Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War

An injured civilian is evacuated after shelling by government forces in Aleppo. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)

Now that UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has resigned and is no longer leading the effort to find a diplomatic solution to the horrors unfolding in Syria, the prospect for a peaceful conclusion to this conflict look bleaker than ever – if it’s even possible to suggest such a thing:

(Kofi Annan) cited the Syrian government’s “intransigence” and the opposition’s “escalating military campaign” as major impediments to his peace efforts, along with a lack of unity in the international community on how to deal with the crisis.

I’m thinking “lack of unity in the international community” was just Annan’s polite way of saying this tragic mess in Syria has devolved into a sickening proxy war in which no one’s hands are clean and the only losers are the Syrian people themselves.

If you dare, I recommend you read this blisteringly bitter analysis by journalist Robert Fisk, who excoriates the cynical interests – from the US, to Russia and China, to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to Hezbollah, to the media, to “our dear liberal selves – who are allowing Syria to be used as a bloody chess board, even as they speak out against the daily atrocities that are occurring there:

Has there ever been a Middle Eastern war of such hypocrisy? A war of such cowardice and such mean morality, of such false rhetoric and such public humiliation? I’m not talking about the physical victims of the Syrian tragedy. I’m referring to the utter lies and mendacity of our masters and our own public opinion – eastern as well as western – in response to the slaughter, a vicious pantomime more worthy of Swiftian satire than Tolstoy or Shakespeare.

What could possibly be the outcome of a cowardly proxy war in a sectarian Middle Eastern country? Samia Nakhoul, in a lengthy piece for Reuters, offered this dismal – if most likely – answer:

With no Western appetite for military intervention and no prospect of an internationally mediated political resolution, many see the civil war spreading and tearing the country apart.

“Disintegration of Syria is a possibility and the problem is it won’t work. It would create a power vacuum in which others get dragged in just like Iraq. It is a very frightening scenario,” (Cambridge University analyst George) Joffe said.

Lebanese columnist Rajeh Khoury predicted: “Syria could plunge into a long protracted civil war that could last years. The civil war in Lebanon, with its much smaller population of five million, lasted 15 years due to foreign interference so Syria would be much more complicated.

“The Syrian crisis is so inflammatory that its flames will affect the region in one way or another.”

A prayer for the people of Syria – and a pox on all our houses…


12 Comments on “Syrians Pay the Price in a Sick Proxy War”

  1. i_like_ike52 says:

    I wonder if the JVP and other various “one-state-solution” , post-Zionist or anti-Zionist people appreciate the irony of this piece. Rabbi Brant and several members of his congregation visitied the Palestinian territories some time ago and came back with glowing reports about how friendly, nice, kind, sharing, and tolerant the Palestinians they found were there and how they would be glad to have Jewish visitors once Israel gets out of the area. One member of the congregation stated something to the effect that “if only Israelis knew how nice the Palestinians were there would be peace in a minute”.
    Reading this latest posting by Rabbi Brant leads me think of how kind, friendly, nice, sharing and tolerant the Syrian people no doubt are. I recall someone recently posted a comment here pointing that out. Yet, we see things are more complicated. Political policy and international relations are based on things other than merely the feelings of the average man in the street. Other forces, darker forces are at work as well. The Olympics that are underway reminds me of the 1984 Winter Olympics that took place in Sarajevo which was then part of Yugosavia. Those Olympics gave the country the chance to show the world how a mulit-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-confessional country like Yugoslavia could be a big success and how Sarajevo was a fine example of a city where there had once been ethnic strife and warfare could have the different groups reconciled and live together in peace. BUT IT DIDN’T LAST. Sarajevo became a bloody war zone a few years later with thousands of dead and Yugoslavia blew itself apart, like Syria is doing now, and now longer exists.
    What does this mean for us in Israel? Can Israel do like so many “progressives” want and give up its sovereignity? Can the Jews of the country withdraw to indefensable borders as the 2-SS people want or even give up their military force as the 1-SS people preach and then trust their security to the “good will” of our Arab neighbors and rely on “guarantees” from outside parties, such as Europe, the US, Russia and other Arab countries, or would these forces suddenly discover they have other interests that would dictating “looking the other way” should the now defenseless Jews come under attack?
    What do similar cases here in the Middle East teach us? How are multi-enthic, multi-cultural, multi-confessional states like Lebanon or Iraq doing? Is the general trend in the Middle East moving in the direction of secularlism and greater tolerance which would protect the interests of minorities, particularly religious minorities, or is the rise of political Islam show things are moving in the opposite direction?
    The vast majority of Israelis know the answer from bitter experience. Giving up strategic territories has only brought war on Israel and its Arab neighbors. Even capitulating to all the demands of the Palestinians and the other Arab states including accepting the “Right of Return” of the Palestinian refugees would NOT bring peace. It would simply leave a large mass of an “undigested” Jewish community that would constatly be the target of resentment and friction by the surrounding Arab population for all sorts of imaginary reasons…..just like the large Christian communities of Egypt and Lebanon are. Israel has NO CHOICE but to hold on to the current situation until an UNOFFICIAL modus-vivendi can be worked out some time in the future, seeing as how a contractual peace agreement is simply unattainable.
    Syria is indeed an important lesson to all of us.

  2. Dave says:

    1/ The Spanish Civil War was also a proxy war, with lots of atrocities on both sides but lots of people on the left seem to think that was a noble war.

    2/ The American Revolution was a proxy war (did Louis XVI really care about taxation without representation when he sent help to the colonists-there were more French than American forces at Yorktown). I don’t recall anybody complaining about that.

    3/ Given all the criticisms of Israel on this blog shouldn’t Israel be lauded for not helping either side?

  3. JK says:

    Brant:

    I think “proxy war” is an imprecise description of the battle lines in Syria (although there may be a whole scholarly literature defining “proxy war” which bears you out and rejects what I am about to say.I have no idea). Both sides in Syria are armed and supported by third parties. But that, it seems to me, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for labeling a conflict a proxy war,. And other conditions I would deem essential before labeling a conflict a proxy war are missing.

    I would reserve “proxy way” for cases where two states (often but not necessarily superpowers), and maybe sometimes nonstates, conscript other forces to fight on their behalf (and, often, to initiate hostilities). That doesn’t describe the situation in Syria, most importantly because, in Syria, both the grounds for conflict and the first rebels firing shots were all home grown.The country had been under emergency rule for almost 50 years, with free speech and assembly strictly controlled, opposition violently repressed, very high youth unemployment, and political power concentrated among a small minority. These were compelling reasons for domestic forces to seek regime change, and they did. If you accept these descriptions of conditions in Syria, then I think “proxy war” becomes the wrong label. There are increasingly few sizeable armed conflicts where both sides are not armed and supported by foreign interests. But I don’t think it’s helpful to call them all, therefore, “proxy wars” without regard to how they get started and why.(Interpreting the hostilities in Syria as a proxy conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is possible, but that interpretation misses, I think, an awful lot of what’s going on and why).

    So I wouldn’t call the conflict in Syria a “proxy” war, as you have. And I think it’s important not to. (Among other things, it bolsters Assad’s argument that the rebellion against him is about foreign devils rather than domestic politics).

    None of this is menat to deny that the horrors in Syria may devolve to, and may already have passed, the point at which they would have terminated already but for foreign support. But without foreign support I think they would have terminated in favor of the Assad regime, which is an outcome that I suspect you, Brant, would not have wanted (any more than I would). So assuming, as I do, that your post is a call for foreign intervention in some way, shape or form, I am curious what you want foreign powers to do. If a “proxy” war is “cowardly,” do you favor direct U.S. or multilateral military intervention? And, if so, to be followed by what? The history of attempts at nation building in the wake of forced regime change is not encouraging, right? What approach do you propose?

    • Jeffrey Silverman says:

      Sounds like a proxy war to me and I have taught international security policy – those actually calling the shots are safe and sound and others are dying and suffering (most often innocents), as in this case. Another recent example, the 2008 Georgian-Russia war – it was also a proxy war – as part of some sick game theory to see how the Russians would respond and help in the US presidential campaign (for the Republicans and old cold warriors) Some lessons as to what happened in Georgia, the motivations and the consequences, could be applied to this latest round of NATO and American blood letting. Call it what you want – but it is a proxy war by any standard,

    • JK,

      I don’t share your narrow definition of “proxy war.” Yes, sometimes they occur, as you say, when outside powers actively conscript others to fight on their behalf – but historically the term has more often been used to describe wars in which outside powers arm/support sides in a war in pursuit of a larger ideological agenda. In the latter case, these wars invariably begin, as you say, as “home grown” conflicts, but devolve as outside actors use the bloodletting to advance their own national interests.

      That is certainly the case in Syria, as argued in the Reuters article linked in my post:

      After almost 17 months of revolt against the Assad dictatorship, Syria’s conflict is turning into a regional proxy war between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam that could splinter the country along sectarian lines unless a unified rebel leadership emerges as a credible opposition to the beleaguered government.

      …With the Shi’ite Islamic Republic of Iran behind Assad, and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim states backing the rebels, Syria could become the arena in which the regional Sunni-Shi’ite cold war becomes an open-ended civil war with the potential to destabilize its neighbors – Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

      “We most definitely have a proxy war in Syria,” says Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy. “At this point of the conflict it is difficult not to say that the international dimension of the Syrian conflict precedes the domestic one.”

      I agree with those who believe this war is not simply a case of rebel groups attempting to topple a brutal totalitarian regime. While it is certainly that, it is also now a chess board in which the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict is being played out in a deeply sectarian nation. And as the Assad regime is actively supported by Iran, there are growing indications that another proxy war is now unfolding in Syria as well: Iran vs. the West. Obama has already signed a secret order supplying support to the Syrian rebels and I think it is fair to predict we may soon be actively arming them before too long.

      There is no doubt that Assad rules with a brutal, totalitarian fist – and that in crushing this revolt he has committed war crimes of the highest magnitude. But in such an intensely sectarian society, I think it would be naive to believe the leaders of the FSA would be any less brutal if they managed to topple the Alawite regime. By all accounts, they suffer from deep internal divisions and human rights groups are reporting that the FSA is increasingly committing atrocities in this conflict as well.

      No, I don’t favor “U.S. or multilateral military intervention” in this conflict. While it is agonizing to witness the slaughter going on in Syria, I think we have ample experience to demonstrate that foreign military intervention in the Middle East does not lead to peace or stability in the short or long term. What approach do I propose? As remote as it might feel at the moment, I believe the only effective and lasting solution will have to be a diplomatic solution. I think Kofi Annan put it very well:

      Syria can still be saved from the worst calamity – if the international community can show the courage and leadership necessary to compromise on their partial interests for the sake of the Syrian people – for the men, women and children who have already suffered far too much.

      As I made clear in my post, I have little confidence at present that the international community has this level of courage. But lacking this, however viscerally satisfying it would be for us to intervene militarily, I believe it would only result in further misery for the Syrian people.

      • More wise words on our options in Syria, this time from Stephen Walt:

        Case in point: the current debacle in Syria. It’s obviously a mess, and it’s hard for any of us to observe what is happening there without feeling an urge to do something. Neoconservatives see an opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to the “axis of resistance” (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah), and liberal interventionists like my friend Anne-Marie Slaughter see an imperative to topple a tyrant, defend human rights, and strengthen the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine. Mainstream foreign policy institutions like the Aspen Strategy Group (the very embodiment of ‘conventional wisdom’) become cheerleaders for action, and even a normally sensible pundit like Nicholas Kristof eventually gets won over by the consensus in favor of action. Never mind that we will almost certainly be fueling a sectarian war whose longer-term regional implications are deeply worrisome; we simply cannot resist the pressure to get involved.

        Where does this impulse come from? It’s partly a reflection of American power and wealth: Despite our economic woes, this is still a rich country and the government can always find the bucks to finance another military action. Plus, having outspent most of the world combined on military power for a couple of decades, there’s always a pile of weapons lying around that we could send to whichever rebel groups have currently caught our fancy. If necessary, there is usually some airpower and special forces available to assign to the task, along with training, intelligence, and political advice (which is often ignored).

        Add to that the crucial fact that there isn’t a great power rival who could cause us serious harm in most of these contexts, which makes it less risky in the near term to contemplate action. We wouldn’t be thinking about getting involved in Syria if we thought it might escalate to a great power war (as it might have back when the Soviet Union was around), or if we thought — heaven forbid — that U.S. territory might actually be at risk as a result.

        As I wrote awhile back,

        It is as if the president has big red button on his desk, and then his aides come in and say, “There’s something really nasty happening to some unfortunate people, Mr. President, but if you push that button, you can stop it. It might cost a few hundred million dollars, maybe even a few billion by the time we are done, but we can always float a bit more debt. As long as you don’t send in ground troops, the public will probably go along, at least for awhile and there’s no danger that anybody will retaliate against us — at least not anytime soon — because the bad guys (who are really nasty, by the way) are also very weak. Our vital interests aren’t at stake,sir, so you don’t have to do anything. But if you don’t push the button lots of innocent people will die. The choice is yours, Mr. President.

        It would take a very tough and resolute president — or one with a clear set of national priorities and a deep understanding of the uncertainties of warfare — to resist that siren song.”

        And that’s the issue in Syria in a nutshell. We don’t know if intervention would make things better in the long run or not. Maybe we can speed Assad’s departure, get a U.N. or Arab League peacekeeping force in place, and help Syria avoid a bitter cycle of revenge-taking afterwards. Or maybe we’ll just add more fuel to an already nasty fire, and eventually help bring to power a government that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Or perhaps there will be a lingering power vacuum that gives Al Qaeda new opportunities, and that invites lots of external meddling by all of Syria’s neighbors. (Marc Lynch has a nice rundown of the dangers here).

