Give Up on Proxy Wars in the Middle East
The United States has the opportunity to reshape its alliances and bolster lasting stability in the region—but only by ending a failed approach.
Despite their policy differences, the successive administrations of U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump have all struggled to balance the United States’ expansive security objectives in the Middle East with the limited resources available to pursue them. Their maximalist policy goals aimed not just to mitigate the risk of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil, but to eradicate al Qaeda and the Islamic State wherever local branches took root; not just to push back against Iran’s influence in key strategic locations, but to place so much pressure on the Iranian regime that it would crumble, or at the very least dramatically alter its regional foreign policy.
But at the same time, successive U.S. administrations knew it was politically untenable to use maximal resources in pursuit of these objectives. After the disastrous intervention in Iraq, putting American boots on the ground—and thereby risking casualties and a quagmire—became politically untenable. As a result, U.S. policymakers have sought to split the difference.
While it has worn various titles over the years, such as “by, with, and through,” the approach is more or less the same: Empower local actors—via support from U.S. special operations forces, training, arms transfers, intelligence sharing, and so forth—to fight the wars that Americans cannot or don’t want to fight themselves. In the Middle East, it has meant arming proxy actors in some places, such as Syria, and empowering security partners to do so or intervene directly in others, such as Yemen and Libya.
But these proxy wars have not accomplished U.S. strategic goals—in some cases, they have even done the opposite. Advocates who criticize U.S. policy in the broader Middle East region have tended to focus on “ending endless wars.” This is a critical step, but U.S. policy must go beyond ending these wars. The proxy approach to Middle East conflicts has failed. It’s time to focus on a new strategy centered on major investments in development and diplomacy. This will help ensure that wars do not simply start up again in a revised form and pull the United States back in.
My research has found that U.S. security partners in the region, particularly the Persian Gulf monarchies, already understand the shortcomings of their own proxy-war approaches. As the Arab Spring toppled governments across the region in 2011, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia saw the instability as an opportunity to gain regional influence by replacing opponents with friendlier regimes. However, rather than achieving quick victories in Libya and Syria as they had hoped, these states found themselves sucked into complex quagmires without hope for outright victory. Instead, regional proxy sponsors have transformed localized conflicts into destabilizing regional wars that spill across borders. They have contributed to massive levels of human displacement, with significant impacts on the domestic politics of countries where refugees arrive.
Libya, where former leader Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime has been replaced by years of fighting, is a case in point. In 2014, Khalifa Haftar, an autocratic warlord supported by Russia, the UAE, Egypt, and others, launched an offensive against the Tripoli-based U.N.-recognized government, which in turn is supported by Turkey and Qatar (and, theoretically, the United States). Haftar has refused to engage in negotiations in good faith—at least until his forces suffered significant setbacks in recent months. While intervening countries have periodically called for a cease-fire, Turkey, the UAE, and Egypt are all poised to deepen their involvement in Libya and intensify their regional rivalries.
In Libya and elsewhere, proxy warfare has been destructive to U.S. strategic goals of limiting the influence of Iran and defeating terrorist groups. Instead, it has had complex political, economic, and social effects which will make these conflicts last longer, while drawing U.S. security partners into conflicts that make them less secure. This approach has not even allowed successive U.S. administrations to pull back from the region. Instead, the United States has been drawn into several conflicts, from returning to Iraq in 2014 after the rise of the Islamic State to providing military logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen.
In Yemen, the Houthis have gone from an insurgent group receiving minimal military support from Iran to lobbing ballistic missiles (with a design based on Iran’s Qiam missile) at Riyadh. At the same time, the conflict has provided a potent breeding ground for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has reportedly cut secret deals with al Qaeda fighters, while U.S. arms sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ended up in the hands of these fighters.
And this does not begin to account for the humanitarian fallout from these conflicts, which will have long-lasting and unpredictable consequences. The U.S. government cannot inoculate itself from the resulting problems of instability, terrorism, and a level of societal polarization that may be past the point of no return; nor can it hope to simply contain these conflicts within failed states without spillover effects.
Faced with this legacy of failure, the United States should abandon its split-the-difference approach and begin a completely different kind of engagement, centered on diplomatic leadership. My research shows that when the United States has used its leverage in the past, it has been able to restrain regional countries’ interventions in civil wars and shape their preferences for ending the war. During Egypt’s intervention in Yemen in the 1960s, for instance, the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were able to restrain Saudi Arabia from intervening more directly through a combination of military assurances and threats to cut U.S. assistance. The U.S. government should use the resources at its disposal to pressure local actors and third party interveners to come to the table and engage in good-faith negotiations to end proxy wars.
