Marc Lynch

The Price of Proxies

Don't be fooled: The United States is already knee-deep in the Syrian quagmire, and the opportunity costs are disturbing.


U.S. President Barack Obama’s missile strikes against Syria may be off the table for now as diplomatic attention shifts to talks with Russia and the U.N. Security Council. But while negotiators from Moscow and Washington meet in Geneva, the increasing tempo of Washington’s public commitment to a strategy of arming parts of the Syrian opposition continues, with the aim of forcing President Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table. Such efforts come with a hidden price tag, though: They are not only unlikely to rapidly end the war, but they carry enormous opportunity costs.

When Washington talks about supporting the "moderate opposition," what it means is leaning on the Persian Gulf regimes to arm and finance its preferred proxy armies (and not the jihadists who have also benefited from Gulf funding). But the current strategy of arming the "good guys" to marginalize the "bad guys" likely means extending the long, grinding civil war with an ever-escalating civilian toll. We should not be fooled by overly rosy assessments of the size, ideology, coherence, or prowess of the Syrian good guys. The Syrian insurgency on the ground is localized, fragmented, and divorced from the external political leadership. Extremists typically thrive in the chaos of civil war, not moderates. And proxies, such as the ever-ungrateful Gen. Salim Idris, will never be satisfied with the aid they receive — nor be reliable allies down the road if a better offer comes along.

Waging a proxy war will necessarily mean not doing a lot of other things that America might otherwise do in the region and around the world — which is probably just how the Gulf states like it. It thoroughly ties Washington to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s horse on Syria, despite significant disagreements on policy, strategy, and goals. The United States relies on the hawkish Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, for the financing, administration, and delivery of arms supplies to Syrian rebel factions. The proxy-war strategy means that managing Syria’s civil war will consume America’s diplomatic and strategic agenda for the foreseeable future to the exclusion of many other important goals. That means giving up on pushing for important regional policy initiatives that Riyadh or Abu Dhabi oppose, such as promoting democracy and human rights in the region or finding a diplomatic resolution with Iran.

It should be self-evident is that the fiercely anti-democratic and highly sectarian Gulf states have little interest in avoiding sectarianism and none in building democracy. It is thus baffling that so many in Washington have convinced themselves that the Saudis can be trusted to promote moderate, democratic, or secular opposition forces. Relying on their efforts means acceding to their preferred view of Syria’s conflict as primarily an arena for proxy war with Iran. To paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Saudis are always willing to fight Iran to the last dead American (or Syrian). There will be no support from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the negotiated political solution that Washington actually prefers, and likely active subversion of the Geneva 2 process, if it gets under way.

Obviously, this reliance on the Gulf states for implementing a Syrian proxy war means forgetting about any thoughts of pressuring them on their own human rights record, or on anything else. Most observers probably found it hard to not laugh (or cry) as Bahrain’s foreign minister denounced the "dangerous human rights violations by Assad’s regime against his people." Yes, that’s the same Bahrain where (as Human Rights Watch summarizes) "security forces had used excessive force against peaceful protesters during demonstrations, and had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, ill-treated, and denied them fair trials." But if Washington is going to rely on Riyadh in Syria, then it’s going to have to look away and grimly smile through it. Of course, the GCC expects the full rehabilitation of the unrepentant Bahraini regime. Few in the international community seem to care any longer, and even fewer will dare raise questions as dependence on Riyadh in Syria increases.

The same applies to Egypt, where the Gulf states aggressively supported the military coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsy — against the strongly expressed preferences of the United States. Washington invested a great deal of effort in supporting the troubled democratic transition in Egypt and working with the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership. The Gulf states unapologetically supported (at least) the military coup that summarily ended that experiment, while explicitly offering billions of dollars to offset any potential loss of aid from the West. Washington will now find it more expedient to accept the new reality. Calls to suspend aid to Cairo will likely quietly fade away.

Dependence on the Gulf states will also matter when it comes to Iran, where new President Hasan Rouhani has been sending fascinating signals of a shift in foreign policy, including a possible accord on the country’s nuclear program. Those diplomatic avenues may be harder to explore when America’s chief regional allies oppose doing so. The GCC regimes make no secret of their view that the battle in Syria is really a proxy war with Iran. Proxy war in Syria (to say nothing of the hot war and missile strikes that the Gulf states prefer) makes diplomatic progress with Iran less likely. Ironically, should the United States actually get militarily involved in Syria, it would likely reduce, rather than increase, the credibility of the U.S. deterrent threat against Iran. Tehran will judge Washington by what it can do to or for Iran, not by what it does in Syria — and a United States that slides down the slippery slope and gets bogged down in the Syrian quagmire clearly isn’t going to have the appetite for a new conflict with Iran.

Many in Washington are deeply worried about the spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict reshaping the region. They are right to be concerned. The deepening sectarian divide poses profound risks and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of regionwide conflict, with a ceaseless stream of blood, repression of minorities, and torn social fabric. But ramping up the armed insurgency in Syria virtually guarantees that these divides will get worse, not better. The Sunni Islamist networks and individuals mobilizing public support for the Syrian jihad across the Gulf tend to be highly sectarian in their discourse. The United States should be pressuring Gulf states to crack down on this sectarian hate speech, but Washington isn’t going to be in a position to pressure the Gulf on anything.

The increasing dependence on the Gulf states isn’t the only opportunity cost of the proxy war strategy, of course. The United States desperately needs to recalibrate its thinking about Islamist movements — whose ideas, strategies, and relationships have rarely been more in flux. Certainly, Syria is part of that Islamist turbulence, with that jihad becoming the most potent site of jihadi mobilization since Iraq. But there’s far more to it than the battlefield fortunes of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Ahrar al-Sham. Support for those varied fighting groups draws on extensive networks across the Gulf and the broader region, with fundraising and mobilization efforts for Syrian jihadists taking pride of place for Islamist rhetoric and organizational efforts. The Ansar al-Sharia organizations across North Africa and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, like the Syrian groups, are organizing local communities and demonstrating political savvy that many doubted they could muster. Jihadi groups are bidding for the loyalties of those Islamists who had put their faith in democratic participation only to see it crushed by Cairo’s military coup. And nobody yet knows how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will adapt to the military coup, repression, and nationalist wave of anti-Islamist rage.

Then there are the ongoing conflicts and lower-level crises that just don’t make it on to anyone’s crowded agenda. Yemen has retreated to its familiar place of being ignored (not by FP, of course). Iraq’s violence continues to surge, spurred by the spillover from Syria’s insurgency and by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s long-standing efforts to centralize power. Libya has been reduced to morbidly stupid right-wing talking points about Benghazi, but could use a lot more international assistance and attention. And Tunisia’s struggling transition could use some help.

Then, of course, falling deeper into the Syrian morass means that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be put back onto the back burner (where it has so comfortably resided for the last decade). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may believe that he can broker both the peace talks and a Syrian cease-fire at the same time, but very few others seem to agree. Sure, he’ll jet from Geneva to Jerusalem on Sept. 15, but the reality is that there just isn’t enough bandwidth in Washington, or in the region, for both. (Where’s that pivot to Asia again?)

Syria’s human and strategic catastrophe deserves all the international attention that it receives, and more, but the proxy-war strategy carries much greater costs and fewer benefits than are typically acknowledged. It isn’t quite the cheaper alternative to direct military strikes as advertised, has massive opportunity costs for other American interests, and rests on very shaky assumptions. Washington should spend less time worrying about how the Gulf states view its Syria strategy and more about articulating its own interests, goals, and strategy for the region.

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