The first war I covered as a foreign correspondent was the civil war in Lebanon. When the conflict began in 1975, it was just a series of skirmishes, a nasty but limited little war for control of a small nation.
Then other countries got involved: Syria, Iraq, Libya and Israel. They supplied money and weapons to their favored factions, turning an internal struggle into a longer, more deadly proxy war in which outside powers fought one another through surrogates.
Eventually even the United States sent troops, which is why 241 Americans died in a bombing in Beirut in 1983. The conflict that began almost 40 years ago has never quite come to an end, thanks in large part to its use by others as a battleground for proxy war.
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Today, though, Lebanon's street battles and car bombings are merely a small part of a mushrooming regional proxy war that extends across both Syria and Iraq to the shores of the Persian Gulf. Two big powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have squared off in a competition for dominance in much of the Arab Middle East. Other countries are either choosing sides or nervously trying to protect themselves from the spillover. And the United States finds itself uncomfortably in the middle.
Proxy war is nothing new. In 1776, Britain and France, the great powers of their day, used the American Revolution as a proxy war. (Without the French navy fighting on our side in Chesapeake Bay, it is unlikely Washington would have won at Yorktown.) In the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War turned into a proxy battle between Hitler and Stalin. Much of the half-century-long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a series of proxy wars, arm's-length conflicts between nuclear powers that didn't dare collide head-on.
But the fact that proxy wars happen mostly in small countries doesn't make them any less destructive than other conflicts. Quite the contrary: "Proxy wars tear countries apart," warns Vali Nasr, a former Obama administration official who's now the dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies.
When big powers turn a local conflict into a proxy war, they can have three terrible effects. They make the war more destructive, by pumping in more advanced weapons than were there before. They often make the war longer, by making it possible for each side to keep fighting indefinitely. And they create spillover effects in neighboring countries, including refugee crises, an increased flow of weapons and the recruitment and training of insurgents.
In 1979, when the United States began supporting Afghanistan's mujahedin in a proxy war with the Soviet Union, the move seemed like a convenient way to harass a Cold War rival. But the side effects included the rise of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Afghanistan's civil war still isn't over.
These days, much of the Middle East is embroiled in civil war, insurgency or unrest. And nearly every one of the conflicts has been intensified by the regional struggle between Saudi Arabia, ruled by Sunni Muslims, and Iran, the largest Shiite Muslim state.
On one level, of course, it's a continuation of a centuries-old conflict between the two main branches of Islam. But it's also a straightforward conflict between two countries seeking to be the dominant power in the Persian Gulf. That struggle for power has spilled over into other countries' battles.
Take Syria. The 2011 uprising there began as a domestic revolt against repression, but it quickly turned into both a sectarian conflict (between a Sunni-led opposition and a regime dominated by Alawites, a Shiite offshoot) and a geopolitical proxy war. Iran, the Assad regime's main ally, rushed weapons and military advisors to Damascus. Lebanon's Hezbollah, another Iranian client, sent seasoned combat troops to help the regime.
The Obama administration hesitated to provide military aid to the rebels — but Saudi Arabia, seeing the regional stakes, jumped in with cash. Some of the Saudi money went to support Islamist fighters who worried the United States. The Assad regime, fighting for its life, turned to bombing civilian areas from the air.
As a result, the war now appears likely to last longer, kill more civilians and create more spillover effects in neighboring countries than before. The United Nations and the United States hope to launch a peace conference for Syria on Jan. 22, but nobody expects quick results.
U.S. officials are looking for ways to stop the conflicts from spreading — short of direct military intervention, which the Obama administration has repeatedly rejected.
"It has reached a point where it is impossible for us to ignore," Nasr told me last week. "We shouldn't throw up our hands and say, 'These are proxy wars and it's out of control.'"
The United States doesn't need to put troops "in the middle of every conflict," as a White House aide scoffed last week. But neither can it ignore the spread of proxy wars. President Obama has said he would like to devote less of his attention to the Middle East. But now is not the time.