It’ll Do You Damage: Proxies & Covert War
Recently, several members of the Syrian National Council threatened or began the process of resignation from the body, marking new fractures as government forces continue their bloody, brutal crackdown against Syrian rebels in Hama, Idlib, and Deraa. Notably, Idlib, located along the Turkish border, and Deraa, near the Jordanian border, would have been some of the more ideal conduits for arms and supplies into Syria, or even safe zones within the country. Unsurprisingly, the Syrian government appears to be trying to nip such a possibility in the bud by expanding their crackdown, dispelling hopes that Syria’s military might not have the strength or will to broaden its campaign of repression. The New York Times describes the consequent fracturing of the SNC:
The main Syrian exile opposition group suffered a serious fracture on Wednesday as several prominent members resigned, calling the group autocratic, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and powerless to help Syrian rebels as government forces, having flushed insurgent strongholds in the north, swept into the rebellious southern city of Dara’a.
The council, [Kamal al-Labwani] added, was in danger of causing splits in Syrian society by failing to create a single rebel military command under its control, leaving individual militias to seek their own sources of help.
On Tuesday, the Syrian National Council had taken steps to bring the Free Syrian Army under its umbrella. But Mr. Labwani, the council member who is resigning, said the exiles had few ties to the fighters inside. “The Free Syrian Army is the people who are inside Syria,” he said.
The tension and difficulty of coordinating the activities of exile groups and local militias is hardly a new one in covert warfare. As Labwani notes, the absence of a unified command structure leaves the rebel movement open to fracturing. But interestingly, Labwani simultaneously complains of ”Muslim Brotherhood members within the exile opposition of ‘monopolizing funding and military support.’” In other words, Labwani wants the ability to create a unified military command structure but opposes monopolization within the political structure. This arrangement would approximate the nature of a democratic government (not dominated by any one party or clique) with normal civil military relations (a subordinate and unified military command structure) – but unfortunately for Labwani and the SNC, such things do not come about easily.
So what is sending arms to an irregular force actually useful for? Certainly not ending a war quickly. But absolutely useful for prolonging a war. Campaigns to arm irregular or rebel groups are generally most effective when the objective is to engage the foe in a war of attrition. Arguments about creating an “equality of forces” or “leveling the playing field” are misleading and fundamentally misunderstand the political dynamics at play in Syria. The Free Syrian Army, despite its name, is not a nascent conventional force and has demonstrated very little ability to seize and defend territory on their own, the way that the Croatian Army had during the Bosnian Wars or the Confederacy had during the Civil War. Neither, really, were the Nicaraguan Contras, despite the presence of defectors from the Nicaraguan internal security forces, a military force sufficiently strong enough to hold territory within Nicaragua without U.S. support. Even with U.S. support, most Contra operations had to be run out of neighboring states such as Honduras.
Operation Cyclone, the covert campaign to arm Afghan mujahideen, also demonstrates many of the shortcomings of arming a proxy force. The mujahideen, even with significant foreign support, were notably less successful in maintaining cohesion during offensive siege operations against Soviet-controlled population centers. This trend persisted well after the withdrawal of the Soviet army, when the USSR was able to provide enough funding to Najibullah that he was able to resist siege efforts by the mujahideen. While effective for forcing the USSR into a drawn-out costly military campaign, proxy forces were not able, even after years of conflict, to launch decisive offensive operations to topple the Afghan government.
What Attrition Yields
Another important factor to note is the comparative under-armament of the minority groups in Afghanistan, even ones opposed to Soviet rule. War, because it is an extension of policy, does not suspend the politics which animate war and policy both. For a variety of factors, owing to more experience with firearms, better-adapted extant political structures for the mobilization of rebel forces, and the monopolizing effect of the Pakistani ISI’s preference for certain warlords and factions, non-Pashtun minorities were at a disadvantage for receiving foreign support.
Massoud’s militia in the Panjshir was notable for relying on local support (although he often received a CIA stipend and some limited equipment support from British and French intelligence agencies). But as a consequence of this determination to achieve local political legitimacy, he engaged in truces and other behaviors antithetical to the prosecution of an attrition campaign against the Soviet Union and forces aligned with it. Such dynamics are not uncommon to irregular wars, and the dissonance between factions willing to cooperate with the exterior partner and centralize control often creates friction with more autochthonous movements. Or, vice versa, the most genuinely indigenous aspect of a movement – or at least the most centralized and able intermediaries – might not be the most preferable conduits for foreign influence and support.
In Afghanistan, as in Nicaragua, proxy war yielded results. Regime change and the exhaustion of the counterinsurgent force. But not quickly. Each endeavor, even with significant U.S. support, took roughly a decade of bloody warfare to conclude. Each left a significant portion of the normal political dynamics of the country intact. The Contras, for example, did not triumph by seizing Managua and completely undoing the Sandinista system – indeed, despite armament and support from the U.S, there was never really any danger of these major cities falling. UNO, the anti-Sandinista coalition, triumphed in an election under the shadow of the civil war’s potential extension with dire consequences for the national economy and the livelihood of rural Nicaraguans. There was, of course, no conclusive victory of any particular warlord or faction in Afghanistan until that of the Taliban, and even then they failed to completely pacify the country. As a humanitarian tool, proxy forces are not particularly useful. Indeed, as political instruments, proxy forces often functioned effectively by doing ugly things that a foreign force would be unwilling or unable to do itself.
