The Price of Proxies

Don't be fooled: The United States is already knee-deep in the Syrian quagmire, and the opportunity costs are disturbing.

U.S. President Barack Obama's missile strikes against Syria may be off the table for now as diplomatic attention shifts to talks with Russia and the U.N. Security Council. But while negotiators from Moscow and Washington meet in Geneva, the increasing tempo of Washington's public commitment to a strategy of arming parts of the Syrian opposition continues, with the aim of forcing President Bashar al-Assad to the bargaining table. Such efforts come with a hidden price tag, though: They are not only unlikely to rapidly end the war, but they carry enormous opportunity costs.

When Washington talks about supporting the "moderate opposition," what it means is leaning on the Persian Gulf regimes to arm and finance its preferred proxy armies (and not the jihadists who have also benefited from Gulf funding). But the current strategy of arming the "good guys" to marginalize the "bad guys" likely means extending the long, grinding civil war with an ever-escalating civilian toll. We should not be fooled by overly rosy assessments of the size, ideology, coherence, or prowess of the Syrian good guys. The Syrian insurgency on the ground is localized, fragmented, and divorced from the external political leadership. Extremists typically thrive in the chaos of civil war, not moderates. And proxies, such as the ever-ungrateful Gen. Salim Idris, will never be satisfied with the aid they receive -- nor be reliable allies down the road if a better offer comes along.

Waging a proxy war will necessarily mean not doing a lot of other things that America might otherwise do in the region and around the world -- which is probably just how the Gulf states like it. It thoroughly ties Washington to the Gulf Cooperation Council's horse on Syria, despite significant disagreements on policy, strategy, and goals. The United States relies on the hawkish Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, for the financing, administration, and delivery of arms supplies to Syrian rebel factions. The proxy-war strategy means that managing Syria's civil war will consume America's diplomatic and strategic agenda for the foreseeable future to the exclusion of many other important goals. That means giving up on pushing for important regional policy initiatives that Riyadh or Abu Dhabi oppose, such as promoting democracy and human rights in the region or finding a diplomatic resolution with Iran.

It should be self-evident is that the fiercely anti-democratic and highly sectarian Gulf states have little interest in avoiding sectarianism and none in building democracy. It is thus baffling that so many in Washington have convinced themselves that the Saudis can be trusted to promote moderate, democratic, or secular opposition forces. Relying on their efforts means acceding to their preferred view of Syria's conflict as primarily an arena for proxy war with Iran. To paraphrase former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, the Saudis are always willing to fight Iran to the last dead American (or Syrian). There will be no support from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the negotiated political solution that Washington actually prefers, and likely active subversion of the Geneva 2 process, if it gets under way.

Obviously, this reliance on the Gulf states for implementing a Syrian proxy war means forgetting about any thoughts of pressuring them on their own human rights record, or on anything else. Most observers probably found it hard to not laugh (or cry) as Bahrain's foreign minister denounced the "dangerous human rights violations by Assad's regime against his people." Yes, that's the same Bahrain where (as Human Rights Watch summarizes) "security forces had used excessive force against peaceful protesters during demonstrations, and had arbitrarily arrested, detained, tortured, ill-treated, and denied them fair trials." But if Washington is going to rely on Riyadh in Syria, then it's going to have to look away and grimly smile through it. Of course, the GCC expects the full rehabilitation of the unrepentant Bahraini regime. Few in the international community seem to care any longer, and even fewer will dare raise questions as dependence on Riyadh in Syria increases.

The same applies to Egypt, where the Gulf states aggressively supported the military coup that deposed President Mohamed Morsy -- against the strongly expressed preferences of the United States. Washington invested a great deal of effort in supporting the troubled democratic transition in Egypt and working with the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership. The Gulf states unapologetically supported (at least) the military coup that summarily ended that experiment, while explicitly offering billions of dollars to offset any potential loss of aid from the West. Washington will now find it more expedient to accept the new reality. Calls to suspend aid to Cairo will likely quietly fade away.

