Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: The Next Proxy War

In my Foreign Policy column, I explain why the U.S. should intervene in Syria. Hint: the reason is not about Syria.


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.



In the article Mr. Haddick repeatedly uses phrases like "America's Sunni allies", "the ongoing competition between Iran and America's Sunni allies", "The Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)", "the security competition between Iran and the Sunni countries." and "the United States and its Sunni allies".

I don't like characterizing allies or countries by their perceived religious orientations. I don't think that is at all wise. It looks too much like picking sides in a religious argument. There is no percentage at all in that. More advisable to say "America's allies" or "the Gulf Cooperation Council" etc.

Bill is right about the unseemlyness (and worse) of getting into the fight primarily to get some practice fighting.

Bill M.

Sun, 08/12/2012 - 9:53pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


Exactly, the reality is a lot of different people and organizations around the world conduct UW. It is a crowded operational space, and this is one reason you and I discussed the value of exploring the value of developing counter UW doctrine as a core SOF mission. Most have a negative knee jerk reaction to that, yet we readily embraced the FID/COIN role pushed by JFK due our expertise at UW. Now is the time to take it to the strategic level. I don't know if we need a doctrine for it, since it will probably be outdated before the ink dries, or you can hit the save key, and there are times I think those not trained/educated in doctrine are more effective because their approach isn't biased by doctrine, but ultimately we'll need some doctrine to start the process.

To add to your comment about non-state actors conducting UW, this article discusses Lebaonese Hezbollah in Syria (several articles availabl from to choose from):…

Quote "I think it is safe to say that Hezbollah is playing a critical role in advising the Syrian government and training its personnel in how to prosecute a counterinsurgency," Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said Friday. "At this point…we're satisfied by our assessment that the group is playing an absolutely integral role in helping the Assad regime try to put down this popular movement." End Quote

Of course non-state actors conducting UW is not new, religious groups to include Muslim and Christian groups, diasporas, and as have corporations, to achieve their ends.

The ability of states to conduct UW may be becoming more restricted by increasing transparency, which increases the political risk of conducting UW when you have a principles based foreign policy; however, the opposite seems to be true for non-state organizatons due to a variety of factors to include the greater availability of information, the ability to move funding, mobilize support, and smuggle supplies. All done previously in the past, but not at the speed and scale it can be done today. Case in point, how quickly Anonymous can mobilize a few (or many) hackers around the world to provide supporting fires to a cause they believe in. Obviously not UW IAW our doctrine, but it is still very much a form of unconventional warfare to coerce or defeat a particular actor.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 08/12/2012 - 6:24pm

Many are already conducting some degree of FID or UW to influence Syria's troubles to a conclusion that they believe will best support their own interests (The Saudis, AQ, and probably Iran to name but three). We just need to keep in mind that which ever way we opt to go, (stay out, support the regime or support some revolutionary group) we will be but one of several already working that battle space.

One of the truly "new" things in the modern era is that non-state actors, with AQ being the #1 example, are now empowered to wage UW much like a state. They did so in Iraq, they do so in Afghanistan, Yemen, the the Maghreb and in Syria.

Part of our own recognition of more effective ways to employ UW to shape events in various places to support our intersts must begin, IMO, with an end to simply seeing AQ as a "terrorist" organization, and recognizing their political purpose and application of UW through networked operations to serve that purpose.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 5:39pm

In reply to by Bill M.


My apologies for your misunderstanding but I do not think I said that the the CIA and SF do not influence the strategic level when they conduct UW. Of course they do. Your simple example has occurred many times over history (and not just in the context of UW). But the decision to execute UW is a strategic policy decision and not something dreamed up by SF and the CIA (sure they can and, when appropriate, should recommend it as a strategic option but again the decision to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow a government or occupying power is a strategic national decision - or it had better be).

In regards to strategic level UW expertise I would be interested in you identifying whom at the NSC level or within DOS, DOD, Treasury, etc, or even at the theater strategic level possesses the knowledge, ability, and even will to really plan and effectively orchestrate a strategic level UW strategy. I have been searching for some and have not found many.

