The prospect of peace is being tested in Libya against a backdrop of a developing regional rapprochement between Egypt and Turkey. Syria is witnessing a stalemate, with most of the country now back in the hands of the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad thanks to Russian and Iranian support.
A Saudi initiative to end the war in Yemen following US pressure on Riyadh and Abu Dhabi has been rejected by the Yemeni Houthi rebels. The administration of US President Joe Biden has been following in the footsteps of former president Donald Trump’s policies, which approved a US military withdrawal from Afghanistan after a peace deal with the Taliban in February of last year.
Such developments and others may indicate that the foreign powers that have been involved in proxy wars since the 2011 revolutions in the Arab world, further inflaming conflicts in the Middle East, are now trying to exit from them. These proxy wars have been adding fuel to the fire in the Middle East, tearing countries apart and transforming much of the region into an inflamed zone that has affected neighbouring territories in Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.
It is hard to predict if the region is heading towards comprehensive peace in the near future, especially in light of the current state of uncertainty that makes expert expectations like those who claim to be standing firm on moving ground. However, at the very least the rash of proxy wars that has been affecting the Middle East is being revisited, giving rise to an alternative choice that would still maintain the interests of external powers in the region in the shape of “proxy peace”.
A war by proxy means that superpowers wage wars in conflict areas without being directly engaged in those wars; that is, external forces delegate or assign armed agencies to defend their interests in exchange for clandestine, indirect support, in the form of supplying them with weapons, training, and needed political support.
Proxy wars have been a popular policy in international relations, as states resort to them usually in order to attain three main goals.
The first is to reduce the costs of foreign involvements by avoiding direct confrontation with other external competitors in conflict areas. The second is the denial of liability, since fighting proxy wars makes it easier for states to deny violating the principle of a state’s sovereignty over its territories or having been part of any violation of human rights in case the proxy also commits such acts. Any state’s relationship with its proxy remains indirect and confidential. The third benefit is efficiency, since proxy agents may be more experienced than their sponsors, and thus can be more efficient in carrying out military operations in conflict areas that have been dominated by guerilla wars.
However, the feasibility of proxy wars in the Middle East has become increasingly questionable.
Some proxy agents have been unable to change the balance of power in favour of their sponsoring states, forcing those states to intervene directly and putting the low costs of proxy wars into question. Cases in point can be found in the Turkish military intervention in western Libya to support the previous government of national reconciliation in January 2020 and the Russian intervention in Syria in support of the Al-Assad regime after September 2015.
A proxy war in Libya inflamed a regional confrontation between Egypt and Turkey, when Cairo asserted that the Sirte-Al-Jufra boundary was a red line in June 2020 and that it would intervene directly if it was crossed to defend its national security interests.
On the other hand, proxy wars may cause a backlash against the superpowers waging them. The Arab Coalition’s war against the Iranian-backed Houthi group in Yemen since 2015 has already caused problems for Saudi Arabia’s internal security. The latter has been targeted by the Houthis with ballistic missiles and drones, and the war has also allowed Iran to expand its influence in Yemen, in turn reinforcing sectarian rifts between Tehran and Shiite proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.
Meanwhile, the benefits of proxy wars have also varied, as in the case of Syria. Whereas Russia, Iran, and Turkey have made substantial gains in the country, the Western powers have failed to topple the Al-Assad regime. They have thus been left with no choice but to shift their policies, from demanding root-and-branch changes to the regime to just pressuring for more political openness, now that Al-Assad has regained control over most Syrian territory thanks to Russian-Iranian support.
The country that has been the most involved in proxy wars worldwide, including in the Middle East, has been the United States, and it concedes that it has made diminishing gains from these wars over recent years. The US military intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, cost an estimated $760 billion between October 2001 and March 2019, and yet it has not achieved its goals. After all these years, Washington signed a peace treaty with the Taliban in February this year to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in May.
Moreover, the superpowers are now no longer able to deny being involved in proxy wars, which was not so much the case during the Cold War, thanks to the expansion of close monitoring and the surveillance of armed conflict areas on the part of the UN and other international and non-governmental organisations.
Whereas Russia, for instance, has denied the existence of its proxies in Libya, many UN reports have revealed the presence of hundreds of Russian mercenaries belonging to the Russian Wagner Group fighting in the country.
ALTERNATIVE POLICIES: When the benefits of proxy wars decline, countries search for alternative options to secure their interests in areas of conflict, especially in times of peace.
This is particularly true when powers are competing to expand their geo-strategic influence in the framing of political settlements and their geo-economic influence in the reconstruction of war-torn areas.
