The first war I covered as a foreign correspondent was the civil war in Lebanon. When the conflict began in 1975, it was just a series of skirmishes, a nasty but limited little war for control of a small nation.
Then other countries got involved: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Israel. They supplied money and weapons to their favored factions, turning an internal struggle into a longer, more deadly proxy war in which outside powers fought one another through surrogates.
Eventually even the United States sent troops, which is why 241 Americans died in a bombing in Beirut in 1983. The conflict that began almost 40 years ago has never quite come to an end, thanks in large part to its use by others as a battleground for proxy war.
Today, though, Lebanon’s street battles and car bombings are merely a small part of a mushrooming regional proxy war that extends across both Syria and Iraq to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Two big powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have squared off in a competition for dominance in much of the Arab Middle East. Other countries are either choosing sides or nervously trying to protect themselves from the spillover. And the United States finds itself uncomfortably in the middle.
When big powers turn a local conflict into a proxy war, they can have three terrible effects. They make the war more destructive, by pumping in more advanced weapons than were there before. They often make the war longer, by making it possible for each side to keep fighting indefinitely. And they create spillover effects in neighboring countries, including refugee crises, an increased flow of weapons, and the recruitment and training of insurgents.
In 1979, when the United States began supporting Afghanistan’s mujahideen in a proxy war with the Soviet Union, the move seemed like a convenient way to harass a Cold War rival. But the side effects included the rise of al-Qaida and the Taliban, and Afghanistan’s civil war still isn’t over.
The 2011 Syrian uprising began as a domestic revolt against repression, but it quickly turned into both a sectarian conflict (between a Sunni-led opposition and a regime dominated by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot) and a geopolitical proxy war. Iran, the Assad regime’s main ally, rushed weapons and military advisers to Damascus. Lebanon’s Hezbollah, another Iranian client, sent seasoned combat troops to help the regime.
The Obama administration hesitated to provide military aid to the rebels – but Saudi Arabia, seeing the regional stakes, jumped in with cash. Some of the Saudi money went to support Islamist fighters who worried the United States. The Assad regime, fighting for its life, turned to bombing civilian areas from the air.
As a result, the war now appears likely to last longer, kill more civilians and create more spillover effects in neighboring countries than before. The United Nations and the United States hope to launch a peace conference for Syria on Wednesday, but nobody expects quick results.
The United States doesn’t need to put troops “in the middle of every conflict,” as a White House aide scoffed recently. But neither can it ignore the spread of proxy wars.