Dependence on the Gulf states will also matter when it comes to Iran, where new President Hasan Rouhani has been sending fascinating signals of a shift in foreign policy, including a possible accord on the country's nuclear program. Those diplomatic avenues may be harder to explore when America's chief regional allies oppose doing so. The GCC regimes make no secret of their view that the battle in Syria is really a proxy war with Iran. Proxy war in Syria (to say nothing of the hot war and missile strikes that the Gulf states prefer) makes diplomatic progress with Iran less likely. Ironically, should the United States actually get militarily involved in Syria, it would likely reduce, rather than increase, the credibility of the U.S. deterrent threat against Iran. Tehran will judge Washington by what it can do to or for Iran, not by what it does in Syria -- and a United States that slides down the slippery slope and gets bogged down in the Syrian quagmire clearly isn't going to have the appetite for a new conflict with Iran.

Many in Washington are deeply worried about the spreading Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict reshaping the region. They are right to be concerned. The deepening sectarian divide poses profound risks and threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of regionwide conflict, with a ceaseless stream of blood, repression of minorities, and torn social fabric. But ramping up the armed insurgency in Syria virtually guarantees that these divides will get worse, not better. The Sunni Islamist networks and individuals mobilizing public support for the Syrian jihad across the Gulf tend to be highly sectarian in their discourse. The United States should be pressuring Gulf states to crack down on this sectarian hate speech, but Washington isn't going to be in a position to pressure the Gulf on anything.

The increasing dependence on the Gulf states isn't the only opportunity cost of the proxy war strategy, of course. The United States desperately needs to recalibrate its thinking about Islamist movements -- whose ideas, strategies, and relationships have rarely been more in flux. Certainly, Syria is part of that Islamist turbulence, with that jihad becoming the most potent site of jihadi mobilization since Iraq. But there's far more to it than the battlefield fortunes of Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Ahrar al-Sham. Support for those varied fighting groups draws on extensive networks across the Gulf and the broader region, with fundraising and mobilization efforts for Syrian jihadists taking pride of place for Islamist rhetoric and organizational efforts. The Ansar al-Sharia organizations across North Africa and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, like the Syrian groups, are organizing local communities and demonstrating political savvy that many doubted they could muster. Jihadi groups are bidding for the loyalties of those Islamists who had put their faith in democratic participation only to see it crushed by Cairo's military coup. And nobody yet knows how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will adapt to the military coup, repression, and nationalist wave of anti-Islamist rage.

Then there are the ongoing conflicts and lower-level crises that just don't make it on to anyone's crowded agenda. Yemen has retreated to its familiar place of being ignored (not by FP, of course). Iraq's violence continues to surge, spurred by the spillover from Syria's insurgency and by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's long-standing efforts to centralize power. Libya has been reduced to morbidly stupid right-wing talking points about Benghazi, but could use a lot more international assistance and attention. And Tunisia's struggling transition could use some help.

Then, of course, falling deeper into the Syrian morass means that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process will be put back onto the back burner (where it has so comfortably resided for the last decade). U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry may believe that he can broker both the peace talks and a Syrian cease-fire at the same time, but very few others seem to agree. Sure, he'll jet from Geneva to Jerusalem on Sept. 15, but the reality is that there just isn't enough bandwidth in Washington, or in the region, for both. (Where's that pivot to Asia again?)

Syria's human and strategic catastrophe deserves all the international attention that it receives, and more, but the proxy-war strategy carries much greater costs and fewer benefits than are typically acknowledged. It isn't quite the cheaper alternative to direct military strikes as advertised, has massive opportunity costs for other American interests, and rests on very shaky assumptions. Washington should spend less time worrying about how the Gulf states view its Syria strategy and more about articulating its own interests, goals, and strategy for the region.


Marc Lynch

Trench Warfare

The sectarian and political camps across the Arab world are violently divided on Syria. Could a U.S. bombing campaign bring them together?

The extremely low level of domestic popular support for military action in Syria has loomed large as the Obama administration builds its case for war. Americans, for the most part, oppose getting involved in another quagmire in the Middle East which most -- wisely -- fear will be the end result of even a "limited" action. What about Arabs, though? Do they, at least, want the United States to take on this burden and enter the Syrian fray?

