Freelance writer from Cornwall
With the recent downing of airliner Mh17 in mind and the accusations levelled against the Russians for supplying or firing the missile said to have downed it, it’s worth taking a look at a phenomenon that some might think new but has existed for centuries; the proxy war.
Larger states or alliances covertly interfering in the affairs of smaller ones is nothing new. Throughout history, bigger fish have meddled in the affairs of small fry and usually for their own ends, not those of their smaller (and sometimes very temporary) allies. The American Revolutionary War was also a proxy war. It suited the French and Spanish to support the American rebels against the British. The Spanish Civil War was a proxy war. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy supported the Fascists under General Franco while Mexico and the Soviet Union supported the Republican government. Neither set of big fish especially cared for the cause of their smaller clients and both also used it a valuable testing ground for the weapons and tactics they employed during the Second World War which began only months after the Spanish Civil War ended.
In the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict (currently involving mass Israeli airstrikes in reprisal for Palestinian rocket attacks) has had the former West Germany, UK, US and France quietly assisting the Israelis while the former Soviet Union and Cuba have assisted the Palestinians and other Arab powers. Afghanistan in the late 1970’s through the 1980’s saw the Soviets openly supporting the puppet government while the Americans armed and funded what later became the Taliban. They also covertly assisted a certain Osama Bin Laden as well, come to think of it. The Cambodian-Vietnamese war (just after the Vietnam War finally ended) was fought between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians. The Soviets supported the Vietnamese behind the scenes while the Chinese did the same for Cambodia (or Kampuchea as it then was).
The Vietnam War saw the the US, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and Thailand supporting the South Vietnamese to varying degrees while the North were heavily backed by the Soviets and Chinese and, to a lesser extent, the Cubans and North Koreans. The recent Syrian conflict has drawn suggestions of all manner of proxy involvement. The British, Americans, Libyans, Saudis, North Koreans, Russians, French, Venezuelans, Turks, Iranians and even Qatar have all been accused of taking a covert interest in the internal strife of the Syrians.
The proxy angle is often missed completely, discounted or played down by foreign media and commentators. It’s rather hard to make a solid accusation without proof and, when bigger fish meddle with small fry, they tend to work on the principle of ‘plausible deniability (if you can’t absolutely prove did something we shouldn’t, then we didn’t). ‘Plausible deniability’ has sometimes been referred to in the trade as the ’11th Commandment’ of ‘Thou shalt not get caught.’
Within proxy wars themselves the alliances can change with the seasons and sometimes faster. Bigger fish that previously refused to get involved find reason to back one side or another. Bigger fish that were up to their necks suddenly extricate themselves completely, regardless of the cost to their former clients as the Americans did by pulling out of the former South Vietnam. Bigger fish might change sides mid-conflict as the British did when they switched their backing from Mihailovic to Tito in the former Yugoslavia during the Second World War. A change of government in a larger player may well mean the difference between supporting and not supporting a smaller one. Or it might mean changing sides. ‘Plausible deniability’ might force a larger player to alter their policy on the basis of not wanting to be caught with their hand in the cookie jar and fearing that they might be about to be caught.
Proxy wars can be fought alongside open armed conflict, as happened during the Vietnam War when troops from the bigger players openly fought one another. Nor does the involvement of major players necessarily have to be kept secret. They also offered the two 20th Century superpowers numerous opportunities to square off without starting the open, conventional shooting war that would probably have led to a nuclear one not long after.
They also offer a chance for greater meddling than simply the supply of money military advisers, weapons, supplies and munitions. The major backers of both sides in the Spanish Civil War used the fighting to test develop and perfect weapons and tactics for the coming Second World War. The Soviets also managed to subvert the Republican government by very kindly offering to supply arms and advisers while accepting the Spanish gold reserves in Moscow for safe keeping and as security against future arms shipments. No longer having the money to go elsewhere and with only Mexico prepared to donate arms and supplies, the Republicans soon found themselves toeing the Soviet line in every area of policy that mattered.
Proxy wars are nothing new and they’ll remain part of international, intelligence, espionage, diplomacy and politics for the foreseeable future. They offer bigger nations a chance to fight each other without actually fighting. They allow the power-brokers in larger states to effectively play chess with smaller ones according to their own aims and wishes. They allow the bigger fish to constantly mark their territory like rival tomcats disputing the same patch of ground.
Is it a dirty and corrupt business? Yes.
Is it done with the best interests of the smaller states and their people? Only when those coincide with the interests of their larger backers.
Is it in any way something new or novel to see bigger states and factions interfering in the affairs of smaller ones, regardless of their moral or ethical right to do so?
No. It’s been happening for centuries and it probably always will.