Want to Build a Better Proxy in Syria? Lessons from Tibet
War on the Rocks,August 17, 2016
Will Washington abandon its rebel proxies in Syria? Outsourcing ground operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to Syrian rebels has become the preferred option to secure national security objectives in the country. But it carries the weight of significant moral hazard and has already created a series of political embarrassments for President Obama’s administration. Continued rebel setbacks and volatile political dynamics may lead to a fate similar to Tibet’s U.S.-backed insurgency during the Cold War. Or we can learn from past mistakes and maximize the effectiveness of our proxy engagements in Syria.
Building a Better Proxy?
Late entry into the Syrian conflict on the ground handicapped the United States’ ability to select the optimal proxy to fight ISIL. This is the paradox of strategic irregular warfare: On the one hand, if you don’t get in early enough, irregular warfare options become less effective over time as other actors crowd out the political space available to manipulate. On the other hand, the optimal point of entry is also when politicians are most hesitant to intervene due to the twin dangers of escalation and unintended consequences. When political necessity finally forced the United States to jump into the fire, it failed with its efforts to create a proxy force, Division 30, from scratch. This drove the current U.S. approach.
If Washington wishes to gain more from its proxy engagements in Syria today, it must focus on improving control over its proxies.
What is the role of incentives and sanctions in establishing control? Can the U.S. government pay the rebels more for greater ISIL body counts or increased territorial seizures? Should it withhold material support or airstrikes if they fail to follow instructions? We have been through this before. The Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) tried this in Tibet. Conditioning aerial resupply on resistance performance failed to achieve the requisite control, similar to the stagnation we see along the Mare’a Line today.
What about the Kurds? The Syrian Democratic Forces has been the most effective fighting force against ISIL, so why not sink all of our resources into this partnership? The United Sates typically defaults to relying on Kurdish units such as the Peshmerga and Syrian Democratic Forces because of their cohesion and fighting prowess. But as the United States experienced in Iraq, the Kurds can only go so far before they encroach on Arab territory and draw backlash from locals. Fear of upsetting the delicate balancing act with Turkey is the primary reason why the United States has devoted so much effort to portray the Syrian Democratic Forces as a multi-ethnic, Arab-inclusive force despite its overwhelming Kurdish composition.
For many of us coming of age in the mid-1990’s, watching Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys rock the Tibetan Freedom Concerts is the extent of our knowledge pertaining to this part of the world. But there is a much deeper and broader story to be told that holds for the fight against ISIL today.
Two dilemmas plague a sponsor’s ability to execute proxy warfare: selecting the optimal proxy, and making it perform as intended. These stem from the principal-agent relationship inherent in outsourcing national security objectives to rebel organizations in order to avoid the prohibitive costs of direct military intervention. Despite lacking complete information about a proxy’s true capabilities and intentions, the sponsor employs the proxy to complete a task that it is either unable or unwilling to execute. This information asymmetry may incentivize the proxy to deviate from the sponsor’s directives in pursuit of its own goals while still receiving the benefits of the relationship.
Lessons from Tibet
The United States executed a covert action campaign, code-named ST CIRCUS, in support of the Tibetan resistance to contain Communist Chinese expansion from 1956 to 1974. The C.I.A. abandoned its support for the insurgency in 1974 due to decreasing returns on its investment and the liability posed by the operation to President Nixon’s rapprochement with China. The Tibetans became the “worthy but hapless orphans of the Cold War.”
Three primary lessons from Tibet concerning the issues of proxy selection and control apply to Syria.
Lack of embedded advisors reduces control over the proxy. A sponsor’s direct advisory presence on the ground increases the opportunity to affect favorable outcomes. However, it also increases the risk of exposure that may lead to casualties and political blowback.
Failure to embed advisors with the Tibetan resistance limited U.S. influence over tactical engagements and operational decisions, ultimately reducing their military effectiveness. Despite the C.I.A.’s emphasis on guerrilla warfare and establishing underground resistance cells in the villages, the Tibetans opted to fight the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in conventional, head-on engagements that resulted in heavy casualties. Resistance leadership also decided to remain in the cross-border sanctuary of Nepal instead of establishing forward elements for persistent operations in Tibet.