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Proxy-sponsor relations in

contemporary civil wars

Contemporary civil conflicts are increasingly internationalized: distinctive conflict dynamics extend beyond the boundaries of the respective states and are exposed to foreign involvement, in different forms. Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the internationalized nature of contemporary civil warfare is exemplified, for instance, by rebel groups with a radical Islamist ideology pursuing a transnational rather than, or in addition to, a national agenda (e.g., the Islamic State or the various al-Qaeda affiliated groups); non-state actors participating in different theatres of war, at times with different objectives (e.g., Iraqi Shia militias, such as Harakat al-Nujaba and Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada operating in both Iraq and Syria); or foreign sponsorship of, and assistance to, local combatant groups (e.g., Turkey’s military and political support for Syrian rebels or the GNA in Libya). 

Reminiscent of Cold War dynamics (and with a state-centric legacy), the concept of proxy war presents at least three problematic aspects when applied to contemporary warfare. The first concerns the role of state and non-state actors in the sponsor-proxy relationship. Conventionally, proxy wars identified those cases in which state actors, especially superpowers, were actively supporting militarily and politically passive and subordinate non-state actors. However, in contemporary conflict, this view no longer holds as non-state actors become more prominent. The second problematic aspect is the nature of the relationship, particularly with reference to the issue of control. Proxy wars entails an asymmetric relationship between a sponsor and a proxy, sometimes identified in terms of a hierarchy, whereby the weaker side (the proxy) bears most of the burden of fighting.


However, the degree of control (and in turn, the degree of agency of the proxy) varies across cases and in time. Lastly, the third problematic aspect is the level of sponsors’ engagement. Proxy wars are indirect interventions; thus, they sit at the crossroad of non-intervention and direct “boots on the ground” intervention.  For this reason, proxy wars often verge into  covert operations. But the type (military, political and ideological) and degree of assistance that makes a relationship a sponsor-proxy one is a matter of discussion.


Across the MENA region, the potential of the proxy war concept to analyze contemporary conflicts, needs to loosen its Cold War straitjacket to re-adapt to a novel scenario, making it, perhaps, less precise for analytical purposes. Such novel scenario is characterized by a layered competition, in which international rivalries add to regional ones. The role of regional powers with distinct geostrategic concerns makes for instance the conflicts in the MENA region part of a larger regional war, whose consequences are on the one hand the multiplication of would-be or acting sponsors and on the other hand nested, volatile transnational relations. At the local level, this is paralleled by the multiplication of would-be and acting proxies, resulting from the high degree of fragmentation that characterizes contemporary conflicts.


Furthermore, the state, in its Weberian understanding, and the associated state’s monopoly over the legitimate use of force is in many contexts more an aspiration of external forces, rather than an empirical reality. Processes of hybridization from above and below contest the same distinction between the state and the non-state. When applied to proxy wars, these blurred boundaries open up the possibility to look at some actors operating simultaneously as proxy and sponsors in different contexts (e.g., the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen) or moving interchangeably between the state and the non-state realms (e.g., the Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq). To this, one should add the extent to which terrorist groups mingle with conflict dynamics and counterterrorist strategies become part of or substitute external interventions in conflict contexts.


In light of all this, how sponsor-proxy relationships endure, or breakdown is dependent on multiple contextual factors responding to and going beyond conflict dynamics. Sponsors and proxies may pursue different objectives subject to short- or long-term considerations, however a proxy-sponsor relationship endures as long as there is a compatibility of interest between them. At times, this compatibility of interests can be limited to the presence of a common target or extend towards strategic positioning. Partly distancing from the main view of proxy warfare as mostly expedient, it is also important to note that sponsor-proxy relationships endure when the relationship guarantees mutual dependence, something that challenge the assumption of a univocal exercise of control on behalf of the sponsor and a reading of the proxy situated at the end of a purely transactional relation. 


​In addition to the sponsor’s autonomy in its regional/international/local strategy a degree of autonomy is also granted to the proxy in managing its agenda, foremost its relations with local society. Indeed, as many contemporary contexts demonstrate, sponsor-proxy-relationship are not limited to sustain the fighting but may extend to support forms of governance that need to be legitimized on the ground. Lastly, beyond instrumentality, ideational factors such as shared identity, norms, and values often strengthen sponsor-proxy relationships.

"Proxy wars’ termination through a mediated settlement –– the preferred international option at least till the early 2000s –– is not easy to achieve.  It  depends on the convergence of political settlements between both the sponsors and the proxies, tying together the international, regional, national and local levels."

Notoriously, proxy wars serve the objective of avoiding direct confrontation between sponsors and the human and financial costs and risks associated with it. However, the possibility of drawing incremental external (financial and military) resources and the unclear responsibility in combat operations result in protracted and highly violent war, especially for the civilian population. Proxy wars’ termination through a mediated settlement –– the preferred international option at least till the early 2000s –– is not easy to achieve.  It  depends on the convergence of political settlements between both the sponsors and the proxies, tying together the international, regional, national and local levels. In such a layered competition, credible commitments are difficult to secure and multiple spoilers can exploit their role at multiple levels.


In all, contemporary conflicts’ termination is complicated not only by the proxy nature of the conflict, but also by other co-occurring dynamics, such as the high degree of fragmentation (both internal and external), and the presence of combatant actors with a maximalist agenda as well as of terrorist groups. More broadly, contemporary conflicts’ termination reflects a global environment in which existing norms and practices of conflict management and resolution are changing also as a result of a geopolitical order in flux: thinking about conflict’ end in term of stability invites for forms of “victor’s peace” and reduces the potential for negotiated settlements.


Irene Costantini

Post-Doctoral Researcher, University of Naples - L'Orientale  

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David Pollock

Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute