Surrogate War and the Illusion of State-Centrism

By Dr Andreas Krieg

This piece is a peek into my new book project that I am pursuing together with my colleague Dr Jean Marc Rickli. The book is called Surrogate Warfare – A Mode of War for the 21st Century and conceptually explores the dynamics of externalizing the burden of warfare to surrogates.

The Arab Gulf States are doing it. The Iranians are doing it. The Russians and the Americans are doing it. We are all doing it. Surrogate warfare has become the prevalent mode of war in the 21st century.

This type of warfare is concerned with the externalization of the burden of war, in all its facets, to a deputy, who can both supplement or substitute the capabilities of the soldier as an infantryman. Thereby the surrogate can be human, i.e. be a strategic proxy, an operational auxiliary or a tactical force multiplier. Increasingly, however, the surrogate is often a technological platform, such as manned or unmanned air power or other autonomous weapon systems. Thus, surrogate warfare as a concept, is more fundamental and all-encompassing than the narrow Cold War concept of proxy warfare or the more recent doctrine of employing Special Forces to train and equip non-state actors in the Near East and Africa. Much more fundamentally, surrogate warfare is a mode of non-trintarian war that allows the state to deal with the uncertainties and risks of the 21st century. It constitutes a break from the classical model of war, where the state employing the citizen soldier fights wars to provide security as a public good exclusively for society as a discretionary national community.

The 1990s and 2000s were a prelude to the 21st century’s conflict resolution and warfare. Today, conflicts are globalized, privatized, securitized and mediatized socio-political phenomena that the nation state, as a historical anomaly, has difficulty dealing with. The state-centric legacy of the 19th and 20th century appears as a memory of the past amid a neo-medievalization of global authority structures. With people, capital and ideas on the move across borders and continents, ‘national’ and ‘international’ have become units of analysis that were replaced with ‘transnationalism’. Conflicts arise everywhere and can potentially affect virtually anyone, anywhere – more importantly no one authority can contain them on their own in an increasingly apolar world.

Conflicts have become more privatized as state and non-state actors compete for socio-political authority in the developed, as much as in the developing, world. The only difference is that in the latter case, states have long lost any monopoly over violence through a bottom-up privatization of war.

Also, conflicts have become more and more securitized. After the somewhat predictable zero-sum games of the Cold War, both the East and West have lost any tangible referent object against which to define their security agenda. The nemesis, the ‘evil empire’ or the archenemy is not as visible and tangible as before. In this context, subjective securitization has replaced the objective definition of threats. In the post-modern risk society, communities feel less secure as subjectively defined risks have become the metric for security. States feel pressured to do something to provide comfort to their communities amid a geo-political environment of unpredictability and uncertainty. Consequently, conflict resolution and warfare have become exercises of risk construction, prevention and management – all this in an environment where new forms of media broadcast warfare as a spectacle to consumers at home and overseas. Any military activity is meticulously documented. Any mishap or error can undermine legitimacy domestically, locally and globally.

Fear mongering in the current cyberspace has increased the public pressure on political decision-makers in liberal AND non-liberal states to contain the invisible enemy, whoever the public makes them out to be, doing so with as little human and financial costs as possible. In the age of risk, the costs of doing nothing are potentially higher than the costs of overreacting. Nonetheless, casualty and war aversion, this being a predominately Western phenomenon, generate a political burden for policy makers when deciding to mobilize its in-house war machinery to deploy overseas to engage a threat the public cannot even see. Hence, warfare by surrogate appears to be the panacea for the state as it promises to allow the burden of warfare, namely human and financial costs of war plus the attached political costs for policy makers, to be externalized. It is not just war on the cheap but war in the dark, off the public radar at least domestically and globally.

Different states have different motivations to externalize the burden of war. The lack of capability and capacity or the need for deniability are as much motivating factors as the need for local legitimacy. Most importantly, however, is the minimization of the cost of military action in comparison to the urgency this conflict generates in terms of national interests or altruistic values.

Looking at the fight against the ‘Islamic State’ (ISIS) in the Middle East, a coalition of the willing has formed that brings together unlikely partners who despite ultimately pursuing different interests in the region can agree to declare Al-Baghdadi’s mujahedeen as their enemy. As all these actors have a stake in the underlying socio-political instability of which ISIS is just the symptom, the War on ISIS has become a legitimizing cover for a series of surrogate wars whereby the enemies’ enemies remain enemies. None of the actors want to get drawn into direct military confrontation with one another; yet, all feel the need to subtly pursue their strategic interests.

Without getting into the nuances of it: Iran tries to maintain its strategic position in Baghdad, Damascus and Southern Lebanon while protecting sectarian Shia interests. Russia cannot lose Syria as its last forward operating base in the Middle East. Turkey feels the need to protect its southern border from jihadi and Kurdish incursions while hoping to grant Sunni Arab Syrians their right to self-determination. The Gulf is divided – whereas Abu Dhabi is fearful from the surge of political Islam in the Levant, Riyadh and Doha see Islamism in all its shapes and forms as a vehicle to free Arabs from the shackles of Arab Nationalist oppression. The West has for too long looked at the unfolding crises in Syria and Iraq through the humanitarian lens – trying to morally support human rights while avoiding costly commitments. The rise of jihadism in Europe amid the growing influx of migrants from the region, however, has raised the stakes for the West to contain these conflicts.

Employing human and technological surrogates to fight ISIS while at the same time being able to secure advantages for the time after the fall of the ‘caliphate’, has created a massive clash of surrogates. Iran is supporting a range of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, Hezbollah being the most prominent of them. Russia provides air cover for former Russian Special Forces, operating as private contractors for the Kremlin in the fight against ISIS and other opposition forces, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Turkey employs manned and unmanned air power against ISIS and Kurdish targets. It provides operational support for the FSA and Sunni tribesmen in Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar provide support to the FSA as well, plus a range of more extremist Islamist outfits. The US has used the FSA in the past also, while more recently increasing the strategic and operational support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the latter being regarded as an offshoot of the PKK by Turkey. The Gulf States have meanwhile functioned as a US proxy to establish and maintain relations with Islamist opposition forces in northern Syria. In Iraq, the US, France, Germany and the UK are backing the Kurdish Peshmerga whose military expansion is being eyeballed suspiciously by Baghdad and Tehran.

And this is just scratching the surface of the issue. The War on ISIS is a typical example of the surrogate wars of the 21st century. Surrogates provide an easy-in and easy-out alternative to major combat operations, supplementing own capability and more importantly substituting for the deployment of their own infantrymen. In Syria and Iraq, surrogates clash but have so far prevented a major direct military confrontation between its patrons. All patrons continue to secure their opposing interests at low costs, with degrees of local and international legitimacy, and most importantly while being able to present themselves domestically as protectors of national security interests. For a short time, all these state actors can look into the mirror and pretend to be somewhat relevant in this hostile, volatile and contested geo-political environment. In reality, these states are mere bystanders. The future of Syria and Iraq will increasingly be determined by non-state actors and their ability to govern ungoverned spaces.

Image: ISIS flag graffiti. Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons.

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