worn tactic of deflecting internal problems onto an external source. Much of Egypt’s border insecurities lie on its side of the frontier: Its governance deficiencies in the Western Desert – specifically, its policies of co-opting local tribal and religious elites without addressing deeper structural problems related to land ownership, infrastructure and employment.
Ironically, Haftar’s anti-Islamist campaign in the east, while originally intended to reduce the threat to Egypt, may have actually heightened it. The campaign has compelled Islamist militias in Benghazi to combine their firepower into a single coalition, undermining the political space for the more pragmatic Islamist factions. It sparked a counter-mobilisation in Tripoli, the so-called Operation Dawn, a coalition of militias from Misrata, Amazigh factions, western towns and Islamists. This coalition attacked Tripoli International Airport, which was controlled by Zintani militias allied with Hifter. Having seized the airport, certain Dawn factions have taken their campaign into the western Nafusa mountains, even reportedly going so far as to conduct air strikes of their own on Zintan.
Egypt wanted a reliable ally to fight Islamists in Libya, but Egyptian leaders are not impressed with Haftar’s campaign. Egypt has found its local proxies rife with competing agendas and deficiencies in competence. There are now increasing signs that Cairo is distancing itself from Haftar. One retired Egyptian general complained that while Haftar “is doing his best … he has not proved that he can really put the Islamist radicals in their place”.
More recently, Sisi has invoked the anti-Islamic State clause to justify Egyptian support for Libya’s government. The Egyptian president’s recent offer of military assistance to Operation Dignity was explicitly framed as part of a broader anti-Islamic State battle. Leaked documents in mid-September purportedly showed that this was not merely an offer but rather a formalised agreement of military cooperation between the two states.The Egyptian media has bolstered the narrative as well. Cairo is home to several pro-Dignity media outlets, including the Libya Awalan TV station owned by Hasan Tatanaki, a Libyan business magnate with a virulently anti-Islamist outlook, and a more recent addition with the giveaway name of Karama (Dignity) TV.
A recent emphasis in the Egyptian media has been on the burgeoning presence of the Islamic State on Egypt’s border, particularly after the Islamic Youth Shura Council, a jihadist faction in the Libyan port city of Darna, announced that Darna was a territorial dependency of the Islamic State. This is an alarming development but one that should be tempered by the questions that still remain about what this means operationally for the training and facilitation of fighters, given the geographic space that separates the two and that the Islamic State has yet to respond to the Darna group’s unilateral declaration. Moreover, the jihadi field in eastern Libya, particularly in Darna, has been rife with fissures and debates about tactics and also fealty to the Islamic State.
Most significantly, the Islamic Youth Shura Council has been engaged in a running battle for influence in Darna with the Abu Salim Martyrs Brigade, which rejected its claim. Recently, three members of the brigade fled Darna after the Shura Council sentenced them to death for not pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Shura Council’s recent appeal to the supra-nationalism of the Islamic State smacks of a bid to outmanoeuvre its local rival for popular support. Ansar al-Sharia, in both Darna and Benghazi, has yet to come down one way or another in its support for the Islamic State.
For its part, the UAE has been both a partner and an instigator of Egyptian intervention. The UAE’s activism is informed by a broader concern about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the growing influence of its rival, Qatar, in Libya’s post-Gaddafi order. Yet it too has framed its involvement in Libya as part of a broader fight against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Emirati military links inside Libya have a long history, dating back to the 2011 revolution, when its special forces channelled support to the Zintani militia brigades that are currently allied with Haftar against the Misratan, Amazigh (Berber), Islamist and Nafusa-based armed groups comprising the Dawn coalition. The UAE has long hosted politicians hostile to the Brotherhood and allied with Operation Dignity, including Mahmoud Jabril, chairman of the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and Aref Ali Nayed, currently the Libyan ambassador in Abu Dhabi. In the wake of Hifter’s campaign, the UAE intensified its military involvement. Operation Dignity’s stalling in Benghazi and the apparent advances of Misratan armed groups in the battle for Tripoli’s airport prompted the Emiratis to respond with a series of nighttime airstrikes on the Misratan positions. Emirati special forces also purportedly launched cross-border raids to demolish a jihadist training camp outside of Darna.
