War by Proxy: The Balkanisation of Middle Eastern War Tactics


The norms of state conduct seem not to count in the Middle East. As the Saudi-Iranian bid for domination supplants the Arab-Israeli schism, the fluctuating capacity of certain governments to militarily intervene directly or prosecute war by proxy has the potential to unleash a major war. It is worth looking at which states behave in what ways and why.

A Shifting Landscape of Concepts

It will be said, by politicians and commentators, that life has never been so good; and that much of this is attributable to an unprecedented period of peace between states.

Some have argued this can be explained by the multilateral campaign to renounce war itself, which began with the abortive 1928 anti-aggression pact. It is worth reprinting what Adam Tooze in The Deluge (Viking: New York, 2014) has argued: “In 1945, when the Allies were formulating the indictment of the Nazi leadership before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, the main charges against the defendants was neither the familiar canon of war crimes codified in the nineteenth century, nor the relatively novel concept of crimes against humanity, let alone genocide, which as yet barely featured in the minds of international lawyers. The central point of the indictment drawn up by the American prosecutors was Nazi Germany’s violation of Kellogg-Briand, its crimes against peace.”

Since the indictment of aggression is actually more severe, as far as international law is concerned, than so-called “terrorism”, military conflicts since 1945 are seldom defined as acts of war, lest they be accused of aggression and subject to its isolating, damaging consequences. This argument would then explain why states lend financial and logistical support for non-state actors: from non-governmental propagandists, to anti-Iranian exiles in Albania, Euromaidan mobs in Ukraine, and an assortment of Islamists and jihadists in the Middle East and Northern Africa.

Iran and its Proxies: One and the Same

Kyle Orton, ghost writer for the Washington-based interests group Americans For A Free Syria, which lobbies for the removal of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as part of a regional anti-Iran campaign, said this was less the case in the Middle East, where the trend is somewhat bucked.

“Iran is a revolutionary state and wants to overturn the status quo in the Middle East,” Orton said. The ayatollahs of Iran resort to whatever means they can to prosecute their Islamic revolution across the region, whether they do so directly or via so-called proxy, he explained. This explains their sponsorship with the Houthi tribe, whose revolt would “irritate the Saudis and keep a finger print on Yemen,” and the Iranian-controlled Iraqi and Afghan militias which swarmed into Syria, as was made clear in Jay Solomon’s damning book The Iran Wars (Random House: New York, 2016).

Orton said there was much confusion about Hizbollah and its relationship with the Iranian state in western public discourse, leading to a deniability of creeping plausibility used by the moderate faces of Iran’s appalling totalitarian revolution, such as Mohammad Javad Zarif. “Hizbollah was in Syria from the start of the civil war. It sniped the protestors in the spring demonstrations. The Qataris and the Saudis and the Turks only started backing the opposition in late 2011 in response to Hizbollah, the brutal crackdowns, and as the demonstrations became increasingly militarised.

“People call Hizbollah a proxy. But that is not right. Hizbollah is a division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is a functioning part of the Iranian state. Hizbollah is Iran.”

Alternative models: Saudi Arabia and Qatar

Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is a status quo power. “If the Saudis could live a quiet life, they would do so,” Orton explained. “For the Saudis, they just throw money at proxies just to get things done. The proxies are not really controlled by the Saudis. They are not ideologically or militarily bound to the Saudis. It’s not like with the Iranians and the IRGC in Syria. The Saudis’ hand is so weak.”

Even though they were united by their cynical desire to depose the Assad government, the coalition of anti-Assad regional powers was fractious. The result was one of genuine chaos, as ostensible allies backed competing proxy factions, with disastrous implications.

“There was a lot of competition between the Turks and the Qataris and the Saudis,” Orton said. “The Qataris really thought the Islamists were the most eycient fighting group. Financial and logistical support for the rebel forces, in the end, fell to Turkey by default. Though the latent Turkey-Iran conflict is no longer about removing Assad; it is about the Kurds.”

Christopher Phillips, author of The Battle For Syria (Yale University Press: London, 2016), similarly agreed that Qatar played a major role in the early stages of the Syrian civil war, willing and eager as it was to carve out a path for itself where others would not. He said this followed what was regarded in Doha as the success of having supplied cash and guns to the provisional Libyan government—this despite a sequence of events implying that Qatari aid to the rebels arrived only after their coup. Qatar pursued a foolish policy of supporting jihadists via Libya and Turkey, unconcerned about the backlash from returning fighters, grounded in arrogance and hubris.

When are Proxies Useful?

Asked if the use of proxy militias by foreign governments blurred the lines between war and peace, Phillips said it made sense for states to rely on a policy of destabilisation of their rivals where direct military conflict would be unpopular with domestic and international public opinion. This, however, was limited, he said, and took issue with the Tooze view that international law, and the multilateral campaign to renounce aggression, had curbed interstate conflict. “I don’t think that states have ceased going to war because of international law, actually, if you look at military engagements during the cold war and indeed during the post cold war era by the United States.”

Regional powers relied on proxy militias when they lack the capacity for direct action, Phillips argued. As a case study, Phillips pointed to the civil war in Syria.

“The states lending finance and weapons to the anti-Assad forces did not have the capacity to send their militaries into Syria, even if they had wanted to. The Turks did, but they were initially blocked by international norms. And the US wouldn’t have been happy if Turkey had made such a statement. Iran did have the capacity to mobilise non-state actors that were not its own, like Hizbollah, the Iraqi Shia militias, and Afghan and Pakistani expats, until 2015. At that point, when it was not working, the Iranians turned to the Russians for air power. But if they had the capacity to do so, the Iranians would have been quite happy to bomb the anti-Assad forces.”


Given what could be described as the creeping enthusiasm for war amongst western nations (which this author have experienced somewhat from firsthand experience), it seems the balkanisation of tactics by which to prosecute war in the Middle East exacerbates the great schism in the region—the Saudi-Iranian bid for domination—which has supplanted the Arab-Israeli feud. The fear, as always, is that cynical western politicians who lack subtlety will rush to judgment, throw their political and military weight on the side of one such theocratic despotism against the other, and bring the simmering tensions caused by proxy warfare out into the open.

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