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Thinking Critically About “By, With, Through” in Syria, Iraq, and Beyond

Morgan Kaplan
Sunday, January 20, 2019, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: In the years since 9/11, the United States has waged war around the globe. It has often done so, however, “by, with, and through” local partners. Despite the importance of this approach and its overall value to the United States, its risks and limits do not receive enough attention. Morgan Kaplan of the Buffett Institute at Northwestern asks several probing questions about U.S. efforts to work with partners and concludes that this approach should not be uncritically embraced.

Daniel Byman


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Editor’s Note: In the years since 9/11, the United States has waged war around the globe. It has often done so, however, “by, with, and through” local partners. Despite the importance of this approach and its overall value to the United States, its risks and limits do not receive enough attention. Morgan Kaplan of the Buffett Institute at Northwestern asks several probing questions about U.S. efforts to work with partners and concludes that this approach should not be uncritically embraced.

Daniel Byman


The surprise announcement by President Trump of a fast and full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, and the subsequent resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, launched a state of confusion and distress among America’s allies abroad. Perhaps most fearful of Trump’s proposals are America’s Kurdish partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and People’s Protection Units (YPG), who have fought a bitter war against the Islamic State with U.S. help.

Among policymakers there is near unanimous agreement that the Kurds will be the biggest losers from a rapid U.S. withdrawal. Although America’s military presence has been relatively light and mostly restricted to Special Operations Forces, it has served an important role in bolstering Kurdish capabilities against the Islamic State (ISIS), and keeping America’s two main allies in the Syrian conflict—Turkey and the SDF—from engaging in catastrophic fighting. Trump’s announcement came on the heels of Erdogan’s threat to attack Kurdish forces east of the Euphrates, and Kurdish leaders have publicly called Trump’s decision a historic betrayal and voiced fears of a large-scale Turkish assault should the United States withdraw. Syrian Kurds have long anticipated that the United States would be an unreliable partner, but U.S. partners were apparently unprepared for the timing, context, and proposed haste of the withdrawal. Administration officials have attempted to clarify, smooth, slow, and perhaps even reverse President Trump’s decision; National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have both sought to reassure Syrian Kurds against threats from Turkey. But even after an ISIS attack in Manbij on January 16 killed four Americans, raising concerns about the terrorist group’s operational capacity, Vice President Mike Pence reiterated that the United States would “begin to bring our troops home” as planned.

The shock announcement may have not only undermined America’s Kurdish partners in Syria, but also done long-term damage to Department of Defense’s favored approach for intervention in the Middle East: By, With, Through. While the phrase and its meaning has evolved over the years, a recent article by Gen. Joseph Votel and Col. Eero Keravuori defined the by-with-through approach (sometimes abbreviated as BWT) as “operations [that] are led by our partners, state or nonstate, with enabling support from the United States or U.S.-led coalitions, and through U.S. authorities and partner agreements.” As Votel, Keravuori, and others like Col. Bernd Horn and Bill Knarr argue, one of the defining features of BWT is the empowering of local allies to give them maximum responsibility in solving their own security issues. U.S. military assistance—usually through advising, intelligence, Special Forces, and air support—is used to guide and stabilize local allies, but recipients are expected to lead and own the political-military battlespace in the hope that their increased ownership of the fighting will generate increased political legitimacy in their constituencies. While the approach is not confined to specific areas of operation, it has been most widely adopted by U.S. Central Command and has guided the coalition’s approach to the anti-ISIS campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Secretary Mattis himself was a proponent of BWT, and cited the importance of supporting foreign allies in his resignation letter.

BWT offers many advantages, but too often allies resent the limits placed on U.S. support, the United States becomes trapped between allies with competing agendas, and perhaps most importantly, the post-support stage is not thought through. Furthermore, in the wake of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal from Syria, the quality of local partners willing to sign up for a BWT relationship is likely to diminish. This piece highlights several important questions that theorists and practitioners of BWT must grapple with going forward.

When Do Local Allies Prefer BWT?

One of the main strengths of BWT, as described by Votel and Keravuori, is its ability to share or transfer political and military “ownership” of the battlespace to local allies. By having a light footprint and ensuring that local allies publicly lead the charge, BWT means that U.S. allies—who may have a greater need of securing domestic legitimacy—are the ones who reap the rewards of success (and conveniently, suffer the ownership of failures). However, while many partners may prefer a hands-off approach to U.S. military assistance, it is worth considering the conditions in which local allies may actually prefer or require greater U.S. ownership and liability for outcomes on the ground. In other words, while practitioners have thought hard about how the transfer of greater ownership benefits local allies, more can be done to consider the potential downsides for U.S. partners.