It would be easy to be talked into the idea that this time they do -- if you primarily talked to Saudi and Emirati royals. But Washington would do well to reflect upon the risks of relying so heavily upon the counter-revolutionary, anti-democratic autocrats of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pay for or deliver a democratic Syria. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi just played a leading role in supporting the military coup in Egypt which destroyed the political process Washington had worked so hard for years to support. Their intervention in Bahrain proved devastating to the early U.S. efforts to support Arab democratic transitions. They may want the U.S. military to act badly enough to pay for it, but that doesn't mean that they share American interests in a negotiated settlement or its aspirations for the region.

Despite the intense efforts by these Gulf states over the past two years to build public support for the Syrian opposition, Arab public opinion remains sharply divided over what to do about Syria and broadly hostile to American military intervention regardless of views on other issues. The one thing which seems to unite this fragmented and intensely divided Arab public is a rejection of American meddling. Forgetting Iraq may be one of the 10 Beltway Commandments, but Arabs have not agreed to move on. Arab leaders may harp on American "credibility" and the costs of not acting, but those sentiments likely do not extend far beyond regime circles. It is exceedingly difficult to find any trust in American intentions or positive views of America's role in the region -- and hard to imagine how U.S. military strikes would change those views for the better. As former Al Jazeera boss (and strong supporter of NATO's Libya intervention) Wadah Khanfar put it, "this strong desire to eradicate the regime will never be translated into support for American military intervention."

There have not been many public opinion surveys published directly on the question of Western military intervention in Syria, but those which have appeared suggest little enthusiasm even among publics broadly sympathetic to the opposition. In September 2012, Jordan's Center for Strategic Studies found widespread distaste for Bashar al-Assad but found only 5 percent support for foreign military intervention; an Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies survey around the same time found only 3 percent support. In early May 2013, Pew Global (one of the consistently best of the pollsters working in the region) released a survey of 12 Arab countries. It did not report findings on U.S. military strikes, but it found 59 percent in Egypt and 60 percent in Tunisia opposed to the West arming Syria's rebels, while Jordan was the only country with a majority in favor.

Certainly, there are many Arabs and Syrians horrified by the slaughter (whether chemical or otherwise), fully engaged in support for the opposition, and willing to accept international aid wherever they can find it. There are also too many eager to fight a sectarian jihad. The "resistance axis" has long since lost its luster, and few remain unaware of the scale or horrors of the atrocities in Syria. Concern for Syrian suffering has taken the place once occupied by concern for Iraqis in the mosques, charities, television screens, and cafes. But there are many others who are disturbed by the prominence of jihadist trends and sectarianism, disenchanted with the armed opposition, and hoping to find some way to simply end the killing.

It is telling that the Arab League could not come to agreement on supporting an American military strike despite intense Saudi lobbying. Egypt, in the midst of a general public meltdown and resurgent manufactured Arab nationalism, has turned sharply hostile towards both the United States and towards the Syrian uprising. Utter dependence on Gulf Cooperation Council cash and political support may ultimately sway Cairo into a coalition, but it won't be popular. Jordan has ruled out any participation or use of its territory in air strikes, though one suspects that, as in 2003, it will quietly participate while trying to suppress public discussion of its role. In Tunisia, the ruling Ennahda party released a statement declaring its opposition to any military intervention in Syria under any pretext.

There are some intriguing new dimensions of the Arab media environment which might produce unpredictable results. For one thing, there is no longer a unified Arab public sphere which unites most people into a common narrative or shared identity. There's certainly plenty of Arab media outlets trying to build support for military action. Qatar's Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia's Al-Arabiya are generally on board, while hundreds of op-eds in the Arabic press echo the call for international action. Those should be taken more as a signal of the preferences of the regimes paying the bills than as a useful gauge of public opinion, though. Op-eds in a wide range of other Arab newspapers betray more ambivalence, with concern for Syrian suffering consistently balanced against mistrust of the United States.

Al Jazeera's sad decline from a relatively independent voice of the new Arab public into just another tool in the emir's foreign policy arsenal has left a gaping void. For those contemplating military intervention, this does hold one upside: in contrast to Iraq, American forces won't likely have to grapple with an Al Jazeera enthusiastically broadcasting the images of death and destruction which may well follow American bombing raids. Those scenes will be broadcast primarily by openly partisan pro-Syrian regime media which will be viewed as credible only by those already supporting that side.

