The Next Proxy War
How the United States can use the Syrian civil war to prepare the region -- for Iran.
In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman argued for stepped-up U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war. They called for providing Syria’s rebels with weapons, training, and intelligence. They also called on the United States to support the establishment of safe zones inside Syria, to be protected by U.S. air power and other capabilities (but not American ground troops). Failure to take these steps, they argued, would prolong Syria’s bloody civil war, boost the role of Islamic radicals such as al Qaeda, increase the chance that Syria’s chemical weapons will end up in dangerous hands, and cause the U.S. to be shut out of the country after the Assad regime falls.
A key step in formulating effective strategy is confining oneself to realistic and obtainable goals. Significantly shortening Syria’s war, determining which factions come out on top, and seizing control of Syria’s most threatening weapons in the midst of chaotic combat are goals very likely beyond the grasp of U.S. policymakers, at least at reasonable cost. The senators’ rationale for U.S. intervention implies an ability to influence events in Syria beyond what seems feasible. Should U.S. intervention fail to rapidly end the war or quickly seize Syria’s chemical weapons, the United States would risk finding itself climbing a ladder of escalation, with increasing use of air power and even ground troops in an effort to achieve the campaign’s goals. Once committed in a large and visible way, U.S. prestige would be at risk, forcing policymakers to continue adding resources in the hope of achieving overly ambitious objectives.
However, that does not mean that the United States should avoid the conflict. In fact, there are important and achievable objectives in Syria, obtainable with little risk and for a modest price. Rather than attempting to influence the course of Syria’s civil war, something largely beyond Washington’s control, U.S. policymakers should instead focus on strengthening America’s diplomatic position and on building irregular warfare capabilities that will be crucial in future conflicts in the region. Modest and carefully circumscribed intervention in Syria, in coordination with America’s Sunni allies who are already players in the war, will bolster critical relationships and irregular warfare capabilities the United States and its allies will need for the future.
The conflict in Syria is just one front in the ongoing competition between Iran and America’s Sunni allies on the west side of the Persian Gulf. That competition has played out in the past with proxy warfare in Lebanon and Yemen, and Iraq may become the next surrogate battlefield. Should Iran become a nuclear weapons state, the competition will almost certainly intensify. Regardless of the outcome in Syria, U.S. allies around the Persian Gulf must brace for deepening security competition with Iran.
The Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries are building up their conventional military forces, in particular coordinated missile defenses to counter the threat from Iran’s ballistic missiles. However, the actual fighting in recent years has been conducted by insurgent militias that have usually been armed and trained by Iran and some of the Sunni countries. For example, Qatar, whose special forces played a large role in the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime in Libya, is a major sponsor, alongside Saudi Arabia, of the rebels in Syria. On the other side, the capture this week of 48 Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisers by the Syrian rebels illustrates Iran’s role in the country.
This kind of irregular warfare will very likely continue to be the most common manifestation of the security competition between Iran and the Sunni countries. Hezbollah in Lebanon, various Shiite militias in Iraq, and the current training and support Iran is supplying to pro-Assad militias in Syria demonstrate Iran’s experience with this form of warfare. The Sunni countries have a strong interest in stepping up their own irregular warfare capabilities if they are to keep pace with Iran during the ongoing security competition.
The civil war in Syria provides an opportunity for the United States and its Sunni allies to do just that. For the United States, supporting Syria’s rebels would constitute a classic unconventional warfare campaign, a basic Special Forces mission. Such missions are typically covert and usually performed in cooperation with regional allies. So, U.S. and GCC intelligence officers and special forces could use an unconventional warfare campaign in Syria as an opportunity to exchange skills and training, share resources, improve trust, and establish combined operational procedures. Such field experience would be highly useful in future contingencies. Equally important, it would reassure the Sunni countries that the United States will be a reliable ally against Iran.
Normally, the goals of a combined U.S.-GCC unconventional warfare campaign in Syria would be the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a government friendly to U.S. and Gulf Sunni interests. However, policymakers should recognize that unconventional warfare campaigns are fragile projects with no assurance of success. They can take years to run their course with plenty of opportunity for embarrassments along the way. The Syrian war is proving to be just as dirty as any other modern proxy war, with both sides apparently guilty of war crimes. Rather than committing to the goal of overthrowing the Assad regime, an elusive task that could result in an unpleasant spiral of escalation, the U.S. should limit itself to the goal of growing coalition irregular warfare expertise.
But to improve the odds of achieving this limited goal, policymakers should expand U.S. participation beyond its current limits. They should not rule out providing lethal assistance to the rebels not available through other partners. U.S. special forces advisers and trainers should be allowed to visit rebel sanctuary camps in Turkey and Syria. Finally, U.S. policymakers should consider the limited use of air power — for example, drones for intelligence-gathering and close air support. Since the principal U.S. goal would be the buildup of GCC irregular warfare capacity, GCC intelligence and special forces officers should have the lead, with U.S. officers supporting them. This approach would do the most to build overall alliance special operations capacity while limiting U.S. exposure and risk.
Some will no doubt criticize this approach as an exploitation of the humanitarian disaster in Syria to allow the U.S. and its allies to refine some unpleasant techniques. A historical analogy would be the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s, another very ugly civil war, which Europe’s great powers used to tune up their military doctrines before World War II. By this view, intervention would only accelerate Syria’s suffering and make the United States an accessory to a dirty war.
However, to the extent U.S. intervention in support of its Sunni allies shortens the war and hastens the end of the Assad regime, it will save lives and reduce the suffering in Syria. U.S. intervention cannot assure such a result and U.S. policymakers should not commit U.S. prestige to such an outcome. But as we saw in the Balkans in the early 1990s, standing aside while a civil war rages has its own moral problems. By contrast, when outside adviser assistance to the Croatian and Bosnian militias was finally allowed, the fighting soon ended. No one can guarantee a similar result in Syria. On the other hand, we can see what Syria is going through right now. Although ending the war should not be a goal of the very limited intervention discussed here, the odds of ending the fighting on favorable terms would seem to be higher than with no intervention at all.
Furthermore, irregular warfare is the future for which the U.S. and its allies must prepare. When Senators McCain, Graham, and Lieberman — the most hawkish elected officials in Washington — rule out the use of conventional ground troops, policymakers should conclude that they have a depleted toolbox for addressing future security challenges. With the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh, policymakers will be highly reluctant to employ conventional ground forces in future contingencies. Among the few remaining tools will be intelligence and special operations officers pursuing irregular warfare techniques alongside allies. Supporting the Sunni allies in Syria will sharpen irregular warfare skills, improve operational relationships, and prepare the United States and its allies for future contingencies. And it may even end the war and save some lives.