my last post here, we looked at some of the issues inherent in the use of
client and partner states in tackling the issues of counterterrorism. However,
there are many cases where the United States has and will have to work with
non-state or parastatal actors. At a time when America’s appetite for full-bore
conventional interventions into failed or collapsed states (or states which we
would like to induce failure or collapse in) is low, proxies, paramilitaries,
and rebels seem like appealing, low-cost, and safe ways for the United States
to influence outcomes abroad.
The problem is,
as with working with state and military actors, the groups the United States
frequently tries to enlist into its myriad efforts at proxy warfare possess a
separate set of interests from the United States. This diversion in interests
is not necessarily nefarious. Groups may primarily seek wealth, local political
power, or ideological aims that are not inherently anti-American. Yet very few
groups will have sets of interests so limited and circumstances so pliant to
patronage that they will subsume themselves into straightforwardly reliable
instruments of U.S. foreign policy aims.
approach with proxies, as with client or partner states, tries to obfuscate or
eliminate a fundamental policy problem with a different strategic execution.
Few would claim they wish to engage in nation-building in Syria, or advocate
launching a counterinsurgency or counter-terrorism campaign there. To do so
would evoke images and memories of Iraq and Afghanistan, of thousands of
American troops and strategic folly.
But trying to
create a friendly state or quasi-state out of the Free Syrian Army through
supplying them with weapons requires precisely them to execute policies we
would rather leave unspoken. When we look at the aftermath of the Benghazi
attack, we recognize that a Libyan government which effectively translates its
pro-U.S. proclivities into meaningful policy outcomes will have to engage in
counter-terrorism operations against jihadists. It will need to undergo
nation-building efforts to develop a military powerful enough to take on
militias and other paramilitary organizations, and develop criminal justice
institutions and practices to ensure that the rule of law can prevail.
In Syria, we
frequently hear that providing arms to the rebels will enhance U.S. goals to
unify the opposition, marginalize jihadists such as Jabhat al-Nusrah which
operate outside the FSA’s already loose command structure, and earn the loyalty
of the future government in Syria. This would occur, supposedly, through the U.S.
preventing Qatar or Saudi Arabia from taking control of arms flows, outgunning
the jihadists, and collapsing the Syrian regime before they can establish a
foothold within the country.
patronage to translate into those outcomes, though, the U.S. must induce some
nasty behavior by its friends on the ground. It should be very obvious that
Qatar and Saudi Arabia will search for preferred proxies. As recent
reporting reveals, the Qatari and Saudi governments are trying to steer
arms towards hard-line Islamists, and rebel groups, in turn, are shifting their
behavior and appearance to cash into these arms. One the one hand, this is
heartening, as it means that alternate arms provision might at least discourage
aping hard-line Islamist or jihadist practices. But these faux jihadists are
hardly the real concern.
If the U.S.
seeks out groups it believes align with its values, this encourages the Saudis
and Qataris to more aggressively support their own proxies, in order to
maintain leverage among the rebel co-belligerents. It is entirely possible to
have a scenario where aggressive patronage produces unity within each patron’s
preferred factions of the rebel forces, but creates starker divide among the
coalition overall. As much as the United States would like to disassociate
itself from the concept, using proxies to shape political outcomes and state
consolidation is still a form of nation or state-building behavior, one made
palatable by the lack of direct exposure but all the more difficult by the lack
first impulse of a proxy group, whether it takes arms or not, is going to focus
using them on fighting its primary enemy (the Syrian state) rather than
asserting dominance over fighters who are driving at similar aims. When
relatively moderate rebels killed an
extremist leader, it was not because he was initially unwelcome, but
because he was trying to assert control over rebel activities. Attempting to
marginalize the jihadists sounds well and good, but it involves engaging in a
severe and likely violent power struggle that jeopardizes the interests of
several major regional state and non-state actors engaged in the Syrian civil
war and its broader proxy conflict.
So the United
States is left with a situation where it must potentially fracture the
rebellion by attempting this marginalization during the course of the conflict,
or by hoping its arms have bought enough loyalty, capacity, and willpower for
the rebel groups to undertake a second or third phase of Syria’s civil war in
order to purge the country of jihadist groups. In either case, U.S.
anti-extremist efforts work at cross-purposes with either unifying the rebels
or shortening the civil war. This is doubly problematic when one considers that
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states have demonstrated their ability to
resource and implement proxy strategies in countries such as Libya. Even in the
case of Syria, the United States would need the support of the very countries
propagating the movements it hopes to quash.
When the U.S.
engages in proxy warfare in the context of the Syrian civil war, it thus
encounters not simply implementation problems, but these implementation
problems, like those of partner and client strategies, reveal a fundamental
lack of ability to prioritize policy aims. Advocates of proxy warfare cannot
decide or agree about their policy objectives, let alone their prioritization.
It is nice to say that the U.S. wishes to shorten the Syrian war, build
opposition unity, protect safe areas, and marginalize radicalism. These goals
all conflict at various junctures (shorten the Syrian civil war requires
minimizing infighting among rebels or killing off undesired rebels postwar),
and without prioritization, the result is a mess.
The U.S. has
frequently employed proxies, but the aims were narrowly focused. During the
Cold War, paramilitary proxies broadly existed to inflict maximum damage on
hostile forces, with the outcomes for civilian welfare, war termination (the
goal very often necessitated the opposite) or long-term state-building or
At the end of
the day, whether there are boots on the ground or not, the question of how the
U.S. uses proxy forces to consolidate a friendly or relatively liberal state in
Syria are nation-building and state-building problems, and the question of how
the U.S. uses proxy groups to marginalize jihadists is a counter-terrorism
problems. By their nature, proxy strategies compound on existing flaws in these
policies because they delegate a central role in the strategy to
self-interested third parties. By their practice, proxy wars in areas where the
U.S. lacks the intelligence or logistical capability to unilaterally furnish
its desired partners with weaponry involve yet another set of external actors with their
own interests and goals.
a dirty word these days, but very often the problem with it is that the United
States grafts unilateral aims and approaches to policies which require far more
consensus and complicity from other actors. Squaring the circle through
indirect approaches seems appealing, but the reality is that whether the U.S.
is conducting drone strikes or distributing arms, it is putting its policy and
strategy at the mercy not simply of the enemy, but of its would-be partners,
clients, and proxies. The deep and entangling double games and strategic
surprises the U.S. so often finds itself in now, if anything, highlight the
need for the United States to develop a set of genuinely unilateral options
appropriate for achieving limited aims. As American relative power declines,
the more indirect the U.S. approach, the less leverage it will have to shape
the implementation and outcome of that approach to its own liking.