What is a Proxy War?

Is what’s happening in Syria today a revolution, a civil war or a proxy war? Far more than just an argument over semantics, which term is used to refer to the situation in Syria today denotes a political position. Supporters of the Syrian opposition call it a revolution, while those not at all sympathetic to the opposition call it a proxy war, which is an attempt to disparage the opposition. But which of these terms is accurate?

Instead of inventing definitions from thin air, examining how each term was employed historically is helpful in this case. And the most helpful precedent that we can use is that of the Spanish Civil War. So, was what is today known as the “Spanish Civil war” a revolution, a civil war, or a proxy war?

The answer is all of the above.

The Spanish Civil war was a civil war in that it mostly consisted of people of the same country fighting against each other (although Franco had brought in some foreigners, and the Republicans had internationalists traveling from all over to help them in their struggle). The Spanish Civil war was also considered a proxy war in that each side had foreign states backing them with their own particular interests. The Soviet Union backed the Republicans while the fascist states of Germany and Italy backed Franco. The Soviet Union had its own interests in supporting the Republicans: to curb the influence of global fascism as a challenge to communism, to use Spain as a laboratory to test their weaponry and equipment, to make sure their communist party won rather than any other non-USSR aligned leftists, etc.

Despite this, the Spanish Civil War was also referred to as a revolution, and the soldiers that fought for the Republic were referred to as revolutionaries. It was a revolution because, first of all, they were trying to overthrow Franco’s fascist government that had taken power in a military coup, and replace it with another one, with a lot of popular support from the people. Secondly, it was a revolution because some of the Republican parties were revolutionizing social relations in the midst of battle.The Anarchists (CNT-FAI) and the Trotskyists (POUM), would collectivize work places and implement a number of revolutionary social measures whenever they would capture new territory, in what became known as a “revolution within a revolution.” (It is worth noting here that the USSR-allied communist parties acted in a very reactionary matter by forcefully reversing such measures under orders from the USSR).

Thus, the Spanish Civil War was simultaneously a revolution, a civil war, as well as a proxy war. What about Syria?

The situation in Syria is very similar. It is a civil war in that both sides involved are from the same country and fighting against each other (although, as in Spain, there are internationals fighting on both sides, notably, Iranians and Hezbollah militants with the Assad regime, and foreign Sunni jihadists with the opposition). It is a proxy war in that each side in the civil war has foreign state backers (Iran and Russia for Assad, the West and the GCC states for the opposition). And, finally, it is a revolution in that a large percentage of the population wishes to overthrow the regime and replace it with another. But it also is a social revolution, in that we have seen an unprecedented eruption of the “Syrian street,” whereby the elite no longer holds a monopoly on art and culture. This reclamation of the public space, exemplified by facebook pages, videos, songs, parodies, and witty signs, is in itself a revolution. And it is “popular” in that this eruption involves segments of society that were historically subaltern and excluded from the cultural and public life of Syria. Just as the Spanish revolutionaries were reclaiming their workplaces, the Syrian revolutionaries are reclaiming their voices, and this is Syria’s own “revolution within a revolution.”

So, if we look at historical precedents, Syria’s revolution, like Spain’s, is a revolution, a civil war, and a proxy war all in one. The point here is that these are not mutually exclusive categories. They are terms that can complement each other and are used to describe different aspects of a conflict. In fact, historically, there is very little precedent for any conflict in any place being only one or the other without some intersection and overlap. The Bolshevik revolution turned into the Russian Civil War. The Cuban revolution against Batista was a popular uprising against a US-backed dictator, yet the rebels later sought Soviet support, thus, Batista, and later Cuba’s revolutionaries, were also proxies, in the classical definition of the word. Yet, in leftist discourse, this was all ok, because, in Russia, Spain, and Cuba, one side was fighting a righteous struggle against another. Thus, them being involved in a civil war, or a proxy war, was not something that delegitimized their revolution.

But, in today’s usage of the term “proxy war” to refer to Syria, it is clear that people are not simply trying to state “it is a revolution with foreign state backers,” but rather, that the fact that there is a proxy war leaves no room for revolution, or even for civil war. This is exemplified by statements such as, “It is not a revolution, it is a proxy war,” or analysis that proclaims “what started out as a revolution is now a proxy war” whereby Syria is reduced to a “battleground” for foreign states.

