The danger of America's 'proxy war'
August 14th, 2013
11:33 AM ET

The danger of America's 'proxy war'

By Erica D. Borghard, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Erica D. Borghard is the author of ‘Arms and Influence in Syria: The Pitfalls of Greater U.S. Involvement,’ published by the Cato Institute, and a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. The views expressed are her own.

The past few months have been difficult for the Syrian rebels as government forces, bolstered by Iranian support and Hezbollah fighters, have routed anti-Assad fighters around Damascus and Homs. However, recent reports suggest Syria’s rebels have successfully seized the key Minakh air base in Aleppo and are orchestrating a push to challenge Bashar al-Assad’s control of Latakia, a regime stronghold. If the rebels can consolidate these reported gains, it would certainly suggest a shift in momentum.

Yet the seesawing dynamic of the Syrian civil war suggests that these advances are likely to prove fleeting, and U.S. policymakers should not point to them as evidence that the Obama administration’s decision to arm the rebels represents sound policy. In fact, providing arms to the Syrian rebels is unlikely to decisively tip the scales to their advantage. As I argued in a recent Cato Institute paper, the United States is instead likely to be dragged into a more extensive involvement later – the very scenario advocates for intervention claim they are trying to avoid.

Waging war by proxy, whereby states provide nonstate groups with arms and other resources in exchange for fighting on the former’s behalf, is an attractive policy option for states when they are hesitant to use force directly. In this case, the Obama administration’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels is taking place in a broader context of American retrenchment and public wariness about extensive foreign interventions.

More from CNN: Obama's no-win options in Syria

Advocates of arming the Syrian rebels claim that U.S. policy objectives in Syria can be achieved at a relatively low cost without forcing the United States to commit to a large-scale intervention. However, the very aspects of proxy warfare that appeal to states – their covert, indirect and informal nature – also create the conditions for unwarranted commitment by states to conflicts.

First, the United States could become locked into a path of increasing involvement in the Syrian conflict through the institutional incentives that are present in covert operations. While the White House publicly announced on June 13 that the U.S. government was initiating a program of lethal support to the Syrian rebels, it was in fact already authorized under current covert operations law. Accordingly, the president can authorize covert action, provided he or she informs congressional intelligence committees, and is not required to make the nature of the operation known to the public.

What this means is that the specific parameters of the U.S. intervention in Syria remain vague and underspecified.

The secrecy surrounding aid to the Syrian rebels creates a real risk that the U.S. could get locked into even greater commitments in Syria later. Delegating authority for alliance management to bureaucrats, the CIA in the case of Syria, and providing them with a broad and ill-defined mandate to execute policies, impinges on political leaders’ abilities to use threats to influence the behavior of their nonstate allies. Specifically, proxies will not take threats to withhold or moderate support seriously if the political leaders making the threats cannot rein in the individuals responsible for executing them.

More from GPS: Finding third way in Syria

Second, the United States could get trapped in an over-commitment in Syria through erroneous understandings of credibility and reputation. The fact is that despite claims by some policymakers, U.S. credibility is not at stake in Syria. The idea that Obama’s failure to adequately support the rebels would undermine the administration’s reputation for resolve in other arenas is misguided because Syria does not threaten core U.S. national security interests. Other states assess credibility based on a state’s power and interests in the issue at hand, on a case-by-case basis, rather than past behavior. Iran, for example, should not infer from Obama’s actions in Syria that the United States would not stand firm with regard to its nuclear program.

The rebels’ military vulnerability exacerbates these two problems. Their military deficiencies raise the question of what the United States should do if they are still unable to achieve and maintain pivotal military gains on the ground after receiving U.S. arms. As it becomes apparent that U.S.-backed rebels cannot complete the job, the United States will be tempted to escalate its involvement in the civil war to achieve its political objectives.

One thing should be clear: the United States should not have initiated a program to provide arms to the Syrian rebels. If our government is not careful, it will get sucked into an even deeper – and extremely costly – international commitment.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Joseph McCarthy

    Our proxy war in Syria is stupidity at it's worst! We can't even run Iraq with all of it's religious violence and the Kurds still wanting to set up their own home state just like the Israelis did back in 1948. In fact, we have yet to eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan and God willing, that won't happen since the Taliban are the only people fighting for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, as long as these right-wing fanatics continue to run things in Washington D.C., these obscene proxy wars will go on and on and.............!

    August 14, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • Ferhat Balkan

      Hey Joseph, I'm curious why you never mention the Russian involvement with Syria and it's always the 'right-wing thugs in Washington'. How Russia and Iran continually supply the regime with high tech weapons all the while Russia has the UN Security Council deadlocked over any sort of response with veto power that prevents any sort of humane response. All the while thousands continue to die in Syria and the situation gets worse and worse. The fact that Russia has a military base in Syria and that they continue to support the Alewite minority which rules over the Sunni majority. Tell me, how is not getting involved going to solve the situation? Take a look at the half a million refugees and tell me inaction is the right thing to do.

      August 14, 2013 at 7:45 pm |
      • Eric Conrad

        I think Russia is taking a backseat role. They are supplying hardware like us, but I believe it is the Iranians who have the biggest iron in the fire.