        Foreign policy is always uncertain, of course, and one could argue that the United States should still do whatever it can to try to tilt the outcome in a positive direction. This argument fits in perfectly with the incentives of the mainstream foreign policy community, which is usually looking for problems to solve and always eager to establish their street cred as tough-minded hawks. (Even when they favor diplomacy, most people in the foreign policy community understand that sounding like a pacifist or a principled anti-interventionist is not a good career move, because the default condition of U.S. grand strategy emphasizes our “global leadership” and that means lots of international crusading). I get all that, and it’s not as if I have a brilliant sure-fire solution to the Syrian problem. But I am troubled by the systematic bias that keeps driving the United States to get involved in intractable internal conflicts, even when it’s not clear what the U.S national interest is or whether intervention will actually advance whatever interests might be at stake.

      • JK says:

        Brant,
        There may ultimately be a diplomatic solution. But I don’t think it’s likely unless Assad first falls or leaves.The opposition to Assad,whether divided or unified, or more or less likely than he is to govern humanely, is very unlikely to agree to any diplomatic compromise that does not entail his departure. And while Russia is probably in a position to assure Assad’s departure, paving the way for a diplomatic solution (i.e., by withdrawing its support for Assad, as Stephen Walt has discussed), the U.S. isn’t. The U.S. and “our dear liberal selves” just don’t have a lot of good options here. And, unless I’m missing them, your posts don’t identify any. So if it’s a diplomatic solution you’re advocating, then isn’t it a little over the top and unconstructive to call out the U.S. and “our dear liberal selves” for “hypocrisy,” “cowardice” and “cynical interests”? Given the difficulty of divining how things will play out, the likelihood of unintended consequences, and other compelling reasons to resist more direct intervention, on which I think you and I agree (and Walt and Aaron David Miller have spelled out in lots of detail), isn’t this actually a situation where U.S. actions so far deserve some praise and support because they have not been more interventionist?

      • JK,

        When I say the only solution must be a diplomatic solution, I mean now – not after Assad falls. If we choose to wait until that happens, I don’t predict we’ll see anything remotely resembling “diplomacy”. I think it’s more likely that we’ll see something akin to what we see currently going on in Iraq (another deeply sectarian nation whose tyrannical dictator we toppled with no thought to what would/should happen afterwards).

        I do believe the US’s involvement in Syria is fueled by cynical self-interest and I don’t think it’s “over the top” or “unconstructive” to say so. According to the Reuter’s report, our government has secretly authorized CIA support of an undisclosed nature to “local rebel groups” in the region. We’re told this support is “non-lethal” but we don’t really know what that means. To my mind, this just shows how far things have fallen: we’ve gotten to the point where our government jumps “secretly” into bed with a loose, sketchy group of local armed forces but deserves “praise and support” because it hasn’t been even more interventionist.

  4. Jeff says:

    Rabbi Rosen this is the quote you should of used from the Fisk article.

    “Then, of course, there’s us, our dear liberal selves who are so quick to fill the streets of London in protest at the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians. Rightly so, of course. When our political leaders are happy to condemn Arabs for their savagery but too timid to utter a word of the mildest criticism when the Israeli army commits crimes against humanity – or watches its allies do it in Lebanon – ordinary people have to remind the world that they are not as timid as the politicians. But when the scorecard of death in Syria reaches 15,000 or 19,000 – perhaps 14 times as many fatalities as in Israel’s savage 2008-2009 onslaught on Gaza – scarcely a single protester, save for Syrian expatriates abroad, walks the streets to condemn these crimes against humanity”

    Where is JVP on this ? It’s clear to me JVP care nothing about the victims only about who is doing the victimizing.

    • Jeff,

      I agree with everything Fisk wrote in his article, including the hypocrisy of the left by remaining silent on Syria. As he wrote, we all should hang our heads in shame over this tragic situation.

      You ask “where is JVP on this?” The answer is pretty straightforward. JVP is a Jewish organization that is dedicated to justice in the Israel/Palestine. It’s mission does not extend to wider geopolitical issues – and I believe it is disingenuous of you to criticize JVP for not addressing them directly.

  5. JK says:

    Brant,
    What precisely do you want the U.S. to do now?

    • I think this editorial in The Nation puts it very well:

      The US should desist from “ever more actively and unconditionally supporting the Syrian rebels” and “give the UN effort its full support.”

      I also agree that

      The US demand that Assad be removed and sanctions be imposed before negotiations could seriously begin, along with the refusal to include Iran in the process, doomed (the earlier UN) mission. Any diplomatic approach that excludes Russia and Iran will be similarly condemned to failure.


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