Syria: The History of a Proxy War

As the Syrian War gets more muddled and complicated, the U.S. is digging in its heels. But to what end?

Syria: The History of a Proxy War

by Eric King


Russia, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the United States, and the Syrian government. That is a short list of the nations that are involved in the proxy war of all proxy wars, known simply as the Syrian Civil War. A proxy war, for those of you who do not know, is a war that a country fights through other groups or without the direct involvement of its military. The classic example of a proxy war is the U.S. effort to fund the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban was fighting the Soviet Union, which had invaded Afghanistan, so the United States funded and trained the Taliban so that it could better fight against the Soviets, our Cold War enemies. Until recently, it appeared to me that Syria was a proxy war that was slowly coming to a close. It appears that I was wrong.

The events of the past few weeks have breathed life into a war that seemed to be essentially over. Before that, the Syrian government was in a strong position. It had taken control of the vast majority of Syrian territory that had been previously under the control of anti-Assad rebel groups, and the future of Syria seemed to be rather straight forward. The Syrian government would shore up control over the rest of the country and that would be the end of the civil war. There was, of course, the Turkish incursion into Kurdish-held Syrian territory, but at the time that seemed to be the Syrians merely allowing their neighbor, Turkey, to deal with a group that had been a nuisance to them as well.

Since then, the situation in Syria has radically changed. The U.S. military, which is still bombing in Syria for some reason, recently bombed 100 to 200 Russian mercenaries. Israeli jets have been bombing Iranian-backed rebels in Syria, and recently Syrian government forces shot down an Israeli jet after it carried out one of those bombings. They did this as a show of force to remind the Israelis that Syrian territory is sovereign and that if they are going to continue to violate Syrian air space, the Syrians are going to shoot down their planes. This, by the way, is how wars start. Some plane gets shot down or a ship sinks or an Archduke gets shot and the whole world goes to hell in a hand basket.

The Syrian Civil War began as part of the so called “Arab Spring” uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2011. The Arab Spring was a series of protests that sprang up across the Arab world against dictators that had been in power for decades. When those protests hit Syria, the Syrian government took a very different approach than did their Arab neighbors. They decided to brutally crackdown on these protests by gunning down many of the protesters and, quite frankly, that should have been the end of it. Most protest movements are not able to stand up against that sort of government violence, but over time the protest movement morphed into an armed insurrection. The civil war broke out in earnest in 2012 when the Free Syrian Army and other terrorist groups began taking territory in Syria. These rebel groups proved astoundingly resilient against the organized forces of the Syrian army, to the point where, by early 2013, it seemed possible that the FSA might take Damascus itself. By this point they had taken every key Syrian city except for Damascus. Then, in the middle of 2015 it seemed very possible that the Islamic State might take control of Syria. At multiple moments, weaker men would have given in and fled for their lives, Assad did not flee.

The Syrian civil war became the perfect target for Russia and the United States to participate in a proxy war. By the time the Syrian Civil War began, the United States and Russia were already participating in a covert cyber war. In late 2010, the United States and Israel released the Stuxnet virus on Iranian nuclear power plants, causing the centrifuges to spin out of control. Iran is geo-politically aligned with Russia. This was technically an act of war by the United States and Israel against the Islamic Republic of Iran. This cyber attack led to a number of cyber counter-attacks by the Russians against the United States. The Syrian civil war was the perfect opportunity for both powers to take their conflict into the real world. In this context, the Syrian Civil War appears not as some isolated incident but as the next escalation in an ever escalating cold war between the United States and Russia.

According to the New York Times, it is around 2013 when the CIA entered the picture. In an August of 2017 article titled “Behind the Sudden Death of a $1 Billion Secret C.I.A War in Syria,” the New York Times details America’s deep involvement in the Syrian Civil War. The article states “The end came quickly for one of the costliest covert action programs in the history of the C.I.A. During a White House briefing early last month, the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, recommended to President Trump that he shut down a four-year-old effort to arm and train Syrian rebels.” This account fits with the facts on the ground. It was 2013 when the Free Syrian Army rebels looked at their strongest and when it would have made sense for the CIA to begin trafficking arms to them and training them in an attempt to place these so called “moderate rebels” in power and topple the Assad regime, thereby getting rid of one of Russia’s few allies. The CIA has been doing this kind of stuff since the 1950s, except they were a lot better at it in the 1950s. The CIA toppled multiple Latin American and Middle Eastern regimes during the post-war years and they did it efficiently.

I voted for Donald Trump because I thought that he was the man who would start to get us out of all of this nonsense in the Middle East. But it is his administration that has decided to station US troops in Syria indefinitely. For what purpose? To what end? The Islamic State in Syria has essentially been defeated; there are no more “moderate rebels” that we can even aid, why on earth are we permanently stationing troops there? Something will go wrong in Syria and the halfway stable situation there will become very unstable, very quickly. To fight a real war in Syria, we would need 500,000 US troops and we would be going up against Iranian and Russian forces, not some tribal groups in Afghanistan. Are we prepared to do that? And if we are not, then why are we still there?

Eric King
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