Here, the strategy of peace by proxy emerges, with such states appointing proxies to defend their interests, this time using peaceful strategies for the purposes of promoting calm and peace. These agents may be armed in case the goal of the peace by proxy is to settle armed conflicts. But they may also be purely peaceful, as in the case of the UN and other regional and non-governmental organisations. Such peaceful organisations can be instrumental in cases where the goal is to move from a negative peace (such as stopping the war) to a positive one, such as building consensus between the disputing parties through negotiation to settle the conflict and maintain peace in conflict areas.
Many countries resort to peace by proxy for more or less the same reasons as their use of proxy wars, namely, to reduce the costs of getting directly involved in settling complicated conflicts that may not bring about the desired results and may even negatively affect their international commitments and prestige.
In the meantime, such countries may also not be able to get into direct negotiations with armed groups labelled as terrorists in national laws. Getting into direct negotiation with a terrorist group could give it legitimacy and anger the state where a conflict is taking place. The fact that both the US and the EU have resorted to proxies in the form of non-governmental organisations to negotiate with the Palestinian group Hamas to reach a settlement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories is a case in point.
It is noteworthy here that proxies are subordinate to the states that hire them in cases of peace as much as in cases of war. After all, it is their sponsoring countries that provide the finance and agenda needed to accomplish their work in conflict areas. This is most evident when the EU provides technical and humanitarian support to governments and civil society organisations in conflict areas on condition that they adhere to the principles of democracy and human rights.
However, the strategy of the peace proxy has nevertheless not gained popularity in the literature on Middle Eastern conflicts. Instead, the interference of external powers to settle conflicts in the Middle East is usually described in terms of partnership and coordination, giving the impression of parity and apparently ruling out the idea of foreign interference in a country’s internal affairs.
One case in point can be seen in the Friends for Peace (FFP) groups that have emerged in the aftermaths of the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya and which have involved external powers and major donors that have interests in these conflict areas. However, this idealistic view, which assumes that states and societies in conflict, already fragile and exhausted by wars, can in fact achieve parity and have an equal partnership with external powers, some of which are also sponsoring wars by proxy, fundamentally contradicts reality.
Instead, countries in conflict remain the hostage of the external powers engaged in their respective peace processes.
It was not surprising, then, that the EU’s former foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, hinted that the Syrian conflict might need a proxy peace. The statement was perhaps a realistic recognition of the difficulty of imposing peace in a country already mired in proxy wars without resorting to external powers, such as Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the US, that had already intervened either to support the Al-Assad regime or the armed opposition.
It has been evident in recent years that the same powers that have been long involved in proxy wars are now employing proxies to settle conflicts and impose peace in the same conflict areas.
IMPOSING PEACE BY PROXY: Reducing conflicts and stopping war by pushing armed proxies to negotiate a ceasefire is one of the strategies used in peace by proxy. It is usually used by sponsors aiming to reduce the military and political losses of having their proxies engaged in armed conflicts.
A case in point can be found in the battle for Tripoli in Libya. The fact that armed proxies failed to settle the balance of military forces in favour of their sponsors sparked fears that a regional war would erupt as a result. Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and the UAE thus called for a ceasefire in Libya in October 2020 while the Libyan factions met in November of the same year at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Tunisia and agreed on uniting all the Libyan factions in the east and west of the country and to hold elections in December 2021.
An interim government of national unity was formed and put to a vote of confidence in March, putting an end to several years of division in the executive authority in Libya since the failure of the Skhirat Agreement signed in Morocco in 2015.
But the sponsoring countries may also have a different agenda that aims to impose peace at a certain point just to change the results of armed conflicts in their favour and to attain specific gains on the ground before military conflicts are resumed. This may explain why the fighting did not stop following the 2017 De-escalation Agreement in Syria.
The Al-Assad regime launched a strike on Idlib, the last stronghold of the armed opposition factions in the north of the country, in December 2019, leading to clashes with Turkey. In response, Turkey launched Operation Spring Shield, a cross-border military operation conducted by the Syrian armed forces and allied militants in the Idlib governorate in February 2020. This resulted in a ceasefire between Turkey and Russia that was signed in Moscow within days on 5 March.
Countries may resort to a peace-by-proxy strategy to settle conflicts when they need to avoid playing a direct role that may be politically costly in case meditation fails to reach a settlement. So, instead of getting directly involved, these countries provide financial and technical support to peace agents such as international or regional governmental and non-governmental organisations to intervene.
After all, such organisations are usually more familiar with the environment of conflict areas and the needs of the conflicting parties. Their initiatives are thus better received by the disputing parties, who may otherwise show sensitivity to any direct intervention from Western countries with a history of colonial interests in the region.