There are only two ways for a quick end to a civil war where the rebels seem on the brink of defeat without external intervention – the defeat of the rebels, or a rapid and successful intervention involving ground troops capable of seizing major urban centers. A strategy of attrition, particularly one directed at Iran, as arguments about Syria often are, should rely on prolonging the war. Because prolonging the civil war is exactly the result creating armed proxies will get.
Chaos or consolidation?
Of course, there are other possibilities the use of proxies raises. One is the creation of forces capable of operating in areas where a U.S. presence would be politically unacceptable. Such is the case of the Afghan Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams. As CIA-backed proxies, groups such as the Paktika Defense Force have conducted cross-border raids against Taliban forces. However, these forces are inherently destabilizing. The arming of militia groups does not contribute to the consolidation of the Afghan state, and indeed it may undermine it. They also have malign consequences for Pakistan, further highlighting its inability or unwillingness to control its own border regions and reviving fears of Afghan irredentism, which helped begin the Pakistani policy of supporting proxies within Afghanistan in the first place. Indeed, for Afghan state consolidation to occur, the incorporation of border-crossing militias may create a more destabilizing effect within Pakistan.
But in a country where chaos is either inevitable or a preferable outcome to hostile state consolidation, proxies are useful tools for a destabilized environment. The presence of a funded, trained, and adequately equipped local force to pursue objectives that would otherwise require host-nation compliance or direct U.S. intervention makes tasks such as, say, assassination and sabotage much easier tasks. Long before there were drones or JSOC was traipsing across the globe, much to the consternation of modern voters, it was the use of foreign proxies through the CIA/SAD that allowed the U.S. to wage irregular warfare or assassination campaigns without causing undue political strain.
Another instance of U.S. proxy warfare with important implications was the Secret War waged in Laos. Laos, in the midst of a civil war, was subject to repeated incursions both by People’s Army of Vietnam regulars and Viet Cong irregulars servicing the Ho Chi Minh trail. Particularly for dealing with the latter, the CIA began support of the Hmong minority as a proxy force for direct action against communist forces in Laos. The Hmong “Secret Army” is among the better examples of a proxy force with extreme loyalty to the United States. For one thing, they were hugely dependent on the U.S. and no intermediary or regional backer had competing interests. Additionally, the use of Air America meant that the U.S. owned a significant portion of the logistical routes for Hmong forces into Laos. The U.S. backed a similar strategy in the central highlands of Vietnam by supporting the Montagnard tribes, although by the early 1960s Army Special Forces, not the CIA, had taken over this operation.
If the aim of U.S. proxy support in a country is to create pro-U.S. sentiment and leverage, then these cases are particularly instructive. For one thing, they were cases where the logistical routes and field work was disproportionately run by the United States. This required relative air superiority, compliant regional partners, and ultimately a significant intelligence and military commitment on the ground to coordinate the action. Also important to note was that these proxies were ethnic minorities which had in some cases been associated with collaboration with prior colonial regimes, and certainly with resistance to nationalist aspects of local communist policies.
Just the Same, But Brand New
In the case of Syria, a situation favorable to the creation of a reliably pro-U.S. force is not likely to be forthcoming. So long as the Syrian regime maintains a robust air defense network and Lataika remains a loyalist stronghold, the United States will likely be forced to rely on Turkey or the Gulf Cooperation Council states to access logistical ratlines and set up working relationships with Syrian rebel commanders. As was the case during Operation Cyclone, Saudi, Qatari, and Jordanian intelligence services (which are already likely active in arming the rebels) will likely have a strong influence on where and how U.S.-bought weapons are ultimately sent into Syria. Until the United States is able to independently access Syrian airspace, it will have extremely limited options for sustained and unilateral cultivation of relationships and proxy forces in Syria.
But even that scenario is incredibly optimistic. Even if a unilateral effort to support a Syrian rebel group separately from groups associated with radical or anti-American political Islamists succeeds, the support of separate militias simply sets up post-Assad Syria for a power struggle between militia groups. Even in Libya, where sectarian politics are muted and there was relatively little competition or disagreement by the rebel forces patrons’ over who to support, power struggles between militias have broken out. In Syria, where a much greater volume of arms would be necessary to even resist against government offensives and Western and Gulf state political preferences appear to be more at odds, the likelihood that sectarian or ideological divides in militia forces could lead to civil strife is far greater.
Additionally, most of the minority groups with which the United States could cultivate a relationship on par with its ties to minorities during the Indochinese wars in Syria are currently fence-sitting or relatively allied to Assad. On the one hand, offering to finance the self-protection of a fence-sitting or neutral minority group could be a useful political inducement to at least pull them out of Assad’s camp and secure a unilateral asset within Syria. But just as reaching out to minority groups with limited options for foreign backing is able to secure loyalty to the United States, it also makes that group even more of a political threat to regional neighbors supporting forces from the ethnic majority. The tragic tale of U.S. cultivation of proxy forces from the Hmong and Montagnards ended with the violent assertion of nationalist majority groups over the minorities, who were now doubly damned as collaborators with undesirable foreigners, and the languishing of thousands in refugee status despite some U.S. attempts to provide asylum for its partners.
