Geopolitics on the rocks

Giovanni Parigi

The rule of militias, the Middle East after ra‘is and Da‘esh

Middle East and North Africa

Current crises in the Middle East are marked by the rise of militias with ethnic, sectarian, local, tribal or simply criminal identity. Being active in failed, failing or fragile States, those militias are successfully conquering or sharing power with the governments, thus asserting themselves as one of the main trends shaping the future order of the Middle East.

What is going on in the Middle East? Civil wars are raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, while Algeria, Lebanon and Egypt walk on the tightrope of very fragile equilibria. In fact, the vast majority of Arab countries face same economic, political, social and ethno-sectarian problems; furthermore, they are mostly failed, failing and fragile states, where governments’ legitimacy, sovereignty and authority are weak and challenged. Against such a backdrop of failed or, at least, collapsing States, in the last years we have witnessed the rise of militias as key players in undermining and replacing powers, legitimacy and territorial integrity of the Arab states. Never as today, the role of militias has been so decisive in Middle Eastern history. Such a dynamic is so incisive and widespread, that one should consider the rise to power of militias - or more academically “non-State armed groups”- as a historical macro-trend, destined to shape the near future of Middle East; in this regard, it is useful to read in retrospect its history.

In the beginning were the kings. Then came young Army officers but, later on, their revolutions turned into “republican” autocracies led by presidents for life; eventually, repressive, kleptocratic and sectarian dictators were ruling over most Middle Eastern countries. On the eve of the Arab Spring, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Syria and Yemen were all ruled by a despotic ra‘is, regardless of their official form of government. The rest of the Arab countries were ruled by monarchies; only Iraq and Lebanon were republics, even if quite feeble and dysfunctional.

Then came the Arab Spring, with its hollow hopes. Monarchies aside, of all countries only Tunisia managed to avoid the spiral of counter-coups, restorations and civil wars which followed. In the meantime all countries, monarchies included, became entangled in the regional confrontation between “Sunni Holy League” and the “Shi‘a Crescent”; with Da‘esh at the epicentre of a crisis binding tightly the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars, while drawing in the main regional players. In this context of civil wars and ethno-sectarian cleavages, it is thriving a swarm of militias with ethnic, sectarian, local, tribal, or simply criminal bases. Notwithstanding such miscellaneous identities, their dynamics of power linked to governments are almost the same all over the Middle East, and they are characterized by an inversely proportional relationship: the more governments are weak, the stronger the role of the militias.

In Libya, the political process sputtered, right after the initial success of the transfer of power from the National Transitional Congress to the General National Congress with the 2012 elections. Different political forces were unable to reach a compromise and a democratic competition for power degenerated into armed confrontation. Actually, from the very beginning, revolutionary militias started to interfere with politics, asking salaries and positions in the institutions.

Then, rapidly, political forces started to rely more and more on militias, establishing a mutually benefitting dynamic where State’s legitimacy, power and money were traded in exchange for armed support and defence from rival forces. Some militias directly moved bag and baggage into institutional roles, like those landed in 2012 by the ministry of Defence in the Libya Shield Force, while institutional entities as the Petroleum Facility Guards became self-referential militias themselves. In fact, the main political players became dependent on the support of militias; the kidnapping of prime minister Zeidan in 2013 by the Libyan Revolutionary Operations Chamber being exemplary of such a trend. Nowadays, militias’ rivalries mirror divisions in Libya’s governments. While it is no accident that one of the weakest points of Prime Minister al Sarraj is his weak support from local militias.

In Syria, the role of armed non-State groups is even more complex, since the ethno-sectarian dimension and the proxy-war dynamic are more pronounced. In Libya non-State armed groups are mostly expression of locally rooted forces, identified with specific towns and cities rather then linked to a specific ideology, tribal affiliation or ethnicity; on the contrary, in Syria the situation is by far more diversified. For example, the People’s Protection Units [1] of Rojava are expression of the Kurdish ethnic identity, while Da‘esh and the Hayat Tahrir ash Shams [2] share a Sunni sectarian identity, even if they embody different trends of the same salafi jihadism.

The role of militias acting as proxies of external powers is as nowhere as evident and incisive as in Syria. As the initial attempt to train and equip some moderate militias poorly failed, the US started redirecting its support mainly towards the Kurdish groups. While Turkey initially joined the Syrian fray by supporting several salafi groups against al Assad; then, making a “U” political turn, came up beside Russia and now is backing the rebels of the Free Syrian Army.

However, one should consider Iran’s involvement to be of the uttermost importance. Counting on Hezbollah’s support, Iran is the patron of several Syrian militias, fostering the intervention of Iraqi groups and recruiting Afghani and Pakistani volunteers. Actually, Tehran developed an efficient doctrine and a comprehensive policy aimed at establishing and maintaining militias as proxy forces capable of granting control or, at least, exerting a strong influence over the internal dynamics of a target country; furthermore, these proxies constitute a tool for retaliatory deterrence against enemies such as the US or Israel.

In other terms, notably through the efforts of its al-Quds Force unit, Tehran is exporting the model of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps; however, this is the way to export the Islamic revolution as well, since pasdarans are not only a military force, but also a political entity with a peculiar Shi’a religious identity. Lebanon’s Hezbollah is the most successful example of this strategy, and represents a paradigm for many militias across the Middle East.

In Syria one can spot another interesting feature, which is the dependence of the al-Assad regime on its allied militias. The Syrian Arab Army is now a weak and flimsy force, and for quite some time the regime has relied for its defense on a plethora of highly diverse militias ranging from the Shabiha, which hasn’t yet abandoned its original nature of a criminal gang, to the galaxy of local, political, tribal, confessional and self-defense militias. The point being that the regime, in return for their support, is providing those militias with money, power and legitimacy. In other words, Assad’s regime depends for its survival not only on Russian and Iranian support, but it is also hostage to a myriad of unstable, locally focused, riotous and mostly Iranian-controlled militias.

Iraq has a longstanding tradition of militias challenging the State. In the past, Saddam was opposed by the peshmerga of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party, as well as by the Iraqi volunteers of the Iranian sponsored Badr Brigades. With the demise of the ra‘is, the Shi’a centric State-building process and the Sunni marginalization led to a shocking escalation of violence, waged by a nationalist and religious inspired insurgency, paired by al Qa‘ida-like movements igniting a sectarian civil war.

Thus the landscape of those non-State armed groups is extremely heterogeneous, comprising sectarian militias such as the Mahdi Army; armed wings of several parties such as the Badr Organisation; tribal groups as those of Sahwa; Peshmerga; former regime loyalists; al Qa‘ida salafi-jihadists and even sufi orders as the Naqshbandiyya. In Iraq, more than in any other country, the presence of militias led to a double-track process of militarization of politics and politicization of militias; on the one hand, with few exceptions, all relevant political players integrated militias into their organizations or have an armed wing. On the other hand, some militias “feudalized” ministries and their leaders landed key positions in the public institutions; the osmotic relation between militias and politicians, and the blurring role of the two, in Iraq is striking.

Nowadays the future of Iraq largely depends on the presence of militias; Da‘esh itself may be considered as a sectarian militia which “has made it”, while in the upcoming provincial and parliamentarian elections the participation of political movements spawned from the militias of the Popular Mobilitation Forces [3] will be nothing short of decisive. Those forces are largely composed by Shi’a sectarian hardliners, closely linked to Iran, and it seems that they may support Shi’a “hawks”, such as former prime minister Nouri al Maliki, or even nominate to the premiership their leader Hadi al ‘Amiri. Unsurprisingly the incumbent prime minister, the moderate Haider al ‘Abadi, is trying to block, through specific laws, the entry of several Hashd al Sha‘bi militias into politics; moreover, in order to strengthen the State’s prerogatives and legitimacy, incumbent al ‘Abadi is limiting Hashd al Sha‘bi’s role in the fight against Da‘esh.

In Yemen, one of the more fractured and fragile Middle Eastern States, sectarian, tribal and political dynamics got mixed up and exacerbated by the intervention of the main regional powers. However, it is noteworthy how a rebel sectarian militia, the Ansar Allah or Houthi, was able to destabilize the State and dislodge the government from the capital.

To sum it all up, looking for a fil rouge linking the fall of regimes and the rise of militias, one may highlight two intertwined dynamics. First, the weakening of regular Armed Forces; as the securitization of the State pursued by local autocrats turned the Army into some kind of Praetorian Guard tasked with providing security to the regime and maintaining its grip on the population, thus losing efficiency, legitimacy and popular support. Second, the autocratic and narrowly-based pattern of governance embraced by many Arab regimes; political hegemony was exercised more and more on a familistic, tribal, sectarian or geographic basis, while power dynamic and governance were based on patronage networks. This system led to the exclusion, and oppression, of several social groups. But, when the Arab Spring began, the combination of these two dynamics led to the rise of militias as expression of sub-state groups’ identity and as vehicle for their quest to power.

As a conclusion, the active presence of militias has increasingly become a common characteristic of all Middle Eastern failing, failed and fragile States. In many cases, militias represent disruptive forces which are antithetic to the State, seeking its subversion, secession or simply more autonomy; in other cases they predate and take control of State’s institutions but, in any case, cohesion, legitimacy and authority of the State are undermined or limited. On the one hand, as opportunistic organizations, militias not only develop open opposition to the government, but also often establish osmotic and parasitic relations with State’s institutions. On the other hand, as extremely flexible entities, they are capable of differentiating their role and act not only as military forces, but also as political, social and economic players.

Thus, in the next future militias will keep asserting themselves as one of the main trends shaping the future of the Middle East. And they are destined to be at the center of the stage as long as the Middle East will continue to be plagued by dictatorship, poor governance, ethno-sectarian polarization and radicalization.


[1] Known also as YPG

[2] Better known as Jabhat al Nusrah

[3] Known also as Hashd al Sha‘bi