Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts How the United States Can Escape the Middle East’s Proxy Wars
How the United States Can Escape the Middle East’s Proxy Wars

How the United States Can Escape the Middle East’s Proxy Wars

President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Syria has laid bare contending visions about U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Trump depicts the move as extricating the U.S. from the Middle East’s quagmire of “endless war.” Critics see it as betraying Kurdish forces that had loyally served in the campaign against the Islamic State. Neither side, though, offers a vision for how a war like the one in Syria, where multiple foreign powers maintain direct relationships with armed proxy groups, might end. Understanding these endgame scenarios can enable the U.S. to escape the Middle East’s proxy wars while building a broader framework for regional security.

A (Brief) History of Middle East Proxy Wars

Proxy wars have always been a part of the Middle East regional landscape, but gained alarming prominence in the Middle East since 2011. The Barack Obama administration, chastened by the American misadventures in Iraq, tried to avoid large-scale troop deployment and instead adopted a policy of what researcher Andreas Kreig has called “risk transference.” America pursued its strategic objectives by, with, and through local partners. As states collapsed and civil wars overtook Yemen, Libya, and Syria, the U.S. worked with militias and other non-state actors who were positioned to serve as foot soldiers in the war against terrorism and, in some cases, hostile regimes. Small contingents of advisors and trainers sustained these relationships. Other regional actors adopted roughly similar approaches. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—linked in alliance to the U.S., but with drastically different agendas—launched their own effort to recruit proxies. Iran has worked to extend its influence by drawing on long-standing proxy relationships with Lebanese Hezbollah, Yemeni Houthis, and Iraq’s Shi’i militias. Some proxy relationships derived from deep-seated ideological or ethnic fraternity, others from temporary alignment of interest. The result was an ever-shifting crosshatch of alliances and antagonisms spanning across the region and the globe.

Proxy wars tend to be long and difficult to win—to the disappointment of policymakers expecting cheap and easy solutions to regional security challenges. Sponsors and proxies inevitably encounter principal-agent problems. Sponsors must be ruthless; the point is to get proxies to fight and die for the sponsor’s objectives. Proxies, in turn, try to maneuver sponsors to assume greater risk and commit more resources while pursuing their own more parochial agendas. They try to pit potential sponsors against each other. They solicit sympathy abroad. But the problems go deeper than subcontracting miscues. Empowering armed non-state actors turns them into free agents, undermining the states’ monopoly over the use of force.

Proxy Wars in Theory and Practice

Many of the elements highlighted in the literature on proxy war are evident in the U.S. relationship with the Syrian opposition in general and with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the leading Syrian Kurdish faction, in particular. The PYD had an ambiguous relationship with both the Bashar al Assad regime and the organized opposition from the early years of the Syrian civil war—the PYD criticized the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most significant early opposition organization, as being too close to Turkey, but also opposed other Kurdish groups and were accused of tacitly coordinating with the Assad regime. As government troops quit the northeastern and northern regions of the country, the PYD launched a self-proclaimed autonomous region of Rojava, later renamed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). To Western audiences AANES was touted as an experiment in secular democracy, as the research predicted. Certainly, rule in AANES was less oppressive than others in Syria, but it had its share of human rights abuses. The U.S. and PYD allied primarily because they shared enemies. The United States began providing active support to the PYD in fall 2014 during the battle for Kobani, as the PYD was forced to defend Rojava against an ISIS siege. U.S. policymakers began to see the PYD as a reliable partner in the fight against ISIS, and as the other U.S. proxies in Syria crumbled, the PYD became the core of the new U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which promised both to defeat the Islamic State and serve as the vanguard of anti-Assad rebels. The PYD, in turn, used U.S. support to bolster its territorial ambitions.

But the SDF could not hope to take on Damascus or Ankara without continual U.S. support, making AANES’s status precarious. Turkey regarded the PYD as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S. itself deemed a terrorist organization, and repeatedly attacked SDF positions along the border. The Assad regime, supported by Iran and Russia, brutally reconsolidated control west of the Euphrates while ignoring AANES’s pretensions of autonomy.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Syria and the Middle East?

This discussion suggests that Trump’s impulse to end U.S. commitments in Syria might be right, but his timing and execution were awful. Carrying forward Obama’s risk-aversion logic, Trump knows that a credible threat to cut off aid is the most effective way to prevent free-riding on the U.S.’ largesse. America, Trump insists, doesn’t owe the Kurds anything. But in precipitously withdrawing, the U.S. induced a scramble of sponsor-proxy realignment that only increases regional instability. Indeed, that’s just what has happened. Turkey is mobilizing locally raised Arab and Turkmen militias (including former U.S. protégés) as it overruns Kurdish positions—even as the U.S. tries belatedly to restrain them. PYD leaders have returned to Damascus for support. Assad’s forces are re-entering the northeast—and while Iran does not necessarily look favorably on Turkish gains in Syria, these gains by Assad, in turn, help to solidify Iran’s vaunted “land bridge” to the Mediterranean and its proxy Hezbollah. An undetermined number of Islamic State detainees have escaped in the melee. Israel, the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, and other U.S. regional allies recognize that the disavowal of Syrian Kurds could prefigure their own abandonment and seem to be making alternative arrangements. Most troubling, though, is that nearly concurrent with the Syria withdrawal the U.S. has deployed additional troops to Saudi Arabia following the Kingdom’s abject defense failures last month. The U.S. isn’t exiting the Middle East quagmire as much as wading to another bank.

Complex proxy wars such as Syria’s defy common approaches for resolving civil wars. The challenge of making credible commitments, which scholars identify as the key to ending civil wars, affects domestic belligerents and their international patrons alike. Peace in proxy wars must be approached through what scholars Erin Jenne and Milos Popovich call “nested security” arrangements, reflecting grand regional bargains in which opposing sponsors take mutual steps to withdraw and de-escalate conflicts from the outside in. Syria, Libya, or Yemen are not separate wars, but theaters in a regional conflagration where the U.S., along with Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, UAE, Turkey, and others, contend via domestic proxies and direct troop deployments.

Nested security requires the U.S. take a different approach than simply and haphazardly cutting-off its proxies. Rather, the U.S. should withdraw when other regional actors offer similar trade-offs and confidence-building measures. The U.S. must be willing to negotiate with adversaries, including Iran, that maintain proxies across multiple theaters. Unusual and inventive arrangements might balance the agendas of both states and non-state actors. Instead of dissolving AANES or similar de facto states in Libya, Yemen, and Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, international actors might try to bolster their informal lines of territorial control as a pragmatic step toward power-sharing. The deepest challenge, though, is acknowledging the limits of U.S. power in the region. Already, there are backchannel discussions between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran to mitigate their mutual conflicts, regardless of America’s retrenchment or reassertion. To overcome the destabilizing effects of proxy warfare and move toward nested security, the U.S. must concede that actors within the Middle East will define security in their own terms—indeed, in light of the Trump administration’s erratic policy towards the Middle East, regional actors are already beginning to do so.