        August 14, 2013 at 11:47 pm |
      • nemo

        "they continue to support the Alewite minority which rules over the Sunni majority."

        NATO's own polling data revealed that 70 percent of Syrians support Assad. You clearly do not know anything about the country's politics.

        August 15, 2013 at 9:50 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        A proxy war is always lengthy. Putting boots on the ground doesn't guarantee a victory neither. Iraq was a good example and it was less complicated. Russia had never any interest there. Iran didn't have no worry about its Shia peers in Iraq and wasn't involved in overthrowing Saddam Hussein, America did it for Tehran.
        Syria is a nonstarter. Assad has the backing of Iran and Russia. Besides there are different Islamist groups fighting in different areas. So an US involvement in Syria means full devotion.

        August 16, 2013 at 9:00 am |
    • mojacar

      the americans started this false democratic revolt at behest of cia .the americans have been arming them via proxies for 2 years .this is scheduled to me made public in snowdens next leak

      August 15, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  2. MUD MAN ROBS MARK

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    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
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    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
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    http://www.mudpgi.blog.comHUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.comHUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
    http://www.mudpgi.blog.com
    HUMAN SELL OF POLITICS IN NORTH AMERICA NICOLAS MADURO SPAIN KING JOSIKO NODA AND ABE.
    SELL OF NEURAL POATRONS TO ESTIMULATE AND CHANGE DE DNA CODE.
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    August 14, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  3. Eric Conrad

    This is how the Cold War was fought, and as much as I hate it, might be the best way to fight Iran. It is sad though, because the men on this chessboard are real people, not plastic or wood. No one ever really wins a war, not even a proxy war.

    August 14, 2013 at 11:45 pm |
    • fjm1235

      Correction Eric-No one ever wins a limited war, which is what we keep starting despite our track record in that area. Whenever the US has formally declared war on another country, we won because its an all out effort w/no BS political restraints. Our leadership needs to get their heads out of their ***** & stop this crap & spend the money where its needed, here at home. I don't favor isolationism by any means, but we need to stop feeding the military-industrial complex as we have.

      August 18, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
  4. Joe Edge

    WAR... it's what we do best.... KILL... it's what we enjoy the most.... DESTROY... it's what we have learned to do this past 30 years.... You can see it in our video games. You can see it in our movies. You can see it in our actions around the world..... Go figure....

    August 14, 2013 at 11:53 pm |
    • George patton

      Quite true Joe Edge, quite true!

      August 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  5. Olim

    Again we are talking only about the USAs objectives, profit and influence!! What about the Syrian people, their objectives and their lives??? Isn't Syrian people more important than any other thing in Syria now? Why USA should always think only about it's objective and influence??

    August 15, 2013 at 3:12 am |
    • George patton

      The answer to your question is quite simple, Olim. Their political objective and influence is all that the right-wing thugs in Washington care about, not the lives of the Syrian people!!!

      August 15, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  6. abajuba

    As long as the belligerents in the Middle East are killing one another,.....they have less time, energy or resources for killing Americans...............sounds like a perfect recipe.

    August 15, 2013 at 5:19 am |
  7. rightospeak

    A very good article and a smart analysis-thank you ,Erica, we needed other than propaganda article.

    August 15, 2013 at 6:41 am |
  8. minetta

    why arabs just dont attack israel .... and western military bases !
    in a joint .. common interest nationalistic purpose ....
    now how to explain that to an arab who is good only at driving luxury cars and buying cellphones ...
    its not that difficult though....
    consider the billions of dollars arab economies are wasting ...
    consider the millions in lives and lost development ...
    all they need is a joint political agreement and nationalistic definitions to work on ...
    . me i don't have a political science degree no phd ....not even one single degree in that political matter ..
    but i can see the light ...
    they politicians do not ... of course !

    August 15, 2013 at 6:45 am |
  9. Harry Schwartz

    We have no choice. We hve to do what Isreal wants done.

    August 15, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Wodja

      How is that?
      Why is that?
      Seriously, why does a world militrary and economic power with over 300 million people have to answer to a tiny country thousands of miles away, that has only 8 million people and no oil?

      August 19, 2013 at 6:59 am |
      • Eric

        The US and Britian act like they support Israel yet most of the land in Africa that was annexed in some way or form by the British, US, or France is always given governmental control to leaders from Islamic countries, take the Sudan for instance where Israel actual armed rebels to fight against an Egyptian controlled Islamic government. Israel has power because they provided the blue print for entire transatlantic monetary system and wall street, and the federal reserve, Investing in the stock market is a Ponzi scheme and Britian and the US have been using Jewish principals in banking since the national bankingin act in 1933, so in a sense we say we support Israel and they are our allie, but who do we really do more for. Saudi Arabia, Egypt. If Iran attacked Israel we would attack Iran???

