In the last decade, principal–agent theory has almost completely dominated theorizing on conflict delegation. Although not without criticism, it is fair to say that principal– agent theory has become the dominant framework through which we have come to study external support to non-state armed groups. This is not surprising as it speaks directly to the fundamental process of delegation, providing us with valuable insights into conflict delegation in civil war. However, despite the widespread use of this theoretical framework we have still not utilized it to its fullest potential. The current standard application of principal–agent theory has focused entirely on one direct relationship: that between principal and agent. This has been the model almost exclusively employed in the conflict delegation literature.
However, the delegation of war to proxies is a process that often involves more actors than the principal and the agent. In fact, proxy wars are structured along the lines of multiple chains of delegation. For example, in some cases the principal–agent relationship is mediated by a middleman. This could, for instance, be great powers routing support through regional or local allies, with examples including United States support to the Mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan delivered through Pakistan. In other cases, we can observe parallel principal-agent relations, with the same principal simultaneously delegating to more than one agent. Syria has provided support to a range of Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, while the United States provided parallel support to various rebel groups in Syria. The study of these more complex delegation chains is a blind spot in the debate and this project is aimed at rectifying this issue. By acknowledging complexity and its variation, it opens several potential research avenues. First, why do principals employ middlemen? How do intermediaries change delegation dynamics? Second, do proxies assume different roles for different principals? How is control of proxy groups enforced when supported by multiple principals? Third, what are the effects of shorter and longer delegation chains? Future research needs to look deeper into how state sponsors coordinate and jointly channel support and how this affects rebel groups. Moreover, discussing complex conflict delegation presents a unique opportunity to evaluate the issue of control in the delegation of war to non-state armed actors, a key topic the debate has yet to address systematically.