Why Proxy Wars Endure & Why They End
External support is known to be strongly associated with longer civil wars and studies have offered a number of reasons why. For example, funneling weapons and money to warring parties can fuel a balance of power between opposing sides—preventing any one side from winning—or the presence of external supporters can increase the number of veto players to a potential settlement. But most of these available explanations for the length of proxy wars do not necessarily apply to explaining the duration of proxy-sponsor relationships themselves.
One reason for why some state-proxy relationships endure may be due to the strategic environment in which these relationships operate, specifically whether the proxies are employed to skirt risk of escalation. Noel Anderson's research provides convincing evidence that proxy wars (or, in his terminology, competitive interventions) last so long because state sponsors are more interested in not losing to the competitor state than winning. Because of the fear of escalation with the competing state sponsor, state sponsors limit the support they provide to their proxies, therefore lengthening the relationship over time.
Therefore, in proxy wars where the state sponsors are concerned about avoiding escalation, state sponsors give their proxies enough support to keep up the fight, but not enough to win outright. Proxy-sponsor relationships require the proxy and the sponsor to agree to continue the relationship. It follows that these relationships break down when one or the other opt to leave. Because support to non-state armed proxies is low cost to external state sponsors, state sponsors may stay in relationships as long as they perceive them to be militarily useful. If the sponsoring state believes its proxy is no longer a useful military tool—because the balance of power in the civil war has become too great for the proxy to overcome, or because the proxy has shown itself to be an ineffective fighting force for the main military aim the state is pursuing—the sponsor is likely to draw down its investment.
The corollary here is that, as long as a state sponsor sees a military benefit to the relationship, the sponsor will seek to keep the relationship. But proxy leaders must also agree to stay in the relationship. Questions of proxy agency are largely under examined. Disaffected proxies have been known to abandon their sponsors, refuse to continue receiving support from them, or distance themselves for some time. When the relationship has shown itself no longer beneficial to the proxy—or, more importantly, to be a barrier to key goals the proxy wants to pursue—the proxy's leaders are likely to rethink whether the relationship is worth maintaining, even if the support could be useful for some other, mutual goal.
The Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr, for example, has received Iranian military support on and off since 2003, but has expressed strong anti-Iran sentiments in public for years and has many times decided his own agenda was more important than receiving support from Iran. Conflict resolution or mitigation efforts seeking to disrupt state-proxy relationships should focus on ways to reduce the benefits that state sponsors and proxies see in their relationships.
"Most civil conflicts that had external state support on at least one side of the conflict end by just petering out. Interestingly, though, civil wars with external support from states are more likely to end by settlement or ceasefire than victory"
The question of how proxy wars end is ripe for further research. The UCDP Conflict Termination Dataset and the UCDP External Support Dataset offer a tentative glimpse into the ways that proxy wars end as compared to wars with no external support from states. Most civil conflicts that had external state support on at least one side of the conflict end by just petering out. Interestingly, though, civil wars with external support from states are more likely to end by settlement or ceasefire than victory. By contrast, civil wars without any external support are more likely to end by victory than agreement or ceasefire. (These macro trends point in the same direction if there was any external support from states on either side of the conflict at any point or in the last year of the conflict.)
These still preliminary findings raise important questions about international policy surrounding conflict resolution. If proxy wars are more likely to end by ceasefire or negotiated settlement than outright victory, to what degree are these ceasefires or negotiated settlements due to mediation efforts by external sponsors or simply a result of a hurting stalemate bringing exhausted warring parties to the table? If external supporters do indeed play a role in mediating and bringing proxy wars to an end, this would be consistent with Lise Morjé-Howard and Alexandra Stark's findings on how external parties influence civil war termination and would reinforce a long-standing conventional wisdom that engaging external sponsors in negotiations is critical to terminating proxy wars.
On the other hand, the agreements or ceasefires that end many proxy wars may have nothing to do with (or may even end in spite of) the will of outside sponsors. Internal proxy actors may seek peace on their own due to their own considerations and perhaps even contrary to what their external sponsors would prefer. In such circumstances, conflict resolution efforts should rely less on engaging state sponsors in negotiations and may need to invest more in efforts to address the underlying conditions that lead to peace.
Fellow, Harvard University
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Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute