PROXY WAR PARALLELS: SYRIA AND CAMBODIA
Following the war in Vietnam, where the US was decisively defeated, Washington changed its military strategy and deployed lethal proxy wars against its adversaries and enemies, with Cambodia, Afghanistan and Nicaragua becoming the most prominent battle grounds. When looking at what is going in Syria, people will quickly remember the US proxy war in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its use of Afghani "Mujahideen" in that war, which is similar to the current employment of "moderate rebels" in Syria. But there was also another proxy war the US was waging at the same time in Cambodia against Vietnam and the former Soviet Union which is strikingly similar to the current one in Syria..
Because of the genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent chaos in the country, Vietnam was forced to intervene in Cambodia militarily with Soviet backing in 1978. Vietnam quickly toppled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, replacing it with a friendly communist regime. The US saw this as an opportunity to “pay back” Vietnam and scuttle Hanoi's regional ambitions after its unexpected victory against the world's leading superpower, the US. Washington and its regional allies organized Cambodian royalist and other anti-communist rebels to wage a proxy war in that country. They also covertly armed and funded the unsavory Khmer Rouges. The ensuing proxy war lasted for more than a decade and pitted Cambodian regime forces and the Vietnamese army (with Soviet military support) against US-supported rebels, including the Khmer Rouge. After more than a decade of proxy war, the US was unable to achieve its goal of regime change and accepted a peace deal in which it tried to use the UN as the vanguard for "soft regime change.” The project ultimately failed as the Hun Sen regime has been able to retain power until this day. It was only after the end of the conflict that the US and its allies supported the prosecution of Khmer Rouge leaders.
The similarities between the proxy war on Syria and the one on Cambodia are striking. Regionally, Vietnam played the role Iran is now playing in Syria with the slight difference of substantial direct military intervention and the lack of a contiguous border like Vietnam.
Hezbollah and other Iran-backed forces could represent Iran's military. Vietnam was defending the regime of Hun Sen, who still rules the country, and Iran is now defending the government of Assad. On the opposite side, nearly all ASEAN countries and China, particularly Thailand, played the role Turkey is now playing in Syria (conduit for fighters and weapons), while other ASEAN states (which included at the time Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines) played the role the GCC countries that Jordan and Israel are playing now in Syria. China probably played the role of both Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Beijing overtly and covertly supported the Khmer Rouge and was their ideological mentor just as the Saudis are supporting Jabhatu Al Nusra and ISIS. Chin also launched a limited invasion of Vietnam similar to Turkey is in Syria. Japan, South Korea, and Australia played the role that EU is now playing in Syria. Globally, the US and former Soviet Union played the current roles of the US and Russia in Syria.
On the local level, there were three major actors in Cambodia: the Hun Sen regime, the US-allied-supported rebels led by Cambodian exiled prince Norodom Sihanouk (comprising different factions), and the Khmer Rouge who were outcasts like ISIS or Al-Nusra Front. The US and its Asian allies, and China, used Khmer Rouge for their regime change war against the Hun Sen government and Vietnamese army in Cambodia similar to the US/allied use of Al-Nusra Front and ISIS against the Syrian government. In Syria, we have three or four major actors: the Syrian government, Western-supported Islamist rebels, the Kurds, Al-Nusra Front, and ISIS Although there are some differences, the similarities locally, regionally, and globally in both proxy wars are substantial.
The military-strategic situation is also similar. The US could not intervene directly in the Cambodian conflict because it was just defeated in neighboring Vietnam. The US is now reluctant to directly intervene in Syria after its defeat next door in Iraq.
Both in Cambodia in the 1980s/90s and in Syria now, Washington's preferred strategy is to use local proxies against its adversaries and enemies even if this means using terrorist groups like Khmer Rouge, ISIS, or Jabhat Al-Nusra. America's main goal in Cambodia was weakening the regional role of the then victorious Vietnam and global influence of the former Soviet Union. In Syria, its goal is to weaken or "rollback" (as the Pentagon hawks would like to put it) the regional influence of the emerging regional power of Iran and Russia's growing global role. During the decade-long proxy war in Cambodia, the US and its Asian allies disingenuously advocated, supported and legitimized the war criminal group, the Khmer Rouge, to utilize their fighting capability against the Cambodian government and Vietnam, just as the US and its allies are now using Al-Nusra Front and other terror groups in Syria
The Cambodian war did not end well for the US. After more than a decade of waging brutal proxy war, Washington was forced to change tactics. There were several attempts to end the conflict, but the US and its Asian allies repeatedly insisted that “the Hun Sen regime must go”, which is exactly what the US and its allies are now insisting in the form of “the Assad regime must go”. With the Hun Sen government and the Vietnamese army holding their ground, the US and its allies were forced to sue for peace and, finally, a political solution was reached in 1991 which called for UN-sponsored free elections with a UN peacekeeping mission to secure the polls. The deal restored a nominal monarch but all executives powers were given to the prime minister. The Khmer Rouge was not officially included in the peace deal, just like ISIS, Jabhat Al-Nusra and others will not be part of any peace deal in Syria if and when such a deal is reached.
The US and Its allies used the UN mission to bring about "soft regime change.” The mission itself was dominated by Japanese, Australian, and other Western officials who used their influence to "steal" the elections.
But Hun Sen rejected the "rigged" results and threatened to go back to war. After a tense standoff, the Western-influenced UN mission backed down and brokered a power sharing deal between Hun Sen and Western-backed royalists. Interestingly enough, two co-prime minsters were chosen, but Hun Sen managed to keep his security forces and army intact and gradually consolidated power. Finally, he expelled the US-supported royalists from sharing power in 1997.
Although there are some differences between Syria and Cambodia, the proxy wars waged in both countries feature many important similarities, including their sectarian dimension, international terrorism, and hybrid war tactics. On the other hand, the Cambodian and Vietnamese armies were in a stronger position compared to the Syrian army and its allies. Nevertheless, Syria and Its allies are well-advised to explore and study how Hun Sen cleverly ended the Cambodian war and succeeded in retaining power for so long. It seems that Hun Sen’s success was mainly due to keeping state institutions, especially security forces and the army, intact while also extending his hand to the opposition to strike a peace deal. In 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hun Sen was left with limited cards, but he played them well.