March 22, 2021

When the Biden administration undertook its first known act of war a few weeks ago, it provided an illuminating snapshot of conflict in the 21st century. The aerial strike on Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia militias in eastern Syria, facing territory held by American-backed Syrian proxy forces, in response to the shelling of American positions in Iraq by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias which led to the death of an American private contractor, encapsulates the central role of surrogate warfare in modern conflict. 

Like the Karabakh conflict last year, when Turkish-backed Syrian rebel militias fought Armenian conscripts as disposable cannon fodder, as they had previously done in Libya, while Turkish drones cleared the way for Azerbaijani forces to advance, we were presented with a sobering image of the new face of war. Like the Spanish Civil War before it, the decade-long Syrian Civil War, a conflict perpetually about to conclude which yet may never fully end, has revealed itself as a harbinger of dangerous new trends the full implications of which we are yet to fully understand.

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It is only natural, for example, that last week’s Integrated Review notes that Britain’s state competitors are likely to use proxy forces to challenge the international order, while the forthcoming defence review will mandate the creation of a new elite “Rangers” regiment formed precisely to advise and fight alongside proxies of our own.

A recent new book, Surrogate Warfare, by the professors of Security Studies Andreas Krieg and Jean-Marc Rickli, does much to synthesise recent academic work on the deteriorating global situation brought about by both technological advance and globalisation. Echoing research on neo-medievalisation within International Relations — the dawning realisation, first voiced by the theorist Hedley Bull in 1977 that late modernity was heading inexorably to the weakening power of the Westphalian state system and its replacement by an overlapping web of transnational and sub-national actors — its authors present a stark vision of a world of growing anarchy brought about by the intersection of new technologies and the unintended consequences of globalisation.

As they warn, “the world arguably looks more anarchical in the early twenty-first century than it has ever been in modern times,” as ”with its 9/11 attacks and the spread of global jihadism, massive transnational migration streams, the financial crisis of 2008, and the wide-spread collapse of state authority across Africa and the Middle East — the idealist, classical conceptualizations of conflict in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear as historical anomalies.”

The liberal world order, and the unhindered global movement of information, goods and people it accelerated, was intended to usher in an age of global peace and harmony. Yet instead, it has undermined the basic foundations of the global order, and “state-centrism, the idea that individuals can escape the state of nature only through a covenant binding them to an authority modeled on the Westphalian nation-state, has become archaic in a world of porous borders and growing migrant populations”. Instead of promoting good governance across the globe, postmodernity has eroded the authority of the state at home and the stability of the international system itself, returning us to a situation analogous to that of the Middle Ages, where sovereignty was widely dispersed, contested and partial.

By dismantling physical and informational barriers across the globe, the basic capacity of states to provide security for their citizens has become weakened, perhaps fatally. By eroding the lines between home and abroad, postmodernity has globalised conflicts, and eroded even the very distinction between war and peace. Instead of perpetual peace, it has ushered in an age of perpetual anarchy that states are finding themselves powerless to contain. As Krieg & Rickli note, “the globalised conflict is transnational in nature and disregards the state-centric norms, conventions, and laws put in place in the nineteenth century to limit war.” We have entered an era of “everywhere conflicts” where “the authority of the state in the twenty-first century is the weakest it has been since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.” 

Which cheerleader of globalisation a generation ago would have foreseen that children in Manchester would be blown apart by a British Libyan suicide bomber as a downstream consequence of wars in Syria and Iraq? That social media would inspire young British citizens to journey to the Middle East to keep captured minorities as slaves and slaughter their compatriots on hi-definition video for the horror and delight of their online audiences at home? Such atrocities, and the state’s desperate attempts to provide security to an increasingly unsettled public, are not anomalies, but the natural outcome of the waning of the Westphalian state and the rise of challengers to its authority from both above and below: “insecurity, not security, has become the norm in postmodern society.” 

As a result, both liberal Western states and their illiberal competitors are driven to intervene in complex and tangled wars with strong ethnic and sectarian dimensions by an unstable and often contradictory mix of humanitarian concerns, security fears and realpolitik. Yet at the same time, both are conscious that their domestic publics are increasingly averse to casualties, particularly in wars not of obvious strategic necessity, with the result that the burden of fighting is shifted to expendable local proxies, while the brunt of casualties is borne by civilians on the ground at the mercy of stand-off weapons. 

Eager to avoid unpopular casualties in these “wars of choice,” states are subcontracting the bloody business of fighting on the ground  to local proxies, whose goals may differ from those of their sponsors, and whose behaviour is not subject to any meaningful legal oversight. As Krieg & Rickli note, “the need to remove military action from society’s checks and balances is the single most important driver and aspect of postmodern surrogate warfare in liberal and illiberal states,” driving the push towards stand-off weapons like drones and local proxies on the ground, almost entirely to the detriment of the civilians who live there. 

The catastrophic civil war in Syria, the parallel conflict in Yemen and the widening destabilisation of Iraq, Lebanon and Libya exemplify these trends, where external actors like the United States, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Gulf kingdoms manipulate their local proxy militias like chess pieces while their drones, ballistic missiles and jets lay waste to the ground on which they fight. Instead of democratising the  Middle East as pundits first hoped, the unintended intersection of the Arab Spring, globalisation and new technologies have seen the entire region spiralling into a giant arena of experimentation in 21st century warfare, almost wholly disastrous to its people, as a result of global trends they had no part in making.

It is precisely the internationalisation of the wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen that has made them so deadly. Insulated from taking casualties of their own, intervening states have little or no inclination to moderate their activity. Drones and proxy militias are cheap, compared to the mass mobilisation of armies in the 19th and 20th centuries: proxy-centred conflicts  are affordable for even mid-ranking powers, lowering the barrier for entrance into conflict and limiting the need to end them quickly. Claims that Russia, or Iran, or Turkey would soon find themselves bogged down in wars they cannot afford have been repeated for years now, without this moment ever being reached. It is for these reasons, and not solely the inherent instabilities of the nations suffering them, that the conflicts of the Arab Spring have continued for so long. Like the Congo war, a parallel case of intervention by regional powers worsening a local conflict, there is no particular reason why they should not smoulder on for decades.

Yet one innovation marks out the Syrian War from its neighbouring conflicts: the centrality of social media in its prosecution. Beginning in 2011, the Syrian conflict’s early stages tracked the transition from Facebook to Twitter in the global information economy, as the site became the chosen platform of journalists, activists and policymakers. The result was not good for journalism, nor for Syria. As Krieg & Rickli note, “the emergence of social media has not just changed patterns of communication across communities but has become a major means of warfare in itself,” where, “in conjunction with kinetic operations on the physical battlefield, the clash over narratives in the cyber sphere sets the parameters for strategic victory.” 

Social media is not just a novel add-on to the modern way of war: it is a weapon that actively shapes the war itself, turning those sharing it into participants themselves. The inherently toxic dynamics of Twitter’s discourse, which inexorably blurs the distinction between journalists, analysts, activists and trolls, reflected the growing divisions on the ground in what became a shifting multipolar conflict between Assad’s loyalist forces, rebels, al-Qaeda and then Islamic State jihadists and Kurds. It also, arguably, exacerbated them. As the Syrian journalist and revolutionary activist Zaina Erhaim remarks, “international experts and media have also played a role in over-simplifying our complex conflict into two dimensions — ‘good vs bad,’” hardening and exacerbating the divisions lived by the Syrian people themselves.

In that the perceptions of intervening actors, whether governments, foreign fighters or NGOs, were partly moulded by this hyper-combative Twitter environment, it can be argued that Twitter helped shape the choices made by external actors which prolonged the conflict. Certainly, Twitter was the dominant means by which Western recruits were entranced by the war’s drama and bloodshed to actively take part: simply by acting as the recruiting sergeant for the Islamic State, Twitter demonstrably worsened the war’s outcome for both the Syrian people and those of neighbouring Iraq. 

