The Middle East Channel

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.

Miriam R. Estrin is a postdoctoral associate at Yale Law School. Jeremy Shapiro is a visiting fellow with the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. From 2009 to 2013, he served in the U.S. State Department on the policy planning staff and in the bureau of European and Eurasian affairs and currently consults for the policy planning staff. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.


The Middle East Channel

Bomb Hits Bus in Sanaa Meanwhile Cease-Fire is Brokered in Northern Yemen

An explosion hit a military bus in Yemen's capital Sanaa moments after it came under fire by gunmen Tuesday. The attack killed two soldiers and wounded at least 10 others. Security officials said they are investigating whether the blast was caused by a bomb hidden on or under the bus, a roadside device, or a suicide bomber. The attack came after three explosions hit near the French Embassy, the defense ministry, and the central bank Sunday night, and a day after thousands of Shiite Houthis protested against the government in the capital. Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi sent Sanaa's governor, Abdulqader Hillal, to the northern province of Amran in efforts to curb nearly a month of violence between Houthis and fighters from the Hashid tribe, which has killed scores of people. On Tuesday, the parties reportedly agreed to a cease-fire brokered by Hilal, which stipulated that all fighters would withdraw from the area allowing the army to deploy.


Russia has said that the Syria government will complete the shipment of its chemical weapons by March 1 and will attend the next round of peace talks in Geneva. In a statement Tuesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said Syrian authorities announced a plan for "a large shipment of chemical substances" in February. Additionally, another Russian deputy foreign minister, Mikhail Bogdanov, said "We have no doubt that the government delegation will take part in the second round of international talks in Geneva." The statements have come as Western officials express concerns over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's commitment to peace negotiations and to the elimination of the country's chemical weapons arsenal, which has fallen far behind schedule. Meanwhile, Syrian government forces dropped a crude bomb on a mosque in the northern city of Aleppo Tuesday amid days of intense air raids of barrel bombings. The bombing killed at least five people at the Uthman Bin Affan mosque, which, according to an activist, was used as a religious school for children.


  • A suicide bomber killed himself and wounded at least two people Monday on a passenger van during rush hour in the Choueifat district of Lebanon's capital Beirut.
  • A Tunisian policeman and two Islamist militants were killed in a firefight during a police raid on a house in a Tunis suburb, where weapons, explosives, and suicide bomb belts were found.
  • Several bombings hit in and around the Iraqi capital Baghdad killing at least seven people Tuesday a day after a wave of car bombings killed an estimated 23 people.
  • Iran has sent troops to two northern provinces hit by record snowfall, which has cut off power to around 480,000 homes and trapped thousands of people.
  • UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan is in "stable and reassuring" condition following surgery after he suffered a stroke on January 24.

Arguments and Analysis 

'Open for Business' (Khalid Mustafa Medani, Middle East Report)

"An all-out civil war in South Sudan could destabilize East Africa from the Horn to the Great Lakes. At the time of writing, regional powers are attempting to broker a ceasefire. But neither of the principal mediators, Uganda and Ethiopia, is a neutral arbiter. Ugandan President Yowereni Museveni is a long-time ally of the SPLM, and its leader Kiir, and would like to see South Sudanese oil transported to the world through his country rather than through Sudan. Ugandan troops have reportedly bombed Machar's forces in Jonglei in support of Juba. Ethiopia's prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, does not have the political clout with the warring sides that his predecessor, the late Meles Zenawi, is said to have had. Moreover, in what has been described as a game of high stakes 'pipeline poker,' Juba's neighbors are jockeying for preferential treatment in transporting South Sudan's oil to the world economy. Kenya and Uganda would like to build a pipeline through Uganda to the Kenyan port of Lamu, while Ethiopia hopes to persuade Juba to route the oil across Ethiopian territory to Djibouti. Either scheme would allow South Sudan to break its dependence on Khartoum.

For his part, therefore, Omar Bashir is not content to watch the war from Khartoum. He has clearly made a military alliance with Kiir to secure the oilfields. Following partition, approximately three quarters of the oil left in the ground belongs to South Sudan. But the pipelines, refineries and export terminals required to take South Sudan's oil to market are located in the north. Juba agreed to pay Khartoum $2.6 billion in export fees, over four years, to help cover one third of the north's revenue gap of an estimated $7.7 billion for the period 2011-2015. The Bashir regime is heavily dependent on these royalties. If the conflict continues, the Khartoum regime, like Uganda, is likely to intervene directly, which could mean additional combat along the already conflict-ridden borders of the two Sudans. Any long-term solution to the crisis in South Sudan must address its underlying political and economic causes rather than simply negotiating a tenuous peace between politicians who have a record of dangerously politicizing communal loyalties for personal and political gain."

'Algeria Three Years After the Arab Spring' (Daniela Huber, Susi Dennison, James. D. Le Suer, The German Marshall Fund)

"Its security, economic, and political weight notwithstanding, Algeria was largely ignored by international media and diplomacy when the Arab Spring started. Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were perceived as the harbingers of a wave of democratic transition in the Arab world. While Algeria also initially witnessed the eruption of protests, the government showed relative restraint and immediately announced state subsidies. Protests soon died down. However, as Frederic Volpi has pointed out, the fact that the Algerian regime 'survived this wave of revolts does not mean that it is strong or stable in the full sense, but only that it was not vulnerable to the particular forms of mobilization that marked those uprisings.' Indeed, the Algerian polity seems more than troubled in political, as well as socio-economic terms. Youth unemployment stands at 21.5 percent; public sector spending has increased by 25 percent since 2011, which has to be supported by continuously rising oil and gas prices, the level of corruption remains high; and the question of the succession of ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has only been postponed for now.

At the same time, with the tides of the Arab Spring shifting, the importance of Algeria for regional security has come to the forefront once more. For both the United States and Europe, the perception of the Arab Spring has increasingly turned from a benign democratic transition to a security question, involving increased migration to Europe, the security vacuum in Libya and the broader Sahel region, the proliferation of extremist groups, and a wave of terror attacks such as the Benghazi attack on the American ambassador and the attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. In the run-up to and during the French intervention in Mali, Algeria emerged as a crucial link."

--Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr