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Syria, Libya, Iraq: Armed Groups and Power

The collapse or the weakening of Middle Eastern regimes led to the emergence of different ideological, ethnic and sectarian forces increasingly represented by paramilitary movements

Iraqi Sunni militias. Photo: Middle East Eye

The long course of the Arab Spring has generated ethnic, regional and sectarian conflict. The Islamic State has virtually cancelled old borders. In this new “disorder” the power of armed militias prevails more every day.


It is difficult to imagine how the Middle East will be in a decade. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify elements and dynamics that will shape future scenarios. What should be highlighted is how the Middle East is witnessing a deep theoretical and practical crisis of the Nation-State as a sovereign political entity as well as a set of institutions. The reasons are different in political, economic and social nature: dictatorship, corruption, unemployment, human rights violations… Two fundamental problems are to be noted: the absence of an effective legitimacy of power – whether democratic, religious or political - as well as the difficulties in composing different ethnic and sectarian elements of a nation into a functional synthesis.



States without nations


The Middle East is a system of unstable States without nations, the current form of which came about at the end of the First World War, with artificial States imposed and controlled by the West, which largely gained effective independence at the end of WWII. Between the 1950s and 60s, a series of coups d’état led to the establishment of military regimes, which stabilized in the 1970s. All ideological legitimization linked to pan-Arabism was lost to the “revolution” or to Ba’athism and these regimes transformed into autocracies founded on a dynastic and patrimonial conceptions of the State. First with the American intervention in Iraq, then with the Arab Spring, these regimes went into crisis, and only the monarchies, in the Gulf as well as Morocco and Jordan, managed to survive the events.



The current crisis of Middle Eastern regimes, governments and States led to the emergence of different ideological, ethnic and sectarian forces. Every country has its own peculiar historical trajectory, with more or less conflicting dynamics and different forces. For example, among ideological forces, mostly on religious grounds, look at the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other Salafi movements, or the Islamist party, Ennahda in Tunisia. Among the ethnic components is the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and the Rojava in Syria, while among sectarian bodies are the Shiite militias of Hashd al-Sahaabi, the Iraqi Shiite militia used predominantly in an anti-Islamic State capacity, or the al-Nusra Front in Syria. The Islamic State and other fundamentalist movements are ideological forces - as Islamists - as well as sectarian forces - in that they are Sunni.



Following the weakening of the regimes or their collapse, the different tribal, political, ethnic or religious communities that compose the societies of the different countries have come back into play and often compete with one another. This explains why today, in the Middle East, the role of the often violent and transnational so-called non-state actors is fundamental. The form of organization in which these forces occur is that of the militia. In reality, armed militia, political party and social movement all overlap in many cases. There is a wealth of precedents: Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza or Fatah in the West Bank. Certainly, however, in recent years countries like Iraq, Syria and Libya have seen the affirmation of militias and paramilitary groups, expressions of certain community identities, all at the expense of traditional armed forces. Actually, the traditional armies are divided on a community basis or are ousted or they become the expression of the dominance of a community.



The proxy wars


The current Middle Eastern geopolitical dynamics also affect countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar and Turkey which turn regional conflicts and revolts into proxy wars, each one creating or supporting allied militias. Furthermore, over the course of the civil wars, the regimes themselves rely on paramilitary groups like the Shabiha in Syria or the Sahwa in Iraq (reawakening, in Arabic - armed Sunni groups which joined forces in 2007 with the Americans in order to take down al-Qaeda). Moreover, Iran itself made Hezbollah and the Basij - an Iranian paramilitary group - a successfully “exported” model, in the past in Lebanon and today in Iraq with Hashd al-Shaabi.



In many cases, the militias are born as self-defense groups for threatened communities or are an expression of aspirations for autonomy: just look at many of the formations popping up locally to protect villages and cities in Syria, Libya and, in the past, Iraq, or the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG (People's Protection Units).



The bottom line is that these militias are born as armed forces, in a context civil war and of weak of political power, soon thereafter becoming the main players. The politicians of the regime as well as the opposition are forced to rely on these forces, with grave consequences. Many militia leaders then seek to obtain a political role for themselves. The next step is that of the legitimization, by the State, of these very militias.


This dynamic of political affirmation and legitimization also corresponds to a transformation of the militias, which become political parties and social movements rooted in the population. If, on the other hand, a militia is defeated over the course of a war, a different transformation takes place: a clandestine movement devoted to terrorist activities, as happened with various Iraqi Sunni, Baathist and Jihadist groups, and/or criminal groups, like al-Qaeda in the Maghreb.



Therefore, the current crisis of the regimes or the weakness of the Middle Eastern governments, in a context of particularistic pushes, favors the affirmation of the militias. This dynamic, in addition to imposing the militias themselves as future leading political actors – yesterday in Lebanon and Iraq, tomorrow in Syria and Libya – will favor a sort of territorial and social “balkanization” of the Middle East, where, as is true in Lebanon, internal political balance will be fragile and precarious.

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