New-Model Proxy Wars
New-Model Proxy Wars
Op-Ed 10 minutes

New-Model Proxy Wars

After a relative lull following the end of the Cold War, violent conflicts have proliferated around the world since the turn of the century, and they generally proven to be more protracted than in the past. Among the biggest factors behind this disturbing trend is the rise of interventionist "middle powers."

BRUSSELS – On April 15, a standoff between the Sudanese armed forces and a rival paramilitary outfit erupted into what now looks like all-out civil war. As we write, in mid-May, fighting is tearing apart the capital, Khartoum, and millions are caught in the crossfire, trapped in their homes, and struggling to secure food, drinking water, and other essentials. Those who can are leaving the country. Neither the army nor its paramilitary foe looks likely to prevail – at least not without a protracted struggle and tremendous death and destruction.

The fighting is rooted in Sudan’s struggles to shake off decades of authoritarian rule. While an inspiring countrywide protest movement prompted the ouster of then-President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, his political legacy, particularly his brutal wars on Sudan’s periphery, haunted the revolution from the start.

One protagonist of today’s conflict is Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, a warlord from Darfur who was part of Bashir’s genocidal campaign against rebels in that region. Bashir then refashioned Hemedti’s paramilitaries as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and empowered them as a hedge against an army takeover. The other belligerent, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, is a military man deeply suspicious of civilian rule who was also implicated in the Darfur wars.

After the army and the RSF joined forces to overthrow Bashir, they sidelined the civilian leaders with whom they had pledged to share power; now, they have turned on each other. Though the fighting was triggered by Hemedti’s refusal to put his paramilitaries under army command, Sudan’s post-Bashir transition fell apart primarily because both leaders feared that handing over power to civilians would jeopardize their grip on Sudan’s resources and potentially expose them to justice for earlier atrocities.

While local dynamics lie at the core of Sudan’s crisis, foreign involvement has also been a defining part of it. Both Hemedti and Burhan have ties to the Gulf, owing to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates’ intervention to bolster Sudan’s security forces after Bashir’s ouster. Hemedti’s wealth stems partly from his paramilitaries’ deployment to fight for the Gulf monarchies in their war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, an enterprise in which he again worked with Burhan. Moreover, he allegedly sells gold from Darfuri mines in Dubai, has links to Russia’s Wagner Group, and recruits from across the border in Chad. In Libya, a handful of his men fought alongside Khalifa Haftar, the military chief of one of the country’s warring factions (reportedly also at the UAE’s request).

By contrast, Egypt’s government backs the Sudanese army. Despite its hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood at home and elsewhere in the region, Egypt appears to have decided that its mistrust of Hemedti, whom it views as an unreliable militia leader operating outside state structures, outweighs any concern about some of the Bashir-era Islamists in the army. The Egyptian government also remains preoccupied with the potential impact of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, and sees Burhan as a known commodity more likely to help exert pressure on Ethiopia.

For their part, Western governments were slow to take steps early in the transition – such as sending aid and, in America’s case, lifting the designation of Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism – that might have helped empower civilians against the security forces. Moreover, Sudanese activists have accused the United States of supporting some civilian leaders while cutting others out of talks during the transition. Still, it is far from clear that Western powers could have pushed Hemedti and Burhan aside, as some critics argue, given that both had potent militaries and external backing.

Middle Powers Rising

Foreign involvement is a thread running through many recent conflicts and crises. The decades following the end of the Cold War brought a relative lull in conflicts worldwide, according to data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program. While the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq did not in themselves reverse the global dip in the number of conflicts, they set the stage for what would come, shattering America’s credibility. In Iraq, the war upset the regional balance between Iran and the Gulf monarchies and paved the way for a resurgence in Islamist militancy.

Over the past decade or so, violent conflicts have proliferated. Initially, the uptick was driven by the wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen that followed the Arab Spring uprisings, as well as new conflicts in Africa (some triggered by Libya’s instability). These new wars, though not initially related to the US battle against al-Qaeda, created fresh space for Islamist militants, including the Islamic State. Then, over the past few years, additional bouts of fighting exploded in Myanmar and Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, and, of course, in Ukraine.

Today, a wider array of players, particularly non-Western “middle powers,” are exerting influence in crises and conflicts.

Today, a wider array of players, particularly non-Western “middle powers,” are exerting influence in crises and conflicts. True, foreign meddling in conflicts is hardly new.The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s terrible war in the 1990s – to take one example – involved several African armies battling on Congolese soil. But, according to Uppsala’s latest figures, almost half of wars today involve significant foreign forces, compared to only 4% three decades ago.

Middle Eastern rivalries have played an outsize role. The contest for regional dominance between Iran, on one hand, and Saudi Arabia and its allies, on the other, helped propel Yemen’s war. The Saudi government, after years in which it saw Iran projecting power in the Arab world, weighed in with a coalition of allies against the Houthis, whom the Saudis perceived to be an Iranian-backed threat across the border. The intervention mostly backfired, prompting closer Iranian ties to the Houthis.

This same regional struggle also fueled Syria’s tragedy. Iran’s military support was crucial to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s survival, especially before Russia weighed in decisively in 2015. Similarly, Syrian rebels would have struggled to resist the regime without weapons and funds from Turkey, the Gulf powers, and – to some degree – Western governments (who also backed Kurdish forces once the Islamic State seized territory in Syria and Iraq).

Competition among Sunni powers – namely, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt versus Qatar and Turkey – has also fed the region’s conflicts. The friction, largely driven by discord over political Islam’s role in the region, shaped the fighting that tore apart Libya after Western powers’ intervention led to the ouster of Muammar el-Qaddafi. It also spilled into the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, rival Gulf powers supported either Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed’s government or his adversaries in Somalia’s regions, exacerbating rifts that undercut the struggle against al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-linked militant group that has terrorized the region since the 2006-09 Somali Civil War.