Indeed, the disappearance of a common ground uniting a broader Arab public is one of the most significant changes in the region's media landscape over the last few years. Where Al Jazeera and social media helped to crystallize a regionwide shared narrative of Arab uprisings, the current Arab media landscape pushes instead towards the division of the Arab public into ever more polarized political or identity groups. The fragmentation of the broadcast media has been reinforced by the iron logic of clustering in social media, where people tend to seek out like-minded peers and close themselves off from competing perspectives or discordant information. Where everyone used to watch Al Jazeera and follow the same Twitter feeds, now Arabs tend to self-segregate into communities of the like-minded. One look at the current state of public discourse in Bahrain or Egypt should suffice to demonstrate the toxicity of these trends.

This isn't just anecdotal. In a forthcoming study with the U.S. Institute for Peace, I (along with my colleagues Deen Freelon and Sean Aday) analyzed nearly 40 million tweets about Syria in English and Arabic over a 28-month period. The vast majority of the Twitter discussion of Syria is in Arabic, not English, by the way. During the early days of the Arab uprisings, English tweets outnumbered Arabic. By June 2011, Arabic had caught up, and from that point on at least 60 percent and often more than 70 percent of tweets about Syria each month were in Arabic. What's more, English-language users were increasingly isolated from the Arabic discourse as time went by, and were interested in very different things. In other words: if you rely on English-language tweets for understanding Arab public opinion on Syria (or anything), you're doing it wrong.

We found powerful evidence of the discourse on Syria becoming more insular and more polarized over time. Some of the most active, and most insular, clusters included anti-Shiite Islamists supporting Syrian opposition factions and pro-Assad accounts spanning the Gulf through Lebanon. We calculated a measure of "insularity" based on retweeting patterns, in which a score of -1.0 would mean that every single retweet would be from others in your own group. The results were striking. In March 2011, an English-speaking cluster was the most insular, with a rating of -0.3, while another cluster surrounding Al Jazeera actually had positive score, meaning that its tweets were being circulated even more often outside its own cluster than inside. By March 2013, Al Jazeera's insularity had plummeted to -0.8 and the English-language cluster had dipped ever lower, to -0.9. In other words, groups which had in an earlier period had been exposed to a wide range of opinions and interacted broadly outside their own circles came over time to be trapped within exceedingly closed, insular conversations. The middle ground had largely disappeared. People within these different networks watched different television stations, shared different videos, talked about different things, and frankly often seemed to be coming from different planets.

What this means is that the Arab views on Syria are channeled through these increasingly insular, polarized clusters. We should generally expect a less unified Arab response to developments in Syria than we saw over, for instance, the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Egyptian revolution. Gulf Islamists who have strongly supported the Syrian insurgency but bitterly opposed the military coup in Egypt and are generally critical of American foreign policy, for instance, have been rather silent thus far on the potential U.S. military action. Political polarization has driven Islamists and their rivals into hostile, distant trenches not only in Egypt but across the region. Sectarian divisions have taken deep root. The real question is whether an American military strike could be one of the few things capable of reunifying this fragmented and polarized public arena.

A brief, limited American military strike would probably not generate all that much politically significant Arab outrage. Opinion on Assad's regime is sufficiently negative -- and the weight of Syria's horrors so great -- that the initial response would likely be muted. Most Arab publics are so thoroughly consumed with their own problems at home that the effects of a one-off strike would be only one ripple in a violently turbulent pond. Many of the popular movements in key Arab countries which would be most likely to organize protests against U.S. intervention (including many Gulf Islamists) are also invested in supporting factions of the Syrian opposition. Such an attack would likely worsen already horrible views of America, but there won't be marches in support of Assad in many Arab cities (except maybe in Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's Cairo -- because, well, Egypt is Egypt).

Still, for all the success of the Arab counter-revolution in recent months, the Arab uprisings remain a potent lesson to all the region's leaders of the need to keep a wary eye on their publics. If those strikes morph into a longer U.S. military campaign, as many fear, then things become far more unpredictable. The more that the American military is seen taking the lead, the more it will trigger fiercely negative associations with Iraq and the more difficult it will be for Arab leaders to sustain a role in a coalition. Washington shouldn't make its decision about intervening in Syria based solely on Arab public opinion of course ... but it also should have no illusions about the welcome it is likely to receive.

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images