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The Danger of America's "Proxy War"

August 14, 2013 in Economics

By Erica D. Borghard

Erica D. Borghard

The past few months have been difficult for the Syrian rebels as government forces, bolstered by Iranian support and Hezbollah fighters, have routed anti-Assad fighters around Damascus and Homs. However, recent reports suggest Syria’s rebels have successfully seized the key Minakh air base in Aleppo and are orchestrating a push to challenge Bashar al-Assad’s control of Latakia, a regime stronghold. If the rebels can consolidate these reported gains, it would certainly suggest a shift in momentum.

Yet the seesawing dynamic of the Syrian civil war suggests that these advances are likely to prove fleeting, and U.S. policymakers should not point to them as evidence that the Obama administration’s decision to arm the rebels represents sound policy. In fact, providing arms to the Syrian rebels is unlikely to decisively tip the scales to their advantage. As I argued in a recent Cato Institute paper, the United States is instead likely to be dragged into a more extensive involvement later — the very scenario advocates for intervention claim they are trying to avoid.

Waging war by proxy, whereby states provide nonstate groups with arms and other resources in exchange for fighting on the former’s behalf, is an attractive policy option for states when they are hesitant to use force directly. In this case, the Obama administration’s decision to arm the Syrian rebels is taking place in a broader context of American retrenchment and public wariness about extensive foreign interventions.

Advocates of arming the Syrian rebels claim that U.S. policy objectives in Syria can be achieved at a relatively low cost without forcing the United States to commit to a large-scale intervention. However, the very aspects of proxy warfare that appeal to states — their covert, indirect and informal nature — also create the conditions for unwarranted commitment by states to conflicts.

First, the United States could become locked into a path of increasing involvement in the Syrian conflict through the institutional incentives that are present in covert operations. While the White House publicly announced on June 13 that the U.S. government was initiating a program of lethal support to the Syrian rebels, it was in fact already authorized under current covert operations law. Accordingly, the president can authorize covert action, provided he or she informs congressional intelligence committees, and is not required to make the nature of the operation known to the public.

What this means is that the specific parameters of the …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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