Go big and go home?
Of course, most of the cases of U.S. proxy support during the Cold War in Eurasia bring to mind a sobering reality of the geopolitics are influence – regional neighbors have a staying power that the United States simply can’t maintain. In a world of competing military suppliers, the United States is rarely going to have the opportunity to dictate terms to potential proxy groups, particularly ones with strong ethnic or ideological ties to other regional powers. At the very least, the United States will always be hard pressed to compete with these groups. But in the long run, these groups will step in after the United States has lost interest in the conflict. The capabilities the United States provides and logistical infrastructure it fosters will be available to use by regional powers that can step in afterwards – and obviously, they’ll have even less reason to remain deferential to the United States than what little they did when it was present. Just as it was completely unrealistic to expect that the CIA was ever going to win a competition for influence with the ISI, and maintain that influence after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, it’s hard to imagine that the United States would be able to successfully win a competition for influence with Syria’s neighbors and maintain it long enough to keep the majority of armed resistance or post-Assad military power centers aligned with U.S. interests indefinitely.
Again, none of this is to say that proxy forces would not have some uses. But they would entail a radically different approach than is generally outlined in most advocacy of arming the rebels. Undertaking such an effort would require a cold analysis of what U.S. objectives and priorities were in Syria. Arming the rebels is not a useful strategy for the U.S. to gain influence within Syria, particularly in a competition against Gulf states. A proxy commitment aimed at checking the operation of radical or anti-American groups would need to be unilateral – that is, set up and maintained by U.S. forces separately from regional intelligence services. Logistically, this would require working with a relatively small force – likely too small to be a decisive force in the struggle against Assad – or need to wait until Assad’s military had collapsed enough to create a more permissive environment for U.S. cross-border infiltration. The ability of the U.S. to recruit from ethnic or ideological minorities might be an additional advantage for such a proxy force, as said groups would be more inclined to resist Sunni majoritarianism and perhaps more pliant because of the need for external protection, particularly if it was a group formerly loyal or cooperative with the Assad regime.
A limited proxy force in Syria could begin as, say, a vehicle for tracking and targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps within Syria. If modeled on the Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams or the Hmong and Montagnard militias, the likely goals of such a unilateral outfit would be to attack and sabotage other irregular actors within the battle space. In a post-Assad scenario, such irregular forces could be activated with greater U.S. support to target jihadist groups within Syria. Of course, another advantage, and one the CIA likely exploited during the Nicaraguan civil war, would be the use of such a proxy group to create plausible deniability, logistical support, and local cover for direct action by U.S. covert assets. Again, it is important to distinguish specifically U.S. interests in Syria from the nature of the conflict itself. The objective of the Syrian rebels, broadly, may be to bring about the fall of Assad. That is also quite likely the objective of many of the Gulf states. There will be governments, intelligence assets, and special forces looking after those interests. But who will be looking out for America’s?
As romantically alluring the idea of U.S. secret agents and arms being the decisive instrument to win the liberation, and allegiances, of Syria is, it is a logistically and strategically implausible outcome. At the largest strategic scale, a U.S. proxy force would be an instrument of attrition that would act in cumulative effect with regional efforts, rather than to the exclusion of their influence or counteraction of their interests. But peripheral to the decision of the war – but perhaps with larger returns to U.S. interests – would be a smaller scale effort to directly counteract Iranian influence in Syria and create capabilities for pursuing specifically U.S. interests in a post-Assad Syria.
For all the talk about Syria as a case where U.S. interests and values are aligned, the harmony is both once the ugly sausage-making process that is politics and the perhaps even uglier processes of logistics and strategy come into play. The Nicaraguan Civil War, one of the few recent cases where U.S. proxy support felled a regime without a major escalation in commitment, worked precisely because it prolonged the civil war in Nicaragua and made Nicaraguans fear that prospect. Supporting the Contras worked because it changed the cost-benefit analysis for Nicaraguan voters, not because it achieved military decision. But ironically, had Nicaragua had fewer democratic institutions, or had the Contras been able to fully subvert their legitimacy, the tactics the Contras employed might have been less effective. Had the Sandinistas more fully consolidated their power, they might have been able to ignore the elections and continue the fight anyway.
Achieving such a decision in Syria is likely politically impossible. Assad’s government has always been based on minority rule by a combination of military and business elites, and he will not permit his political framework to be used for subversion by voters. Even if Assad and the immediate members of his clique are able to secure exit, for the Alawites and other groups deeply implicated in the political elite and security services, for whom exile is not an option, the civil war will be a fight to the death. Crafting a covert response to such a scenario demands a clarity about actual U.S. priorities in the region, rather than embracing the obfuscating warmth that slogans like “arm the freedom fighters” provide.