During the current war in Yemen, U.S. pressure has successfully shaped the Saudi-led coalition’s behavior at key moments. The Obama administration was reportedly able to deter the UAE from initiating a ground operation to capture Hodeida, while phone calls from Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi helped seal the 2018 Stockholm Agreement—a partial peace accord for Yemen. However, U.S. officials in both the Obama and Trump administration officials did not place the kind of sustained pressure on the Saudi-led coalition that could have led to a negotiated settlement, largely in order to avoid damaging the United States’ bilateral relationships with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
At the same time, policymakers will need to abandon the idea that the United States can exert leverage in contexts where it has very little. In Syria, the idea of retaining “leverage” over the outcome has been trotted out repeatedly by strategists and analysts to justify keeping a small number of U.S. forces in northeast Syria, yet it is unclear what such leverage has achieved. After investing five years in supporting Kurdish-led forces in Syria as a hedge against Russian and Iranian influence, Trump’s mercurial policy reversals in late 2019 led Kurdish forces to seek an alliance with the Assad regime due to a Turkish incursion in northeast Syrian territory long held by opposition forces—with calamitous results for civilians.
Where the United States has relatively little military leverage, it can still use economic tools to achieve more limited policy objectives. In Syria, the Trump administration has zeroed out reconstruction aid, claiming that it would only provide support for the Assad regime. But as Steven Heydemann has pointed out, donor states and institutions can manage reconstruction funds by “insulating [reconstruction aid] programs from the Assad regime—developing channels to fund and implement reconstruction that are not subject to the authority of the regime and prevent its participation in such activities,” by working directly with Syrian local councils and nongovernmental organizations that are independently vetted. And while U.S. sanctions are intended to force the Assad regime to make concessions or even to topple the regime itself, they are far more likely to further entrench the regime while punishing the Syrian people by devastating the economy and forcing Syrians to become increasingly reliant on the regime for their economic survival.
With respect to foreign aid, the United States has long taken a military-first approach to the region. A recent Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) report shows that the trend in securitizing U.S. foreign assistance in the Middle East over past decades continues in the 2021 budget request: More than 80 percent of the total is security-related, while democracy assistance represents just under 3 percent. The proposal would slash U.S. assistance to countries in conflict, including Syria and Iraq—for the second year in a row, the proposal contains no bilateral aid to Syria.
Instead of focusing on narrowly defined strategic aims, economic aid to the region should be oriented toward meeting immediate humanitarian needs, as well as long-term economic development that creates opportunities and opens paths to prosperity for the people of the region. To take one example, the U.S. aid that Egypt receives for foreign military financing—which facilitates the purchase of U.S. arms, training, and services—far outweighs the amount of economic aid it receives. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have waived human rights conditions on this funding, even as Egypt has descended deeper into repressive autocracy under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.
As the POMED report demonstrates, 2021 bilateral assistance to the West Bank and Gaza is completely oriented around coercing Palestinian leadership to agree to the Trump peace plan, instead of addressing dire humanitarian needs. The next administration should condition economic aid to repressive regimes like Sisi’s, while decreasing overall levels of military aid in favor of aid that promotes economic opportunity and supports local peace and conflict prevention efforts.
A Middle East policy that is built around promoting human well-being rather than more narrowly defined security aims will be critical to ensuring that proxy wars end for good. Research shows that civil conflict is more likely in states that have recently experienced poverty, poor governance, political instability, and institutional weakness, factors that are themselves very often the effects of wars. In other words, conflict begets conflict. If the international community fails to implement measures to prevent the recurrence of conflict, civil wars will continue to provide opportunities for proxy interventions.
The United States should also reassess and fundamentally reform its relationships with regional security partners, such as Saudi Arabia, which consider U.S. security assistance a given. Instead, the United States should condition its continued support for these partners on ending proxy interventions, engaging in constructive diplomacy, and addressing human rights issues at home, as Daniel Benaim has suggested. This does not mean that these autocracies will become liberal democracies overnight. But U.S. leverage—including arms sales, security assistance, and training—can play an important role in changing these autocracies’ behavior towards their own citizens and in the broader region.
Finally, the United States can continue to maintain its current counterterrorism policies with vastly increased oversight. Transparency and careful use of standardized metrics to measure the efficacy of this approach can prevent the limitless expansion of this set of tactics and promote pivoting to alternative approaches if one is not working, instead of investing in more of the same. A Congress that exerts its oversight authority over U.S. security assistance programs can play a critical role. And these partnerships should not be seen as a panacea to defeat terrorist organizations around the world. Rather, policymakers and the public must identify the trade-offs we are willing to make when it comes to our counterterrorism policies.
Even with large increases in investments in aid and diplomacy, this approach will be cheaper than Washington’s current Middle East strategy—and more effective.