Governments support their proxies technically in many ways. They empower them through transferring expertise and upgrading skills; they coordinate with other agents, competing powers and allies; and they provide financial support for proxies’ mediation activities. Meanwhile, they impose penalties on violators and those blocking peace settlements. This has been evident in the way the EU has supported peace-by-proxy activities undertaken by the United Nations and regional organisations to settle conflicts in Libya and South Sudan.
The same thing goes for NGOs assigned to mediate for peace in conflict areas. For example, the UN assigned the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue during the mandate of UN secretary-general special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé, to organise the Libyan National Forum in the period between April and July 2018 with the aim of building a consensus among Libyans on basic issues.
The centre then submitted proposals to the UN at the end of the forum. It also contributed as a platform for dialogue between the Libyan parties in Montreux in Switzerland in September 2020, paving the way for the Dialogue Forum in Tunis.
FROM AID TO PEACEBUILDING: Humanitarian aid is yet another peace-by-proxy strategy, and major donors may use humanitarian aid politically to server their proxy-war agenda, as has been the case in the Syrian conflict.
In the meantime, donor countries may also motivate peace agents to use aid as a means to supporting peace through controlling the flow of that aid in a way that does not cause harm. They may develop codes of negotiations with militants in a way that does not divert aid from its humanitarian goal, as well as use that aid for building confidence among the disputing parties. The International Committee of the Red Cross is a case in point of this strategy, and it is facilitating the exchange of prisoners in the Yemeni conflict alongside its relief activities.
The severity of the humanitarian repercussions of proxy wars in the Middle East also pushes external powers to rely on humanitarian agents. The Community of Sant’Egidio, for instance, has launched the humanitarian corridors project in the Mediterranean to provide relief aid to the most vulnerable groups of refugees. It signed an agreement with France in March 2017 and another one with Italy in 2016, providing the framework for an initiative that provides alternative solutions to deadly Mediterranean boat-crossing to Europe by illegal immigrants.
Peacekeeping is yet another strategy for proxy peace in conflict areas. In this case, countries delegate members to a UN regional organisation with the aim of sending military forces to maintain peace in conflict areas. This strategy gained popularity after the end of Cold War and the disappearance of the polarisation between the world’s two former superpowers that had greatly hindered the work of the UN in settling disputes in conflict areas and limited its role to just monitoring ceasefires between disputing parties.
Peacekeeping has been a US-favoured strategy on the grounds that it is a less-expensive tool to achieve US foreign-policy goals and allows it to reduce its direct involvement in complex conflicts after its bad experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The tasks of peacekeepers have therefore expanded in the aftermath of the Cold War from simply monitoring a ceasefire to a larger role of rehabilitating conflict-torn societies in a way that makes them able to achieve lasting peace. Peacekeepers also take part in facilitating the political process, monitoring elections, playing a larger role in reconciliation and reintegration of combatants, and monitoring human rights and the application of civil protection and the rule of law.
But peacekeeping operations have been facing many challenges. Peacekeepers may have a tense relationship with the host country, and they are sometimes targeted by militant groups. The failure of peacekeepers to maintain peace in conflict areas may also be due to the fact that they are not militarily qualified or due to poor coordination between UN member states. Meanwhile, some peacekeeping missions have been accused of sexual exploitation and the mistreatment of civilians. The fact that some developed countries do not live up to their promised financial contributions to the UN, particularly the US, has greatly affected the performance of UN missions.
It is important to note that there is also a sensitivity towards the presence of peacekeepers in the Middle East. In Libya, for instance, the military parties preferred observers to peacekeepers when opting for a ceasefire after the battle for Tripoli. The UN Security Council issued a Resolution in April 2021 that provides for 60 civil observers monitoring the ceasefire.
Since any post-war peacebuilding process includes the rebuilding of a war-torn country’s economic and social infrastructure economically as well as reinstating security, the role of a proxy peace emerges when the UN steps into the fray on behalf of donor countries and finances the peacebuilding process through its peacebuilding fund. This provides funds for security reforms, social and economic developments, transitional justice, and other policies.
In the meantime, non-governmental organisations often focus on reforming community relations at the grassroots level. The Interpeace Organisation, for instance, has been facilitating dialogue aimed at bringing about reconciliation between conflicting parties and building trust between local communities and the security services in Mali. Meanwhile, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces has focused on the areas of security reform and good governance and how these sectors can be held more accountable.
But peace by proxy has faced many problems. Perhaps the most prominent is that external powers impose their agendas in the context of the hegemony of a liberal peace, the dominance of peace agents, and the rise of ethical hazards. Last but not least has been the problem of a lack of confidence, since governments in conflict areas still often suspect the true goals of agents for a proxy peace.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly