What makes proxy-sponsor relationships endure?

 

It comes down to strategic need in response to evolving strategic challenges and threats. The proxy-sponsor relationship has commonly been portrayed as a mechanical infusion of material support and this is certainly one of its facets. Of course, endowed proxy forces endure the realities of the battlespace far more successfully that without. Moreover, we know that sponsorship alters strategic, operational, and tactical decisions: how, when, and whereto fight at a given point in time (and space). Yet, the question of endurance is a great opportunity to see beyond support mechanics.

 

A proxy-sponsor relationship is highly dynamic because it is negotiated repeatedly.  I have argued in my research that we should think about it as strategic bargains, not as a one-time grant of authority. The proxy asks, cajoles, begs, sells/markets itself, blackmails, and even threatens a sponsor into one such relationship. They "put on this act" with several potential sponsor at the same time. Moreover, third party states/actors ‘lobby’ for the sponsorship of certain rebels, offering to ask as the ‘conduit’ for support. Each of these ‘points of entry’ in the relationship presents a different scenario for endurance.

 

Overlapping strategic aims (defeating common enemy) logically invites rosier prospects. Degree of investment of the sponsor in the ‘cause’ alters its patience and tolerance for under-performance (as it might invite considerations of replacing proxies), and as such tells a different story about endurance. Endurance is affected also by the types of support provided, with both parties extending the initial negotiations over the waging of war to repeated arguments over what the proxy needs vis-à-vis what the sponsor is willing to provide.

 

The success or failures of these micro-negotiations becomes another variable accounting for endurance. This is perhaps one of the obvious puzzles yet to be addressed in the literature and its investigation is especially poignant today. Proxies are dropped, defeated, or annihilated by the sponsor, transformed into political parties, dispersed in fragmented armed groups, or tasked with other ‘warring’ responsibilities (shifted into new strategic contexts). The ‘mission accomplished’ scenario is the most positive breakdown story. The ‘shifting priorities’ scenario sits at the opposite end of the breakdown spectrum.

"Proxies are dropped, defeated, or annihilated by the sponsor, transformed into political parties, dispersed in fragmented armed groups, or tasked with other warring responsibilities (shifted into new strategic contexts). The mission accomplished scenario is the most positive breakdown story. The shifting priorities scenario sits at the opposite end of the breakdown spectrum"

It is tempting to reverse engineer my previous answer on the question on endurance. Proxies are dropped, defeated, or annihilated by the sponsor, transformed into political parties, dispersed in fragmented armed groups, or tasked with other ‘warring’ responsibilities (shifted into new strategic contexts). The ‘mission accomplished’ scenario is the most positive breakdown story. The ‘shifting priorities’ scenario sits at the opposite end of the breakdown spectrum. Coincidentally this is where the Kurds usually hang out. The proxy-sponsor relationship are essentially triadic, involving a) proxy, b) the sponsor, and c) the target.  In multi-party civil wars, these relationships can expand exponentially. Each actor of the triad – the new dyad in distress -, tells a compelling story about breakdown.

 

The sponsor, as mentioned previously, can shift focus, decide to employ another proxy, or to reconcile with the target. The proxy’s behaviour shifts with the dynamics of the conflict and can signal to the sponsor the need to re-evaluate. The proxy force could splinter or ally itself with other non-state actors, minimising its strategic appeal to a sponsor. The target can retaliate in kind, which certainly happens often, but not always. It can also defeat the proxy, terminating the proxy-sponsor relationship without any input from the sponsor.

 

Moving forward, the complexity of the issues of breakdown and termination should rightly be discussed as a two-step process, and unlike endurance or resolve, our debate has provided both theoretically innovative and compelling empirical evidence as a starting point. 

Vladimir Rauta

Lecturer in Politics & International Relations

University of Reading

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David Pollock

Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute

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