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An expert thinks Obama's "arm the rebels" strategy in Syria could be a disaster

President Obama speaks at the White House on September 18
President Obama speaks at the White House on September 18
Pool/Getty Images

Political scientist Dr. Erica Borghard has spent years studying the pitfalls and benefits of "proxy wars" — in which one country wages war in another country indirectly, by arming, training, or otherwise supporting local armed groups. Her research has become especially relevant in the wake of Syria's civil war, in which a number of foreign countries are sponsoring parties to the conflict, and she has written about the dangers of arming rebel groups fighting against Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad.

I spoke to Borghard about the Obama administration's plan to arm moderate Syrian rebels fighting the terrorist group ISIS.

FSA Fighter

A Free Syrian Army fighter in Aleppo, Syria (Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

Amanda Taub: Is there a pattern — or patterns — that you can typically see proxy wars following? Are there specific problems or pitfalls that are common to them?

Erica Borghard: What makes proxy wars unique is that there's this vast asymmetry on a number of fronts.

Proxy wars involve states, who contract out portions of their security to non-state actors. They provide arms, and resources, and training, and money to non-state groups, with the idea that those groups will fight on their behalf and bear more of the human cost of war.

The more informal and covert you get, the more problems you end up having. You don't have the same kind of enforcement mechanisms, the same kind of training mechanisms, the same kind of oversight that you have when you have more formal alliance agreement. The things that you have to do to maintain plausible deniability undermine your ability to influence your proxy group, and get your proxy to do what you want them to do.

AT: Are there pros and cons that you see with regard to the current strategy in Syria?  Are there things that you think the U.S. should be wary about here?

EB: The model that we are, from my understanding, currently trying to replicate in Syria is a model that we have been moderately successful at — depending on how you define success — over the past 15 or so years.

This is what's often called the "Afghan model" in the literature. It's called the Afghan model because we debuted it in its fullest in Afghanistan 2001, but it's just the idea that Western air power, coupled with limited special operations forces on the ground, working in conjunction with local allies, can be a way to sort of cheaply, and with less human cost to us, achieve a limited political objective.

The initial stage of the war in Afghanistan in 2001 — this is before we had a large ground presence in Afghanistan — was special operations forces working with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and Western air power to topple the Taliban.

We replicated this model in Libya, where we had special operations forces on the ground working with the Libyan rebels to topple [Libyan leader Moammar] Qaddafi, along with American and NATO airpower. So this is a model that we have been testing out in various theaters, and which, it seems to me, we are trying to replicate in Iraq and in Syria.

But, of course, Iraq and Syria offer unique and different challenges. There are debates about how effective this kind of model can be. Some scholars have argued that if you don't have local allies on the ground who are at least as skilled as your adversaries, then air power cannot have a decisive impact on the outcome of the conflict.

The unique challenge in Syria is that Syria is a multi-party civil war.  So, unlike in Libya, where we were allied with the Libyan rebels against Qadaffi's regime, in Syria, you have many parties to the conflict. And the ones we're choosing to arm and aid are probably among the weaker parties.

You don't just have a state verses a rebel group, you have multiple rebel groups, with multiple interests, almost all of whom have access to their own external support. So you have a series of proxy relationships that are existing here. Plus you have the Assad government, which is being supported by Iran. You have many different external actors, all of which have their own interests at stake, and, probably have more at stake than the United States does.

Then, of course, you have the issue of Iraq. In Syria, my understanding is that we have a relatively limited objective, which is really degrading and ultimately defeating ISIS. Whereas in Iraq, we are not only trying to degrade and defeat ISIS, but also assist the Iraqi government in becoming a relatively stable, sovereign government that can actually have territorial sovereignty and defend its borders and have some inclusive, political routine that does not alienate the Sunni population, which is ultimately the political cause of what's currently happening.

FSA Checkpoint

Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, Syria (Ensar Ozdemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

AT: What is the worst case scenario, here? What are the things that the US should be worried might happen?

EB: I don't want come across as being overly pessimistic, because it's not clear that there will necessarily be a terrible outcome to all of this, but the danger is something to consider.

In Syria, the moral question is: who do we enable by defeating ISIS? Let's say we do defeat, we do degrade, the capabilities of ISIS so that ISIS does not pose a threat to Iraqi sovereignty, and does not pose a threat to our allies. Who do we empower? What are the second and third order effects of that? Do we strengthen Assad, who is a cruel and reckless dictator who has systematically slaughtered Syrians? Then, what is our culpability in that? That's the moral worst-case outcome.