The Syrian War blurred the distinction between fighter and content creator, armed group and social media account. Militias proliferated on YouTube videos designed to  be shared on social media to attract funding from external sponsors. ISIS cynically gamed journalism, producing lurid and exciting content expressly designed to be shared on social media, and relying on journalists — including me — to spread their propaganda for them. Indeed, ISIS had a symbiotic relationship with both legacy journalism, itself struggling to navigate the new world of social media and declining budgets for original reporting, and on the new hybrid role of online analyst midwifed by Twitter. 

As Krieg & Rickli note, journalists and analysts are themselves surrogate actors in the new conflicts, active participants in a new and only partly-understood form of warfare.  “ISIS’s strategy as a global terrorist organisation relies on social media influencers to target the sociopsychology of Western publics,” they write: “Superinfluencers, such as journalists, analysts, and commentators, become unwilling, somewhat coincidental surrogates for the Islamic State as they spread the images and messages of terror.” 

Perhaps no state actors have understood these new dynamics as well as Erdogan’s Turkey and  Putin’s Russia. While both use their respective television news networks, staffed by ambitious Western journalists, as traditional forms of propaganda, they are also both sophisticated and competent manipulators of the online battlefield. In Libya and the Karabakh war, Turkey exploited the Syria-derived fashion for online “OSINT” analysis in its favour by opening social media accounts in their image, utilising the high-quality cameras on their armed drones to provide exciting war imagery that online journalists would eagerly share on its behalf, just as Russia produces thrilling gonzo war footage from Syria for its social media fans. Drone, camera and social media sharer thus become a single, integrated weapon system, a hybrid semi-autonomous proxy as useful and as cheap to operate as the expendable proxies fighting on the ground. 

With the barriers between home and abroad, war and peace eroded by postmodernity, it is not difficult to interpret our own interminable culture wars as part of the globalised everywhere war, with the social media platforms celebrated a decade ago for upturning the sclerotic states of the Arab world now vilified for doing the same at home. Now that our own systems are the focus of popular discontent, we are lectured on the evils of social media, and treated to long and convoluted conspiracy theories of foreign bots and disinformation campaigns precisely mirroring those used by Arab regimes to explain away their peoples’ anger. 

America’s generation-long war on terror has come home, as a new Green Zone sprouts up in the heart of the imperial capital and terror experts refocus their gaze on the internal enemy. Journalists are no longer chroniclers of political conflict but active participants, proxies in a sprawling, decentralised war of narratives. Instead of the claimed depoliticisation of liberal technocracy, every aspect of life now functions as a source of conflict. There is no objective truth or reality, just warring narratives dismantling the political contract between people and their governments, “unable to contain the multiplicity of opinions, narratives, and messages being exchanged in an unconstrained cyber sphere.” 

Like the new print media which drove the rise of nationalism, we can interpret the global internet as the mother of new political identities, of micro-nationalisms and never-before-seen ideologies, imagined communities birthed by the online world’s partisan dynamics. Yet perhaps the death of the Westphalian state has been pronounced too early: we are already witnessing the first stirrings of deglobalisation as the nation-state, desperately fighting for its own survival, seeks to regain control of its own destiny. 

The increasing regulation of social media, like the re-erection of barriers between the free flow of capital and people, perhaps marks a resurgence of the Westphalian system. States that have come to rely on proxies to do their fighting for them may yet be forced to return to wars of citizen soldiers to preserve their place in a newly fractured global system. To win a conflict between peer competitors, wars of necessity and not choice, states will be forced to reassert their control  of both physical and virtual space in a way we have not seen in decades. Krieg & Rickli’s book is a valuable study of a neo-medieval order that may already be receding: if the high water mark of globalisation has already been reached, then its ebbing tide may yet reveal the Westphalian system born anew.