Finally "Tell me how this ends" was the title of Linda Robinson's book about Iraq and P4. Tell me what comes next in Syria. Has anyone thought it through - whether we conduct UW or not?

Bill M.

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 4:39pm

In reply to by Dave Maxwell

In short you are making what I hope is a statement of the obvious, but suspect it isn't. War is first a policy decision that then requires a holistic strategy to be successfully executed. One of the military's and intelligence community roles is to conduct tactical activities that support that strategy (at least in theory), and sometimes those activities include supporting UW. I disagree that that SF, other SOF, and the IC don't influence the strategic realm when they're supporting UW. The fact that they are often partnered with the future leaders of that country often means they're influencing policy and strategy, if not the U.S.'s, for the resistance force. This was true with the OSS in WWII and the CIA during OEF-A.

None of this is what Robert and many others calling for intervention in Syria are talking about, they dismiss that view, and in Robert's case he suggests we simply conduct some activities to "hone our IW skills." Others feel we have to do something, anything, and are eager for some sort of intervention. Since Robert is much too smart to believe this, I suspect he is writing this to provoke and start a discussion.

You wrote, "The nation requires UW expertise at the policy and strategic levels if UW is going to be an effective strategic option to support the attainment of US national security objectives"

This assumes we don't have that expertise, which I believe is inaccurate (though it does ebb and flow). The SF doctrinal approach to UW is seldom a practical option due to several reasons, usually political, but that doesn't mean from at the policy and strategy level the U.S. does not have the expertise. The U.S. has quietly and effectively supported a number of resistance movements primarily by providing funds and information support. To a lesser extent by providing arms and other equipment and supplies without putting U.S. boots on the ground. In other cases actually putting CIA and SF on the ground. In many of these cases this points to the ability to develop astute polices and strategies that achieved limited objectives without putting soldiers on the ground and allowing the U.S. to accidentally take ownership of the rebellion.

As you wrote, in the right circumstances (several of them actually) UW can be a desirable option to pursue our ends, but supporting a resistance movement, insurgency or rebellion usually doesn't require the full Monty. I think we're better at this as a nation than many assume. Some think UW is the answer to everything and if we don't have a policy for UW for their proposed course of action then the default response is the interagency doesn't get it. Just because a course of action is dismissed doesn't mean our government doesn't get, or doesn't have the necessary skills, more often than not it means whoever presented the option presented a less than desirable option. Whoever said, "tell me how this ends" (I thought it was P4) is exactly what I hope our policy makers are dwelling on before they support any intervention, UW or otherwise. Our biggest shortfall is a lack of understanding before we act, sometimes that is excusable, other times it isn't.

Dave Maxwell

Sat, 08/11/2012 - 11:54am

Since Mr. Haddick mentions UW I thought I would add some comments.

Although I am (not surprisingly) a huge proponent of Unconventional Warfare as a strategic option for supporting US national security objectives in the right circumstances, I think it is important to discuss the complexities of it.

As a reminder, Unconventional Warfare consists of activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

Although Special Forces and the CIA rightly claim ownership of this "shared battle space," SF and the CIA really operate at the tactical level of Unconventional Warfare. UW is a mission that is executed at both the strategic and policy level and at the tactical level but it is even more complex than simply a strategy and a set of tactics.

We tend to throw out the the CIA and SF should be used to conduct UW and that we should just send in some advisors and trainers to do the job. But UW requires so much more than SF and the CIA to be an effective strategic option for the US. And it is a very complex undertaking and as much as COIN or Stability Operations or Major Combat Operations it requires an interagency approach to have any hope of being successful. The nation requires UW expertise at the policy and strategic levels if UW is going to be an effective strategic option to support the attainment of US national security objectives.

First and formost it is a policy and strategic level decision to coerce, disrupt or overthrow a government or occupying power. These are not things that the CIA and SF decide to do on their own. Certainly coercion and disruption alone do not make such activities UW as there is a whole range of activities across the instruments of national power that can be used to coerce or disrupt. Even the overthrow of the Saddam regime was not Unconventional Warfare (though UW could have played a more prominent role in supporting the overthrow as it was in ousting the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but of course not in the same way - because no two operations will ever be alike and UW like most military operations, if not more so, does not lend itself to a cookie cutter approach).

In Syria the obvious UW mission would seem to be to support the opposition against the Assad regime. That would be the strategic decision to overthrow the Syrian government. But there are other actors (state and non-state) that must be coerced and disrupted for there to have the possibility of a successful overthrow of the regime; namely Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, and China. Each of these need to be coerced and in some cases disrupted. The CIA and SF might have some role in this but diplomatic and economic and informational instruments (to include strategic Psychological Warfare - propaganda - a dirty word for most but a necessary component) will play a larger role and likely be the main effort in the overall strategic level plan. Therefore for a UW campaign to be designed for Syria, there will need to be supporting efforts against these other "targets" as well as diplomatic, informational, and economic efforts with other friends, partners, and allies in the region to garner support and hopefully shoulder some of the load (as there are other appropriate forces that may be better suited than US forces).

Lastly, the tactical part of UW is enabling or supporting a resistance - with SF and the CIA working through and with an underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force in a denied area. Many become wrapped around the use of the traditional terms of the underground, auxiliary, and guerrilla force but we should not be wedded to those terms. The reason they are important is from a doctrinal and training perspective the tradecraft and tactics, techniques, and procedures used to organize, train, advise, and equip those 3 organizations provides the foundation for being able to support and enable a resistance in whatever form the resistance takes. There may only be one organization that provides all three functions or the underground and auxiliary may be a single organization. Sometimes there only needs to be an underground to conduct subversion and sabotage in support of larger strategic objectives - sometimes subversion and sabotage can be conducted remotely using cyber capabilities. But if there is a resistance organization then the appropriate forces to assess it and if directed to advise and assist it come from the CIA and Special Forces. But the "if directed," is the critical aspect because as I said this is a strategic level policy decision that requires interagency and theater strategic (and country team(s)) support.

I mention all this because everyone focuses on the tactical action part of UW (employing the CIA and SF). We have the forces trained and ready to do this "if directed." They are quite proficient in UW skills. The real question is do we have the ability at the policy and strategic level to plan and orchestrate such a campaign? And I think this is most important because to borrow from Linda Robinson's famous quote "Tell me how this ends" we need to be able to answer "what comes next?" and are we prepared to deal with what comes next? Can we manage what comes next? These are some of the strategic questions that have to be answered. The 2d and 3d order effects and unintended consequences of what happens in Syria have to be some of the most complex we face from effects on Lebanon and Israel and Turkey to the Sunni-Shia conflict to Iran-Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to the economic effects that could have global impact.

But the bottom line to my long diatribe here is that UW is more than the employment of the CIA and SF. It is much bigger than both and it is a policy and strategic level decision requiring strategic level orchestration by people who understand what UW is capable of and as well as what it is not. Too often this critical strategic option to support US national security is tossed out without fully understanding the the complexity of such an undertaking.

And I think the sad irony is that of all the same questions have to be answered and dealt with if we should choose to do nothing as well. And of course the Free Syrian Army or whatever the resistance force(s) is/are may just be successful on their own without outside support (or at least US support).


I want to make sure I'm getting this right, you're proposing intervening in Syria for the primary purpose of refining our irregular warfare skills? That to me seems worse than Japanese Samarai testing their swords on innocent civilians because at least that was localized. First off we don't need this laboratory to develop those skills, as we had many labs around the world to rehearse those skills, especially in the past 10 years. The U.S. isn't as naive when it comes to IW as some of you suggest, those who are chartered to do it in the intelligence agencies and special operations community understand it and are capable of doing it.

Syria as you well know if handled incorrectly could become a major conflict that extends well beyond its borders into Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, etc., so I think we should limit our experimentation to Pineland, and accept risk of intervening only when it is in our national interest.