Making Sense of a Syrian Proxy War Gone Amok

Train-and-equip policies have not served U.S. interests in Syria.

In recent weeks, the United States appears to be simultaneously scaling back and increasing the magnitude and quality of support it is providing to various Syrian rebel groups. On the one hand, on October 9, the White House announced that it would be terminating the Pentagon’s $500 million train-and-equip program to stand up an army of “vetted” Syrian rebels to take the fight to the Islamic State in Syria. The program was a manifest failure, with American-trained rebels deserting, demonstrating ineptitude on the battlefield or handing over their weapons to the Nusra Front and other “bad guys.”

On the other hand, reports surfaced a few days later, on October 12, that the covert CIA program to arm different Syrian rebel groups (separate from the Pentagon’s train-and-equip program) was apparently escalating, with Syrian rebels reporting no-strings-attached drops of anti-tank missiles. The appearance of TOWs in large quantities represents a significant upgrade for rebels who, up until this point, had been restricted to light arms—videos showcasing Syrian rebels with a mere handful of TOWs surfaced in early April of last year, but the numbers were insufficiently large to suggest that a U.S.-led effort to supply the rebels with heavier weapons was underway at that time.

Apparently, the CIA is less concerned than the Department of Defense about heavy weapons falling into the wrong hands; the Pentagon emphasized this past Friday that it would not be supplying rebels with anti-tank or other heavy weapons that could be employed against American interests. It is also possible that Saudi Arabia, rather than the United States directly, is dropping American-made TOWs into western Syria. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia would be required to receive American consent prior to delivering American-made weapons to a third party.

Do these ostensibly incompatible policies merely illustrate the schizophrenic policymaking process in Washington, or is there a logic that can be inferred from the latest news coming out of Syria? More importantly, what are the implications and consequences of the White House’s changed approach?

The recent admission by White House press secretary Josh Earnest that the decision to establish a train-and-equip program in Syria was spurred on by hawkish critics of President Obama’s Syria policy sheds some light on the administration’s decision-making process and on the risks and tradeoffs associated with proxy warfare more generally. Proxy warfare, in a nutshell, is an indirect approach to conflict. In theory, it enables governments to undermine adversaries or project power without getting their hands dirty because proxies fight on their behalf and pay the costs of conflict in blood (although governments must still expend treasure). Therefore, the apparent efficiencies of proxy warfare—it’s far less costly than a direct fight—are a critical aspect of its appeal. In a domestic political context in which the President faced both pressure from hawks in Congress, including some members of his own party, as well as a reluctance or even aversion on the part of the American public to directly involving American troops in yet another Iraq or Afghanistan, the train-and-equip program likely seemed to be the Goldilocks approach: not too costly, not too wimpy, but just right. Moreover, the authorities inherent in a Pentagon-led train-and-equip program would enable the White House to publicly acknowledge its existence, even while refraining from divulging specific details, thus satisfying the domestic constituency pushing for American involvement in Syria.

This particular aspect of domestic politics is under-recognized in analyses of decision makers’ motives for working with proxies. The prevailing narrative is that proxies are appealing when the public at large is averse to directly paying the costs of war. While this is often the case, decision makers are often balancing those policy preferences against the preferences of principals within the Executive, the President’s political party or Congress. When these formal or informal veto players push for a more robust or direct intervention in a conflict, proxy warfare provides decision makers with a means of co-opting hardliners without committing as many resources.

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