The Cold War is often described as a ‘competition’ between the USA and the Soviet Union that existed in many different fields, from technology to diplomacy to sports. However, the opponents were limited from direct military confrontation by both sides’ terror of Mutually Assured Destruction through nuclear war. Yet, very quickly the Cold War turned from an uneasy peace in Europe to something else. Each superpower began to support third parties in countries as far-flung as El Salvador and Mozambique in their conflicts, in efforts to undermine their rival’s geostrategic position; this form of competition by third party became known as ‘proxy war’.
This method of warfare was particularly useful for the Western democratic countries because proxy wars drew little public scrutiny or criticism. For example, Reagan’s administration survived the infamous Iran-Contra affair, when the CIA covertly gave arms to Revolutionary Iran and funded the Nicaraguan Contras, thereby breaking an international arms embargo and a Congressional prohibition (justifying Reagan’s nickname, ‘The Teflon President’).
Upon the end of the Cold War, the US seized the opportunity to flex the military muscles it had been building for decades. Less than two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, George H.W. Bush invaded Panama to overthrow the dictator Manuel Noriega. This heralded the start of a series of direct, high-profile military interventions by the US and its allies, including the 1991 Gulf War, Somalia in 1993, and, after the September 11th attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
However, after decades of proxy wars, Western politicians and generals were unprepared for the level of public scrutiny their campaigns would be subject to, and the criticism they would come under for abuses. During the Gulf War, reporters documented the Highway of Death left behind after an airstrike on retreating Iraqis, and during the Battle of Mogadishu the Somali death toll may have reached as high as 2,000. More recently, the ‘War on Terror’ led to a number of human rights abuses being unearthed and criticised. Perhaps the most disturbing of these were the multiple accounts of horrifying torture in the detention centres for suspected terrorists, first in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, then in Abu Ghraib Prison, Iraq, and later at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
Unlike the Cold War days, when Western countries could operate through proxies with a degree of deniability, the new interventionism had consequences for politicians. The consequences of the Iraq War effectively destroyed Tony Blair’s premiership, as it became increasingly clear that he had lied about the reasons behind the Iraq invasion. Although the other architect of the Iraq War, George W. Bush, managed to make it to the end of his second term in 2008, his presidency finished with a dismal 25% approval rating (eight years later, Bush’s party would be hijacked by a fraud, who climbed to power partly through falsely claiming to have been opposed to the Iraq War at the time of the invasion).
Clearly, policy-makers in the West have learned from the trials and tribulations of Bush and Blair. There has been a subtle but significant shift in the way that Western foreign policy is handled, as more and more we see the US and European states taking the back seat in wars and instead supporting groups ‘on the ground’. Throughout the Middle East, the USA is no longer sending its soldiers to take part in the fighting, preferring to support a panoply of armies, rebels and militias. In the ongoing Iraq conflict, NATO and its allies have thrown their support behind the Iraqi army, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and an array of Shia militia groups, providing arms, supplies, training, and extensive air support. In Syria, the USA has supported a wide array of rebels and Kurdish parties to fight both the Syrian regime and Islamist groups. In Yemen, the US and the UK are supporting the Saudi-led coalition of Arab states that are trying to break the grip of the Houthi rebels on the western half of the country.
The distance Western politicians have put between Middle Eastern conflicts and their own decisions has served to minimise the kind of outrage amongst their constituents that greeted human rights abuses during earlier, interventionist periods of conflict. This lack of attention has allowed significant abuses to go under-reported.
In Iraq, the offensive against the Islamic State (IS) has spawned a variety of popular militia groups based in the Shia community. These groups have been accused of a variety of abuses against the Sunni communities they are fighting, including beatings, mutilations, and enforced disappearances. One militiaman – calling himself Abu Azrael, the ‘Father of Death’ – gained internet fame by fighting with an axe and mutilating the bodies of enemy fighters. These militias work in close cooperation with the Iraqi army, meaning that they indirectly receive training and arms from the US.
The US support for groups in the Syrian Civil War is even murkier, as many different groups with wildly divergent aims are being supported by different branches of the US government. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria were one of the USA’s key allies in the battle against IS at the forefront of the Battle of Kobane, which stalled the IS offensive in northern Syria in 2015. However, following that battle, the YPG were accused of ethnic cleansing and of driving out Arab civilians from villages in their area of control, part of their quest for an ethnic Kurdish state.
In Yemen, a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been pounding the territory held by the Houthi rebel group with airstrikes, a naval blockade, and ground troops. There are also reports of the Saudis using internationally banned munitions. The war has led to a humanitarian calamity; two thirds of Yemenis need humanitarian assistance, and there have been over ten thousand deaths. The Saudi alliance has been negligent at best, deliberate at worst, as their campaign has exacted significant civilian casualties.
The UK has come under pressure from human rights groups regarding the sale of weaponry to Saudi Arabia, but their response has shown the difficulties of pressuring a government engaged in proxy war. The UK government has skilfully avoided any responsibility for enabling Saudi war crimes by pointing out that “it would not be possible” to assess violations in conflicts in which the UK is not a part.
The resurgence in proxy warfare by the West presents a challenge to human rights organisations worldwide. Western governments are more able to ‘pass the buck’ and play a double game to avoid public pressure; in this case, even as the UK government approves billions of pounds worth of arms deals to Saudi Arabia, it also announces an official investigation into the crimes of the Saudis in Yemen. Humanitarian groups will have to adapt and develop more effective methods of bridging the gap between Western governments and the conflicts they are covertly involved in, if they are to effectively pressure policy makers to make positive change.