Those who lived through the Cold War era vividly remember the perils of fighting proxy wars. Korea, Vietnam and the first conflict in Afghanistan were all instances where two world powers capitalized on unstable situations in smaller countries. Both the Americans and the Russians wasted third-world lives to make a point.
Now, it seems that the old adage holds true; history repeats itself. Here we are again, engaged in Afghanistan and on the opposing side of Russian bombs in Syria. We are fighting a battle against a cornered dog that nobody can win. Syria has become a mess that continually plagues international dialogue. Russia has taken the side of the Assad regime and the United States has backed bands of widespread and un-coordinated rebels. ISIS has moved in, as have the Kurds and the fighting seems to have no clear-cut boundaries.
Currently, Russia is an international pariah and an economic travesty. The Putin government has thus taken a classic and deft political measure by involving itself in Syria. Firstly, it has attempted to distract the Russian populace from economic ruin by inspiring militaristic nationalism.
Secondly, Russia has forcibly inserted itself into the international scene as it quietly lets the situation in eastern Ukraine fade from our fickle memories.
Russia is the aforementioned “cornered dog.” It has run out of options and has chosen to fight. This is, in fact, a great gamble, as it is likely that the Russian Federation can neither afford prolonged war nor more international criticism.
We must remember the ruined and disjointed nation that is modern Afghanistan. In considering the consequences of past wars on the Afghan people, we are forced to think about what consequences our actions will have in Syria. By backing Afghan mujahideen, it can be argued that we defended the Afghan nation from Russian imperialism, but at immense cultural cost to the Afghan people.
History is showing its cyclical nature in Syria. Again, we have multiple ethnic and cultural groups vying for power among a failing state. Again, we have the United States backing rebels that we may regret providing with arms. Again, we have the Russian Federation exerting military influence that it can barely afford to prolong. Are we to again make the mistake of fighting a proxy war?
We must be a force of stability. Instead of engaging Russia head on, we must realize the country’s logistical limitations. It can only bark for so long. We must also realize that we have perhaps made a mistake in backing the rebels, and we should seek to enforce a sense of organization in Syria. This situation may be more complicated than the one in Afghanistan during the 1980s, but the moral of that story still applies: nobody wins when human beings are used as chess pieces.