Read, Debate: Engage.

What are proxy wars and where are they happening?

December 08, 2023
topic:Political violence
tags:#proxy war, #Syaria, #Yemen, #refugees, #food security
located:Syria, Yemen, USA, Turkey, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom
by:Nour Ghantous
These covert conflicts, where significant powers pull the strings behind the scenes, have altered the destinies of entire nations.

A proxy war is a conflict fought by one or more major powers that do not themselves become directly involved. These wars are characterised by the involvement of powerful nations that avoid direct military confrontation and orchestrate battles through surrogate forces.

These significant powers strategically support local factions to advance their interests without risking open warfare, fighting a war not on the battlefield but via alliances and covert manoeuvres with an inevitable human cost.

Where are proxy wars happening?

Proxy wars are a common global phenomenon, often occurring in non-Western or developing regions with ties to wealthier, more powerful states.

Perhaps the most notorious proxy wars in history happened during the Cold War period between 1945 and 1991, a stand-off between the US and Soviet Russia that saw no direct bloodshed between the two but plenty between the two lands, spanning Cuba to Korea.

As many as 20 million people died in wars fought during that period. Just 1 per cent of those lost their lives in Europe, the original area of Cold War confrontation. The other 99 per cent of casualties died on battlefields of developing nations.

The most significant death toll during the Cold War was amassed in Vietnam during the so-called Indochina Wars, which included the Vietnam War, claiming 3.8 million lives between 1955 and 1984. 

With the United States supporting South Vietnam against the Northern communist forces backed by the Soviet Union and China, the conflict encapsulated the broader clash between capitalism and communism. 

The geopolitical significance of Indochina, coupled with the fear of the domino effect of communist expansion, fueled a prolonged and devastating war. This struggle between ideologies played out in Southeast Asian landscapes, leaving an enduring mark on the region's people. 

Despite the first Indochina War being a stand-out example of the deadly proxy conflicts that defined the Cold War era, proxy wars have continued to occur around the world.

Several conflicts of this nature have taken place in the last decade, and some are still ongoing:

A war that isn't just Syrian

The Syrian conflict, sparked by a local uprising in 2011, swiftly evolved into a stark illustration of a proxy war, drawing in global powers and exacerbating its complexity.

Russia and the United States played pivotal roles in the war, with Russia supporting the Assad regime against rebel forces, along with Iran, and the US backing various opposition groups seeking to overthrow the Syrian government, along with others such as the EU and Turkey. 

The conflict is ongoing and, as of this year, has lasted twice as long as the Second World War.

A Joint OCHA, UNHCR and UNDP statement calls the human cost of the war "astronomical." In the statement, the UN also notes that more than 13 million people have been forced to flee their homes looking for safety, including 6.8 million Syrian refugees who have fled to neighbouring countries where they have stayed for more than a decade.

As of March this year, over 230,275 Syrian civilians had been documented as killed during the war, including 15,275 who died due to torture.

The ideological and geopolitical disparities among global powers, including Russia, the United States, Iran and Turkey, have become evident as they support conflicting factions. The conflict's proxy nature has intensified the violence as external actors pursue divergent agendas, contributing to the ongoing strife. 

Yemen's forgotten conflict

In the shadows of international headlines, Yemen has become a proxy battleground, with Saudi Arabia and Iran backing opposing factions. The conflict originated from the Houthi rebellion in the early 2010s, escalating when Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, seized control in 2014. 

With backing from the US and UK, the Saudi-led coalition intervened in 2015 to restore the internationally recognised government. However, all powers involved are complicit in the devastating impact on Yemeni civilians, turning the nation into a pawn in a geopolitical chess match.

In 2022, Guardian journalist Owen Jones wrote, "For seven years, the Yemeni people have been pummelled with Saudi bombs, many from Britain. Yet Westminster is silent."

According to the UN, the conflict in Yemen has caused over 377,000 deaths by the beginning of 2022, with 60 per cent of them resulting from hunger, lack of healthcare and unsafe water.

Additionally, more than 11,000 children have been killed or wounded directly due to the fighting. Yemen has also experienced the largest cholera outbreaks ever recorded, with about 2.5 million suspected cases and 4,000 related deaths since 2016.

Actions and strategies against proxy wars

Due to the influential power of the nations pulling the strings behind proxy wars, preventing them is no easy feat. A 2020 study on proxy warfare by the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights calls upon the UN Security Council to exercise its power - and responsibility - to impose sanctions on countries that are directly responsible for illegal actions in conflicts and restrict support to perpetrators from supplier states by implementing measures like as arms embargoes (trade blocks on weapons).

Yet even the UN Security Council has been powerless in such instances, often finding its attempts blocked by its five permanent veto-wielding members, China, France, Russia, the US and the UK, otherwise known as the P-5. These five nations were responsible for more than 73 per cent of major arms exports between 2014 and 2018, during which the Middle East received over 35 per cent of those imports.

In December 2016, due to the lack of council action to issue an arms embargo for Syria, the UN General Assembly established the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM). The purpose of the IIIM is to assist in the investigation and prosecution of individuals responsible for the most serious crimes under international law that have been committed in Syria since March 2011.

The IIIM has documented the misuse of armaments by parties but is powerless in preventing illegal arms exports.

The study recommends establishing an independent third-party investigator to ensure compliance with laws of armed conflict and the UN charter regarding the source and use of conflict armaments.

The Human Cost: death and displacement

In many cases, the same powerful countries with a hand to play in the displacement of citizens are the same governments with strict immigration policies penned to deter refugees and asylum seekers.

For example, the US and its allies' - including  Britain and Germany - abrupt withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan has been widely condemned as a catalyst for the Taliban's almost immediate takeover afterwards. Currently, the number of Afghan refugees is among the top nationalities seeking asylum in the UK, with 10,872 new applications in 2022.

In Germany, over 36,358 Afghan refugees applied for asylum in 2022, topped only by 70,976 Syrian applications. Many Syrians affected by the civil war, partly due to British missiles, have fled to the UK as well.

However, the UK's anti-immigrant policies, such as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's proposal to relocate refugees to Rwanda, have made their resettlement difficult.

In November, the German government adopted measures to stem the flow of immigrants, following Olaf Scholz’s 20 October interview with Spiegel, in which he declared that Germany "must finally deport on a large-scale those who have no right to stay in Germany" when asked about "people with Arab roots."

As of the beginning of November, the German government’s arms exports to Israel have risen tenfold, from 32 million euros’ worth in 2022 to 303 million (USD 323 million) this year, in support of Israel’s war on Hamas that has killed more than 18,200 Palestinians as of 12 December, since 7 October, when Hamas’ attack on Israel took 1,147 lives.

Beyond the chessboard of global politics, proxy wars take a toll on everyday lives. Families lose homes, children lose schools, and entire communities are displaced. The consequences of displacement linger far beyond the headlines, leaving scars that will take generations to heal. 

Image by Mahmoud Sulaiman.

Article written by:
6CD29B1A-B356-4274-B875-1585B2211EEE
Nour Ghantous
Associate Editor
Syria Yemen USA Turkey Russia Iran Saudi Arabia United Kingdom
Embed from Getty Images
Proxy wars are a common global phenomenon, often occurring in non-Western or developing regions with ties to wealthier, more powerful states.
Embed from Getty Images
The Syrian conflict, sparked by a local uprising in 2011, swiftly evolved into a stark illustration of a proxy war, drawing in global powers and exacerbating its complexity.
Embed from Getty Images
In many cases, the same powerful countries with a hand to play in the displacement of citizens are the same governments with strict immigration policies penned to deter refugees and asylum seekers.
.
.