Center for Strategic Communication

With the drumbeat for directly joining Syria’s civil war growing, it probably should not surprise us that the U.S. governments quiet efforts to aid the Syrian rebels are now coming to light. Alongside insistent denials that the U.S. was directly arming the rebels, news now emerges the CIA has not simply been vetting the recipient groups (to the limited extent that is really possible) but also coordinating the distribution and sourcing. More interestingly is further confirmation the U.S. is training a small group of Syrian fighters in Jordan, who are in turn operating near Damascus in southern Syria:

The training has been conducted for several months now in an unspecified location, concentrating largely on Sunnis and tribal Bedouins who formerly served as members of the Syrian army, officials told The Associated Press. The forces aren’t members of the leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, which Washington and others fear may be increasingly coming under the sway of extremist militia groups, including some linked to al-Qaida, they said.

The operation is being run by U.S. intelligence and is ongoing, officials said, but those in Washington stressed that the U.S. is providing only nonlethal aid at this point. Others such as Britain and France are involved, they said, though it’s unclear whether any Western governments are providing materiel or other direct military support after two years of civil war that according to the United Nations already has killed more than 70,000 people.

The first issue to highlight here is the essential mechanics of proxy warfare. What is the objective of indirect support? Arming the rebellion generally (which clearly expands beyond this proxy group) and engaging in political coordination through the Syrian National Coalition often appear as solutions for simultaneously increasing rebel combat power, Western leverage, and decreasing Islamist and jihadist influence. Yet promoting unity and increasing combat efficacy implies giving powerful but internationally maligned groups some sort of seat at the table, and indeed U.S. attempts to exclude them often broaden a front more in opposition to U.S. preferences.

To simultaneously make a proxy loyal and powerful, then, is a significant challenge. The U.S. spent years convincing the anti-Somoza factions disaffected with the Sandinista regime to effectively cooperate with the overthrown Somoza loyalists in Nicaragua. Even then. the U.S. enjoyed large advantages because it was the overwhelming logistical supplier to the Contras, who were particularly dependent on its aid. Even then, Contra success came at devastating human cost to the Nicaraguan population.

Paul Staniland provides a social-institutional explanation for why a large influx of resources can fragment or break down insurgent fronts. Without strong, horizontally integrated social bases to provide unifying institutions, new resources can reopen or exacerbate prior divisions over logistics, leadership, and influence. U.S. objectives to marginalize undesirable elements of the Syrian rebellion exacerbate fragmentation and division by seeking to exclude unfavorable factions.

It is not surprising Syrian infighting is occurring, as there have been signs of it brewing for months. More confusing would be trying to marginalize large swathes of rebel forces while simultaneously stepping up arms provisions, and expecting unity, rather than heightened infighting, to be the result. “Marginalization” of dedicated insurgents in an ongoing civil war involves violence. While “peeling the onion” of jihadist sympathizers and cobelligerents away is important, it is a means to the end of more effectively targeting and dismantling hardcore Islamists and jihadist groups. Without that, the policy provides an anvil but no hammer. Trying to shorten the Syrian civil war is a noble intention, but doing so while pushing out jihadists invites and likely even requires prolonging its second phase. Scaling up our efforts will not solve the practical or moral dilemmas with proxy warfare.

Fostering a smaller Syrian group, then, that can fight on the U.S.’s behalf, may seem appealing. There’s a catch. Ensuring proxy loyalty to patrons relies on factors that impede many of America’s present Syrian preferences. Patrons often draw loyal proxies from populations disaffected or vulnerable to prevailing political conditions, which made the Lao and Montagnards particularly effective and loyal sources of “secret armies” and irregular partners for the U.S. during operations in Indochina. Southern Syrian secularists, former regime soldiers, and Bedouins may prove more receptive to U.S. interests, but they are also an unlikely nucleus for a post-Assad government likely to be dominated by groups associated with the civil war’s northern front. Their capability for building the kind of broad, horizontally integrated network to achieve influence over the rebellion and post-war Syria will be limited.

Yet placing such a group outside the Free Syrian Army’s aegis points to a tougher truth about proxy warfare, which is that the same characteristics which limit the group’s ability to effect desired humanitarian and political outcomes in Syria make it easier to handle. Small groups take fewer resources. Groups unable to operate in the north or from across the Turkish border are less likely to fall under Turkish or Islamist sway. A proxy that coordinates poorly with local political-military authorities is less likely to default on U.S. preferences than a larger, locally predominant entity such as the FSA, which, by the nature of its social-institutional foundations, will be inclined to answer to local interests first.

While patron states can shove social-institutional development in the right direction, creating a broad, unified front from without can take years. Many of the conditions that enable it – the ability to exclude other regional suppliers, relatively low reliance on local power bases, and compatible ideology – may be impossible to produce within Syria.

For many powers willing to engage in proxy warfare, a second-best outcome is a local proxy just strong enough to carry out a more limited set of tasks. The U.S. may not be able to rely on the FSA to secure or create a buffer against hostile groups along the Jordanian border, or assist the U.S. in monitoring or targeting jihadists or Iranian/Hezbollah proxies of interest. A smaller force coupled with a logistical effort could perhaps execute those tasks, but it could not deliver a unified Syrian opposition or widely deny hostile groups a safe-haven in Syria. The administration’s current strategy in southern Syria appears sized for a more modest U.S. role. As many demand the U.S. step up its support though, it’s worth remembering the returns to scaling up resourcing or objectives for Syrian proxy forces could have minimal or even negative returns at the margin. Above all, proxy war will not effectively be simultaneously be an instrument of humanitarianism an effective tool for carving out U.S. influence in Syria – in such scenarios, we not only can’t always get what we wish for, we often enough don’t even get what we pay for.