19. The folly of proxy war

Supporting militias to fight proxy wars may destabilize a country for a longer period or create a spillover effect as happens here in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo: Matchbox Media Collective

Supporting militias to fight proxy wars may destabilize a country for a longer period or create a spillover effect as happens here in Tripoli, Lebanon. Photo: Matchbox Media Collective

In the 19th and beginning of the 20th century the Middle East had become in the view of many Arabs a playing board, on which foreign powers played their game using the Arabs as pieces. While the Ottoman Empire lost more and more of its authority over its Arabic subjects through the machinations of France, Italy and the United Kingdom, these countries became to rule, directly or indirectly, the Middle East. Even after the Arab countries became official independent, the Arabs still worried that they were still nothing more than pawns moved by foreign powers. Even today Arab media (and also Western media) is never shy to point to the meddling of foreign powers in the national affairs of Arab countries. The close (personal) relations between France and its former colonies in North Africa are well known and Egypt and Jordan can count on American financial support for their armies. The most important difference is that today the countries in the Middle East are no longer only pawns, they are also players.

The mess in both Libya and Syria/Iraq show the result and complexity of the meddling of the different countries in the Middle East: Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Each country support in each of these conflict areas the groups that match its political views and support them with weapons, funds and/or other necessities. As each of these countries have another political agenda and view, this support turns Libya and Syria/Iraq in battlefields for their proxy wars over their dominance over and influence in the Middle East. Their support stokes the fires of conflict and sectarianism thus higher instead of suppressing the spread of violence. And although they can be blamed for their actions, they are not the only ones chasing their short term interests over any long term peace. The Western countries have also part in it.

The different players makes it often confusing to determine who is responsible for what, but in the end it is clear that their proxy wars make the situation only worse. Libya is an example were different groups are fighting each other. There are the Zaytan militias from the western mountains, the different Islamic militias from Misrata and Benghazi, IS from Derna, separatist militias from Cyrenaica, the Libyan army and general Khalifa Hafter’s rebel troops. Not to forget the two Libyan governments, the old Islamist dominated one in Tripoli and the new less Islamist one in Tobruk. General Hafter declared Turks and Qataris as persona non grata in Libya as he accused their countries of supporting the Islamist militias he is fighting. He seems to get air support in this fight from Egypt, who has a score to settle with the Islamists in Libya and especially the local Muslim Brotherhood after the disposal of its own Muslim Brotherhood president, Morsi, and a deadly attack on a Egyptian border post at the Libyan border. Saudi Arabia is mostly seen in Libya as supporting Islamists with more radical views. This is the kind of Islamists that wrecked several shrines of local Muslim saints as they see those as un-Islamic and may very well encompass those from Derna who have sworn loyalty to IS.

The source of the problem lies at the beginning of the Libyan revolution, when both Western countries as Arabic countries supported unanimously the overthrown of Gadhafi and each sponsored his own favourite group. This led to the creation on a many different militias instead of an united rebel army. Any attempts to integrate these militias in the regular army failed due to the refusal of the Libyan authorities to accept any help with this and the continued sponsoring of “own” militias by the Islamist dominated Libyan parliament. Moreover, the weak and small Libyan army and the abundance of weapons in Libya from the army bases plundered during the revolution make it difficult to control the continuous violence in Libya. The short-sightedness and naive good intentions of the Arab and Western countries led to total chaos, which they seem unwilling to address and remedy even though they had to evacuate all their countrymen from Libya due to the violence. Even now IS is proliferating in Libya, only the neighbouring countries, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, seem to take any interest in the chaos of Libya. However, their actions and armed support may do little to remedy the situation.

The situation in Syria and Iraq is worse, given its sectarian nature and brutal fighting. While Iran supports directly or through its Lebanese militia Hezbollah the Alawite government in Damascus and the Shia one in Baghdad, the Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq receive support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Kurds have long chosen to stay out both the conflicts between the Sunni and Shia in both Iraq and Syria, but they are now dragged in it by the furious attacks by IS against their towns in North Syria and Iraq. While the Syrian conflict started as a call against oppression by the Syrian people for freedom and the Iraq one as result of the marginalization of the Sunni minority by the pro-Shia government in Baghdad, both turned into a sectarian civil war. The continuous escalation of the conflicts made it possible for IS to gain ground and to unite Eastern Syria and Western Iraq into one blood drenched caliphate. The role of the different players may not be underestimated. The help of Iran and Hezbollah to the Syrian government ensured that the Sunni rebels could no longer advance in Syria turning the conflict in a modern version of trench war. Turkey contributed to the chaos by opening its borders to any foreign fighters and radicals who wished to fight in the Syrian civil war, while Qatar and Saudi Arabia opened their wallets to support in Syria different Islamist militias over more secular and less radical opposition groups. And the West helped by watching and doing nothing even after chemical attacks on civilians by president Assad.

Even now IS has been identified as the main enemy by all sides, the different countries seem to continue to fight their wars through proxies. The war on the ground is still fought by the same militias and armies, while the Western and Arabic countries only contribute air support and weapons to the conflict, not boots on the ground. The main difference is that IS has become the main target at the moment, but as soon as IS has been destroyed, the different groups may turn their weapons again against each other. The Syrian army may now bomb IS troops, but may very way launch another (chemical) attack against other rebel groups as the treat of IS subsides. Moreover, some countries seem to be more interested in their own political agenda than the common cause. While the IS besieged Kobane, the US bombarded an obscure and previous unknown jihadi group, the Khorasan group, while Turkey refused Kurdish reinforcements and refugees cross the Turkish-Syrian border, because the PKK refused to disarm.

Fighting wars through proxies makes the situation only worse as Libya has shown us and also arming of Sunni local tribes in the Iraqi Anbar province by the United States to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. The operation was declared a success, but now is the province and most of the weapons gave to the tribes and Iraqi army in hands of IS. It has only strengthened them. Arming militias may lead to victory against an enemy on the short term, but to instability on the longer run. Only a well-trained and well-armed army can conquer an area and ensure stability on the longer term within this army. This can be foreign troops, if the local army is weak and need time to be strengthened, or, preferably, local army troops. Moreover, local militias should be forced to disarm and/or integrated into the regular army. However, much more should be done. Weapon and cash flows to the militias should be cut off, training should be given to the regular army to ensure it is up to the task and the underlying causes of conflict should be tackled. To do this you need next to a capable army a capable government. This is the hard part as it needs capable people, support from the population and no meddling from the outside. These three things seems sometimes impossible to get in the Middle East.

The most important lesson is that for the greater stability personal agendas of the different players in the Middle-East should be put aside and they should help to create a well-trained army and capable government instead of arming militias and political pawns. They should accept that the governments in question are sovereign and take their own decisions, which as a result may not always be in line with their wishes. If one has the wish that the Middle East will become again a “house of peace” (Dar es-Salam), these proxy wars have to end.

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