From a more strategic or an operational perspective, the worst case is that we have to expend far more resources than we anticipated in order to achieve our objectives.

The worst case is that we have to put "real" American troops on the ground in Syria, which I just can't even imagine. It's very hard for me to imagine a world where that happens.

Another bad possible outcome is that we arm Syrian rebels and those arms get in the hands of the very people we're trying to destroy, or a group that we find to be, perhaps, even more threatening than ISIS. There could be a concern of blowback — that is another potential worst-case outcome. I'm trying to put my pessimist hat on.

AT: I'll let you have your optimist hat in a minute.

EB: Another possible bad thing is that [right now] you just have this sort of low-level civil war type stuff brewing in Iraq. But Iraq could break out into another round of sectarian conflict.

Who knows what that will do, how that will change the calculus of Iran, and to what extent they will get drawn into, even more, into Iraq than they already are? Which is very, very heavily. Iran has considerable influence on the government in Baghdad, and has been very involved in Iraq for decades. If Iraq erupts into this sectarian conflict, do the Iranians get drawn in? Who else might get drawn in? What kind of regional conflagration could result out of that?

Unfortunately, in this line of business, I could just enumerate all the various possible ways that things could go wrong.

AT: Let's shift away from your pessimist hat, then, for a minute, and I'll let you put your optimist hat on.

EB: Putting on the optimist hat, [through proxy war] it's possible that you can outsource a lot of the costs to your allies, a lot of the human cost to your allies, and still achieve your political objectives — assuming you can maintain control of the situation.

In Syria, that would look like: we arm and train moderate Syrian rebels. With American air power, we target ISIS's positions from the air, while our local allies target ISIS's positions from the ground, and we degrade the capabilities of ISIS to the point that they can't threaten the US or American interests or allies. That would be a successful case of a proxy war.

And now I transition back to putting my pessimist hat on. When you study these things for enough time, you end up, unfortunately, wearing a pessimist hat most of the time.

This gets at something I said earlier, about how we define success: In Libya, we successfully armed and trained the Libyan rebels, coupled with American and allied air power. We were able to prevent genocide in Benghazi, and also have the added bonus of overthrowing Qadaffi. And actually, that wasn't part of the original mandate, and was not the justification for intervention. Nevertheless, it was a perk — two for one deal! Stop genocide and overthrow a dictator!

However, the long-term implications, the second and third order effects, have not been so dandy. We overthrew Qadaffi, but in his place, we now have various tribes and warlords who have staked claims to little fiefdoms. Libya is mostly ungoverned — the central government has very little power, and can't project power.

Libya has become an attractive destination for nefarious characters around the world, and this could potentially undermine American and allied security more than Qadaffi did. So, even if we're successful in achieving our limited objectives, what are the long-term consequences of these kinds of interventions? That's something we should consider.

FSA Trio

Free Syrian Army fighters in Aleppo, Syria (Ensar Ozdemir/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

AT: Do you think that the US would have a lower tolerance for Syria being the kind of place that Libya is now, because of where its located?

EB: You would think we would, but the Syrian civil war has been festering for a number of years, and it's really taken a crisis in Iraq to get involved Syria. It was not until ISIS threatened Iraqi sovereignty that we decided to expand the effort in Syria.

Something else that's important to take into account is what kinds of capabilities will we need to achieve these objectives and how long can we expect to be engaged.

In Libya, we underestimated how long it would take and what kind of capabilities the mission would require because Qaddafi's forces adapted. So, in these operations, we're dealing with an adversary that's human and that can respond and adapt, not a brick wall.

This is especially important when it comes to the use of air power. It's really easy to target troops when they're massing and open — then you have a clearly identifiable target that you can hit.

But as soon as Qadaffi's forces saw that the United States was doing that, they dispersed, and used cover and concealment. Qadaffi's soldiers at some point switched to using civilian vehicles for transportation, and they actually painted the roofs of their vehicles with rebel flags to avoid being targeted by NATO. So they dispersed, they adapted. We can anticipate that ISIS would do similar types of things.

Initially, we are certainly hitting "command and control": targets that are actual buildings and facilities, that are for storage, for logistics, for command and control. But once we run out of those, and we're trying to target actual troops, they're not going to be massing in the open.

Once they face the brunt of American air power, they're going disperse. And then it will just much more difficult. And then the skills of our allies on the ground will matter much more.

That will be one of the crucial determinants of the success of the mission. Once the adversaries adapt, how skilled are our local ground troop allies going to be at engaging the enemy?