Hybrid Security Governance and the Search for the State in the Middle East

January 29, 2021
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Editor’s Note: This is the fourth and final article in a series on hybrid armed actors in the Middle East. Be sure to read the firstsecond, and third essays. The concept for the series emerged from a Chatham House project on the same topic.


On May 29, 2020, Yemeni Health Minister Dr. Nasser Baum gave a televised speech assuring viewers that his country was free of the novel coronavirus and was ready to confront the pandemic. In fact, the virus was already spreading and Yemen was badly unprepared to stop it. While estimates are difficult because testing was so spotty, a recent study showed that Yemen’s COVID-19 mortality rate was a staggering 27 percent, five times greater than the global average. The problems were not just medical or economic, due to the deteriorating healthcare system or grinding poverty, but equally political and military. The internationally recognized Yemeni government in which Baum served governed only isolated pockets within the country. The task of dealing with the pandemic — equipping and guarding hospitals, enforcing quarantines, and maintaining basic services — instead fell to the armed non-state actors that ruled on the ground. Provincial governors and local strongmen set up roadblocks, closed down crowded markets, and curbed qat-chewing circles at their own initiative. Without oversight or authorization from the central government, they often seized the opportunity to further their own political agendas in the process. Repeated calls for humanitarian ceasefires went unheeded. Houthi forces blamed the disease on Saudi Arabia and used it as pretext to clamp down on political opposition in Sana’a and the north. Separatist militias in the south, ostensive allies to the Yemeni government, hijacked medical equipment from the Aden docks, trying to compel the international community to acknowledge their bid for independence.

Two decades of civil wars and state failure have led to a proliferation of militias, tribal groups, self-defense forces, and warlords across the Middle East. All could broadly be called violent entrepreneurs, colluding or competing with state authorities for economic gain and political position. Lebanon, where sectarian militias like Hizballah have long overshadowed the Lebanese Armed Forces, proved a harbinger. Iraq witnessed the efflorescence of militias during the U.S. occupation and civil war of the 2000s. Yemen, Syria, and Libya followed a similar course the following decade. The result was new hybrid forms of security governance, which merged and intermingled state and non-state coercive power. As Yezid Sayigh puts it, this system “combine[d] formal and informal policing and adjudication; familiar patronage-based recruitment and promotion along with increasingly pervasive monetized opportunities in the gray economy; and a mix of centralized and decentralized modes of control over the means and uses of coercion.” Hybrid security governance defies orthodox conflict resolution approaches of “fixing” failed states and marginalizing armed non-state actors.



But hybridity does open up the potential for new arrays of power and responsibility. Non-state actors in the Middle East are likely to become even more firmly embedded as states recede to increasingly symbolic roles. Outside powers like the United States should start engaging with those who are already doing much of the governing across the region and stop focusing singularly on rebuilding hapless states. While states will retain symbolic, legal, and even moral importance, they are ineffective at ensuring stability. Instead, more comprehensive approaches should seek to reconcile rump states with the armed non-state actors that can serve as security interlocutors. Working by and through non-state actors goes against conventional policy prescription and diplomatic tradition. It is also not what many people inside the region hope for, according to recent surveys. But it could be better than waiting in vain for strong states to arrive.

How Does Hybrid Security Governance Work?

Hybrid security governance, in which state security forces coexist with a host of armed non-state actors, entails stark variation in who bears arms and under whose banner. Capital cities may stay under state control, patrolled by overlapping security services. Across other territories, however, armed groups operate with far greater autonomy while offering figurative homage to distant central authorities.

In Iraq and Syria, the Popular Mobilization Forces and National Defense Battalions, for example, operated as pro-government militias supplementing, and sometimes replacing, armies that had suffered from desertion and poor combat performance. Under Iranian tutelage, both also extended into business and social welfare, buying up real-estate and offering services to their fighters and supporting constituencies. Likewise, the more ambitious and disciplined rebels took over taxing, schooling, public health, and policing. Under this system of security governance, people and goods circulate constantly, although sometimes clandestinely, between the territories of ostensive rivals. Urban centers, hydrocarbon facilities, ports, and other usable spaces become focal points of competition. Less lucrative areas endure a potentially more salutary neglect.

Hybridity makes government decision-makers less relevant in the actual contest for power in a country’s periphery, as I discuss in my recent book. Instead of satellites of the central government, many non-state forces act like distant planets orbiting in intricate epicycles. Alignment with nominal regimes or rebel fronts is often secondary to position relative to local populations. Iraqi politics, for example, is typically seen as pitting a Shiite-dominated central government against the Sunni Arab minority, with separatist-minded Kurds backing the Shiites in return for autonomy. But Sunnis in Mosul have joined the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces to counter Kurdish incursions while various Shiite militias in Basra spar for the spoils of the oil industry. Libya’s Government of National Accord in Tripoli and the eastern government controlled by Khalifa Haftar each has an army, parliament, central bank, and national oil company, all purporting to be the true organs of the Libyan state. But their military campaigns, as Emaddedin Badi points out, rely on support from local tribes, mercenaries, Islamist and Salafi factions, separatists, and organized crime syndicates sometimes tied to mercantile elites. Consequently, the battle for supremacy in Sebha, for instance, is often only tangentially related to the fight in Sirte.

In Yemen, militias — some tribal, some Islamist, and some ex-military — replaced the army at the center of a hybrid military structure. Aden and the south are under the nominal control of the government, but intense competition continues between Yemeni government forces, the southern separatist movement, tribal chiefs, and radical Islamists. Tribal leaders and officials in Marib voice support for the Government of Yemen but more or less operate autonomously. Only the Houthis, lacking in international recognition, approach a monopoly on violence in the northern highlands and Sana’a. A survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center illustrates the consequences of these differences in popular experience of political order. Among respondents in Sana’a, the most significant perceived threats were Saudi airstrikes (27 percent) and the continuation of the war (22 percent). Respondents in Aden, by contrast, listed militias and armed groups as the biggest threat (26 percent), followed by thefts and weak state authorities (20 percent). These differences are visible even from space, with territories under different modes of control suffering different levels of destruction.

Consequences for Regional and Extra-Regional States

Outside actors loom larger in regional security matters as nominal states recede. State-building has long been the favored policy prescription for dealing with weak and failed states. The imperative of state building and reversal of hybridity is repeated as mantra in international circles. Peace proposals envision a return, more or less, to centralized modes of statehood. Rebels and militias will be defeated or coopted, allowing more effective and responsive state institutions to emerge.

It is an open secret, however, that militias and warlords are often more valuable partners — “essential interlocutors” as Gen. (ret.) John Allen and Amb. (ret.) Giampiero Massolo put it —than enervated states. This is not just true for the United States, Russia, and other countries that may see non-state actors as cheap options for dealing with recurrent but distant security problems. More proximate regional powers, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Turkey, have also set up networks of non-state proxies to parallel their ties to inept regimes. Proxies, in turn, jockey to receive foreign military assistance and to siphon flows of humanitarian aid to their own ends. The longer such patron-client ties persist, the more dispensable the nominal state becomes.

A paradox about the Middle East and North Africa, though, is that the normative importance of statehood remains pronounced. Of course, the notion of the state monopolizing violence to the exclusion of all other actors has always been more presumptive than real. The conditions of hybridity make the contrast between what states are and what they ought to be especially galling. Lebanese citizens are accustomed to relying on sectarian connections to access welfare institutions and ensure personal security through militias. But public opinion surveys show that they still overwhelmingly identify themselves as “Lebanese first.” In Iraq, the recent election and mass protests showed a pronounced shift toward “post-sectarian” identities in ways that rebuff the overtly-sectarian ruling elite. Public opinion surveys reveal low esteem for the Iraqi military, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and most politicians. Yet, amidst this cynicism about everyday governance, respondents still show strong conviction that they are “Iraqis first,” indicating attachment to state-based identity as an abstract principle.

Similar evidence comes from Yemen. Very few Yemenis have positive opinions of militias and, according to Yemen Polling Center data, nearly half (46 percent) of respondents opined that the Yemeni state alone should handle security provisions. Again, this confidence in the state was more general than specific. Only 36 percent of Yemenis surveyed wanted the state to be sole security provider in their specific region. Stability in areas like Marib or Shebwa, in fact, is a byproduct of state collapse, allowing non-state armed actors less fettered reign. Yemeni citizens are increasingly undertaking self-help and self-protection as if the political disposition of the state didn’t matter.

Searching Beyond the State

Well-functioning, responsive states in the Middle East may be the best guarantors of peace and prosperity, but there are other ways to enhance stability. The gap between popular expectation and states’ manifest performance is nothing new in the region. Hybrid security arrangements offer alternatives to state-centered orthodoxies. States may not disappear, but their role will be increasingly symbolic — even figurative. National anthems will still be sung, diplomatic protocols will continue, and a sense of national citizenship will remain. More and more functional control over security and economic welfare, however, will fall into the hands of local actors with contingent ties to the central authorities. Rather than bemoan or ignore this evolution, outside actors can consider ways to facilitate it by engaging directly and purposefully with armed non-state actors. This may well be more sustainable than continuing to push for state reconsolidation.



Ariel I. Ahram (@ariel_ahram) is an associate professor at the Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs in Arlington and the author of War and Conflict in the Middle East and North Africa.

Image: Flickr (Photo by Julien Harneis)