Equal “host-partner ownership,” as Votel and Keravuori describe it, or even full local ownership can be preferable in many circumstances. But in others, the local ally may require the United States to put more skin in the game, especially in terms of political responsibility. Ownership signals that the United States won’t abandon the mission and will be there through thick and thin—enemies beware. This need not require that United States provide more direct military assistance than it already does through existing BWT transactions, but practitioners should acknowledge that a light footprint will not always be enough to establish, sustain, and grow alliances for partners facing truly existential security crises.

U.S. reluctance to claim ownership over its interventions runs the risk that the United States will lack credibility as a guarantor of its allies’ security, leading partners to fear that the United States is not wholeheartedly committed to the partnership. The result may be less reliable allies who, as Frances Brown and Mara Karlin argue, “hedge” foreign partnerships as the Syrian Kurds have done with Moscow for several years. The crux of this tension between foreign sponsors and local allies is a classic asymmetry of interests and priorities, further outlined by Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes. While BWT may be the preferred method of intervention when the United States does not face an existential threat in a given area, its local allies must also have the same luxury to accept the transactional nature of the alliance. If local allies are facing more extreme existential pressures, then the limited commitment of a BWT relationship may not be sufficient to make the relationship last.

What Happens When the United States Is Allied with Competing Parties?

Much of the debate surrounding BWT assumes two actors: the sponsor state and local allies. However, contemporary conflicts and “grey zone” operations frequently involve coordination among multiple regional actors, either separately or as a members of the same coalition. In Syria and Iraq, the United States and its allies have worked with a dizzying array of regional governments and local partners, many of which were in direct military competition with one another. Can BWT better manage intra-alliance conflict? This issue came to the forefront in October 2017 after the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence. Allied with both Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iraqi Security Forces, the United States found itself stuck between feuding partners. When Iraqi forces—along with pro-Iranian Shia militias—advanced on Kurdish positions in the city of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, American forces sat by as the their two partners fought one another. The event damaged U.S. credibility as an arbiter between coalition partners, but also highlighted of America’s unwillingness to take ownership of the battlespace and its alliances.

A similar crisis emerged in early 2018 when Turkey launched an assault on Kurdish-controlled Afrin, which led to a major showdown between the U.S.-backed SDF and the United States’ NATO ally. Similar to the Iraqi Kurdish crisis, the United States opted to stay on the sidelines for weeks as its partners fought. Drawing the line at a Turkish assault on Manbij, the United States ultimately opted to take a more heavy-handed approach by setting up border outposts and conducting patrols. Today, though, with the announcement of a withdrawal from Syria, it appears that the United States is reverting back to what it perceives as a strength of BWT: not owning complicated scenarios.

These are issues that are wickedly difficult to handle. However, the likelihood that future BWT operations have a similar set of competing allies is high. As such, it is critical for practitioners to think more about BWT as a multi-party approach, and not as separate host-partner relations. Thinking of BWT as an integrated operation that simultaneously manages multiple relations, however, will likely require additional buy-in and ownership, potentially negating the positive aspects of a light footprint.

How Can the United States Manage Transitions Out of BWT?

There are few officials or analysts who agree with President Trump that the Islamic State has been defeated in Syria or Iraq. Not only does ISIS still maintain a ground presence in Syria, most reports show a resurgence of ISIS activity and Operation Inherent Resolve reports indicate a growing number of aerial attacks on ISIS positions. After the attack in Manbij on Wednesday, ISIS propaganda promised additional attacks targeting U.S. forces in the area. Although a withdrawal from Syria may be premature, the question of what happens to BWT relations after a true “mission accomplished” scenario is still critical to assess. After all, perhaps the most poignant critique of President Trump’s withdrawal announcement has been that the U.S. withdrawal may be the correct policy—many, including the author, are wary of indefinite military commitments abroad—but that it may be spoiled by the haste of and lack of planning and coordination for the likely withdrawal.

As Votel and Keravuori acknowledge in their Joint Force Quarterly special feature article, “Highly transactional relationships with nonstate actors remain the more challenging to transition without authorities or policies that follow through.” Votel and Keravuori highlight a key insight of BWT: that it can be conceived as a phase in a growing or shrinking relationship with local allies. Much of what has been written about BWT concerns entry into BWT relationships, but we can still learn more about how to end military advising or light-footprint missions without the result being either dangerous mission creep or complete abandonment.

This point rubs against the limits of a purely defense-related approach to military advising, long-acknowledged by proponents of BWT. Whether missions will subside, persist, or grow in scope and depth requires careful deliberation by a diverse set of stakeholders in Washington. This best explains why the potential downgrading of U.S. support for Syrian Kurds is expected to damage U.S. interests: not because it is necessarily the wrong policy, but because of a complete lack of interagency coordination thanks to President Trump’s unchecked impulses.