Qatar has reportedly stepped up its assistance to the Dawn faction, allegedly acting in coordination with Turkey and Sudan. As a forthcoming edited volume on the history of the Libyan Revolution makes clear, it was Qatar’s growing support for the network of Islamist revolutionaries clustered around the Doha-based cleric Ali Sallabi that pushed Jibril and Nayed to solicit greater backing from the UAE, France and the United States. Qatari aid also induced splits in the opposition as Ismail Sallabi – Ali’s more radical younger brother and the commander of a Benghazi-based militia – tussled with Haftar over weapons shipments. The two are now bitter foes in the ongoing fighting in Benghazi. In the Nafusa mountains, there were similar disagreements: The UAE set up an operations room and channelled support to Zintan, while Qatar favoured nearby Nalut because of the presence of fighters from the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). Contrary to common assumptions, Doha did not back the former muqatilin (fighters) from the LIFG because of an Islamist project but because it judged them to be among the more cohesive and capable of the revolutionary factions. Qatar also opened up independent channels of support to Misratan notables and revolutionary leaders, many of whom are now vital in the anti-Haftar Dawn coalition.
Operation Dignity attacks in Tripoli have been accompanied by allegations of Qatari support to Tripoli-based Misrata and Islamist factions, using Turkey and Sudan as intermediaries. With Tripoli’s airport not operational, Qatari cash and weapons shipments are believed to be being funnelled through the Matiga airport, on the eastern flank of Tripoli, which is under the control of Islamist militias. The alleged support from Qatar has produced an explosive response from Operation Dignity forces, with dire consequences for civilians caught in the crossfire.
As early as June, Haftar asked Turkish and Qatari citizens to leave eastern Libya within 48 hours, claiming “those with Qatari and Turkish passports are intelligence agents and consultants supporting the Islamist forces”. In many respects, the war of narratives underway in Libya mirrors the polarisation in the Gulf itself and in the broader Arab world. In tandem with Saudi Arabia, the UAE has erected what amounts to a legal, political and military cordon sanitaire against Islamist political mobilisation, specifically from the Brotherhood.
What is remarkable about the Gulf intervention is its brazenness and that the opposing Gulf states – UAE and Qatar – are both members of the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition. Together with Egypt, the UAE, Qatar and Turkey were among the signatories of a recent 13-nation statement pledging non-interference in Libya’s internal affairs. But such oaths ring hollow in the face of recent air strikes and the under-the-table shipments of funds and weapons.
More recently, the dragnet against activists in the UAE has extended to Libyan opponents of Operation Dignity; at least 30 Libyan nationals have been arrested in the UAE, including an Al Jazeera employee. At least two of those held were Libyan businessmen who had been residing in the UAE for more than 10 years, and their links to Libyan political actors, let alone radical groups, have yet to be corroborated. Human rights organisations have expressed outrage at the extrajudicial nature of the detentions – conducted without warrants – and warned of the potential for the prisoners to be tortured like Egyptians who were arrested a year earlier. As the arrested Libyans remained missing as of early October, Human Rights Watch issued a call for the UAE to reveal the locations of the “disappeared” Libyans.
Meanwhile, Thinni recently vowed to “liberate” Tripoli, and the Libyan parliament in Tobruk voted to bring Haftar and his forces under the purview of the government. Having realised the limits of air strikes in dislodging entrenched opponents in an urban setting, the Dignity forces are now calling for tribal and societal mobilisation in both Benghazi and Tripoli. American commentators have argued that Washington should lend greater military support to the Dignity forces, throwing its lot behind the UAE and Egypt in their intervention. But such a policy would invariably throw the country deeper into chaos and intensify the very radicalism that the United States is keen to combat.
For now, the US is steering a middle ground. In repeated statements, US officials – along with the United Nations and Western diplomats – have emphasised political reconciliation rather than military force as the solution for Libya’s conflict. But future US engagement is fraught with pitfalls. Plans for US military assistance to Libya are guided by a broader counterterrorism strategy, which relies heavily on training and mentoring local special operations forces. Undertaking such an effort now, amid Libya’s fractured politics, risks falling into the narrative trap being set by one side in the struggle, with the support of its outside patrons. Injecting a new military force into an already divided security sector will likely perpetuate the conflict without decisively resolving it. The United States should hold off on training the Libyan military until a national reconciliation is enacted and a unified government is in place. It should work toward creating security forces that are representative of all of Libya’s tribes and regions, and it should ensure that these forces are placed under the close control of an inclusive, civilian and elected government with broad national representation.
Why are states resorting to proxy wars?
The Syrian civil war is the world’s bloodiest conflict, and much of the blame can be laid at the feet of Syria’s neighbours and the world’s major powers. So far, France, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the United Kingdom and of course the United States have all intervened—and this long list of countries excludes the dozens of other coalition members that back US efforts or otherwise played lesser roles. These states have bombed their enemies in Syria, provided money, arms and training to allied government or rebel groups, offered a safe haven to fighters, amplified their preferred cause at international fora like the United Nations, and otherwise used their power to help a local group that acts as a proxy for their interests.
Syria’s experience is not uncommon. Indeed, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that all of today’s major wars are in essence proxy wars. In Ukraine, Russia backs rebel groups who have proclaimed the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic. Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UAE back militia leader Khalifa Haftar, who seeks to control Libya while the United States notionally recognises the rival government in Tripoli but works on a day-to-day basis with militias to fight the Islamic State in the country. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the UAE back a motley mix of former regime military units, southern secessionists and tribal groups against Houthi forces, which Iran supports. In Afghanistan, Pakistan has long supported the Taliban, which has also received occasional backing from Iran and Russia. The Congolese Civil War, which was the bloodiest conflict since World War II, involved nine countries and 25 rebel groups.
Understanding the prevalence of proxy war is not hard. Proxies enable intervention on the cheap. They cost a fraction of the expense of deploying a state’s own forces and the proxy does the dying. Because the costs are lower, proxy war is also more politically palatable—few Americans know the United States is bombing Libya, let alone which particular militia it supports in so doing. Indeed, using proxies is that rare foreign policy tool that seems to fit the approaches both used by Donald Trump and Barack Obama in their foreign policy strategies. For all their differences, both presidents are skeptical about large-scale US troop deployments or boots on the ground yet promised to fight terrorism.
Despite their many advantages, proxies often disappoint their sponsors. Rather than be grateful and obedient, local groups often go their own way, pursuing their own agendas while pocketing the money and other support they receive. Their competence is often minimal, while their brutality knows no bounds. Some even drag their supposed masters into unwanted interventions.
Proxy war, however, is not going away, and the United States must have its eyes open, when using proxies and when fighting them. Proxies are messier and often costlier than they appear. They can advance US interests, but only when it approaches them realistically and structures its forces accordingly. Adversaries like Iran and Russia, for their part, also face their own problems with proxies, and better US policies can exploit these divisions.
A proxy war occurs when a major power instigates or plays a major role in supporting and directing the fighting in another country but does only a small portion of the actual fighting itself. Proxy war stands in contrast not only to a traditional war when a state shoulders the burden of its own defence (or offence), but also an alliance, when major and minor powers work together with each other, making significant contributions according to their means. Washington’s close partnership with Kabul against what is left of Al Qaeda and the Taliban more closely resembles a traditional alliance because of the major US role, with thousands of American troops and hundreds of air strikes. Meanwhile, Iran’s relationship with Houthi rebels in Yemen should be regarded as a proxy war because Tehran primarily provides weapons and funding, not large numbers of its own troops.
When is a proxy not a proxy?
In practice, proxy war is a spectrum, and in a conflict the balance between the forces of a sponsoring state and a proxy often changes. In Vietnam, the United States went from having several hundred advisers supporting the South Vietnamese army in 1959 to the deployment of over 500,000 US troops in 1968, then to a small presence backed by massive US airpower at the end of the war. If the bulk of a state’s military campaign is conducted through a proxy rather than with its own forces, then the proxy-war label is more apt. How much direct military support is too much to count as a proxy war is in the eye of the beholder, but in general, think the lower end of the involvement spectrum.
For countries like Iran, the proxy war is the norm. In addition to using over 20,000 Shia foreign fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in Syria, Iran backs the Lebanese Hezbollah, an array of Shia militias in Iraq and the aforementioned Houthis in Yemen, among others. Russia uses proxies in Ukraine, and the United States often does so in its operations in the Middle East and Africa, supporting Kurdish “People’s Protection Units” (YPG) against the Islamic State in Syria and working with armed groups in Libya to fight terrorists there. Indeed, much of the US struggle against terrorism in parts of Africa and the Middle East involves working with local forces or governments to get them to more aggressively go after groups linked to Al Qaeda or the Islamic State. By design it is the proxy, not the United States, that is doing much of the heavy lifting, with Washington providing intelligence and using special operations forces and drones to keep its footprint light.
The Cold War was rife with instances when the United States or the Soviet Union backed a local power or group to gain a more favourable position on the global chessboard, whether it was in Angola, Nicaragua or Afghanistan. Today, most proxy wars involve a substate group, with the sponsor’s primary efforts going to arm, train or otherwise help that group fight and gain power. At times, as in Yemen or Libya, one side may back “the government”, but in such cases the officially recognised regime is just one faction of many—and despite the international support on the ground, it is just another band of fighters.
States use proxies for many reasons. For the United States, the issue is often cost: locals fight, and die, so that Americans do not have to. In addition, because they are natives, they are often (though not always) more accepted by the affected communities, can better gain intelligence from them by drawing on community ties, cultural knowledge and a common language, and are less likely to promote a nationalistic backlash that so often accompanies foreign interventions. If the proxy is a guerrilla force, they often know the terrain better and can blend in with the population in a way that foreigners never could.
For states like Iran, proxies are often the only option. Most states lack the power projection capacity of the United States and turn to proxies as a way to influence events far from their borders. Iran lacks a navy or massive airlift capacity necessary to sustain large forces in Yemen: supporting the Houthis gives Tehran influence there nonetheless. Even major powers like Russia do not possess sufficient air and sealift capabilities, limiting Moscow’s ability to use its own forces far from Russia’s borders.
Washington: Bankrolling proxy wars
In the 1980s, the US government began funnelling aid to Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan as part of an American proxy war against the Soviet Union. It was, in the minds of America’s Cold War leaders, a rare chance to bloody the Soviets, to give them a taste of the sort of defeat the Vietnamese, with Soviet help, had inflicted on Washington a decade before. In 1989, after years of bloody combat, the Red Army did indeed limp out of Afghanistan in defeat. Since late 2001, the United States has been fighting its former Afghan proxies and their progeny. Now, after years of internecine combat, it is the United States that is looking to withdraw the bulk of its forces and once again employ proxies to secure its interests there.
From Asia and Africa to the Middle East and the Americas, the Obama administration increasingly embraced a multifaceted, light-footprint brand of warfare. Gone, for the moment at least, are the days of full-scale invasions of the Eurasian mainland. Instead, Washington is now planning to rely ever more heavily on drones and special operations forces to fight scattered global enemies on the cheap. A centrepiece of this new American way of waging war is the outsourcing of fighting duties to local proxies around the world.
Proxies can be expensive and let you down
While the United States is currently engaged in just one outright proxy war, backing a multi-nation African force to battle Islamist militants in Somalia, it is laying the groundwork for the extensive use of surrogate forces in the future, training “native” troops to carry out missions—up to and including outright warfare. With this in mind and under the auspices of the Pentagon and the State Department, US military personnel now take part in near-constant joint exercises and training missions around the world aimed at fostering alliances, building coalitions, and whipping surrogate forces into shape to support US national security objectives.
While using slightly different methods in different regions, the basic strategy is a global one in which the United States will train, equip and advise indigenous forces—generally from poor, underdeveloped nations—to do the fighting (and dying) it doesn’t want to do. In the process, as small an American force as possible, including special forces operatives and air support, will be brought to bear to support those surrogates. Like drones, proxy warfare appears to offer an easy solution to complex problems. But as Washington’s thirty-year debacle in Afghanistan indicates, the ultimate costs may prove both unimaginable and unimaginably high.
Start with Afghanistan itself. For more than a decade, the United States and its coalition partners have been training Afghan security forces in the hope that they would take over the war there, defending US and allied interests as the American-led international force draws down. Yet despite an expenditure of almost $50bn on bringing it up to speed, the Afghan National Army and other security forces have drastically underperformed falling short of all expectations, year after year.