Other regional standoffs have been less rancorous but still influential on local battlefields. Russia and Turkey, for example, maintain reasonably cordial ties despite backing opposing sides in Syria, Libya (where Turkey’s 2020 intervention propped up the internationally recognized government and arguably turned the course of the war), and, to some degree, the South Caucasus (where Turkey assisted Azerbaijan’s 2020 rout of Armenian forces in and around Nagorno-Karabakh, despite Russia’s traditional support for Armenia).

Multipolar world

Middle powers’ entanglement in conflicts partly reflects global power shifts. The immediate post-Cold War moment, when the US enjoyed unmatched clout, is over, but it remains to be seen what will follow.

True, we should not look back too fondly on Western hegemony. America’s dominance coincided with the bloodletting in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Somalia; the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s brutal civil wars; and the Afghanistan and Iraq disasters. But US alliances and security guarantees did structure global affairs. The uncertainty about what comes next is destabilizing – all the more so since the Ukraine war has further upended global affairs. In recent years, more leaders consider support for proxies in local struggles necessary to protect their own interests or stop regional rivals from advancing theirs.

Outside meddling tends to sustain wars and make them harder to end. Reaching a settlement requires compromise among not only the battling parties but also their foreign sponsors, who may view the fighting as part of a wider contest for influence, with their calculations shaped by what happens elsewhere. At the very least, it means peacemaking must be multi-layered, with regional tracks alongside whatever is happening on the ground.

Nor can sponsors necessarily dictate to surrogates when to de-escalate. While dwindling funds and arms can shape calculations, local warring parties have their own sense of agency as well as interests that are distinct from those of their backers. In Libya, Khalifa Belqasim Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, frequently acts in ways that run counter to the interests of his primary patrons (Egypt and the UAE). In Yemen, the Houthis rely to some degree on Iran for weapons and training and see themselves as part of a regional front that includes Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups. Yet Iran would have a hard time forcing them into a peace deal that they did not want. For the most part, outside powers can ramp up violence more easily than they can tamp it down.

Again, we need to beware of double standards. Regional powers are not the only ones enmeshed in wars. Today’s conflicts overlap with what looks like the tail end of the US’ post-9/11 interventions, and many would draw a straight line between the conduct of America’s wars and the climate of impunity that reigns on today’s battlefields. Moreover, non-Western middle powers’ increasing clout has given them not just more influence on battlefields, but also growing involvement in peacemaking. Witness Qatar’s yearslong mediation role in Afghanistan, Chad, and elsewhere; the UAE’s efforts to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Nile waters dispute; Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchanges; or the deal that Turkey with the United Nations to deliver Ukrainian grain to global markets across the Black Sea.

Still, foreign powers’ involvement in many of the deadliest wars of the past decade has often prolonged the fighting and amplified the suffering.


Some of these dynamics, however, have changed recently, and Sudan could be a test of how much that matters.

The fighting there comes just as the big Middle East rivalries – the Iranian-Saudi feud and intra-Sunni competition – have calmed. Turkey has sought to mend several frayed relationships. More relevant to Sudan is that Saudi Arabia has dialed back rivalries, ending the recent contretemps with Qatar and restoring diplomatic relations with Iran in March 2023 through a China-brokered deal. Now, with its development plans dependent on stability around the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia has a strong incentive to prevent the Sudanese state from collapsing. Together with the US, it has been hosting talks in Jeddah with representatives of the warring parties.

The question is whether the recalibration in Middle Eastern capitals will be enough to avert foreign meddling. Saudi Arabia’s influence over Hemedti and Burhan, combined with its close ties to the UAE and Egypt, gives it the best shot of reining in the parties (with US support). But whether it can restrain other Arab capitals – let alone the warring parties themselves – is not quite clear. Indeed, there are some signs of strain in the usually friendly Saudi, Egyptian, and Emirati bloc.

Nor are Arab states the only ones that could weigh in. Some reports suggest that Haftar funneled weapons to Hemedti at the start of the fighting, though his camp denies this. Neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea have stayed out of the fray so far, but both fear instability in their border areas and may intervene more directly if Egypt muscles in. During the recent Tigray war, Sudan took advantage of the Ethiopian government’s distraction to seize the disputed al-Fashaga border region. Now, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed reportedly faces pressure from within his ruling coalition to reclaim those areas, though his government has declared it will not do so.

If even one foreign power makes an obvious interventionist move, others will likely follow.

For now, most outside powers – certainly their governments – appear wary of weighing in and triggering a free-for-all. None wants an all-out military showdown in Sudan. But it is still early days, and meddling tends to build gradually. If even one foreign power makes an obvious interventionist move, others will likely follow.

To be sure, foreign involvement is not the only variable in Sudan. Even without outside backing, the two sides appear to be settling in for a long fight, with each viewing the conflict as an existential struggle. Still, more active outside interference would likely push the country into an all-out, protracted war of the kind that has blighted other countries recently. In that case, a permanent ceasefire, let alone a settlement that addresses the interests of vying Sudanese parties and sees civilians assume power, would be much harder to achieve.

Even as the Saudis and others try to coax Burhan and Hemedti to the negotiating table, they must do whatever they can to stop other outside powers from getting involved. The Sudanese would bear the terrible costs of a slide to all-out proxy fighting. At a time when other crises are stretching the world’s humanitarian system to the breaking point, and many governments are preoccupied with Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its knock-on effects, the world can ill afford another major war.

This article was originally published in Project Syndicate.


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