Middle East

Feb 4, 2013

Like Cambodia, Syria is increasingly turning into a proxy war

Syria is now starting to look like such a multi-faceted contest, but perhaps with even greater potential for complication. Cambodia might provide some clues.

Professor Damien Kingsbury

Crikey international affairs commentator

It had elements from the outset, but the war in Syria is looking more like a war by proxy between outside interests. It may be that it can now only be resolved from outside. Most wars are proxies to some extent, perhaps the most notorious recent war being the three-cornered contest in Cambodia between 1978 and 1992. Syria is now starting to look like such a multi-faceted contest, but perhaps with even greater potential for complication. The air attack last week by Israel against a Syrian military target raised the spectre of a wider conflagration. Initial reports said the target was a convoy that was presumed to be carrying guided surface-to-air missiles to Syria's Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. However, reports now indicate the target was a military research centre at Jamraya, north-west of Damascus about 15 kilometres from the Lebanese border. While sabre-rattling against Israel, Syria's President Bashar al-Assad cannot afford to open up a war on a new front. Similarly, while Assad's ally, Iran, has warned of repercussions it too has so far not acted. Somewhat oddly, Turkey's foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he believed the air strike could be part of a conspiracy between Israel and Syria to bolster support for the Assad regime by other Muslim countries. Turkish supported groups dominate the north of Syria and are likely to form a more moderate political grouping should the Assad regime fall. Israel's interest in this presumed conspiracy is to forestall the manageable Assad being replaced by a radical Islamist regime, which would be more likely to attack Israel. More probably, however, Israel, has decided that it wishes to contain aspects of the war, particularly the possibility of high-tech weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamist insurgents, supported from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Iran has been increasingly supportive of the Assad regime -- and angry over Israel's air attack -- presumably, because it wishes to retain its pro-Shia ally in power. It, too, does not want to see Syria fall into the hands of potentially radical Sunni Islamists who could then ally themselves with increasingly resentful Sunnis in Iran's former enemy and next door neighbour, Iraq. Russia too has been stepping up its support for the Assad regime with money and weapons and, as elsewhere, increasingly aligning itself with Iran. In part this reflects the distinct chilling of relations between Russia and the US, with Russia opposing the US push for Assad to leave Syria. With Russia's lease of its main naval base on the Ukraine-owned Crimean Peninsula due to expire in 2017, Russia is very keen to retain the base at Tartus as an alternative. It is therefore keen to retain a friendly face in Damascus. To a lesser extent, too, Russia also does not want to see the rise of a radical Islamist regime in Damascus, given its possible support for Russia’s Chechen separatists. Following attacks by radical Islamist groups against more moderate anti-Assad groups and the more active involvement of regional powers, the war in Syria is increasingly turning into a three or possibly four-cornered contest, with each Syrian faction having its own external sponsors. Each of the regional neighbours hopes to retain some semblance of balance in Syria, lest the country become a strategic black hole, into which they could eventually be drawn, sparking a wider regional war. But like Cambodia, with external actors playing Syria's internal factions for their own interest, the cost can only be borne by the Syrians themselves. The UN eventually brokered an imperfect peace agreement in Cambodia. It may be in everyone's interests that the UN now brokers a similarly imperfect peace agreement in Syria. *Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University

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2 thoughts on “Like Cambodia, Syria is increasingly turning into a proxy war

  1. j.oneill

    There are a number of further aspects that could be commented upon.
    First, the Israeli attack was on “multiple targets” in both Syria and Lebanon.
    Secondly, the Israeli attack was given the “green light” by the Americans.
    Thirdly, what Israel did was contrary to international law. Condemnation of this blatant aggression on a sovereign state from the Australian government is notable for its silence. this perhaps reflects the extent to which Australia is beholden to the Zionist lobby and the politicians are frankly scared of any adverse comment on Israel’s behaviour.
    Fourthly, Israel is concerned to prevent Hisbollah in Lebanon acquiring effective anti-aircraft missiles and thereby hindering their next attack on that country.
    Fifthly, I should have thought that Professor Kingsbury would note that a large proportion of the opposition to the Assad government engaged in the fighting are foreigners, armed and financed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US, France and the UK. The fact that the US regularly uses foreign jihadis as its proxies (all the time condemning the groups they belong to) is worthy of an article in its own right. Writers such as Pepe Escobar, Robert Fisk and Alexander Cockburn have pointed this out in some detail. Why are Australian writers so timid? Is it fear of upsetting their powerful friends in Washington and jeopardising all those free trips they regularly receive?

  2. Kevin Herbert


    agree 100% with your views.

    More duplicity from our spineless national Government, and it won’t change when Abbott & co get in.

    If I were an Aussie Muslim I’d be very very angry at this state of affairs.

    One think though…it’s not the Aussie Israel lobby that has the main impact on both parties views on Israel..it’s the US State Department which is owned by the US MSM/MIC/AIPAC/Federal Reserve Bank criminal gang who run the US & its foreign policy.

    While the 100 or so $9999 secret contributions made to both the Libs & Labor each election are made by local Israel supporters, they have no real sway compared to the State Department demands.

    You probabaly know that a $10000 contribution has to be declared…some of the Rodent’s handy work.

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