August 17, 2012

TSG IntelBrief: The Proxies of My Proxies…and Syria

As of mid-August 2012, the assumptions and parameters that international and regional powers have used for the last sixty years concerning proxy warfare are being reshaped in dramatic fashion through the conflict in Syria. Policymakers from an array of countries are now confronted with a conflict in which once-dependable proxies are now employing their own first and second order proxies, a move designed to satisfy local interests before those of the larger powers. This unanticipated scenario leaves these larger powers — including Russia, Turkey, the United States, and the Gulf states — in the acutely uncomfortable position of trying to adapt to the unpredictable actions of erstwhile subordinates.


Local Events Drive the Actions of Major Powers

While these state actors are influencing — and even intensifying —  the events unfolding within Syria, they are most certainly not in control of them. And conflict, like nature, abhors a vacuum. As a result, local ethnic, tribal, and religious interests are now driving events that might very well force the hand of the reluctant larger powers (even as these larger powers continue to add heavy weapons, to include anti-aircraft missiles, into the hands of increasingly independent proxies).

The recent reciprocal kidnappings along the Lebanese-Syrian border between Sunni members/supporters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Shiite members of the large and powerful al-Meqdad clan present a particularly dangerous element in what has thus far been a relatively contained conflict in Syria. At the same time, these events also offer a clear snapshot into the murky world of unintentional and uncontrollable proxies. It also brings to mind the kidnappings in Beirut in the 1980's that ushered in the modern age of terrorism.

Syria's Shia-offshoot Alawite regime is strongly supported by Shia Iran, which leverages its proxy Hezbollah to maintain a degree of influence and power in both Syria and Lebanon. In recent months, FSA elements kidnapped Lebanese Shia inside of Syria, accusing them of working for Hezbollah to support the Iranian-supported al-Assad regime. One of the alleged Hezbollah agents kidnapped was Hassan al-Meqdad, a prominent member of the clan that is supportive in general of Shia Hezbollah but distinctly autonomous. The kidnapping of Hassan led al-Meqdad members, in turn, to kidnap approximately 30 alleged FSA members and supporters in Lebanon, including a Turkish national. The FSA, it should be noted, receives varying levels of support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey (primarily in the form of funds and arms). As a result, the al-Meqdad retaliatory kidnappings prompted the Gulf nations to advise their nationals to leave Lebanon, fearing they will be targeted for their support of the FSA. This will almost certainly increase the already high tensions between the Sunni Gulf nations and Iran.

There is geopolitical irony here, as it is highly unlikely that Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia ordered FSA members to kidnap or detain Shia supporters of the Iranian-backed Alawite regime in Damascus. Nor are there any indications Iran then ordered Hezbollah to either coordinate or tolerate the al-Meqdad clan's retaliation that targeted the Turkish national and Syrians in Lebanon. Nonetheless, the Gulf states and Iran are now reacting to events they might have inspired but do not control.

Further removed — yet still very much connected to all of it through their support of opposing sides in the Syrian crisis — the U.S. and Russia are now confronted with the widening consequences of actions taken by proxies of their proxies. The rules of engagement for Cold War-era proxy wars are simply insufficient and woefully out-of-date to be applicable in the rapidly shifting conflict now taking place in Syria.


Critical Strategic Questions

Of equal (and possibly greater) concern is Turkey's vacillating involvement in the conflict. Turkey has been an open and prominent supporter of the FSA, with the late June downing of a Turkish warplane by Syrian air defenses along their shared border only increasing Ankara's support for regime change in Damascus. (Syria later apologized for the downing of the aircraft, reporting that it had mistakenly identified the plane as Israeli). For its part, Turkey had been supportive of FSA's recent gains against the al-Assad government until it became obvious Syrian Kurdish elements, some affiliated with the designated terrorist group PKK, were consolidating gains and holding territory near the border, something Turkey will not tolerate. Indeed, this week Turkey stated it reserved the right, as it has done in Iraq, to strike at suspected PKK or Syrian Kurdish strongholds inside Syria. Some of the support Turkey has given the anti-Assad fighters is most probably now in the hands of Kurds strongly aligned against Turkish interests. In a convoluted string of interests and alliances, the U.S., a strong supporter of Turkey in general and its pro-FSA stance in particular, now faces the unenviable challenge of what to do should Turkey act decisively against the Kurdish elements of the U.S.-supported FSA.

To further complicate matters, there are multiple, albeit unconfirmed reports (to include reporting from al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned, Dubai-based satellite news agency) that the FSA now has Stinger man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), and might have even shot down a Syrian MiG fighter on Monday near the northeastern town of Deir al-Zour. A logical question, given the aforementioned concerns about Turkey, is what happens if some of those weapons end up in Kurdish hands (who are, after all, fighting al-Assad's forces and are part of the overall resistance that Turkey is supporting)? Or what happens if al-Assad or Hezbollah provide the PKK or Syrian Kurds with MANPADS or other surface-to-air missile (SAM) capability as a way to strike in a proxy on proxy attack? With such diffused responsibility and direction, no one is in control…or in the know.

This situation, an ad hoc and intensifying conflict in the heart of the Middle East, should force Washington and Moscow to reconsider what were once tried-and-true strategies of proxy warfare that have now been sorely overtaken by events. At the moment, both sides — and their proxies — might feel as if they are in control, but this might prove illusory as more proxies get involved. What options might the U.S. have if an entity such as a clan, in response to provocations by the U.S.-supported FSA, becomes a de facto (if accidental) proxy of Hezbollah inside Lebanon and Syria? It is impractical, if not impossible, to sanction a clan. Similarly, what options might be available to an Iran-supporting Moscow if Iran-supported Hezbollah becomes more involved in the conflict? It is far from clear how much control Iran has over Hezbollah or, walking back up the chain, how much influence Russia has over Iran in this situation.

These questions have relevance beyond the current Syrian conflict and will impact how Washington, Russia, and possibly even China addresses the confluence of modern proxy warfare and contemporary terrorism. In the meantime, efforts to contain the Syrian conflict from within the country will become increasingly difficult as an expanding list of proxies act with the support of — but not under the control of — major powers.


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