Achieving an ‘Arab Spring’ by Proxy: Indirect Intervention and Conflict in the Middle East

By Andrew Mumford - 01 December 2012

One of the primary reasons why the ‘Arab Spring’ has not bloomed into an ‘Arab Summer’ of emergent democracies across the Middle East is that popular uprisings from Libya to Syria have metamorphosed from domestic rebellions into externally-funded proxy wars that could have a significant impact upon the longevity of violence and the wider politics of the region.

Proxy warfare is a regular feature of modern conflict, yet a full understanding of this form of war is blurred by the covert involvement of states under a cloak of ‘plausible deniability’. Furthermore, such conflicts are often wrapped up in wider wars and the nature of indirect involvement by nations or groups external to the existing war often gets overlooked. The uprising in Syria that began in March 2011 now possesses an underlying proxy war component that is coming to increasingly define the conflict.

The intensification of President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissident groups, including massacres of civilians in the towns of Homs and Houla prompted intense diplomatic debate about the necessity and viability of launching a direct military intervention, potentially under the auspices of the United Nations, to put a stop to the atrocities. But there remained a distinct undertone to the discussions and requests of some of the parties involved in the violence that reveals a desire to turn the conflict in Syria into a war by proxy.

At a February 2012 Arab League-sponsored ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunisia, the anti-Assad Syrian National Council (SNC) lobbied the delegates of the 70 nations present to allow them to import weapons in order for them to take their fight to the Syrian army and pro-government militias. This request was tantamount to a plea to the international community to intervene in Syria by proxy in an effort to undermine, and ultimately dislodge, President Assad from power. Yet this effort drew heavy criticism from some world leaders. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki drew on his own country’s recent experiences of proxy intervention to caution that the provision of weapons to one side or other would inevitably lead to a regional proxy war with Syria at its heart.

Despite al-Maliki’s warning it would appear that both the friends and enemies of Assad’s regime resorted to indirect intervention in Syria as stalemate at the UN Security Council stalled the possibility of direct intervention. In March 2012 the British government announced it was doubling the non-military assistance budget to Syrian opposition groups to £500,000. Foreign Secretary William Hague indicated that the aid would cover communications equipment and civil society initiatives. Under questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee in the same month US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta refused to rule out supplying rebel groups with equipment in the future. By August 2012, the British government had sanctioned a further £5million worth of ‘non-lethal equipment’ to anti-Assad groups inside Syria.

Allies of President Assad, namely Russia, have also been developing proxy methods by which to bolster their ally. Despite Kremlin denials it was aiding Assad’s crackdown against his own people, it was revealed in June 2012 that Russia was attempting to import attack helicopters and missiles to Assad after a Syrian-bound Russian cargo vessel, the MV Alaed, was halted off the coast of Scotland after its contents were revealed to the ship’s London-based insurance company. Indirect Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict was again raised in early October 2012 when a Damascus-bound passenger plane from Moscow was forced to land by Turkish air force jets amid concerns it was carrying military equipment to aid Assad’s forces.

On all sides of this increasingly internecine conflict, it seems that respective allies are resorting to proxy intervention as a means of assisting their cause from a distance in the face of international disagreement over the acceptability of direct intervention. The conflict in Syria is now coming to signify the way in which the ‘Arab Spring’ is being turned into a proxy war on a grand scale, as Nouri al-Maliki feared.

The dangers of the Arab Spring’s metamorphosis into a protracted regional proxy war are contained within a threefold set of consequences for those involved. The consequences are not necessarily immediate and are often long-drawn-out in their impact. In short, proxy wars can detrimentally induce: political and financial dependence in the long-run between the benefactor who sends the aid and the proxy who receives it; an elongation and/or intensification of the original war in which intervention was sought; and the creation of either conflict overspill beyond the initial boundaries of the war or unintended ‘blowback’ for the participants once the war has ended. Individually, or combined, these consequences could significantly affect the political dynamic of the Middle East.

Even if the Assad regime in Syria falls, any new rulers of Syria may indeed owe their status to decisive amounts of military and financial aid from Western states. This reliance may not necessarily end once a potential victory has been secured. On-going financial support will inevitably be needed to rebuild vital Syrian infrastructure and benefactors from the days of conflict will almost certainly want to maintain an influence over Syrian politics in the future. With a large post-civil war nation-building effort on its hands, any post-Assad government is going to receive offers of help that could spill over into outright dependence if indirect influence over politics in Damascus continues once the war is over.

The second major consequence of a growing proxy war dimension to the Arab Spring is an elongation or intensification of the violence. There is often an assumption on behalf of interventionist powers that the adoption of a proxy war strategy is the quickest way to bring a war to a swift end by indirectly allowing one side to gain an advantage in terms of manpower, training or weaponry. But the understanding that proxy interventions actually prematurely end an existing conflict belies evidence that on the whole they actually prolong such conflicts largely because a weak warring faction is boosted to the point of creating stalemate. A flood of weapons or surrogate forces into an existing warzone gives one or other of the parties involved further motivation and support to fight on, not collapse or seek negotiation. With both Assad and his opponents receiving such aid, Syria seems destined to endure a bloody extension of its civil war.

Finally, it is worth considering how proxy interventions create the conditions for conflict over-spill and ‘blowback’. To a large degree the arming or training of proxies by benefactor states is based on the crude political assumption that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Yet this policy runs the severe risk of creating unintended, counter-productive consequences once the war is over – what the CIA terms ‘blowback’. Such blowback can be high profile or subtle, immediate or delayed in its manifestation. The nature of likely ‘blowback’ in the Syrian case can only be speculated upon but the potential for its occurrence seems to have played little or no part in the policy calculations of the intervening states.

The absence of an endgame to the proxy war in Syria and the potent dangers of interfering in Middle Eastern politics should encourage those in the global diplomatic community to reflect more deeply on the long-term implications of initiating short-term proxy wars in the world today and provoke a deeper understanding of the dynamic of the conflict that was once so optimistically called the ‘Arab Spring’.

Dr Andrew Mumford is the author of The Counter-Insurgency Myth: The British Experience of Irregular War (Routledge 2011). His research focuses on exploring how the British state has attempted to deal with insurgencies, the use of torture, negotiations and air power.

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