        December 14, 2013 at 5:22 am |
  10. Russ

    Every area around the globe is different. Although politics is always a part of the equation, race and local customs (sometimes ancient) are also a part. The US is not excluded from this, however our customs are based on many countries that people have immigrated and brought their customs. The middle east has more tribal based (warlords and factions) with racial (Sunni vs Alewite in this case) issues mixed in. Every country has its own mix, but we (outsiders of the conflict) sometimes forget this and expect that they will act more like us if we help them. Then we are confused when they don't like us nor can they get along any better even though the cruel dictator is removed, but all the other influences are still there.
    Democratic rule works (kind-of) when we as the general population have a central leaning in the same direction; i.e. freedom of religion (including to abstain), freedom to choose our occupation, where to live and so on. This is not to say we all have agreed (even back to the times before the Revolutionary War) through the centuries, but we have had general agreements on laws, taxes, police protection, etc. Money or wealth in the region does not carry the same clout as it may in more developed countries, but it can buy influence with the politicians.

    The middle east has been and will be at war for years to come. Innocent people will die and we will babble about what to do.

    August 15, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  11. SA

    Where are the US weapons? US involvement is just cheap talk. If there was ANY weapons supplied by the US, Assad would have vanished years ago. The US does NOT want Assad to fall. Obama wants to lead from Putin’s behind. Obama believes in “Diplomacy”. What he is ignoring is that Assad is a barbaric, evil dictator. The US administration insistence on treating Assad as some sort of civilized government is the epitome of ignorance and not just “ignoring”. This administration hypocrisy is too obvious to “ignore” by the Syrian people. To maintain his tyranny, Assad has already killed more than 100,000 Syrians. No one in the US will ever stomach “negotiation” or “Compromises” or “Consensus” with Al-Qaida after they killed 3,000 innocent Americans. Assad has killed about 1% of the Syrian people, destroyed the nation and forced about 50% of the population to abandon their homes. Take your diplomacy and stick it in the sand, the Syrian people will either perish or gain freedom from tyranny. No but, no if, no may be? All what the US has achieved since March 2011 is to abandon moderates, empower extremists and bow to Putin.

    August 15, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
    • George patton

      Thank you, SA. Everything you said above is exactly opposite the blasphemous truth! You sound like another ignorant Tea Partier. In fact, Obama wants to dominate the whole Middle East, including Egypt and Syria. He already has the Arab League sending in mercenaries to fight along side the so-called anti-Assad "rebels". Seeing what's going on in Iraq right now, let's all hope that doesn't happen!

      August 15, 2013 at 9:48 pm |
      • SA

        Now two years after your comment, two years in which Assad added two hundred thousand Syrians to the genocide, two years after the chemical massacre and more than a year after the emergence of Obama's JV ISIS, are you still convinced, you and your progressive elks, that Obama is helping and arming the Syrian people??

        August 21, 2015 at 7:08 pm |
  12. shehar39

    Syrian rebels? try Al Qaeda

    August 15, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  13. shehar39

    isn't supplying weapons to our enemies treason?

    August 15, 2013 at 10:56 pm |
  14. vistar hornbill

    Its the same old same old US stupidity.

    Will America EVER learn that getting involved in other people's internal conflicts is NOT GOING TO POLTICALLY OR ECONOMICALLY BENEFIT USA – in the longer term !

    There is NOTHING to gain in conrtinuing with its failed foreign interventions – just to show everyone America is the Superpower of the world. ZERO, NOTHING TO GAIN. I dont aboutAmerica being the greastest military power – what I do know is the USA is broke! It cannot to continue squandering its national wealth (if there is any still left).

    August 16, 2013 at 11:05 pm |
  15. vistar hornbill

    Its the same old same old US stupidity.

    Will America EVER learn that getting involved in other people's internal conflicts is NOT GOING TO POLTICALLY OR ECONOMICALLY BENEFIT USA – in the longer term !

    There is NOTHING to gain in continuing with its failed foreign interventions – just to show everyone America is the Superpower of the world. ZERO, NOTHING TO GAIN. I dont know about America being the greastest military power – what I do know is the USA is broke! It cannot to continue squandering its national wealth (if there is any still left).

    August 16, 2013 at 11:06 pm |
  16. Paul

    If Saudi Arabia via Jordan provides weapons to the rebels against the central government wouldn't that be a declaration of war by these two countries against Syria, wouldn't Syria be justified to hit them back? at that point we would certainly be sucked in just like the first gulf war when Saddam invaded Kuwait supposedly in self defense although I think Syrians would have a better argument against Jordan and Saudi when it comes to self defense. This seems like a dangerous game no matter what.

    August 17, 2013 at 10:04 pm |
  17. atavisms

    Our government is run by greedy and insane psychopaths. Unbelievable.

    August 19, 2013 at 4:26 am |
  18. K.daraa

    Ms. Borghard has an interesting and fairly accurate viewpoint of the situation; however, in one respect she is wrong...Minakh airbase was not taken by SYRIAN rebels, it was taken by AQ related takfiri extremist foreign fighters according to ME and Turkish news sources. The base was just a couple miles from the Azaz Syria-Turkey border-crossing, and which is a strategic economic and logistics choke point for Al Qaeda's invasion of Syria. The same foreign fighters that chopped the heads off all the Syrian POWs taken at Minakh, have killed hundreds of SYRIAN rebels.

    August 21, 2013 at 9:24 am |

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