Overall, the process by which militaries move into and out of BWT operations is likely to remain the most important in terms of setting and signaling alliance expectations and intentions. What defines a well-managed transition in and out of BWT relationships is likely to change on a case-by-case basis. However, there are at least a couple straightforward approaches national security practitioners can take. First, easing out of relationships with local actors could be vastly improved by simply being sensitive to the publicity of the transitions themselves. Highly public and politically insensitive announcements that a partnership is ending or being downgraded (or vice versa) can do harm to local partners who are themselves managing complex relationships and threats at home. This issue was particularly salient during the 2017 Iraqi Kurdistan referendum: Although Iraqi Kurdish leaders understood that the United States was not in favor of the referendum or independence, they were caught off-guard by the very public and antagonistic rhetoric of U.S. officials. Beyond feeling that public rebukes were unwarranted, many Kurds felt that by signaling a potential downgrade in U.S. support, the United States had inadvertently encouraged Erbil’s neighbors in Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran to take more antagonistic approaches, including the Iraqi military’s seizure of large swaths of disputed territory.

Syrian Kurds today may similarly feel that the manner in which the U.S. withdrawal was announced has done as much damage as the potential withdrawal itself. The public brouhaha has tipped off the SDF’s adversaries, making clear opportunities for them to take advantage of in the coming days and weeks. Carefully managing the public relations around BWT transitions can be the difference between a harsh break-up and “we’re still friends.”

A second approach may be to stagger the ramping-up or drawdown of different elements of support during transitions. BWT relationships involve the management of both political and military assistance to local actors. After all, a core component of the approach is to cede greater political and military authority to local allies in the fight. For transitions out of partnerships, it may be wise to maintain or even increase political support for local allies at the same time military support is withdrawn to prevent damage to partner legitimacy or deter threats from their rivals. Overall, although relationship transitions may never be easy, potential harm can be drastically reduced by carefully managing the public image of new relationships, common quarrels, and break-ups with local partners.

Can the United States Credibly Sell BWT Abroad?

BWT relies on the credibility of U.S. commitments, and the sudden and public sidelining of Kurdish allies in Iraq and Syria (and perhaps soon, Afghanistan) will likely undermine the United States’ ability to sell similar operations to foreign allies. As other analysts have rightly pointed out, regardless of whether President Trump follows through with a withdrawal from Syria, the episode will stoke uncertainty among prospective allies in the region and beyond. The heart of this uncertainty is not over the sincerity of what Defense Department officials are offering, but whether these officials have any influence in whether their promises will be kept. America’s reputation as a fickle partner in the Middle East preceded President Trump and will likely persist beyond his presidency. But an impulsive withdrawal from Syria will have reputational effects long into the future. The long-term issue is not that the United States may now struggle to find local actors willing to sign up for a BWT relationship—the United States will always need transactional partners and there will always be local actors eager for U.S. help. The problem is that the quality of prospective partners will diminish, and the value of these transactional partnerships may be further cheapened.

While BWT may be a wise approach for U.S. military operations in the Middle East and beyond, the level of sponsor-ally trust required to make the approach work may be hindered by regional distrust in the coherence of U.S. foreign-policy decision-making. As such, the key to the survival of BWT may not be the ability of defense officials to sell such relationships to foreign allies, but the ability of defense officials to sell the policy to politicians, along with commitments to avoid rapid transitions.

Although it is still too early to know whether or how a withdrawal from Syria will take place—the tentative timeline for withdrawal has already been extended from one to four months—U.S. credibility and trust from local partners in the region has already suffered. Declining trust will have a detrimental effect on the quality of foreign allies that select into BWT, their willingness to go the extra mile to advance common security interests, and their steadfastness to U.S. leadership. This will be true even for limited operations conducted with clearly transactional partners.

BWT is an important, flexible, and useful instrument in America’s foreign-policy toolbox. Carefully used, it can advance U.S. security interests abroad while also avoiding spreading U.S. resources dangerously thin. However, America’s relationships with partners in Iraq and Syria highlight areas that can be improved in both theorizing and executing this approach. This is not a call for a more heavy-handed interventionist approach to global security issues; that would be a move in the wrong direction. Instead, national-security practitioners must address these key questions about the applicability of BWT on a case-by-case basis to ensure the future success of the approach. BWT is a two-way street, and U.S. operations and strategy will be more successful if it carefully considers the preferences of U.S. allies and the challenges they face.

Morgan Kaplan is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Buffett Institute for Global Studies and the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University.

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