Characteristics of Proxy Wars

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Sep 2014


Proxy wars are some of the bloodiest and most damaging kinds of wars there are. For this reason it is good to analyze their characteristics. If they are better understood they may be prevented from starting, or be mitigated in their conduct so less damage and devastation is caused.

I will discuss three examples: The Spanish Civil War of 1936, the Korean War of 1950 and the Syrian Civil War of 2011. I will talk about what they have in common.

Defining a Proxy War

A proxy war is one in which the locals in a conflict are joined by outsiders who contribute lots of money, equipment and manpower to both sides of the fray. If just one side is getting all this help it usually makes the conflict end more quickly and the result is not a proxy war. An example of this happening is Russia supporting rebels in Georgia in 2008. The war lasted five days.

In a proxy war two or more sides are getting lots of outside aid. This has the effect of both lengthening the conflict and dramatically escalating the damage done.

Here are some specifics on the three cases mentioned above.

The Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War started in July 1936 and lasted until April 1939, nearly to the beginning of World War II (which started in September of that year) At the start of the war there were many factions well established in Spain that were based on politics and regional cultures, but when the fighting became serious these quickly narrowed down to picking one of two sides, the Republicans and the Nationalists. The Republicans represented the recently elected government, the Nationalists represented those who felt this new government was deeply flawed and should be replaced by something more conservative -- the war started as a half-bungled coup attempt by the proto-Nationalists.

The conflict gained lots of international attention. Both sides had enthusiastic supporters outside Spain, and both sides started picking up tangible support from these external groups. The Republicans picked up support from Europe's intelligentsia as well as the USSR and Mexico. Many of the intelligentsia came to fight in person. They formed what were called the International Brigades and these became a famous part of this war. The Nationalists picked up support from the Nazis and Fascists of Germany and Italy. These two donated a lot of military hardware and technical people. The Nationalist won and general Francisco Franco became head of state, a title he kept until his death decades later in 1975.

The result of all this external help was a war that was much longer and bloodier than it would have otherwise been. The result of all the intelligentsia getting directly involved was a whole lot getting written about the war during and after it ended. Earnest Hemingway ended up being the most famous writer of this group.

The Korean War

Between 1945 and 1953 East Asia was full of history-making surprises. The Korean War (1950-53) was the capper. In August 1945 Japan surrendered after experiencing two atom bombs. Korea got split in half in a historical accident surrounding that surrender: In the north half the Japanese surrendered to the USSR troops who were rapidly advancing south after having declared war only ten days earlier. In the south half they surrendered to American troops who were sailing north from the newly liberated Philippines.

Much to the surprise of all involved that split turned into two countries. Further to the surprise of all involved the Chinese Civil War being fought next door wound up in 1948 with the Chinese Communists winning a series of big victories that gave them control of all the mainland and the left the Chinese Nationalists holding out only on the island of Taiwan. (this Nationalist/Communist conflict had been going on, off and on, since 1924 so this series of successes and the decisive victory came out of the blue) This surprise of "Losing China to the Communists", plus the surprise of the "Iron Curtain" coming down in Europe to turn half of it Communist, scared a lot of Americans. During World War II the USSR had been a US ally fighting Hitler so this was quite a turnaround in the American public eye. This frightening combination brought on the Mc Carthy era in the US.

When North Korea's leader, Kim Il Sung, decided it was his turn to ride the wave of unstoppable Communist destiny, he launched a blitzkrieg-style assault against South Korea in the summer of 1950 that took his forces to the outskirts of the southern port of Pusan in just two months. His plan almost worked as planned, and he almost won a quick war. Exciting!

But the Korean War turned out entirely differently than those last two years of Chinese civil war next door had done. The Korean War turned into a a proxy war. The now "Red Scared" Americans and the United Nations backed the South Koreans with a lot of troops and a seasoned, competent general, Douglas MacArthur, and in two months drove the North Korean army all the way back to its border on the north with China. Exciting! So exciting that now it was time for the Chinese Communists to get alarmed. They feared that MacArthur wouldn't stop at the border, he would keep moving north into China to support the Nationalists cheering him on from Taiwan. They responded by launching a massive attack south from their border with Korea. The attack was so surprising that it drove the US/UN forces back to south of Seoul in another two months! Exciting!

But that was the end of the flashy maneuvering surprises for this war. After that the war front stabilized; the border was once again in the center of Korea. But the fighting and killing continued on at full scale for another two years. Instead of lots of back and forth, it became an updated version of WW I-style static trench warfare.

The proxy part of this conflict meant that tens of thousands of UN and Chinese soldiers were fighting and dying on Korean soil, and the Korean soldiers and civilians had to live with war time conditions for three years. By the time the armistice was signed in 1953 (the war never officially ended) the Korean per capita GDP had tumbled and was comparable to Ghana's, a very poor nation in Africa.

The Syrian War

The Syrian Civil War stared as part of the Arab Spring of 2011. The Arab Spring was a series of popular protests that spread through Arab countries from Morocco through Syria. The protests got serious enough to topple many governments in the area starting with Tunisia's. Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, was expected to be one of those toppled, but he called upon and received lots of military aid, mostly from Russia. Instead of toppling, he stayed in power and conducted a shooting war.

But he didn't win quickly... and he didn't lose quickly... the fighting went on and on. And as this fighting went on and on, Bashar's many enemies in Syria found their own outside supporters and the fighting went on even longer and got lots more damaging.

By 2014 this conflict is resembling the Spanish Civil War in many ways. It has gone on a long time. There has been lots of fighting being supported by outsiders. There are many factions involved. And lots of foreign intelligentsia are coming to Syria to get personally involved. And, as in all proxy wars, the civilians have been the worst suffers from all this outside intervention. There have been over 100,000 people killed and millions turned into refugees. (the total population is about 17 million) One difference between the Syrian and Spanish wars is that there are still many sides in the Syrian version, they haven't yet consolidated down to just two.

What Can Be Learned?

Here are the common patterns I see in these three conflicts.

o The proxy wars start as social revolutions. These wars are the children of chaos. The communities vulnerable to proxy war are undergoing time of a lot more uncertainty than they usually do. This uncertainty becomes violence and the government is threatened. There is also a lot of outside interest in what is happening.

o There is enough outside interest that support starts flowing in. This is why many police officials dealing with protesting fear "outside agitators". In the minds of those police officials those outsiders are going to bring in a lot of violence with them. An example of a nation that has had unrest but not a proxy war is Thailand. There was a coup in 2014, but lots of external support has not come flowing to either side of this unrest.

o More than one side gets support. Of these three the Syrian conflict has supported the most sides.

o The more outside enthusiasm, the more damage done to the locals. Sad but true. "I'm an outside supporter and I'm here to help you." sounds great... until you watch the damage-dealing done escalate because of the outside help.

o The war ends when the outsiders' interests move on. When the outsiders tire of contributing money, men and equipment, the war will wind down. This is usually a frustratingly slow process. Getting the Korean War armistice took months of negoiating. The negoiating was documented, and looking at it now, much of it looked like childish one-upmanship delaying tactics. This silliness happened because when the negoiations started both sides were not ready to end the blood-letting.


These are some patterns I have noted in proxy wars. The most distinctive feature is that they turn very ugly for the locals and they can continue for a long time. For this reason it is really good to avoid getting involved in one if at all possible.


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