A holistic approach to the pandemic of proxy wars
Nearly 80 million people, 1 percent of the world’s population, are currently displaced by conflict. A common denominator running through these worldwide conflagrations and insurgencies is the proliferation of foreign-backed non-state paramilitaries and mercenaries. The time has come for a common approach to de-escalating and de-internationalizing wars that have brought misery and death to millions.
Left to their own devices, the parties in a civil conflict tend to rapidly fight each other to exhaustion. The intervention of foreign powers — pouring in funds, weapons and mercenaries — renders a conflict infinitely longer, wider and more brutal.
Three states are disproportionately culpable for this phenomenon. Russia sponsors privatized armies in Ukraine, Libya, the Central African Republic and other African arenas; Turkey deploys Syrian fighters to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Kurdish areas of Syria; and Iran oversees vast networks of paramilitary and terrorist forces throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Yemen, the GCC and elsewhere.
For warlord regimes in Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, hiring paramilitaries is relatively cheap, and avoids the political fallout from citizens returning in body bags. It allows them to wage war in several places at the same time, and many of these conflicts appear set to continue burning indefinitely. Using mercenaries also creates a veneer of deniability when they perpetrate atrocities.
Deploying mercenaries to conquer foreign territories quenches the bloodlust of ultranationalist supporters nostalgic for the myth of Ottoman, Persian, or Soviet empires. However, let’s not forget that the US during the Cold War era wasn’t averse to funding paramilitaries in places such as Nicaragua and Guatemala.
Foreign-sponsored, unaccountable militias are disproportionately responsible for massacres and extreme human rights violations. Even amid the inhuman brutality of the Lebanese civil war, we were horrified by the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian militias under Israeli supervision — with possibly over 3,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians slaughtered. More recently, comparably bloody sectarian massacres have been perpetrated by Syrian and Iraqi militias affiliated with Iran. Turkey’s Syrian mercenaries are often recruited from extremist factions such as Daesh, notorious for their ultraviolent methods.
While Syrian, Sudanese, Afghan and Iraqi mercenaries are frequently deployed as cheap cannon fodder, Russia habitually relies on smaller numbers of experienced and well-armed elite personnel. In Iraq, the number of paramilitaries may exceed 150,000, most of them aligned with Iran. In 2014, when Nouri Al-Maliki was Iraq’s prime minister, Tehran succeeded in adding these unaccountable paramilitaries, responsible for war crimes and systematic acts of sectarian cleansing, to the Iraqi state payroll, with a salary budget now exceeding $2 billion. Qatar, meanwhile, has helped bankroll Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s overseas adventures.
Whenever Iran struggles to send sufficient funds to its transnational forces, the shortfall is often made up through criminal activities including smuggling arms, narcotics, oil and people. The result in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere is corrupted economic sectors dominated by mafia-like entities. Hezbollah uses its control of national borders to avoid customs payments and operate multibillion-dollar global narcotics networks with tentacles throughout Latin America and Europe, while selling arms to militant and terrorist entities across Africa. Entire societies thus become corrupted when the highest salaries come from joining paramilitary forces, while businesses pay protection money to criminal gangs and entire economies are kept afloat through the proceeds of crime.
For warlord regimes in Moscow, Tehran and Ankara, hiring paramilitaries is relatively cheap, and avoids the political fallout from citizens returning in body bags.
We are witnessing a widening belt of instability and failing states, extending throughout North and sub-Saharan Africa, through the Middle East and into Central Asia. Such instability is exacerbated by the proliferation of paramilitary and terrorist groups sustained by foreign sponsors. As state infrastructures disintegrate, uneducated, unemployed and impoverished young men can support their families only by selling their lives to foreign warlords — and so the vicious circle perpetuates itself.
After four years of multilateral paralysis, instead of an incoming US administration trying to address Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and other conflicts in isolation, the paramilitary common denominator underpinning all these wars could be addressed through decisive action against the phenomenon of mercenaries. Remarkably, the hiring of mercenaries or mobilization of paramilitary groups is not necessarily a breach of international law, contributing to a climate of impunity.
Just as the Arms Trade Treaty seeks to sign up all states to a moratorium on weapons such as cluster bombs, the aim should be for an enforceable universal commitment against funding, arming and deploying paramilitary forces. Membership of such a compact should be a requirement for all NATO states, including Turkey. Iran would be compelled to sign up before any negotiations to lift sanctions. Russia and America should be coaxed to sign up in the context of arms reduction negotiations. The incentive for figures such as Putin is that rivals can’t deploy mercenaries in states where Moscow has a strategic interest.
Such a framework would be a major step toward de-escalating the situation in Syria, allowing for systematic action against foreign support for armed entities. Russia and China have a stake in demilitarizing the situation there, paving the way to lucrative reconstruction contracts and reopened trading routes.
Similar processes would play out in other conflict zones. Instead of rival regional powers fighting each other to exhaustion via proxies, all would benefit from the immense peace dividend. Instead of Russia, Qatar or Turkey battling to monopolize Libyan oil reserves, there would be UN support for the re-establishment of national institutions so that Libyans and foreign oil companies alike could participate in amicably exploiting these resources.
Right now, proxy warfare is cheap, sustainable, and consequence-free for warlord powers, condemning entire nations to being crushed under the millstone of perpetual war. If we want to prevent these ceaseless conflicts burning like wildfires throughout the globe it is incumbent upon us to radically change this calculation — outlawing foreign-backed paramilitarism and rendering warlord states accountable for crimes against humanity.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.