Proxy Wars And The Battle For Syria
By Tom Olago
What is happening in Syria is an example of the confusion that is possible when countries with a stake in a war use proxies. ISIS is supposed to be the common enemy that everyone is aiming to defeat, but this one united objective is somewhat compromised by several other radically different, and even opposing agendas held by proxy armies and/or their foreign puppet masters.
These developments have become of concern to U.S President Obama, who has reportedly expressed dismay at the turn of events in Syria. However, during a recent news conference, President Obama said he would not allow the current conflict in Syria to devolve into a proxy war between the United States and Russia: “That would be bad strategy on our part…this is a battle between Russia, Iran and [Syrian President Bashar Assad] against the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people.”
Indications are that as far as avoiding a proxy war with Russia over Syria is concerned, it may well be already too late for President Obama.
In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, David Ignatius illustrates “the confusing order of battle”: The United States has decided that its strongest partner against the Islamic State is a Syrian Kurdish force known as the YPG. But Turkey, nominally a NATO ally, says the YPG has links with what it claims is a Kurdish terrorist group.
Russia, meanwhile, contends that it is fighting the Islamic State, alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But Russian warplanes have been bombing Islamist rebel groups that are covertly supported by the United States, Turkey and Jordan — and these brigades are fighting back hard. The rebels are posting videos bragging about their success with U.S. anti-tank missiles.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been fighting by proxy in Syria for nearly four years. According to Ignatius, this may be the most toxic conflict of all, because it feeds the Sunni-Shiite sectarian inferno that is immolating the Middle East. Initially, Shiite-ruled neighbors, Iran and Iraq, dispatched Hezbollah fighters and Iraqi militiamen to rescue Assad’s army. This Sunni-Shiite feud added an extra burst of savagery.
Opinion is split, though, regarding the extent to which the proxy war is but a reflection of larger Russia-United States rivalries. Some analysts do not even agree that a proxy war exists. A recent report in npr.org quotes Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the global risk analysis firm Eurasia Group:
“In my view, the term ‘proxy war’ overstates U.S.-Russian strains over Syria. A proxy war entails two major nations actively — and to a real extent equally — supporting opposite sides in a conflict. The decades-long civil war in Angola between the MPLA and UNITA was a classic proxy war, where the Soviet Union and the U.S. provided major support to opposite sides.
“In Syria, the U.S. strongly objects to the Russian intervention — holding that it will only stoke conflict, further radicalize the opposition, and make eventual formation of a coalition government even less likely. Russia in turn sympathizes with President Bashar al-Assad’s view that the opposition are terrorists and must be eradicated. The U.S. and Russia deeply distrust each other’s motives in Syria, and cooperation is unlikely in the foreseeable future. But the U.S. has not, and I don’t think will, actively oppose the Russian move… U.S. strategy is not proxy war, but to let President Vladimir Putin dig his own hole in the morass that is the Syrian civil war.”
Yet overall, with so many powerful military forces gathering in the same area, the danger for accidents and miscalculations remains large irrespective of the current levels of proxy. The waters are further muddied by the fact that the outside powers (United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia) recently disagreed sharply about what a transition should look like.
Each side appears to be trying to extend its territory so as strengthen its bargaining position eventually, leading to fears of “a more devastating, region-wide explosion” ahead.
This cynical intervention is said to be reminiscent of similar meddling that helped ravage Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq and Libya during their civil wars.
“Until they are truly working together — funneling money and weapons to a single rebel army — the mess in Syria will continue”, concludes Ignatius.
And so the prolonged Syrian conflict seems certain to get even bigger and bloodier, as if it was not already devastating enough.