22 January 2019
As Russia and the US wage a proxy war in Syria, the only people who are suffering are the Syrians. Photo: Reuters
As Russia and the US wage a proxy war in Syria, the only people who are suffering are the Syrians. Photo: Reuters

The Syrian conflict: Textbook example of a proxy war

If anything, the Syrian civil war is a typical example of a proxy war, with the Syrians themselves getting increasingly irrelevant to how the conflict would play out.

While it is quite unlikely that Russia and the US, who have been pulling the strings behind the scene ever since the beginning of the conflict, would go head to head with each other militarily, it is also unlikely that real and lasting peace would descend upon the country in the short run.

And the only people who are suffering are undoubtedly the Syrians.

As a matter of fact, “proxy war” has remained an unique form of warfare among great powers since ancient times.

For centuries, whenever an empire or hegemon wanted to defend its strategic interests or maintain its sphere of influence, but at the same time lacked confidence in its ability to defeat another great power, it would often resort to waging a proxy war.

As far as their regional “pawns” who do the actual fighting are concerned, they are often perfectly aware of their own roles and may sometimes be very discontented with the decisions of their big bosses. Yet all they can do is resign themselves to their fate.

During the Cold War era, most regional conflicts were actually proxy wars by nature.

And that explains why a lot of Third World countries saw rapid democratization shortly after the fall of the former Soviet Union, as the dictators who used to run these countries on behalf of Moscow had suddenly lost their foreign support, and hence the end of their role as proxies.

For the great powers, the proxy war is not only an ideal way to minimize their own direct casualties, it can also allow them substantial room for diplomatic maneuver.

However, for the countries or warring factions which are actually doing the fighting, a proxy war in which they don’t have any say in the outcome might often prove to be more brutal than a direct war.

For example, the opposing sides in the Syrian civil war would probably have negotiated a peace deal by now after years of attrition if they were the ones who were actually calling the shots in the conflict.

However, since both President Bashar al-Assad and the anti-government rebels are only proxies representing Russia and the US respectively, as long as their big bosses want them to keep on fighting, they will have to do so whether they like it or not.

As far as the justification for waging a proxy war is concerned, it could be based on differences in ideology or universal values, etc. And any sudden and unexpected event, like the numerous suspected chemical attacks against civilians during the Syrian conflict, can change the course of a proxy war.

The great powers behind a proxy conflict would often milk these sudden events for all they are worth in order to serve their own political and strategic purposes, and then let the show continue according to their own “screenplays”.

In particular, in many cases the proxies who are fighting on behalf of their big bosses are often the most vulnerable and expendable ones.

It is because these proxies would often be used as bargaining chips by the great powers to cut secret deals over some other issues that have absolutely nothing to do with their interests.

Worse still, these proxies are always the last to know when they are being sacrificed.

For example, if western powers agree to recognize Russia’s control over Crimea and lift sanctions against Moscow in exchange for a regime change in Syria, then chances are, President Assad would probably disappear overnight.

Likewise, the course of the Syrian civil war could have been different if the West had agreed to guarantee space for the Shia Muslims in Iran and Iraq as well as the survival of the Hezbollah in Lebanon.

If the Syrian conflict continues in the current fashion, the only possible outcome is that the country, once a regional power and a middle-class paradise in the Middle East as recently as just 10 years ago, would be weakened forever.

And even if the warring factions themselves are totally fed up with fighting, there would still be no end in sight for the conflict until after the US and Russia have struck a deal over some other issues somewhere else.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 17

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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