This analysis creates the category of “proxy war” as one that is mutually exclusive and that cancels out anything and everything that preceded it. Revolutions, the argument goes, must remain “pure,” and once foreign states become involved, the situation is no longer a “revolution.” Here it is worth recalling Lenin, who, in his essay “The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up,” said: “Whoever expects a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.”

Those who are claiming that Syria’s conflict is “not a revolution, but a proxy war” are misusing the term proxy war and misrepresenting what revolutions were historically. The new usage of the term by those who wish to deny that Syria is also undergoing a revolutionary process denies the history of revolutions against governments frequently being proxy wars at the same time. Instead, it is trying to draw a comparison not to the righteous struggles of the past that also just happened to be proxy wars, but to historical events such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1959, whereby Cuban exiles were trained by the CIA to do the the CIA’s bidding. They were sent into Cuba with no popular support base with the express purpose of overthrowing the revolutionary leftist government of Cuba, which was the objective of the US government. This is the analogy people are trying to draw when they say Syria’s situation today is a “proxy war and not a revolution.” However, this new definition of a proxy war does not apply to the Syrian case today. The Syrian rebels took up arms on their own accord, not because some other state told them to. They receive support from, but are not directed by, foreign states, for the most part. Thus, if we wish to characterize the armed opposition in Syria as a “proxy,” meaning they get support from foreign states, this is accurate. However, if by “proxy” we mean that they simply do foreign states’ bidding for them with no popular support base on the ground, this is inaccurate. Comparing Syria’s armed opposition to Cuban anti-Castro exiles or to Nicaraguan contras is a very vulgar and inaccurate slander that is meant to render invisible the popular support base for the opposition on the ground in Syria, as well as the agency of the armed Syrian opposition.

Even calling it a “proxy war” in the disparaging sense mischaracterizes the Assad regime. The Assad regime is not an Iranian/Russian proxy fighting to do the bidding of Iran and Russia in Syria. Rather, it is an entrenched junta that is fighting for its survival, with Iranian and Russian backing. Both sides, then, in Syria, are not “proxies” in the sense that they do foreign states’ bidding. They are only “proxies” if by proxy we mean that they receive foreign state backing. And yes, those foreign states that back each side do not do so out of the pureness of their hearts (which is itself a ridiculous argument, as it suggests states have acted out of the pureness of their hearts at some point in the past, which they have not), but rather for their own interests. But there is a difference between intervening with certain interests and achieving those interests (which explains the hesitancy of some of the states backing the opposition).

If we stick with the classical definition, then yes, the conflict in Syria today is a proxy war. But proxy war is not a dirty term, and does not preclude that there is also a revolution happening in Syria today.

2 comments
  1. Pham Binh said:

    The pseudoleft and the idealists are not sophisticated enough analytically to deal with situations (like revolutions) that involve “all of the above.” As I’ve written elsewhere, “revolutions by their very nature involve all kinds of contradictory elements – sectarian and nationalist, pro and anti-imperialist, religious and class-based, pro and anti-capitalist, sexist and feminist, progressive and reactionary.” Add to that list, “foreign-backed.” The pseudolefts and the so-called anti-imperialists can only see one or two of these elements — the CIA and the Saudis — rather than see how all of the elements both fit together and conflict with each other at the same time. They look at Syria in 2013 and see Iraq in 2003 and cannot distinguish between foreign-engineered “regime change” and homegrown “regime change.”

    One important question this essay leaves unexplored is why should progressives back something the Saudis and the CIA ostensibly want? Doesn’t that put us side-by-side with reactionaries and imperialists? The Spanish example here is instructive in that (try not to cringe) we were on the same side as Stalin — against — Franco because that was what the war was primarily about rather than being primarily a proxy war (like many of the ugly civil wars in Africa or maybe Lebanon in the 1980s). However, within the Republican side, we weren’t on the same side as Stalin and his CP proxies because they sought to limit and defuse an unfolding social revolution in favor of a straight military fight against Franco (which failed).

    My point is that in “all of the above” situations, we still have to figure out what the politics are and which elements are predominant and which are subordinate.

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