Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Editor’s Note: Minor powers, rebel groups, and other organizations often act as proxies for more powerful states or groups, which use them to fight (or commit) terrorism, counter rival regimes, or otherwise advance their interests. Despite the prevalence and importance of proxy war, it is often misunderstood. Assaf Moghadam of IDC Herzliya and Michel Wyss of the Swiss Armed Forces' Military Academy identify five myths about proxy war and offer more sophisticated ways for us to understand it.
The use of proxies, or surrogates, is a longstanding historical feature of international conflict. Proxies were widely used during the Cold War, when the superpowers sought to influence geopolitical affairs to their advantage while reducing the potential risk of a major confrontation that could spiral into nuclear war. In recent decades, the reliance on proxy forces has become a fixture in international conflicts. According to data collected by Cunningham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan, for example, between 1945 and 2011, external actors provided explicit or alleged support to 48 percent of 443 rebel groups engaged in armed conflict. The employment of surrogates in warfare is so widespread that some analysts have deemed proxy conflicts to be the prevalent mode of war in the 21st century.
Studies have shown that the use of proxies has detrimental effects on international security. The provision of external support to belligerents in civil wars, insurgencies, and other forms of political violence internationalizes these armed conflicts while raising their lethality rate and likelihood of recurring. Such potential conflagration is particularly dangerous when proxy conflicts occur between major regional players—think the Saudi-Iranian involvement in Yemen—or in the context of renewed strategic competition between great powers, as is currently the case in Ukraine and Syria.
While it is hard to deny that proxy relationships are an important, and perhaps defining, feature of the contemporary conflict environment, there is less agreement on how and why proxies are used. Both the nature of the relationship between sponsors and proxies, as well as the causes and consequences of the use of surrogates, have evolved since the Cold War. Proxy conflicts have exhibited important patterns of change in recent years. A closer look at these evolving patterns suggests that it is time to dispel some common myths about the relations between sponsors and their proxies.
Myth #1: Sponsors use proxies only to intervene in ongoing conflicts.
The conventional view of proxy relationships is strongly influenced by the Cold War, when the two superpowers provided material support and other assistance to select rebel groups they deemed sympathetic and useful to their agenda. At the same time, both the United States as well as the Soviet Union assisted allied regimes with a host of resources when the latter faced insurgencies—often supported by their adversary. Proxy relationships for defensive purposes have also existed after the end of the Cold War. This was the case in the Philippines post-9/11, when U.S. Marines and Special Forces advised their counterparts in the fight against Islamist insurgents. Such defensive proxy relationships typically grow out of a weak government’s inability to police remote areas. In Nigeria’s Borno region, for example, the Civilian Joint Task Force received support and patronage from local politicians and in return arrested members and even some commanders of Boko Haram, handing them over to the Nigerian armed forces. By most accounts, the CJTF was made up of local vigilante groups, but they were also government-supported proxy warriors.
Furthermore, while the term "proxy" often has a pejorative connotation aimed at denouncing illegitimate meddling by one's adversaries, some forms of military cooperation such as security assistance programs are akin to defensive sponsor-proxy relationships. For example, the U.S. Army's newly established Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) core mission is to "conduct training, advising, assisting, enabling and accompanying operations with allied and partner nations." In other words, the SFAB's aim is to enable local surrogates to deal with threats and challenges that the United States deems critical to its national security. Of course, this mode of proxy employment is not unique to the United States. Notably, China and multilateral actors such as the European Union and NATO have in recent years emphasized the importance of security assistance and capacity building.
Finally, proxy relationships may also occur entirely outside the context of armed conflicts. For one, autocrats and dictators such as Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, for example, have relied on paramilitary groups as parallel security forces in an effort to coup-proof their regimes. Another example are the ties between states and the terrorist groups that they sponsor. At times, state-sponsored groups conduct terrorist attacks outside of the context of “hot wars”—think Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah's attempts to strike Israeli and Jewish targets in Cyprus, Turkey, Azerbaijan, India, and Bulgaria.
Myth #2: Proxy relationships link state sponsors only with non-state surrogates.
Proxy relationships are commonly seen as arrangement in which state sponsors work through non-state proxies, typically rebel or insurgent groups. But proxy relationships can be forged between a variety of actor types. States use not only non-state actors as proxies, but occasionally other—typically less resourceful—states as well. Cuba functioned as a proxy for the Soviet Union during the Cold War, as became most apparent during the Cuban Missile Crisis. States also increasingly rely on private military contractors.
Furthermore, as non-state actors have amassed greater agency in recent years and decades, their roles are no longer limited to those of proxies. Some non-state actors also play superordinate roles as sponsors in their own right who employ other non-state groups as their surrogates. In Lebanon, for example, Hezbollah relied on the Lebanese Resistance Brigades, a guerrilla auxiliary force consisting of various religious sects (in particular Maronite Christians), to stage attacks against the South Lebanon Army and Israel in the late 1990s. More recently, it reportedly deployed to Syria alongside its sponsor Hezbollah, where it provided logistical support and acted as an intermediary for Hezbollah in Sunni and Christian areas.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran each use their Sunni (including jihadist) and Houthi proxies to advance their strategic objectives, while the Houthis and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in turn sponsor their own surrogate forces. AQAP has enlisted the support of local Bedouin tribes. These tribes played an important role in on-the-ground battles, including in AQAP’s temporary takeover of the city of al-Mukalla. The Islamic State has similarly employed local jihadist groups in Libya in the takeover of what later became the group’s Libyan capital, Sirte. Some non-state actors, like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, have turned into alliance hubs that have forged large numbers of associations with supposedly weaker militant groups. While not all of these associations amount to proxy relationships, some of them do.
