The United States DOES NOT Have a Principal-Agent Problem in Syria
By Sean W Dummitt
A principal-agent problem occurs “when the desires or goals of the principal and agent conflict and it is difficult or expensive for the principal to verify what the agent is doing.” U.S. policymakers and members of the Special Operations community often present this problem when evaluating the relationship between the U.S. and its Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) partners in Syria. The principal–U.S. Special Operations Forces–and the agent–Syrian Democratic Forces– were once aligned in their objectives during large-scale combat operations to defeat the Da'esh physical caliphate until the group's collapse in 2019. Today, however, the landscape of the battlefield is starkly different, necessitating renewed deliberation. This article argues that a principal-agent problem still does not exist between the U.S. and the SDF in Syria. It will demonstrate that the SDF remain a dependable partner in ensuring the enduring defeat of Da'esh, countering the Iranian Threat Network, and avoiding escalation with Turkey. This assertion will be examined through three fundamental transformations in the military environment since the introduction of Special Operations advisors in 2015: the transition from combat operations to regional security, facing the Iranian Threat Network, and restraining from escalating with a NATO ally.
The First Transformative Challenge: From Combat Operations to Regional Security
From November 2015 until March 2019, USSOF fought alongside SDF partners to liberate cities from Da'esh fighters and destroy the remainder of the Da'esh physical caliphate. The Battle of Baghuz Fawqani was the last SDF-led offensive backed by U.S. forces to rid the Islamic State of its final stronghold in Eastern Syria.After the month-long battle, captured Da'esh fighters were moved to various detention centers across Northeast Syria, effectively securing the caliphate in detention. The transfer of Da'esh fighters to detention facilities led to a pivotal moment in the U.S. campaign to defeat Da'esh as major combat operations along the Middle Euphrates River Valley subsided. The mission then took on the renewed focus of securing the caliphate in detention and preventing Da'esh reconstitution. Fortunately, the SDF remained just as committed to the new effort as they had been to prior combat operations.
To illustrate their commitment to the new challenge, the SDF reorganized by transitioning many combat troops into Internal Security Forces (InSF). These forces would guard detention facilities, protect critical petroleum infrastructure, and secure Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. Filling nearly half of the InSF ranks with Arabs from neighboring tribes ensured the SDF maintained an ethnic balance as policing efforts began to outpace military operations. Specialized InSF units, such as the Hêzên Antî-Teror (HAT) forces, were created to provide surgical strike capabilities, like SWAT teams. These units conducted their operations from intelligence supplied by the newly formed InSF General Services Bureau (InSF-GS). Under this model, the HAT effectively became the premier C.T. force in Northeast Syria, leading to a reasonably stable security environment.
U.S. Special Operators advised the transformation from a combat-oriented force into a regional security apparatus. Still, the SDF largely spearheaded the endeavor on its own. The SDF adapted fluently to the changing military landscape and demonstrated continuity in the objectives of the principal and the agent throughout the first transformation. The second transformative challenge, however, would entirely test the SDF's allegiance in a new way.
The Second Transformative Challenge: Facing the Iranian Threat Network (ITN)
At the core of its military strategy, the Government of Iran leverages the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Qods Force and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security to build an alliance of surrogates, proxies, and partners to counter U.S. regional influence in Syria. Iran's strategy is supported by clandestine networks that protect the Government of Iran's regional investments. These networks also provide Iran with its most potent tool to influence its agenda. Along the Middle Euphrates River Valley in the province of Dayr az-Zawr, the ITN uses Iranian Aligned Militia Groups (IAMGs) as its proxy network of choice. The under-governed nature of Dayr az-Zawr is a flashpoint for IAMG activity as it allows freedom of movement and provides a sanctuary from which to project attacks on U.S. forces in the region. An increased frequency of indirect fire attacks from IAMGs on Special Operations Forces challenged U.S. resolve in the area. A new question arose out of this emerging dilemma: Will the SDF remain an attractive agent in competition with Iran and its proxies? This question is the foundation of the second transformative challenge in the U.S.-SDF relationship.
The answer to this question is three-fold. First, from a military perspective, the SDF remain committed to helping secure U.S. outstations in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. Specifically, the SDF have played a vital role in the collective self-defense of U.S. outstations by functioning as a Quick Reaction Force and providing Battle Damage Assessments after attacks from IAMGs. Second, from a political standpoint, SDF senior leaders have condemned Iran for the recent killing of Masha Amini, displaying the same ideology as the West's for advancing women's rights globally and advancing rhetoric against the Iranian Regime. Third, the SDF remain committed to U.S. regional objectives despite uncertainty in future U.S. involvement in Syria. The SDF have long feared the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Northeast Syria; a fear largely predicated on previous diplomatic statements from Washington. Yet despite this fear and knowing the ITN will attempt to fill the vacuum upon a U.S. withdrawal, the SDF continue to hedge their bets and side with U.S. forces. If, however, the ITN is threatening the resolve of U.S. forces in the south, the determination of the SDF is tested to a much greater extent from a NATO ally to the north.
The Third Transformative Challenge: Restraining from Escalating with a NATO Ally
Turkish bombings of SDF positions in Northern Syria led to the third transformative challenge—though the threat has loomed over the SDF for many years. These airstrikes promote the danger of escalation between the SDF and a longtime NATO ally in the region, birthing a dichotomy in regional interests for the U.S. Turkey claims that many senior leaders of the SDF are members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is a designated terrorist organization within Turkey. This designation motivates Turkey to target SDF positions, usually along the northern border near a deconfliction zone. The U.S. response has been to denounce Turkish airstrikes and call for de-escalation while simultaneously attempting to mediate on behalf of the SDF to display solidarity.
The risk of escalation with Turkey on the northern border is greater than with IAMGs in the south along the MERV. Still, the SDF have refrained from escalating beyond mere skirmishes. The SDF's knack for diplomacy and understanding of strategic red lines should not be discounted; the SDF have honed these skills over the years while surviving the geopolitics of the Middle East. Thus, the SDF's restraint from escalating with a NATO ally is calculated, and senior leaders wholly understand the consequences within the SDF. Given this context, the actions of the SDF as agents in northeast Syria should be seen as non-escalatory and rational responses, given their circumstances.
To conclude, upon viewing the adaptation of the SDF across three transformative challenges in northeast Syria, a principal-agent problem does not exist. The SDF are attuned to U.S. strategy and regional interests and remain committed to supporting U.S. objectives over our competitors despite ambiguity in U.S. policy. Senior leaders of the SDF have also admonished recent actions of the Iranian Regime, siding ideologically with western values beyond those restricted to simple warfighting. The SDF's understanding of NATO commitments also demonstrates an uncommon level of professionalism when evaluated against previous U.S. regional partners. U.S. investment in the SDF has paid dividends thus far and will continue to do so through the next transformative challenge.
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