Small Wars Journal

Should We Send Armed Contractors to Syria?

Mon, 01/28/2019 - 3:21pm

Should We Send Armed Contractors to Syria?


Gary Anderson


Should we replace American forces in Syria with armed contractors? Erik Prince thinks so. In an article for FOX News, Prince and retired General Anthony Tata suggested that a group such as the World War II Flying Tigers be formed to replace the US forces being withdrawn from Syria. This proposal is interesting and should not be dismissed out of hand. The Flying Tiger analogy is not totally appropriate as the members of the American Volunteer group (AVG) were paid and equipped directly by the US government and not through a private contractor. AVG personnel were drawn directly from the pool of US military pilots and ground crewmen, but were better paid than active duty personnel.


The United States admittedly does not have vital interests in Syria, but we do have interests. Arguably, the presence of US forces has done three useful things. First, has continued the suppression of ISIS which has been degraded to a point where it is no longer controlling significant segments of terrain; but it apparently remains a viable insurgent force - as demonstrated by recent attacks on American personnel. Second, it kept the Turks and Kurds from each other’s throats. Finally, the presence of US forces has denied the Iranians a clear corridor to attack Israel with its Quds force and allied Hezbollah personnel. A collateral effect is the provision of protection for relief efforts for refugees. None of these justifies participation by US conventional ground troops or Special Forces on a full- time basis, but boots on the ground are always more effective than pure aerial interdiction.


The Prince proposal would provide the US a funded presence on the ground without risk of casualties to American service members. Contractors are also less expensive than military personnel. Although the short-run cost per person is higher, the long-term cost for military personnel includes VA benefits, dependent housing, and retirement for careerists.


The proposal calls for contractors to provide aircraft to strike at ISIS residual hold outs and provide logistics support to armed contract elements on the ground who are advising anti-ISIS elements. It also provides for governance advisors to fill the vacuum of the local-level leadership that ISIS destroyed.


Mercenaries have gained a bad reputation over time - sometimes that stigma was earned. Throughout history, mercenary troops have been used and misused.  At its high point, the Byzantine Empire used mercenaries much the way the French have used their Foreign Legion for military campaigns outside or on the borders of the empire. Regular native forces were used for internal homeland defense until late in Byzantine history.


The foederati of the Western Roman Empire and the condottieri (contractors) of the Italian Renaissance are largely responsible for giving mercenaries a negative reputation.  The foederati were largely barbarian mercenaries originally hired to protect the Roman empire because it was cheaper to pay them than to fight them - at a time when it had become difficult to recruit Roman citizens into the ranks of the regular army. Eventually however, the foederati began to outnumber regular troops. Operating under their own officers and using their own tactics, they eventually figured out that they could cut out the Roman government as a middle man and run the empire themselves.


The situation was worse with the Italian condottieri who became the dominant military arm of many of the Italian city-states during the Renaissance. These mercenary companies were notoriously fickle and would often change sides if the price was right. Worse, real combat became anathema, as one could not make money if killed. Consequently, combat among rival condottieri became increasingly bloodless until the mercenaries ran up against a real enemy as was the case in the Fifteenth Century when a bloodthirsty French army invaded Italy. The depredations of mercenary companies in the Thirty Years War effectively ended the process and one result of the Peace of Westphalia was the rise of truly professional national armies. But, the end of the Cold War also eliminated the post-Westphalian monopoly of state sponsored military violence and armed non-state actors reappeared.


Mercenaries have had usefulness when properly handled and controlled. With some notable exceptions, armed contractors working for the US government in Iraq and Afghanistan have generally had lower incidences of war crimes than active duty troops.


In this post-Westphalian age of Hybrid Warfare in the Gray Zone between peace and conventional war, the United States should be able to be flexible enough to consider non-conventional options to unique challenges.


About the Author(s)

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who has been a civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is an adjunct professor at the George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs.