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The Perils of War by Proxy

Sunday, October 16, 2016 11:01
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By Mike Konrad  /

If there is one common trait among great powers, it is that they wage war by proxy.  If there is one common yet unlearned lesson from this practice, it is that such wars almost inevitably backfire.  The record of history is clear: the West, and particularly we in America, should not be engaging in this.

As the Syrian Civil War starts to enter its sixth year, with no end in sight, one should reflect that whatever the internal brutalities and contradictions in the Syrian government, it soon became a battleground for everyone else and his relatives.

The Saudis, fearful of the Iranian Shi’a, armed the Sunni rebels, as much to deflect al-Qaeda from toppling the corrupt Saudi regime as to fight Iran.  The Iranians, determined to keep their Alawite pratboy in power, and to humiliate the Saudis, sent in Shi’a Hezb’allah troops to assist Assad.

As if this were not bad enough, the West armed proxies to assist in the overthrow of Assad – which in turn gave rise to ISIS.

Why?  Assad, as bad as he was, was no menace to us, and he was the lesser evil of anyone who would replace him.  Yet, in spite of common sense, we started arming proxies.

The Syrian mess we see now is the result of this dirty business.  And we have only to look at some of the more famous debacles of this nature in history to see that rarely does anything good come of this.

We could go back to the Anglo-Spanish War of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  Given that we live in an Anglophonic culture, we tend to think of England as winning that war when it sank the Spanish Armada.

England did not win.  Lesser known is that a mere year after the Spanish Armada was thwarted, the English raised a counter-armada that went down in equally horrific destruction.  The English-speaking world forgets that inconvenient Hispanic reply.  The war, which went on for five decades, was incompetently waged by both sides, and it ended in a status quo ante draw – one of the reasons that two thirds of the New World still speaks Spanish or Portuguese.

What is even less appreciated is that Britain, always looking to wage war on the cheap, made full use of privateers, whose job was to prey on the Spanish Main.  Unwilling to fully pay for a national navy to do the job and reap the rewards, England subcontracted the job to what were essentially proxy pirates.

When the war ended, the pirates, unwilling to end their lucrative careers and retire, then decided that the newest and richest source of prey was English shipping.  The proxy war had returned to bite England.  Pirates would plague the Caribbean for centuries.  Worse yet, these pirates were often better armed and trained than the official British navy.  They were certainly better paid.

We could go back farther.  The Celtic Britons hired Anglo-Saxon mercenaries to protect them from their non-Romanized Celtic cousins in Ireland and Alba (Scotland).  But who would protect them from the Saxons?

According to Bede, the famous British monk who lived in the early Middle Ages, the Britons were suffering attacks from the Scots [the Irish] and the Picts, so they decided to hire some of the Saxons as mercenaries to fight their enemies.

For the fastest turnaround, we could look at World War I.  Germany was fighting a two-front war against the Western Allies and Russia.  The Germans authorized that Vladimir Lenin be snuck in a railroad car from neutral Switzerland back to Russia.  Thence, the Germans expected, Lenin could foment a revolution that would overthrow the Russian government.  Russia would have to sue for peace, and Germany could train all of its energy on a quick victory in the West.

Lenin did not disappoint.  Within a year, the Russian government had been overthrown twice.  Eventually, Lenin’s government sued for peace in March 1918.  What the Germans had not anticipated is that these same Russian Soviets would propagandize the German troops.  Eight months later, German soldiers and sailors – yes, they called them Soviets – overthrew the Kaiser.

In the case of Germany, it would take German troops returning home in defeat, the Freikorps, to stop the leftists from taking over Germany.  The nascent Weimar Republic would set the Freikorps against the leftists.  Ironically, these Freikorps would morph into brownshirts and be responsible for setting up the Nazi regime a decade later, overturning Weimar.

What goes around comes around.

Red China armed the Vietnamese to fight Americans by proxy.  In 1979, the Vietnamese handed China a defeat in the Sino-Vietnamese war.  Now the Vietnamese, who fought us Americans, want protection from the Chinese in the dispute over the South China Sea islands.  They want America as a proxy?

In the ’70s and ’80s, Israel, faced with an interminable war with the PLO, decided to support an Islamic resurgence among the Palestinians in the hopes of weaning Palestinian youths away from the violent, secular PLO toward a religious inclination.  This religious group became Hamas and proved worse than the PLO.

Hamas launched in 1988 in Gaza at the time of the first intifada[.] … But for more than a decade prior, Israeli authorities actively enabled its rise.

At the time, Israel’s main enemy was the late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah party, which formed the heart of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). …

The Israelis saw Qutb’s adherents in the Palestinian territories, including the wheelchair-bound Sheik Ahmed Yassin, as a useful counterweight to Arafat’s PLO.

“When I look back at the chain of events I think we made a mistake,” one Israeli official who had worked in Gaza in the 1980s said in a 2009 interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Higgins. “But at the time nobody thought about the possible results.”

They should’ve seen it coming.  As the Wall Street Journal noted:

Israel’s military-led administration in Gaza looked favorably on the paraplegic cleric, who set up a wide network of schools, clinics, a library and kindergartens. Sheikh Yassin formed the Islamist group Mujama al-Islamiya, which was officially recognized by Israel as a charity and then, in 1979, as an association. Israel also endorsed the establishment of the Islamic University of Gaza, which it now regards as a hotbed of militancy. The university was one of the first targets hit by Israeli warplanes in the recent war.

Of course, we Americans gave weapons to Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.  The rest is history.

Do I need to go over all the times that Europe has used Islamic proxies to fight its enemies?

- Imperial Germany armed the Turks in WWI.

- The British made promises to the Arabs that are at the very heart of the present struggle in the Mideast.

- France in the 16th century had an alliance with Ottoman Turkey against the Hapsburgs.

- Britain and France protected Turkey from a needed drubbing at tsarist hands during the Crimean War.

- Britain would later intervene to prevent then Christian Russia from liberating Constantinople from the Turks in 1878.  Apparently, Britain, which controlled the Suez, Gibraltar, the Cape, Singapore, and India, felt that it was intolerable that Russia should have one, just one, warm-water port in the Mediterranean.

From these, and other innumerable examples, two lessons can be learned:

1) Unless you are willing to fight the war yourself, stay out of it.  Proxy wars have a record of nasty blowback results.  It is as if Providence rains judgment on such dishonesty.

2) The disaster is doubly magnified if the proxy is Islamic.

What has this got to do with Syria?

Everything.  Stay out of Syria.  Had the West not tried to topple Assad by proxy, we would not be stormed by millions of Islamic refugees.  Had the West not toppled Gaddafi, as bad as he was,  ISIS would not be in Libya.

Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who is neither Latin nor Arab.  He runs a website,, where he discusses the subculture of Arabs in Latin  America. 

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