One track of the US plan has been a little-talked-about proxy army run by the CIA. For years, the intelligence agency has trained and employed six clandestine militias that operate near the cities of Kandahar, Kabul, and Jalalabad as well as in Khost, Kunar, and Paktika provinces. Working with US Special Forces and controlled by Americans, these “Counter terror Pursuit Teams” evidently operate free of any Afghan governmental supervision and have reportedly carried out cross-border raids into Pakistan, offering their American patrons a classic benefit of proxy warfare: plausible deniability.
Proxies kill their masters
This clandestine effort has also been supplemented by the creation of a massive, conventional indigenous security force. While officially under Afghan government control, these military and police forces are almost entirely dependent on the financial support of the US and allied governments for their continued existence.
Today, the Afghan National Security Forces officially number more than 343,000, but only seven percent of its army units and nine percent of its police units are rated at the highest level of effectiveness. By contrast, even after more than a decade of large-scale Western aid, 95 percent of its recruits are still functionally illiterate.
Not surprisingly, this massive force, trained by high-priced private contractors, Western European militaries, and the United States backed by US and coalition forces and their advanced weapons systems, has been unable to stamp out a lightly-armed, modest-sized, less-than-popular, rag-tag insurgency. One of the few tasks this proxy force seems skilled at is shooting American and allied forces, quite often their own trainers, in increasingly common “green-on-blue” attacks.
Adding insult to injury, this poor-performing, coalition-killing, incompetent force is expensive. Bought and paid for by the United States and its coalition partners, it costs between $10bn and $12bn each year to sustain in a country whose gross domestic product is just $18bn. Over the long term, such a situation is untenable.
Back to the future
Utilising foreign surrogates is nothing new. Since ancient times, empires and nation-states have employed foreign troops and indigenous forces to wage war or have backed them when it suited their policy aims. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the tactic had become de rigueur for colonial powers like the French who employed Senegalese, Moroccans, and other African forces in Indochina and elsewhere, and the British who regularly used Nepalese Gurkhas to wage counterinsurgencies in places ranging from Iraq and Malaya to Borneo.
By the time the United States began backing the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, it already had significant experience with proxy warfare and its perils. After World War II, the United States eagerly embraced foreign surrogates, generally in poor and underdeveloped countries, in the name of the Cold War. These efforts included the attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro via a proxy Cuban force that crashed and burned at the Bay of Pigs; the building of a Hmong army in Laos which ultimately lost to Communist forces there; and the bankrolling of a French war in Vietnam that tanked in 1954 and then the creation of a massive army in South Vietnam that crumbled in 1975, to name just a few unsuccessful efforts.
A more recent proxy catastrophe occurred in Iraq. For years after the 2003 invasion, American policymakers uttered a standard mantra: “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” Last year, those Iraqis basically walked off. Between 2003 and 2011, the United States pumped tens of billions of dollars into “reconstructing” the country with around $20bn of it going to build the Iraqi security forces. This mega-force of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police was created from scratch to prop up the successors to the government that the United States overthrew. It was trained by and fought with the Americans and their coalition partners, but that all came to an end in December 2011.
Despite Obama administration efforts to base thousands or tens of thousands of troops in Iraq for years to come, the Iraqi government spurned Washington’s overtures and sent the US military packing. Today, the Iraqi government supports the Assad regime in Syria, and has a warm and increasingly close relationship with long-time US enemy Iran. According to Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency, the two countries have even discussed expanding their military ties.
