Proxy War: The Syrian Axis Dividing the World

Kris Gopal, South Hills, PA


A proxy war as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is a war instigated by a major power, which does not itself become involved. Typically proxy wars function best during cold wars, as they become a necessity in conducting armed conflict between two belligerents while continuing cold warfare. Proxy wars are those in which the main actors face conflict through the use of other means—proxies. These proxies range from aid and arms supplies to full use of troops, not simply the act of war itself; there are many ways for outside forces to contribute to war and conflict between entities other than itself. Proxy war is covert and illegal, yet still frequently used as a strategy today. The earlier conflict between the regime and the Taliban in Afghanistan (in 1970) and how the super powers, United States and Russia, were drawn into the conflict is a classic example of proxy war.

Our history is replete with innumerable proxy wars from time immemorial — from the Abhyssinian-Adal war in 1529, from the colonial era to the present second Saudi-Yemen War. The list is too numerous to mention all.

The present Syrian conflict is a proxy war at best, with the civil uprising in the country being manipulated by three super powers, China, Russia and United States of America. Syria is a complicated place and an important player in Middle Eastern and global relations.

First and foremost, Syria is the third arm of the anti-Israeli and anti-West, Iran-Hezbollah-Syria alliance, a Shia threesome that opposes the set of Sunni-led powers in the Middle East. Syria’s population is dominated by Sunnis, but the Assad family, who are Shias, controls the country.

In addition, Syria buys some $150-million worth of arms from Russia every year and hosts a Russian naval port on its Mediterranean Sea Coast. It has been lorded over by the ruthless Assad family for more than 40 years, with democracy a forbidden notion. And it is situated at a continental crossroads, between the energy riches of Eurasia and the Middle East and the energy-hungry markets of Europe.

Syrian conflict has triggered something more fundamental than a difference of opinion. In sixteen months, the situation in Syria has mutated from an uprising in outlying areas into full-scale civil war. Now it has mutated into a proxy war between the great powers.

The Russians have been arming Bashar al Assad’s regime and the West is arming the rebels. The Saudis and the Persian Gulf countries are funneling weapons straight to the Sunnis. The arms are trickling across the Syria’s borders with Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. The CIA has been channeling the weapons to the “right” people away from al-Qaeda, but who the right people are anybody’s guess. A rag tag of village insurgents and army defectors is coming together as a fighting force. The regime and its opponents are now fighting with special savagery.

While the savagery is going on, the Syrian exile leaders are frittering away time sitting outside, where they discussed their plans in Cairo to get their act together. Divisions along the lines of clan, tribe, ethnicity and Islamic sects would make a united front difficult to achieve. It appears that the Assads, father and son, were more skillful than Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi in keeping their opposition weak and divided.

So the Great powers are facing off in the most volatile region on Earth, which may have a destabilizing effect in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, and even beyond. Russians and Americans are restrained because of the dangerous standoff over the neighboring Iran.

Russia helped build Iran’s nuclear program, China needs Iranian oil and both are willing to support Iran’s defense of the region’s Shias, including Syria’s Alawites. The US and Saudis are lined up behind the Sunnis.

But while Russia and the US want to keep the confrontation at low ebb, their proxies — Iran and Syria on one side, and Israel and Saudi Arabia on other — will seek to drag them deeper. Both Russia and China see the Syrian issue through their own political lenses.  They understand Assad well and support the dictator.

In this complex world of fighting by proxies, now U.S is finding itself caught in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Making sense of proxy wars, by Michael Innes.

The world deployed by Scot L Bills.

World History, by Jonathan Drsner. Pittsburgh State University.

The New York review of Books. How Syria divided the world,  by Michael Ignatiff

Caught in the cross fire, by Massimo Calabresi, in Time Magazine. April 2015


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