Trump's Proxy War Strategy

Tuesday, February 6, 2018


Keyhan Barzegar
President of the Center for Scientific Research and Middle East Strategic Studies

“America First” is a new motto, which has been adopted by US President Donald Trump, and has prevented allocation of a large amount of financial and economic resources to US military presence in regional wars, especially in Syria. As a result, the United States has been showing increasing willingness to take advantage of “proxy” forces and form partnerships with local forces in order to manage regional crises while reducing the costs and maximizing benefits of those crises for Washington. Out of all local forces in Syria, Kurdish parties based in northern parts of the country, some of which are considered terrorist groups, have offered the United States with the best option in this regard. Kurdish forces are important to Washington because they have no attachment to such regional governments as Turkey, Iran or even Arab states. It means that they basically do not trust those governments and, at the same time, pose no security threat to Israel, which makes them a very desirable option for the United States.

From this standpoint, at the present time, Trump's administration is very willing to establish a Kurdish-controlled region, which would host Washington’s military bases in northern parts of Syria. The United States has appeared so serious in this regard that it is now at loggerheads with its regional ally in NATO, that is, Turkey, over its support for Syrian Kurdish forces. In fact, Kurds have replaced Turkey as the new US ally and this issue has stirred great concerns in Ankara. Some analysts even mention this issue as a major reason behind Turkey’s ongoing military operations in Syria’s northern Afrin region. In fact, Trump has been trying to marginalize Turkey in Syria crisis through forming an alliance with the Kurdish forces, because Turkey has taken a critical approach to the role that the US plays in the Syria crisis and is pursuing its own independent policies.

At the present time, Turkey is carrying out its military operation in Afrin using its proxy force, the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Major goals pursued by Turkey through this operation include filling the geopolitical void that exists in northern Syria in order to prevent coalescence of Kurdish cantons in that part of the Arab country, and in parallel, boosting Ankara’s weight in Syria peace talks. The change in the United States Middle East policy started after its failure in the Iraq war, which began following invasion of the country in 2003, and subsequent withdrawal of American forces from that country. Since that time, American administrations have decided to stay clear of any full-fledged war in this region. On the other hand, the US public opinion has gradually turned against all kinds of US forces’ presence in regional conflicts. During his election campaigns, Trump put a lot of emphasis on this issue and noted that there was no reason for America to police regional countries at the cost of American taxpayers’ money. He clearly announced that his administration would try to achieve the United States’ military goals in the region through the regional countries’ money.

Of course, in the course of these crises, Americans have reached the conclusion that they are no more able to steer a skillful diplomatic drive at the lowest cost and with the highest gains in this region due to their limited political and intelligence resources and growing distrust among regional political groups of the role and goals of the United States. This issue has been combined with mercantilist and economy-oriented personality of Trump as a result of which the United States currently avoids involvement in conflicts on the ground and uses its proxies for this purpose. This is why Trump once went as far as saying that he was ready to reach a deal with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, over the Syria crisis, though the US bureaucratic structure did not allow him to do that. Trump, however, is still willing to talk to Russia in order to balance Iran's regional role. This is also another form of using a proxy force. The question is: what long-term impact will intensification of proxy wars by regional actors have on the entire region, especially Iran's interests? Many analysts believe that Iran has been able to mobilize its allied forces across the region and manage the crises in Syria and Iraq in its own favor. However, a glance at the depth of Iran's strategic view will be enough to show that Tehran is actually interested in bolstering regional states, not necessarily non-state groups that are active in the region. For example, Iran is at odds with Saudi Arabia because of Riyadh’s aggressive policy toward the region, especially bombardment of Yemeni people and suppression of the popular uprising in Bahrain. However, when it comes to strengthening state institutions and structures within Saudi Arabia, which would lead to stability in that country, Iran considers it as a desirable goal. Assuming that proxy wars are inevitable, they must be short-term and pursue clear-cut objectives. When a county feels insecure, it mobilizes certain forces, which fight in line with the geopolitical goals and interests of their sponsor country. Continuation of such wars in the long run will raise concerns about infiltration or intervention in the host country and can lead to distrust. A major question currently raised within international bodies is what would happen to Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, known as Hashd al-Sha’bi, after the end of Daesh crisis in the country? Many Western analysts believe that mobilization of local forces is a source of Iran's regional power and clout, which can even influence political future of government and politics in host countries. However, a more logical argument is that these forces have been mobilized under conditions of insecurity and when war-stricken states feel secure, they must be put under control of the host state or be dissolved. In fact, Iran is the sole regional actor, which has succeeded in mobilizing local forces and formulating an effective strategy to manage anti-terror war in Iraq and Syria. The main cause of Iran's success has been social and cultural commonalities that Iran has with those countries as well as relations that exist among political elites. Regional crises have fared in a way to encourage other actors, including the United States and Turkey, to take advantage of proxy forces. The willingness to use proxy forces is even more when the main actors are not able, or willing, to pay a high price. The passivity of Europe in the face of crises in Syria or Libya has been mostly due to European countries’ inability to allocate resources to these crises or their political ineptitude to play a major role in this region. The main consequences of that passivity have been spread of terrorism to Europe and the huge waves of migrants and asylum seekers, who try to reach European countries from regions located to the east and south of the Mediterranean Sea. Therefore, Europe has adopted a new approach, which is mainly comprised of emphasis on political solutions, financial and developmental aid, and so forth, in addition to cooperation with regional states within a multilateral format and use of a preventive method for the management of regional problems within the region.

Finally, Trump's unwillingness to allocate economic resources to regional wars has led to imbalanced use of the United States’ political, military and intelligence resources, and has greatly reduced efficiency of the American diplomacy for management of regional crises. The result of this strategic limitation has been unwillingness of the United States for full-fledged military involvement in regional wars (in Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen) and concentration on using proxy forces to meet political and security interests of Washington in the region.



*Photo Credit:  WSJ

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.