African Shadow Wars
Despite an unenviable history of sinking billions into proxy armies that collapsed, melted away, or morphed into enemies, Washington is currently pursuing plans for proxy warfare across the globe, perhaps nowhere more aggressively than in Africa. Under President Obama, operations in Africa accelerated far beyond the more limited interventions of the Bush years. These include the war in Libya; the expansion of a growing network of supply depots, small camps, and airfields; a regional drone campaign with missions run out of Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Indian Ocean archipelago nation of Seychelles; a flotilla of 30 ships in that ocean supporting regional operations; a massive influx of cash for counterterrorism operations across East Africa; a possible old-fashioned aerial war, carried out on the sly in the region using manned aircraft; and a special ops expeditionary force (bolstered by State Department experts) dispatched to help capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony and his senior commanders. (This mission against Kony is seen by some experts as a cover for a developing proxy war between the United States and the Islamist government of Sudan—which is accused of helping to support the LRA—and Islamists more generally.) And this only begins to scratch the surface of Washington’s fast-expanding plans and activities in the region. In Somalia, Washington has already involved itself in a multi-pronged military and CIA campaign against Islamist al-Shabaab militants that includes intelligence operations, training for Somali agents, a secret prison, helicopter attacks and commando raids. Now, it is also backing a classic proxy war using African surrogates. The United States has become, as the Los Angeles Times put it recently, “the driving force behind the fighting in Somalia”, as it trains and equips African foot soldiers to battle Shabaab militants, so US forces won’t have to. In a country where more than 90 Americans were killed and wounded in a 1993 debacle now known by the shorthand, “Black Hawk Down,” today’s fighting and dying has been outsourced to African soldiers.
Earlier this year, for example, elite Force Recon Marines from the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force 12 (or, as a mouthful of an acronym, SPMAGTF-12) trained soldiers from the Uganda People’s Defence Force. It, in turn, supplies the majority of the troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) currently protecting the US-backed government in that country’s capital, Mogadishu.
This spring, Marines from SPMAGTF-12 also trained soldiers from the Burundi National Defence Force (BNDF), the second-largest contingent in Somalia. In April and May, members of Task Force Raptor, 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment of the Texas National Guard, took part in a separate training mission with the BNDF in Mudubugu, Burundi. SPMAGTF-12 has also sent its trainers to Djibouti, another nation involved in the Somali mission, to work with an elite army unit there.
Simultaneously, US Army troops have taken part in training members of Sierra Leone’s military fighters in preparation for their deployment to Somalia later this year. In June, US Army Africa commander Major General David Hogg spoke encouragingly of the future of Sierra Leone’s forces in conjunction with another US ally, Kenya, which invaded Somalia last fall (and just recently joined the African Union mission there). “You will join the Kenyan forces in southern Somalia to continue to push al Shabaab and other miscreants from Somalia so it can be free of tyranny and terrorism and all the evil that comes with it,” he proclaimed enthusiastically. “We know that you are ready and trained. You will be equipped and you will accomplish this mission with honour and dignity.”
Readying allied forces for deployment to Somalia is, however, just a fraction of the story when it comes to training indigenous forces in Africa. This year, for example, Marines travelled to Liberia to focus on teaching riot-control techniques to that country’s military unit as part of what is otherwise a State Department-directed effort to rebuild its security forces.
In fact, Colonel Tom Davis of US Africa Command (Africom) recently told TomDispatch that his command has held or has planned 14 major joint training exercises for 2012 and a similar number are scheduled for 2013. This year’s efforts include operations in Morocco, Cameroon, Gabon, Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Senegal, and Nigeria, including, for example, Western Accord 2012, a multilateral exercise involving the armed forces of Senegal, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Gambia, and France.
Even this, however, does not encompass the full breadth of US training and advising missions in Africa. “We… conduct some type of military training or military-to-military engagement or activity with nearly every country on the African continent,” wrote Davis.
America spreads its tentacles proxy-style
Africa may, at present, be the prime location for the development of proxy warfare, American-style, but it is hardly the only region where the United States is training indigenous forces to advance US foreign policy aims. This year, the Pentagon has also ramped up operations in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean.
In Honduras, for example, small teams of US troops are working with local forces to escalate the drug war there. Working out of Forward Operating Base Mocoron and other remote camps, the US military is supporting Honduran operations by way of the methods it honed in Iraq and Afghanistan. US forces have also taken part in joint operations with Honduran troops as part of a training mission dubbed, “Beyond the Horizon 2012,” while Green Berets have been assisting Honduran Special Operations forces in anti-smuggling operations.
Additionally, an increasingly militarised Drug Enforcement Administration sent a Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, originally created to disrupt the poppy trade in Afghanistan, to assist Honduras’s Tactical Response Team, that country’s elite counternarcotics unit.
