Let’s start with a couple of vocabulary notes. As the construction of the word makes clear, there can be no de-confliction without conflict.
But it takes a special kind of conflict to make de-confliction necessary, and that kind of conflict is what we label “proxy war.”
Proxy wars are defined as wars instigated by major powers who do not become directly involved beyond helping and supporting the less major “proxy forces” who do the actual fighting.
De-confliction is what happens when those major powers try to limit the fighting so that some elements of the conflict are protected from killing one another. Usually the first imperative of de-confliction is for the major powers to protect their own people, but often, the de-confliction has be expanded to protect the big power’s favorite proxies.
In Syria, the world’s biggest and worst ongoing proxy war, the opposing major powers are Russia and the United States and from the moment that Russian forces entered the Syrian theater, they negotiated de-confliction agreements with the US. The first de-confliction had to do with air space, where there was the highest likelihood of direct deadly conflict between Russian and American and allied pilots.
But both major powers and their second-tier power allies, like Iran, Hizbullah and the government of Syria on the Russian side, and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and sometimes Turkey on the American side also wanted to de-conflict some of the warfare on the ground to protect some of their grunt-level proxies. So, agreements were made in which each side promised not to attack certain areas or certain small units.
This was easier when the proxies, all of whom claim they are working towards the elimination of the Islamic State, were pursuing that shared goal along separate tracks.
But, truth be told, those tracks tended to end up aimed at the same targets, major IS strongholds like the so-called Caliphate’s capital, Raqqa and the city Deir-al-Zor and its adjoining air base. As these campaigns, and indeed the war for Syria itself, get closer to endgame, and the various proxy forces get closer to their goals and to one another, de-confliction gets more complicated.
Take territorial de-confliction. It had been agreed that the Russian backed proxies would keep to the West side of the Euphrates River, while the US backed proxies would stay to the east. It was also agreed that restraint and fair warnings would make sure, even if one side fired across the river, it wouldn’t fire where the other side’s fighters were. No, all aggression was supposed to be reserved for the “terrorists” of the Islamic State. Even in Deir al-Zor which straddles the Euphrates.
It all worked pretty well, says US Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis, until Russian air forces attacked US-backed Syrian Defense Forces and wounded 6 people. This attack, Mattis charges, and the Russians deny, represented a change in the de-confliction program, and set off alarm bells, as Mattis put it, at the highest levels of government. At the very least, the two top military commanders on each side Russian General Valery Gerasimov, and U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford spent at least an hour on the phone in a one-on-one effort to re-deconflict a dangerous situation.
But, even when functioning perfectly, de-confliction is just an appendage from real conflict, and in Syria, in the Mideast region, and in a growing number of places around the world, the US and Russia have sharp disagreements. An erosion of de-confliction in central Syria could send a series of other conflict areas flooding out of control.
James Sladden is a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation working in Defense and Political Sciences. Previously he was an analyst for RAND Europe, focusing on strategy in the area of defence, security, and infrastructure. Before joining RAND, from November 2014 until June 2015, Sladden worked in the conflict areas in eastern Ukraine as an international monitoring officer in the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Prior to working for the OSCE, he served for seven years as an officer in the Royal Marines. His service included deployments in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone, and counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean. Sladden received an M.A. with distinction in applied security strategy from the Strategy and Security Institute at the University of Exeter, where he was an Excellence Scholar, and a B.A. (Hons) in history and politics from the University of Nottingham.