War is the strongest violation of humanitarian principle. Whichever corner of the world it manifests countless livelihoods are ruined, families are ripped apart, while the violence blemishes the psyche of all those involved. The city of Aleppo is perhaps the perfect contemporary microcosm for the damage war causes - a once bustling, vibrant, ancient 12th century metropolis home to nearly 2 million people is now a husk of bombed out buildings, empty streets, and silence.
In the words of the enlightened philosopher Emmanuel Kant, “the bad thing of war is that it makes more evil people than it can take away”. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 is a typical case in point. While Saddam and his crime family were rightfully toppled from power, out of the furnace rose Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi, ISIS, and the Mahdi army. Prosperity rarely results from widespread conflict, and war usually breeds war. Yet conflict has plagued humanity from the moment of its conception, and it will linger on until humanity’s end. It is a perfect example of the human condition in which tremendous acts of bravery are matched with unparalleled methods of depravity. Conflict is an imbedded element of human existence and it will persist forever. From imperialism to national security, man has always found a flimsy justification to wage war on his kin.
Yet, while war in all its manifestations is an evil, it is conflict that lingers on unnecessarily that is the most wicked. I refer here to proxy wars – armed conflict between states or non-state actors which act on behalf of external parties which do not directly involve themselves in the fighting. Today there are three conflicts which epitomise the malice of wars by proxy.
Libya is currently embroiled in a nine-year conflict which has torn the country apart. In 2011, the UN approved the NATO intervention to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. While this despot, who held iron grip over the Libyan people for over forty years, rightfully deserved his fate (he was shot by rebel forces in October 2011) the rest of Libya did not. NATO exceeded its mandate to protect human life instead pursuing regime change. As a consequence, what initially was a supposed short humanitarian intervention dramatically escalated into complicated brutal proxy war. In fact, former British Ambassador to Libya Oliver Miles underlined the effect foreign powers had in worsening the conflict.
Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) is principally backed by Qatar and Turkey. Ankara has provided military aid to Tripoli in the form of drones and armoured vehicles, while hiring thousands of Syrian rebels to fight for the Libyan government. This centres from President Erdogan’s ambitious “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy to tip the balance of power in Turkeys favour. In exchange for military support, Tripoli has signed a controversial maritime delineation deal which grants Ankara oil and gas drilling rights in the Mediterranean. This stems from Turkeys regional ambitions to curtail the EastMed energy pipeline between Israel, Greece, and Cyprus which it considers an imprisonment of “Turkey within its own land boundaries”.
On the other side of the fence, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, Jordan and China have provided aid in some capacity to Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA). Following the GNA’s recapture of Tripoli on May 18th, government forces discovered Russian Pantsir air defence missiles and Chinese Wing Loong drones in the hands of Haftar’s forces. In addition, the UN has accused Russia’s Wagner company of deploying 1,200 mercenaries inside Libya while the US accused Moscow of scrambling fighter jets. Meanwhile, Cairo has deployed its own mercenary force in Libyan territory as well as providing airfields for airstrikes. What was once a local conflict has now escalated into regional war. While the gulf states attempt to counter each other through Libyan proxies, the balance of power on the international stage is in a constant flux as Turkey, Russia, and China attempt to gain strategic footholds in north Africa.
To the east, across the Gulf, similar acts of proxy are delivering equally horrifying results. Yemen is now a humanitarian catastrophe. Following the 2011 Arab Spring Yemen was gripped in political uncertainty deteriorating to civil war in 2015. Yet the war has similarly lingered on unnecessarily. Yemen is now the stage where Iran and Saudi Arabia fight for regional dominance over the Middle East. Iran backs the regions Houthi rebels, in 2014 Tehran smuggled small arms to buttress the Houthi resistance which later increased to ballistic missiles and aerial and water-borne drones in 2017 and 2018. While not encompassed under Iran’s “Axis of Resistance”, the Houthis represent Tehran’s interests in a vital geopolitical locale propelling its campaign to tackle NATO, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia hosts Yemen’s President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Haddi. In its support of government forces, Riyadh has launched over 20,000 airstrikes in the region to no avail. The Saudis appear to be on the losing side as Houthi rebels retain a strong presence in the region.
The UAE has also projected its interests in Yemen by bolstering the Southern Transitional Council – a secessionist movement to the south of the county. In its efforts to counter the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while simultaneously projecting its world view of apolitical Islam, the Emiratis have equipped and trained a 90,000 strong security force across the southern port of Aden.
As a result of peripheral sway and interest, Yemen has declined into one of the worst humanitarian disasters in history. Over 100,000 have died in the conflict. Meanwhile, the famine of 2016 has already killed over 85,000 children as the rest of the country is plagued by cholera. This is the result of proxy conflict.
Similarly, in nearby Syria, the consequences of proxy war are manifold. Syria is now in its tenth year of conflict and the hostilities appear to show no sign of wavering. This is a direct result of the multitude of external actors tearing the country apart. President Bashar al-Assad has the support of a coalition of regional and global powers. China, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah all sustain Assads brutal crackdown on the Syrian people. Iran has provided weapons and arms to the Syrian regime, while Hezbollah has forces stationed in the region. Meanwhile, China and Russia back the Syrian Baathists in opposition to the West. NATO’s decision to alter the domestic politics Libya contradicted Moscow and Beijing’s perspective on the importance of sovereignty and non-intervention, presumably out of fear over controversies within their own borders. Nevertheless, China has expressed its support for Assad while Russia has provided extensive military assistance.
To counter such efforts, the US has provided on-and-off logistical and military support to a plethora of secular and Islamist fighters to counter Islamist movements within the region. Today, some of those same rebels are now reinforced by Turkey to commit atrocities against Syrian Kurds. To isolate the Kurdish resistance in Turkey, Ankara has attempted to eradicate and immobilise any notion of Kurdish freedom in Syria.
This complex web of moves and countermoves, strategic interests and ideological battles, has rendered Syria a wasteland. Between 384,00 and 586,000 people have been killed in the bloodshed while 5.6 million are refugees, a further 6.2 million are internally displaced. 12 million are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
These conflicts are all happening simultaneously, now. At the expense of national interest and power-hungry despotism, innocents are suffering untold violence and viscousness. Proxy wars are the worst wars. They allow deprived and demoralised groups to continue fighting, and they allow corrupt regimes and ineffective governments to cling to power. More specifically, years of fighting hardens the minds of all combatants. As peripheral powers provide the material support they crave, victory seems within their grasp. Which, in turn, justifies further hostilities. To complicate matters further, the more parties involved increases the number of interests and objectives around the negotiation table. No party can be satisfied amid the multitude of conflicting desires burying the chances of lasting peace.
Yet war is an evil. Peace in Libya, Syria, and Yemen must be found as the only ones who suffer violence of this scale are the poorest civilians. The only option here is dialogue and diplomacy as when the talking starts the fighting stops. Negotiations are key. Bringing all parties around the table will allow compromises and agreements to be discussed. The west must open negotiations with Assad and his counterparts as well as Russia and China. History has taught us that we cannot allow regional and global powers to fight out their differences through the countryside’s of faraway lands, turning nations against themselves. Conflict will always identify humanity, but let proxy wars remain in the dark corners of the past.
By Daniel Mountain