Policy on proxy wars has essentially remained unchanged since the end of the Cold War. States utilize proxies as informal tools to influence situations in a manner that would benefit their state. Cold War proxies, were heavily grounded on ideological influence. The Soviets and the US used proxies to dismiss the others political ideologies in support of their own. Since the end of the Cold War there have been numerous proxies in the Middle East and across Africa. The commonalties between them seem to be rooted in geopolitical and geographic quandaries with minor a sectarian component in some cases. In this section I explore proxies in conflicted areas such as Syria, Yemen, Iraq ,Somalia and Lebanon. In these cases civil disputes create regional power vacuums that entice regional actors and sometimes outside nations to try to attain greater influence.
Syrian Civil War 2011-Present
The civil uprising in Syria followed in the footsteps of other uprisings in the Arab world. However unlike in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, the Syrian uprising has resulted in a seemingly endless civil war. Like the causes of the other uprisings, Syrians are malcontent with their government. This discontentment has a lot to do with corruption and abuse of power on the part of the Basher al-Assad’s regime. Al-Assad’s desire to maintain power has resulted in mass casualties, and has created an environment where a multitude of states are vying for geostrategic advantage.
It is important to note that within the Middle East there are sectarian tensions between the two main groups, Shiites, and Sunnis. Syria is governed by the Alawite ( a minority Shiite sect) minority, in a majority Sunni nation. Sectarian differences has not preoccupied the conflict between Syrians themselves but it has created a clear division among supporters of the regime (Iran) and enemies (The Gulf States).
From the Iranian perspective , the Syrian civil war is not a domestic issue but rather it is a “resistance axis against the enemies of Iran”. Syria plays a key role for serves as a bridge between the Iran’s and Hezbollah, a pro-Iranian government allows easy distribution of weapons into Lebanon . Not to mention, that if the Assad Regime falls Iran loses their most malleable ally in the region, this in turn would limit Iran’s influence in the ever on going Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Syria plays a pivotal role in Iran’s “power projection” .
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States are known for having an incredible amount of oil wealth. They are utilizing their resources to funnel money and arms to Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups. The Saudis have promoted resolutions at the UN demanding an end to the violence and strong sanctions against Syria. They have been big proponents of a unified coalition solution, similar to the one used in Libya. The ultra conservative Sunni ruled Saudi Arabia is in a sense supporting the Free Syrian Army to promote a policy of containment. Within the region there are two main sects, the Sunnis and the Shiites. Iran represents the most powerful Shiite force in the region and the Gulf, as aforementioned, is Sunni lead. The Gulf states do not support the agenda set forth by the Iranian government and have taken it upon themselves to limit the sway that the Iranians are gaining in the region. The conflict in Syria is a good way for the Gulf to cut off some of the influence of the Shiite lead Iranian government in the region. The Gulf States will use whatever tools are available to achieve this goal.
The United States has been a quiet actor in the Syrian drama. The Obama administration is wary of getting involved in another conflict in the region but has authorized some aid in support of the opposition. The US is assumed to be unofficially involved in providing arms and tactical help to the rebels. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the US does not recognize all Syrian opposition groups as legitimate. The CIA is said to be vetting groups to determine which ones the US would be willing to arm. The United States has supported UN resolutions that impose sanctions on Syria. The US has called on other nations to join in demanding the resignation of Bashar al-Assad. The US is not keen on operating an intensive intervention and is instead seeking to adopt all other possibilities before utilizing its military power. However, if the time comes the US is willing to work in a coalition type force, similar to the one that was used in Libya. The toppling of Assad’s regime could severely sever Iran’s strength in the region which would be beneficial to the US and its allies. NATO Patriot Missile systems, under the direction of the US, were recently installed in Turkey in response to Assad’s authorization of scud missiles against civilians in Aleppo. The Patriot Missiles serve as an intercepting mechanism should Assad chose to attack Syria’s borders.
The Russians also have a hand in the Syrian conflict . The Russians have been supporters of the Assad’s regime since the beginning. They maintain that the international community needs to respect the sovereignty of Syria and getting involved in the states matter is unnecessary. In accordance with this stance, the Russians have vetoed resolutions at the UN n regards to Syria, on the grounds of protecting Syria’s right to sovereignty. The Russians have expressed concern over US involvement as well as displeasure of new sanctions placed against Syria. Russia continues to serve as a provider of arms to the Syrian military. And continues to supply them throughout the civil conflict, and has even provided humanitarian aid to the Assad regime. In recent weeks it has been assumed that the Russians have provided resources and troops to Assad’s cause, though this has been vehemently denied by Russia. In response to NATOs instillations of Patriot missiles, the Russians have there own systems pointed at Turkey should there be an attempt by NATO to send in missiles.
Yemen is a state that is seldom mentioned in US media, but since 2004 there has been is a minor proxy war involving Iran, Saudi Arabia and to a lesser extent the US. The situation in Yemen is grounded in a civil dispute between the Sunni led government and the Houthis (Shiite rebels). Yemen, like most states in the Gulf, has a Sunni led government, which creates friction between the minority sects.
As is the case with most Middle East proxies involving Iran, Iran is supporting the Shiite minority group. Iran has denied providing weapons and funding to the militants, but the interception of a boat containing supplies was deemed to have come from Iran. As it often the case, Iran is trying to increase its sphere of influence around the region. By supporting the Houthis they are threatening the stability of not only Yemen but Saudi Arabia as well.
Saudi Arabia is fearful of both Iran spreading its influence around the region and that regime change could allow increased Iranian influence in Yemen’s government . Like Saudi Arabia, the current regime in Yemen is Sunni lead which allows for greater cooperation in the Gulf. Should Iran successfully help the Houthis gain influence or power this could jeopardize the system and create tensions in the region by completely disrupting the regional balance. In the eyes of Saudi Arabia, the situation in Yemen is a matter of national security. If Yemen is lead by a non-Sunni government there could be increased hostilities. Thus the Saudi’s have deemed there is no other action to be taken except militarily intervention against Yemeni opposition. Saudi military has orchestrated operations against the Houthis rebels both on the border and within Yemen itself. Saudi Security is of utmost priority but in order to maintain it they require regional normalcy.
In the case of Yemen the United States has different objectives than Saudi Arabia . But a common goal is the conservation of the Yemeni government. Should the Houthis gain control of the Yemeni Government it would lead to potential advantage for Iran. The US has chosen not to enlist help of other states rather it is leaving the situation up to the Yemeni government. The US has however provided intelligence to the Yemeni government in regards to the Houthi rebel operations. For several years there had not been proof of how or by whom the Houthis were supplying themselves, but US intelligence led to the interception of a boat that was smuggling money, explosives ,and weapons. With the approval of Yemen’s government the US has been discreetly using drones to attack what it claims are terrorist cells. Yemen is a breeding ground for terrorist organizations such as Al-Qaeda. As part of the US war on terror, it is imperative that terrorist factions are dealt with.
Iran and Iraq have a long history of tension. In the 1980’s they fought in the Iran-Iraq war which lasted eight years. Fast forward to 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, for the first time Iran had an opportunity to infiltrate Iraq and try to influence the country. As is the case with the Middle East, sectarian tensions are present in Iraq. Iraq has majority Shia population and minority Sunni population, however under Hussein’s regime the country was Sunni lead. After the American aided in creation of the New Iraqi Government, it became Shia lead. Iran chose to fund both Shia and Sunni opposition groups. Iran provided funding, arms, and even training for a variety of opposition forces. A typical assumption of the Iranian government to want a Shia lead government, as it could serve as a safety net for their regime. However, perhaps due to strong US involvement they might deem a Shia led government to be unbeneficial. In this context, Iranian support for Shia opposition is clear. But it seems illogical for the Iranians to support Sunni groups if the end goal is to have a Shia lead government that can operate in unison with the Iranian regime. This suggests that the Iranian goal in Iraq is to further destabilize Iraq and the region, rather than puppeteering an Iraqi regime.
The conflict in the Horn of Africa created a power vacuum in which the rivalries between Eritreans and Ethiopians erupted. In the absence of a formal federal government Somalis reverted to local forms of governing (often religious rebel groups). In 2004 a Transitional Federal Government was established, but not all were in agreement. Different local actors sought control, the struggle for power within Somalia, created the perfect environment for outside influence.
The Eritrean government provided military aid to the Islamic opposition groups. Eritrea does not have much of an ideological reason for involving itself in Somalia rather, its assistance serves as a way to engage in a war against Ethiopia with out actually fighting one another. Territorial disputes with Ethiopia resulted in a treaty that clearly indicated boundaries. However, Ethiopia refuses to respect the boundaries as stipulated in the agreement, which has augmented tensions. The Eritrean government had threatened war against Ethiopia but supporting the opposition provides Eritrea an easy out.
The Eritrean rivalry has been longstanding. While Eritrea funds the Islamic militants, Ethiopia recognizes and provides support for Somalia’s interim government. Ethiopia has a Christian lead government, but is a Muslim majority population. The Ethiopian government is concerned, if the Islamist groups succeed in toppling the Somali government it might inspire Muslims in Ethiopia to revolt against the government. Thus it is in Ethiopians governments best interest to support the Transitional government, as it t could bring stability to Somalia and then hopefully stability to the region.
Lebanon War 2006
For decades Lebanon has unfortunately operated as a staging ground for proxy wars between regional actors like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria as each nation vies for greater authority in the region. This has lead to the intensification of historic sectarian tensions, which then impedes the ability of state institutions to properly govern.
The Lebanon war began with an attack by Hezbollah against Israel. Hezbollah has long been regarded as a terrorist organization with ties to the Iranian government, thus the attack was viewed as a signal from the Iranian regime. The Iranians supported Hezbollah and the United States supported Israel. Since 2005 Hezbollah has been an official actor in Lebanese politics, and their ideologies are in direct opposition with the security of Israel.
In 2006 the US was in the middle of two conflicts in the Middle East. It was not in a position to offer military assistance, but it fully supported Israel’s operation justifying it as a protective measure. While Hezbollah does not pose a direct threat to the United States, the US views Hezbollah as an arm of the Iranian Republic. The Iranian regimes utilization of proxies throughout the region serves as a destabilizing tool against US interests. The instigation by Hezbollah presented an opportunity to significantly weaken Iranian influence in the region. The defeat of Hezbollah would decrease legitimacy and credibility of both Hezbollah but more importantly Iran. It would also reemphasize the position of the US and its Allies on the War on Terror.
However there were risks associated with US support of Israel during its bombing campaign. Just a year prior, the US had increased its clout with the Lebanese people after playing a crucial role in convincing Syria to retreat during the Cedar revolution. The bombings committed by Israel took the lives of many innocent Lebanese civilians and conflict risked spillover into Iraq. Overall the US stood to gain a solution for the Hezbollah problem and delegitimize Iran’s growing influence.
Hezbollah’s attack on Israel served as a way for Iran extend hegemonic power, create chaos, and prove to the world that Iran has the strength to disrupt stability. It also served as a way for Iran to minutely signal that it would continue to seek nuclear proliferation. Since Hezbollah’s formation in 1980’s, Iran has served as its major backer. Iran continues to provide it weapons, training, and funding.