A U.S. soldier speaking with a fighter from the Kurdish YPG in 2017 in northeastern Syria. (Photo: Delil Souleiman, AFP/Getty Images)
By Kevin Truitte, Columnist
Photo by: Getty Images
The prevalence of inter-state war has declined since the end of the Second World War.[i] The Cold War and introduction of nuclear weapons witnessed the employment of proxies in regional conflicts, with powers directing lethal assistance to more localized forces against adversaries and their allies. The use of proxy allies has long been a pragmatic option for states attempting to undermine adversaries while avoiding engagement in a direct, state-to-state war. Today, proxies are employed to fight broader conflicts and achieve favorable political-military outcomes in numerous conflicts, from Yemen and Syria in the Middle East to Ukraine in Eastern Europe and even South Asia. However, proxies, while beneficial for short-term objectives, can prove difficult and unwieldy in the long term. Often, strategic interests and goals of proxies and their sponsors diverge. In worst-case scenarios, empowering proxies can have destabilizing and counterproductive effects over a longer timeframe.
Proxies are groups in a conflict that represent the interests of, and receive support from, larger powers.[ii] They serve as substitute forces for a state’s own military, allowing for the sponsor to avoid occupying a foreign country and bearing heavy costs in casualties. Proxies bear the “heavy lifting” in a conflict, while the benefactor contributes support in the terms of weapons and materiel, intelligence, and sometimes heavy firepower from airstrikes or artillery. Additionally, local forces usually prove more effective in local conflicts, having greater ties to and knowledge of the areas of operation. Furthermore, the use of proxies benefits states by providing a buffer to avoid direct conflict or escalation with a rival, and by lending a level of plausible deniability with domestic constituencies sensitive to military involvement abroad.[iii] For proxies, the benefits of becoming a proxy not only include support for their cause through the provision of funds and arms, but also through garnering greater legitimacy by being recognized on an international level by a state or states as a relevant actor.[iv]
The employment of proxies has become the norm in a number of conflicts globally in recent years. In Syria, the United States has employed the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as a powerful proxy force in its fight against the radical Islamic State insurgent group. Since 2014 in eastern Ukraine, the Russian Federation has empowered ethnic Russian separatists through funding, provision of arms, and military training and direction to keep a more pro-Western Ukraine unstable and divided. In Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere, the Islamic Republic of Iran has supported and employed the services of proxies such as the Houthis (Ansar Allah), Hezbollah, and Shiite militia groups to project military power against adversaries such as the Arab Gulf States and Israel, gain and spread political influence locally, and shape facts on the ground in ways favorable to its strategic position. Pakistan, too, has employed the use of terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) as proxies in its rivalry with India, supporting such groups in return for their carrying out terror attacks inside India short of provoking a full-scale war.
The use of proxies, however, can pose major friction due to divergent long-term strategic objectives between the proxy and the sponsoring state. The United States’ support for the YPG is complicated by the YPG’s longstanding ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party, a designated terrorist group engaged in an insurgency against the Turkish government.[v] The YPG is suspected to have provided support for the insurgency in Turkey and to have allowed territory under its control as a safe haven for PKK forces.[vi] Moreover, the strategic objectives of the YPG (and PKK) aim to carve out autonomous, if not independent Kurdish statelets in Turkey’s southeast and Syria’s northwest.[vii] This runs counter to the United States’ objectives in the region, which includes the preservation of existing states and preventing instability in NATO ally Turkey and in Syria, which would undoubtedly be caused through the YPG pursuing its long-term goals. By empowering the YPG, the United States makes tactical and operational gains against the Islamic State, while setting the scene for future instability generated by its own proxy.
Pakistan’s support for LeT, too, sees divergent strategic end goals between sponsor and proxy. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has previously used LeT as a proxy group to conduct attacks against India, despite on the surface banning the group in the country.[viii] LeT, a hardline Islamist terrorist group, supports the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate in the Islamic World and calls for global jihad against the United States and India. Further, the group rejects democracy or the concept of the nation-state.[ix] These ideological underpinnings, ultimately, put the group’s broader objectives in conflict with Pakistan’s existence as a nation-state, democratic processes, and relationship—albeit strained—with the United States. Ultimately, empowering LeT for short-term gains poses a future challenge to the Pakistani state itself.
Due to strategic differences, proxies can also force their sponsor to manage their growing strength and “trim the grass” of more independent and disruptive elements. In Ukraine, Russia aims to exacerbate divisions in the country to allow for greater Russian influence and to stave off Ukraine’s emergence as a strong, anti-Russian and pro-Western state along Russia’s border.[x] Russian separatists, meanwhile, wish to form their own state or be subsumed into Russia proper, something that the Russian government would likely not prefer, given the costs.[xi] Due to the desire to maintain the status quo, Russia appears to have been forced to eliminate more radical Ukrainian separatists, as an assassination campaign eliminated a number of more violent warlords and militia commanders that had drawn the ire of the Kremlin.[xii] The removal of these separatist leaders indicates tension between Russian leadership and separatists over a longer-term objectives of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Ultimately, proxies can prove valuable to stronger states that are unwilling to enter into a traditional conflict, but still wish to attain a favorable military-political impact. However, oftentimes the sponsor and proxy’s interests will diverge over a longer timeline, generating friction as the conflict progresses and potentially creating a future policy headache for the sponsoring state. While proxies can prove useful, states who engage in the use of proxies must do so while understanding the strategic goals of their surrogates, how they diverge from their own, and how to mitigate potential future consequences of their strategic divergence.
[i] Thomas S. Szayna et al., “What Are the Trends in Armed Conflicts, and What Do They Mean for U.S. Defense Policy?” RAND Corporation, 2017, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1900/RR1904/RAND_RR1904.pdf.
[ii] “Proxy War,” Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesarus, Cambridge University Press, available at https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/proxy-war.
[iii]Daniel Byman, “Why Engage in Proxy War? A State’s Perspective,” Lawfare, May 21, 2018, https://lawfareblog.com/why-engage-proxy-war-states-perspective.
[iv] Daniel Byman, “Why Be a Pawn to a State? Proxy Wars From a Proxy’s Perspective,” Lawfare, May 22, 2018, https://lawfareblog.com/why-be-pawn-state-proxy-wars-proxys-perspective.
[v] Aaron Stein and Michelle Foley, “The YPG-PKK Connection,” Atlantic Council, January 26, 2016, http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-ypg-pkk-connection.
[vi] Barak Barfi, “The Fractious Politics of Syria’s Kurds,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 18, 2013, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-fractious-politics-of-syrias-kurds.
[viii] Jayshree Bajoria, “Lashkar-e-Taiba (Army of the Pure) (aka Lashkar e-Tayyiba, Lashkar e-Toiba; Lashkar-i-Taiba),” Council on Foreign Relations, Janaury 14, 2010, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/lashkar-e-taiba-army-pure-aka-lashkar-e-tayyiba-lashkar-e-toiba-lashkar-i-taiba.
[ix] “Lashkar-e-Taiba,” Counter Extremism Project, https://www.counterextremism.com/threat/lashkar-e-taiba.
[x] Hannah Fairfield, Tim Wallace, and Derek Watkins, “Russia’s Endgame in Ukraine,” The New York Times, March 9, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/03/06/world/europe/russias-endgame-in-ukraine.html; Michael Kofman, “Putin’s Military Is Playing the Long Game in Ukraine,” Foreign Policy, August 31, 2016, foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/31/dont-look-now-but-russias-got-ukraine-surrounded-crimea/.
[xi] “Ukraine Separatists Criticized Over Call For Creation Of ‘Little Russia’,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 18, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-separatists-malorussia-criticism-zakharchenko-plotnitsky-poroshenko/28623190.html; “Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine,” International Crisis Group, February 5, 2016, https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/eastern-europe/ukraine/russia-and-separatists-eastern-ukraine.
[xii] Jack Losh, “Is Russia Killing Off Eastern Ukraine’s Warlords?” Foreign Policy, October 25, 2016, foreignpolicy.com/2016/10/25/who-is-killing-eastern-ukraines-warlords-motorola-russia-putin/.