The Proxy War Problem in Syria

It is hard to look at the Syrian civil war, with over 100,000 people dead and nearly 9 million others displaced, without wondering how we got here. By now, history must have taught us how to end civil wars before they rise to this level of violence. We know, above all, that we are supposed to heed the maxim that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But the trouble in the case of Syria is not that we’ve forgotten the past, but that everyone remembers it differently. Take only a quick title search of opinion pieces on Syria, and you read not only “How Syria is Like Iraq” but also how “Syria is Not Iraq,” and “Bosnia’s Lessons for Syria” as well as “Moving Past the Bosnia Fallacy.”

Every generation has its own particular battle of analogies. For the last generation, that fight was Munich versus Vietnam; Interventionists hurled the lessons of Munich –appeasing aggressors just leads to more aggression — against the anti-interventionists’ shield of Vietnam — overreaction creates needless, unwinnable wars. For this generation, as the title search suggests, it is Bosnia versus Iraq. Interventionists deploy Bosnia as an example of successful U.S. coercion, an operation that, they argue, would have been easier and saved more lives if it had happened earlier. Anti-interventionists point to Iraq, where U.S. intervention unleashed a protracted and ongoing violent conflict that it could not solve. Nowhere has the Bosnia vs. Iraq contest become more heated than in the arguments for and against intervention in Syria.

The problem is that these analogies are often weapons in a policy struggle, deployed to support pre-existing positions rather than to illuminate any historical tendency. This analogical arms race often results in surface-level debates about whether Syria is more like Iraq or Bosnia or the Third Punic War. In fact, all analogies are flawed in important ways because every war is, of course, unique. It makes little sense to fight over which is best. But history can still be useful because it can demonstrate vividly how certain factors tend to cause certain outcomes. Analogies are merely communication devices, but important ones for explaining underlying historical tendencies.

The Proxy War Problem

In Syria, both the Bosnia and Iraq analogies should point us toward a greater understanding of the proxy war problem in modern civil wars. Civil wars are too often wrongly conceived as a conflict between — and only between — two intrastate parties. In fact, modern civil wars are frequently fed by competing external supporters who use local proxies as part of a larger regional or even global struggle. As long as outsiders can access the theater, insurgents eager to fight usually have little difficultly linking up with external supporters willing to supply them with funds and weapons. And these weapons needn’t be too sophisticated or wielded by trained armies, since insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47s, and improvised explosive devices pose a formidable challenge even to a Western military trying to impose order. These weapons may not be enough to bring decisive victory, but they are enough to maintain a sense of disorder and instability. So long as external supporters keep the weapons and money coming and insurgents stay motivated, a conflict can last essentially forever. What history does show — in Bosnia, Iraq, and many other places — is that effective U.S. or Western intervention requires understanding that the proxy war problem is a recurring feature of modern civil wars.

The Cold War experience bears this out. Two fairly matched external supporters — the United States and the Soviet Union — supplied their proxies in civil wars in Angola, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Vietnam, among many others. No matter the continent or context, the external supporters had access to the theaters of conflict, a steady supply of weapons, and populations who were willing to fight each other endlessly. Indeed, the number of civil wars in the Cold War period rose “by leaps and bounds,” with 18 percent of countries fighting civil wars. Only after the fall of the Soviet Union did the civil wars gradually come to an end, as the external supporters lost interest and stopped supplying their proxies. The massive drop-off in civil wars at the end of the Cold War period is striking, to such an extent that the Economist concluded that “nothing has done more to end the world’s hot little wars than winding up its big cold one.”  

In the post-Cold War period, no external supporters remain willing to finance civil conflicts across the entire world. But in those regions where external supporters still support proxies, the same dynamics allow civil wars to fester. In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, insurgent groups with external supporters were able to persist in fighting even against the massive military might of the United States. U.S. planners who thought the invasion of Iraq would be a swift operation failed to account for many complications, including Iran’s ability to take advantage of wartime disorder and a porous border to funnel money and weapons to militant groups. Annual disbursements of just $100 to 200 million to local insurgents allowed Iran to undercut massive U.S. military power and keep the Iraqi civil war alive.

