Foreign sponsorship of pro-government militias fighting Syria’s insurgency: Whither proxy wars?

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Exploring the role of foreign-sponsored pro-government militias in counter-insurgency efforts, this article shows how the proxy war concept maps onto the Syrian conflict as we demonstrate both its contributions and limitations. Drawing on rare access to Syrian and foreign security actors inside Syria, we argue that the Syrian war, while rightly labelled a proxy war, sits uneasily with and at times even contradicts a set of scholarly assumptions and emphases on proxy wars when looked at from a counter-insurgency perspective. Accordingly, proxies were relevant not just as rebels but also as counter-insurgents. Sponsors included state and non-state actors alike, were manifold, and did not necessarily have exclusive relations to their proxies. They were also much more intensely involved with their proxies than generally expected from a war at arm’s length. Principal–agent relations this way ceased to be dyadic and hierarchical. What emerged was a heterarchical order, with parallel hierarchies tying proxies to their sponsors fiercely in competition with one another. This allowed and encouraged proxies to carve out leverage and agency of their own just as it fed into the Syrian regime’s resilience in averting a ‘double crisis of sovereignty’. Given the scale and success of its counter-insurgency efforts, the Syrian case calls for reconsidering proxy wars of the past while it may constitute a watershed development for how proxy wars are to be waged in the future.




Leenders, R., & Giustozzi, A. (2020). Foreign sponsorship of pro-government militias fighting Syria’s insurgency: Whither proxy wars? Mediterranean Politics.

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