Want to Build a Better Proxy in Syria? Lessons from Tibet


Will Washington abandon its rebel proxies in Syria? Outsourcing ground operations against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to Syrian rebels has become the preferred option to secure national security objectives in the country. But it carries the weight of significant moral hazard and has already created a series of political embarrassments for President Obama’s administration. Continued rebel setbacks and volatile political dynamics may lead to a fate similar to Tibet’s U.S.-backed insurgency during the Cold War. Or we can learn from past mistakes and maximize the effectiveness of our proxy engagements in Syria.

Building a Better Proxy?

Late entry into the Syrian conflict on the ground handicapped the United States’ ability to select the optimal proxy to fight ISIL. This is the paradox of strategic irregular warfare: On the one hand, if you don’t get in early enough, irregular warfare options become less effective over time as other actors crowd out the political space available to manipulate. On the other hand, the optimal point of entry is also when politicians are most hesitant to intervene due to the twin dangers of escalation and unintended consequences. When political necessity finally forced the United States to jump into the fire, it failed with its efforts to create a proxy force, Division 30, from scratch. This drove the current U.S. approach.

If Washington wishes to gain more from its proxy engagements in Syria today, it must focus on improving control over its proxies.

What is the role of incentives and sanctions in establishing control? Can the U.S. government pay the rebels more for greater ISIL body counts or increased territorial seizures? Should it withhold material support or airstrikes if they fail to follow instructions? We have been through this before. The Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) tried this in Tibet. Conditioning aerial resupply on resistance performance failed to achieve the requisite control, similar to the stagnation we see along the Mare’a Line today.

What about the Kurds? The Syrian Democratic Forces has been the most effective fighting force against ISIL, so why not sink all of our resources into this partnership? The United Sates typically defaults to relying on Kurdish units such as the Peshmerga and Syrian Democratic Forces because of their cohesion and fighting prowess. But as the United States experienced in Iraq, the Kurds can only go so far before they encroach on Arab territory and draw backlash from locals. Fear of upsetting the delicate balancing act with Turkey is the primary reason why the United States has devoted so much effort to portray the Syrian Democratic Forces as a multi-ethnic, Arab-inclusive force despite its overwhelming Kurdish composition.

For many of us coming of age in the mid-1990’s, watching Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys rock the Tibetan Freedom Concerts is the extent of our knowledge pertaining to this part of the world. But there is a much deeper and broader story to be told that holds for the fight against ISIL today.

Two dilemmas plague a sponsor’s ability to execute proxy warfare: selecting the optimal proxy, and making it perform as intended. These stem from the principal-agent relationship inherent in outsourcing national security objectives to rebel organizations in order to avoid the prohibitive costs of direct military intervention. Despite lacking complete information about a proxy’s true capabilities and intentions, the sponsor employs the proxy to complete a task that it is either unable or unwilling to execute. This information asymmetry may incentivize the proxy to deviate from the sponsor’s directives in pursuit of its own goals while still receiving the benefits of the relationship.

Lessons from Tibet

The United States executed a covert action campaign, code-named ST CIRCUS, in support of the Tibetan resistance to contain Communist Chinese expansion from 1956 to 1974. The C.I.A. abandoned its support for the insurgency in 1974 due to decreasing returns on its investment and the liability posed by the operation to President Nixon’s rapprochement with China. The Tibetans became the “worthy but hapless orphans of the Cold War.”

Three primary lessons from Tibet concerning the issues of proxy selection and control apply to Syria.

Lack of embedded advisors reduces control over the proxy. A sponsor’s direct advisory presence on the ground increases the opportunity to affect favorable outcomes. However, it also increases the risk of exposure that may lead to casualties and political blowback.

Failure to embed advisors with the Tibetan resistance limited U.S. influence over tactical engagements and operational decisions, ultimately reducing their military effectiveness. Despite the C.I.A.’s emphasis on guerrilla warfare and establishing underground resistance cells in the villages, the Tibetans opted to fight the Chinese People’s Liberation Army in conventional, head-on engagements that resulted in heavy casualties. Resistance leadership also decided to remain in the cross-border sanctuary of Nepal instead of establishing forward elements for persistent operations in Tibet.

Recent failures of U.S. proxy forces in southeastern Syria and inconsistent results from operations in the northwest demonstrate that without embedded advisors, proxy performance may remain marginal at best. The New Syrian Army’s failure to liberate the critical border town of Abu Kamal on June 29, 2016 became yet another black eye for the Pentagon shortly after it publicized the offensive. Progress also remains stagnant along the Mare’a Line of the Azaz Corridor between Turkey and Aleppo. U.S.-backed groups such as the Mu’tasim Brigade have failed to consolidate gains against ISIL and expand eastward towards Dabiq and into the Manbij Pocket, which has served as the main artery for ISIL foreign fighter flows.

Division 30, the first group of Syrian rebels deployed to combat the Islamic State in 2015 under the vaunted “train and equip” program, provides a useful example as well. Without direct control measures, the rebels returned home to take care of personal business and handed their equipment over to al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, who also managed to capture and kill a number of Division 30 fighters.

A counter example comes from the combat partnership with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. In this case, the United States embedded special operations forces advisors to great effect. Seizing large swaths of ISIL territory in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces and its partnered Syrian Arab Coalition delivered a trove of intelligence and are now postured to capture Manbij, the strategic city connecting ISIL’s de facto capital of Raqqa to Turkey. But accompanying the Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground has increased U.S. exposure to casualties. Moreover, the direct presence of U.S. advisors adds to the perception of U.S. political support for underlying militia members. For instance, embedded advisors create the appearance of U.S. support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is the “backbone” of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Because the People’s Protection Units are affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), this deepened tensions with Turkey.

Using other countries as intermediaries reduces control over proxy forces. A sponsor often attempts to further distance itself from the conflict, spread cost burdens, and/or capitalize on local expertise by working through a regional intermediary. However, goal divergence between the sponsor and intermediary will constrain its ability to make the proxy perform as intended.

The 1962 Sino-Indian War precipitated closer U.S.-Indian cooperation against China. The C.I.A. and the Indian Intelligence Bureau created a Tibetan unit known as the Special Frontier Force, ostensibly to be used to conduct resistance activities in Tibet. However, India intended to use the Special Frontier Force to protect India’s borders if war with China were to break out again. Utilizing India to facilitate proxy training and management resulted in thousands of Tibetans being siphoned off from the resistance for service in India’s Special Frontier Force.

The United States currently relies on partner nations such as Turkey and Jordan for both proxy recruitment and external sanctuary to conduct the train and equip mission and operational coordination, as it did with India during the Cold War. Turkey, a NATO ally, is often at odds with the United States over its partnership with Kurdish forces. In contrast to America’s anti-ISIL emphasis, Turkey is balancing multiple competing objectives that divide its resources: preventing Kurdish expansion along its border, bolstering the anti-Assad opposition in Aleppo, and fighting ISIL. Turkish support for Islamist rebels (which included a long period of at least tolerating the activities of jihadist groups) and its influence over the train and equip program in northwestern Syria ultimately reduce U.S. control over the proxies it employs along the Mare’a Line.

The United States confronts similar issues in southern Syria. With an estimated 1.4 million Syrian refugees adding to instability, Jordan’s overriding concern for border security has pushed the kingdom to balance cooperation with Russia and the United States. American efforts to manage its proxies are also at the mercy of events such as Jordan’s closure of the Rukban border crossing following the recent ISIL suicide attack that killed seven Jordanian troops. This border region contains refugee camps which house the families of Syrian rebels that Russia recently hit with airstrikes. Similar to Turkey’s temporary closure of Incirlik Airbase, a key U.S. hub for supporting the anti-ISIL rebels, partner nation reliability is not guaranteed in support of U.S. objectives. Members of Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate (GID) have even sold weapons intended for the Syrian rebels on the black market.

Utilizing intermediary countries to reduce costs may be fiscally and politically sound and is often essential to gain access to non-permissive environments, but it creates unintended consequences that reduce U.S. control over its proxies.

Building a proxy force scaled to accomplish limited objectives increases the potential for favorable outcomes. A sponsor’s desire for its proxy to accomplish maximalist objectives such as the defeat or overthrow of an adversary during the early stages of engagement may clash with its willingness to devote the resources necessary to secure those objectives. The actual capability of the proxy force itself will also determine the feasibility of the outcome. Neglecting to align these elements at any point during the proxy engagement may reduce effectiveness and ultimately result in failure.

The C.I.A. created and supported scalable proxy elements based on different objectives in Tibet. It utilized small “pilot teams” and “radio teams” to assess the capabilities of existing resistance movements, collect intelligence, conduct sabotage, and serve as force multiplication elements by advising the Tibetans in place of actual U.S. intelligence officers on the ground. The C.I.A. later supported the mass organization of larger resistance elements by reconsolidating fighters that were dispersed by Chinese military operations. This proved ineffective as the new Tibetan formations were unwilling to conduct sustained operations against the Chinese, forcing the United States to terminate the relationship.

This is currently the focus of “train-and-equip 2.0” in Syria, but whether it will deliver results is questionable. The actual mechanics of the Tibetan operation offer insight for Syria. Training smaller teams may be easier to control and resource for the achievement of limited objectives. This may involve similar risks to those faced by the Tibetans. Indeed, the C.I.A. terminated the Tibetan operations due to heavy casualties and decreasing returns on the resources required for their support. Nevertheless, in the absence of U.S. advisors, these teams could provide much-needed human intelligence, identify and organize more effective local resistance elements, and leverage U.S. airpower by facilitating more accurate airstrikes.

Close, but Not Quite the Same

The United States aimed to disrupt China within the framework of the larger policy of containing global Communist expansion by supporting a viable resistance inside Tibet. This proxy engagement achieved moderate success by disrupting Chinese regional plans, tying up the People’s Liberation Army occupation force, and shaping the political discussion concerning Tibet that continues to this day. While the Tibetans were fighting for their freedom, and some ultimately felt betrayed by the C.I.A., the United States sought limited objectives. The operation didn’t accomplish the expulsion of China from Tibet; nor did it result in the collapse of the Chinese Communist regime.

Sometimes limited objectives are the only feasible outcomes when relying on proxy warfare. Absent greater political investments in its Syrian proxies or reevaluation of its overall objectives, the United States will be hard-pressed to “destroy” ISIL by relying on proxies as its ground force. By nature, strategic irregular warfare options employed overtly by a democratic sponsor in an era of increasing transparency can only be as effective as the political capital invested in their preparation and execution.

There are a number of key differences which should induce caution when directly applying the lessons from Tibet. The most significant is Syria’s complex insurgent political landscape. The existence of multiple rebel groups differs significantly from the presence of only one relatively cohesive resistance element in Tibet. The Tibetans were united in opposition to China, but U.S. proxy selection in Syria remains hampered by the fact that most of the opposition prioritizes the fight against Bashar al-Assad over ISIL. To make things more challenging, multiple regional powers such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran are sponsoring their own proxies in support of their national security objectives, which often do not match those of the United States.

Ideology is also a critical factor. While Tibetan Buddhism didn’t inherently clash with American liberal democracy, the Syrian resistance is dominated by various shades of Islamists at odds with U.S. values. The considerable risk for insider, or “green-on-blue” attacks, by Sunni recruits necessitates rigorous vetting of candidates. Coupled with screening requirements to weed out potential human rights violators, such as those mandated by the Leahy Laws, the situation in Syria presents a recruitment, training, and employment challenge the C.I.A. did not have to face in Tibet.

Finally, the C.I.A. executed ST CIRCUS under covert action authorities. The Syrian train and equip mission is an overt Department of Defense (DoD) operation that mandates additional requirements for transparency under Section 1209 of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. It is also subject to separate and distinct laws of war that apply to military forces. The C.I.A. is, according to open source reporting, executing a parallel program to equip Syrian rebels which sometimes creates a conflict of interests, but the United States has devoted the bulk of its material resources and political capital to overt Pentagon efforts. Increased transparency and international legal requirements means reduced flexibility when employing an overt proxy.

Regardless of these differences, dusting off Cold War-era proxy engagements such as support to the Tibetan resistance to extract salient lessons may prevent the United States from making similar mistakes in the future while optimizing limited fiscal and political capital.

Limited Options? Limit the Objectives, or Increase the Investment

So where does the United States go from here if it actually wants to destroy the Islamic State by relying on proxies as its ground force, or reduce its commitment to the Syrian conflict without further embarrassment?

  1. Embed American advisors with each proxy element.
  2. Reduce reliance on partner nations for recruiting, training, supplying, and employing proxy forces.
  3. Scale proxy engagements to reflect both the amount of political capital the United States is willing to invest in the Syrian conflict and the realistic capabilities of the proxies themselves.

These options will sound like common sense from an outsider’s perspective. They will also increase military effectiveness against ISIL. But they will also require significant political risks and tradeoffs that cannot be divorced from both domestic and regional politics. Turkey remains a critical NATO ally for the United States and Jordan plays an outsized role in regional counterterrorism programs. Drastically altering the relationship with either country may undercut U.S. influence and interests.

It may also be politically impossible to scale back the objective of destroying ISIL, even if only in rhetoric. When the American public is constantly bombarded with news headlines such as the ISIL-inspired Orlando shooting and recent string of attacks around the world, this will be a hard sell for President Obama and his successor.

So will Washington abandon its rebel proxies in Syria? Will they become the hapless orphans of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia? These lessons from U.S. support to the Tibetan resistance should inform current and future U.S. policy considerations when outsourcing national security objectives to surrogates as part of an indirect approach to avoid prohibitive military intervention.


Major Steve Ferenzi is an instructor in the United States Military Academy’s Defense and Strategic Studies (DSS) Program and Officer-in-Charge of West Point’s Irregular Warfare Group. He is an Army Special Forces officer with service in the 3rd Special Forces Group and the 82nd Airborne Division in the Middle East and Central Asia. He holds a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: CIA, courtesy Library of Congress