The militarisation and foreign deployment of US law enforcement operatives was also evident in Tradewinds 2012, a training exercise held in Barbados in June. There, members of the US military and civilian law enforcement agencies joined forces with counterparts from Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Suriname, as well as Trinidad and Tobago, to improve cooperation for “complex multinational security operations”.
Far less visible have been training efforts by US Special Operations Forces in Guyana, Uruguay, and Paraguay. In June, special ops troops also took part in Fuerzas Comando, an eight-day “competition”, in which the elite forces from 21 countries, including the Bahamas, Belize, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, and Uruguay, faced-off in tests of physical fitness, marksmanship and tactical capabilities.
This year, the US military has also conducted training exercises in Guatemala, sponsored “partnership-building” missions in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Peru, and Panama, and reached an agreement to carry out 19 “activities” with the Colombian army over the coming year, including joint military exercises.
The Proxy Pivot
Coverage of the Obama administration’s much-publicised strategic “pivot” to Asia has focused on the creation of yet more bases and new naval deployments to the region. The military (which has dropped the word pivot for “rebalancing”) is, however, also planning and carrying out numerous exercises and training missions with regional allies. In fact, the Navy and Marines alone already reportedly engage in more than 170 bilateral and multilateral exercises with Asia-Pacific nations each year.
One of the largest of these efforts took place in and around the Hawaiian Islands from late June through early August. Dubbed RIMPAC 2012, the exercise brought together more than 40 ships and submarines, more than 200 aircraft, and 25,000 personnel from 22 nations, including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Tonga.
Almost 7,000 American troops also joined around 3,400 Thai forces, as well as military personnel from Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea as part of Cobra Gold 2012. In addition, US Marines took part in Hamel 2012, a multinational training exercise involving members of the Australian and New Zealand militaries, while other American troops joined the Armed Forces of the Philippines for Exercise Balikatan.
The effects of the “pivot” are also evident in the fact that once neutralist India now holds more than 50 military exercises with the United States each year—more than any other country in the world. “Our partnership with India is a key part of our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific and, we believe, to the broader security and prosperity of the 21st century,” said Deputy Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter on a recent trip to the subcontinent. Just how broad is evident in the fact that India is taking part in America’s proxy effort in Somalia. In recent years, the Indian Navy has emerged as an “important contributor” to the international counter-piracy effort off that African country’s coast, according to Andrew Shapiro of the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs.
Peace by Proxy
India’s neighbour Bangladesh offers a further window into US efforts to build proxy forces to serve American interests. Earlier this year, US and Bangladeshi forces took part in an exercise focussed on logistics, planning, and tactical training, code-named Shanti Doot-3. The mission was notable in that it was part of a State Department programme, supported and executed by the Pentagon, known as the Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI).
First implemented under George W. Bush, GPOI provides cash-strapped nations funds, equipment, logistical assistance and training to enable their armed forces to become “peacekeepers” around the world. Under Bush, from the time the programme was established in 2004 through 2008, more than $374m was spent to train and equip foreign troops. Under President Obama, Congress funded the program to the tune of $393m, according to figures provided to TomDispatch by the State Department.
In a speech earlier this year, the State Department’s Andrew Shapiro told a Washington, D.C., audience that “GPOI is particularly focussing a great deal of its efforts to support the training and equipping of peacekeepers deploying to… Somalia” and had provided “tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment for countries deploying [there].”
In a blog post he went into more detail, lauding US efforts to train Djiboutian troops to serve as peacekeepers in Somalia and noting that the United States had also provided impoverished Djibouti with radar equipment and patrol boats for offshore activities. “Djibouti is also central to our efforts to combat piracy,” he wrote, “as it is on the frontline of maritime threats including piracy in the Gulf of Aden and surrounding waters.”
Djibouti and Bangladesh are hardly unique. Under the auspices of the Global Peace Operations Initiative, the United States has partnered with 62 nations around the globe, according to statistics provided by the State Department. These proxies-in-training are, not surprisingly, some of the poorest nations in their respective regions, if not the entire planet. They include Benin, Ethiopia, Malawi, and Togo in Africa; Nepal and Pakistan in Asia, and Guatemala and Nicaragua in the Americas.
Ahmed Atta is a writer and political analyst
Harvard University Studies