Further complicating traditional views of state sponsorship of proxies is the growing reliance by states on private military contractors to advance the sponsor’s interests. Russia, for example, has relied on Wagner, a shadowy private military company, as a proxy force in Syria and Ukraine. Whether mercenaries, including private military contractors, should be considered proxies is a question that is yet to be settled, as such private actors are mainly motivated by financial gain. The growing role that PMCs play in international security, however, can hardly be ignored. There are also cases that blur the lines between profit-oriented PMCs and politically-motivated proxies. In Syria, for example, a group of jihadists from former Soviet countries calling themselves "Malhama Tactical" has provided training and direct combat assistance to Islamist rebels. While the outfit charges for its service, its late founder insisted that their main motivation was waging Jihad "wherever Sunni Muslims are oppressed."
Myth #3: Strong sponsors impose their will on weak proxies.
The conventional wisdom holds that stronger actors (usually considered to be states) use surrogate forces at will, and that surrogate forces (typically considered to be non-state actors) are passive subordinates who submissively carry out their sponsor’s wishes because of their dependence on their patron’s continued support and goodwill. This view of sponsor-proxy relationships, however, is simplistic. True, proxy relationships are typically asymmetrical, and sponsors are usually superior to their proxies in terms of military and economic endowment. But such hard power does not automatically translate into full control over proxies on the ground. Surrogates have done their fair share of manipulating presumably stronger partners. Cuba, for example, managed to persuade its Soviet sponsors to support its military adventures in Africa and manipulated Moscow into direct involvement in Angola.
In addition, while some scholars have correctly pointed out that proxies risk being abandoned if they outlast their usefulness for their sponsors' goals, these groups may decide to switch sides themselves. As the Wall Street Journal noted in November 2018, scores of rebels in southern Syria, who had previously been funded by the United States, changed their allegiance to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime, creating a “a highly destabilizing prospect,” according U.S. Syria Envoy Joel Rayburn.
Furthermore, the privatization of security and the greater availability of off-the-shelf technologies—coupled with traditional advantages of localized actors, such as superior intelligence at the local level—suggests that the relative power of proxies will continue to rise. With greater agency, more and more proxies will likely reduce the “capability gap” between themselves and their sponsors. Put differently, proxy relationships are not one-way streets. They are bidirectional arrangements of collaboration in which both sides have preferences and interests that they seek to advance. These relationships are unlikely to endure unless both sides feel that they are benefiting from the relationships. This is why some proxy relationships, such as the partnership between Iran and Hezbollah, have lasted several decades, whereas others, such as the erstwhile partnership between the United States and Sunni rebel elements in Syria, have been short-lived.
Myth #4: Plausible deniability is a paramount concern.
As various experts have argued, one of the main motivations for external actors to utilize local proxies in a conflict in lieu of their own armed forces is to mask their involvement. Such plausible deniability may help to avoid further escalation. Not only does it enable external actors to deny interference, but not knowing (or pretending not to know) whether an external actor is involved may also allow the rival party to avoid major retaliation if it deems such a course of action inconvenient. Domestically speaking, plausible deniability empowers intervening governments to act even when facing anti-war sentiments among their population, while also giving their targets the opportunity to refuse calls for escalation by domestic advocates. On the flipside, when facing domestic insurgents, many regimes have chosen immediately to allege interference by foreign powers.
However, while plausible deniability certainly plays a role in some cases, it hardly holds true for all proxy relationships. The most obvious case is the provision of security assistance, where sponsors publicize their support in order to assure their partners that they have their backs. But even in the case of aiding insurgents, plausible deniability may not necessarily be desirable. The United States, for example, barely made any effort to hide its support for Syrian rebels in the early stages of the conflict. In fact, such proclamations may have been intended as a deterrent vis-à-vis the Assad-regime.
Sponsors may also publicly support proxies to boost their local legitimacy. This seems to often be the case when it comes to non-state actors utilizing other non-state actors. Both Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Kurdish Self-Defense Forces (YPG) in Syria have utilized proxy forces in order to reach out to local communities that have been wary of them.
Myth #5: Using proxies helps avoid major war.
Finally, conventional wisdom has it that the use of proxies can help avoid major wars between state powers by limiting confrontations to proxy actors. But this traditional view underplays the escalatory potential of the use of proxy forces. For example, when a U.S. fighter downed a Syrian aircraft that attacked SDF ground forces, Russia responded by suspending deconfliction protocols as a result. The Vietnam war, during which the initial U.S. proxy involvement quickly escalated into a full-scale intervention, is another case in point. Finally, when Hezbollah went to war with Israel in 2006, it reportedly did so against the explicit wishes of Iran and was subsequently "put on a shorter leash" by Tehran.
Addressing the increasingly pervasive problem of proxy conflicts will require tailored strategies that take account of the actors, context, and stakes involved in these relationships. A necessary first step in devising any such strategy is to recognize that it is time to rethink our conventional views of proxy conflicts.