In Afghanistan, external support from Pakistan allowed insurgent groups to grow even as the U.S. military fought to root them out. Indeed, one of the central insights of the Obama administration’s 2009 Afghan strategy review was that Pakistan presented the most serious threat to the U.S.-led mission. Bruce Riedel, chair of the review committee, has observed, “Pakistan is the country most critical to the development and survival of al Qaeda. It is the eye of the storm.” General Stanley McChrystal’s independent review of the situation in Afghanistan also found that “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan. Senior leaders of the major Afghan insurgent groups are based in Pakistan … and are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI.” The review concluded that Pakistan’s external support could not defeat the U.S. military, but it meant that the United States also could not end the Taliban insurgency.

It is axiomatic in war that the enemy gets a vote. But so do the enemies’ external supporters, who will certainly respond to any moves by the United States to change the nature of the war and may also escalate their support. But the persistence of the proxy war problem does not mean that U.S. military intervention can never succeed in ending civil wars. It simply means that success depends on properly sizing up and dealing with the other external supporters of civil war.

That is why the Bosnia case is so important. The lesson of Bosnia is that U.S. intervention can succeed in putting an end to a violent civil war, but only after the competing external supporters are neutralized either militarily or diplomatically. In Bosnia, both Serbia and Croatia served as external supporters. The success of the U.S. strategy was predicated first on making a deal with Croatia and then on separating Serbia from its Bosnian Serb clients. This was done in the first instance by training up the Croatian army and helping it demonstrate its capability in retaking the Serb Krajina in Croatia and in threatening the largest Serb-occupied city in Bosnia.

As the military balance turned against the Serbs, the United States and its partners renewed their offer to Serbia for an ethnic enclave in Bosnia that might satisfy Serbia’s core interests even if the Bosnian Serbs could not accept it. As is usually the case in proxy wars, Serbia did not have the same interests as its Bosnian Serb proxies, and the key was finding the seam through both coercion and accommodation. Once that was done, the United States and NATO were able to turn to airstrikes to coerce the Bosnian Serbs to lift the siege of Sarajevo and settle for what would be offered at Dayton. What the Bosnia case shows is that neutralizing external supporters is necessary to enable outside intervention to succeed.

Implications for the Syrian Civil War

The proxy war problem highlights that, for the United States, ending civil wars is not merely a question of political will, but also a question of capacity. It is true that the U.S. military is the most powerful in the world, but it is not the case that U.S. military intervention will always tip the balance toward peace. Civil wars supported by external backers on all sides can persist for years, as the Syria example all too painfully shows.

And once civil wars are viewed through the lens of the proxy problem, it becomes easier to appreciate the great and multiple challenges of military intervention, which must not only deal with insurgents on the ground but also their powerful backers outside the battlefield. Interventions that do not cut these external supporters from the theater or persuade them to compromise will be unable to break out of a civil war stalemate.

The Syrian civil war is a particularly noxious brew of external supporters and their proxies. For intervention to succeed, the United States would not only have to neutralize the Assad regime’s external supporters — Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia — but also gain the backing of other external supporters of the fragmented opposition — particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, each with distinct proxies within the Syrian opposition and distinct goals that do not always align with U.S. policy. Only then could U.S. military power hope to have a decisive effect on the conflict between Assad and the Syrian opposition. In this context, the ongoing “Geneva II” process has started off in the wrong place: the internal conflict in Syria. When it comes to proxy civil wars, working from the inside-out is counterproductive and will likely have the perverse effect of prolonging the war. Instead, the Geneva process should work first to establish agreement among the various external supporters about a compromise that they can all accept.

Syria, of course, belongs to the Syrians, and they properly bristle at the notion that outsiders should determine their fate. But the realities of geopolitics are never fair and rarely kind. External supporters of both sides have the power and the will to continue the Syrian civil war until the very last drop of Syrian blood is shed. For the United States, fighting the Assad regime directly without cutting off his external supporters will not bring peace. To the contrary, it will only inspire competing external supporters to increase their aid so no one side can win decisively. That outcome will be of little benefit to the Syrians who are currently suffering.

This lesson does not flow from a strict comparison with Iraq or Bosnia — but it is informed by both cases, and it flows from a broader examination of modern civil wars. Battles over analogies only illuminate the bitter debates of the present; history, more broadly understood, always has subtler lessons.

This article was originally published by
Foreign Policy