With U.S.-made antitank missiles finding their way to Syrian rebels and Russian fighter jets pummeling the same rebels and supplying the Bashar al-Assad regime with antiaircraft missile systems, it might seem easy to describe the battle in Syria as a proxy war. But that phrase gets tossed around too carelessly and comes with some dangerous myths.
First, describing the Syrian quagmire as a proxy war implies that the conflict is mainly about larger fissures in the region, especially the rift between Sunni and Shiite, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Second, it suggests that the conflict will be resolved chiefly by outside actors hashing out their differences at the table. Third, the phrase indicates that the conflict is an incredibly high-stakes game involving existential issues on which compromise is impossible.
As the history of past proxy wars teaches, though, all three assumptions are wrong. To bring the fighting in Syria to an end, all parties involved will need to get real about what a proxy war is—and what it isn’t. Proxy wars do not miraculously extinguish themselves without some measure of bottom-up attempts to make peace among local fighters or a fundamental shift in the conflict’s balance of power on the ground.
COLD WAR THINKING
The term “proxy war” conjures images of the Cold War, when outside powers—namely, the United States and Soviet Union, but also regional players—treated local combatants as pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. In the 1970s and 1980s, a number of guerrilla conflicts in Latin America became de facto conflicts between the Soviet Union and the United States. Ditto wars in Angola, Chad, and Vietnam.
Just as it was unthinkable in those days that Washington and Moscow would get tangled in a conventional war, it is hard to imagine the United States and Russia going to war today. And, in fact, proxy wars are prevalent when the costs of traditional interstate war are high. And so, Hezbollah-backed Syrian forces and rebels from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) can go at each other’s throats with little risk of regional escalation.