Practical Challenges and Hybrid Hypocrisy: Legal and Policy Dilemmas with the Hybrid Moniker


Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series on hybrid armed actors in the Middle East. Be sure to read the introductory article. The concept for the series emerged from a Chatham House project on the same topic. 


Substantial swathes of the Middle East and North Africa are under the de facto control of non-state forces and parties that act more like a state than the de jure government. More than parochial warlords, shadowy militias, or insurgent forces, these groups hold off insurgent or terrorist threats, provide services and jobs, and sometimes represent the most functional governance and authority in these countries. The names accorded to these forces vary — some considered “non-state” armed groups, some as “hybrid” forces sitting between non-state or substate forces (a term further discussed below), and some seeming more like subsidiary forces within the state, sometimes framed as “substate” actors. Should Western states engaged in security or peacebuilding projects embrace these “hybrid” security orders, as they are often called, and more readily recognize or otherwise engage with powerful substate and so-called hybrid forces? To some extent they have already done so. There are ample examples of Western states partnering with or supporting non-state, substate, or quasi-state forces where expedient to do so. However, a still state-centric bias in the presumptions and working tools of statecraft, and the politics surrounding some of these groups, bars anything more than a short-term or reactive approach. This leaves Western states with few long-term strategies or options for addressing the generational challenge posed by hybrid actors.

Hybrid Actors in a State-Based World

Over the past few years, the term hybrid actors has emerged to describe an increasing number of quasi-state forces and parties — from those operating alongside or within the state, such as Lebanon’s Hizballah, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, or Kurdish parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to those that oppose or operate largely autonomously from the state, including the Houthis in Yemen, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces under General Khalifa Haftar, or the Syrian Democratic Forces in northeast Syria. These groups emerged initially as non-state or substate armed groups, but over time became more state-like, with substantial control over territory, significant military power, and an impressive apparatus of service provision and governance, often more than the titular sovereign. They have sought formal titles, authority, and even sovereign autonomy or recognition. Some have won it to varying degrees, either by force, through political accords, or at the ballot box.



However, even those that joined the government or were fully legalized have been careful to protect their informal power and leverage. They have kept one foot inside the state and one foot outside, maintaining political independence from the organs of the state, keeping some forces outside state command and control, and continuing to maintain their own economic lifelines (licit and illicit). As such, even the most state-like of these groups have a blended status, often performing the functions of the state, or bearing its authority, but in many ways continuing to act as non-state actors: a hybrid between the two.

Western states’ reactions to such powerful hybrid actors have ranged from wariness to engage to open hostility and aggressive action. However, given the substantial role that powerful hybrid or non-state actors are set to play in their domestic contexts, some have suggested more open engagement. Other contributors to this series have suggested that the international community’s hesitance to fully recognize or accept these hybrid forces belies the reality on the ground. Taking the Popular Mobilization Force in Iraq as an example, Renad Mansour argues that hybrid actors are so embedded within and indistinguishable from state actors that we should “call a state a state” and recognize that reality. In his contribution to this series, Ariel Ahram argues that hybrid security governance has become so common — even the norm — that accepting such hybrid arrangements may be a “more plausible and sustainable” approach to state-building than “waiting in vain for strong states to arrive.”

Why might Western states be reluctant to recognize or more fully engage with such hybrid forces? As Ahram’s contribution suggests, the framework for intervention in these countries tends to be aimed at building what is often described as a “neo-Weberian” state — a strong state capable of exerting a monopoly on force, with functional institutions and service provision, and able to enforce the rule of law. Academics have long argued that such neo-Weberian expectations and the sort of false dichotomies they create — between state and society, and formal, official and informal spheres — have never matched the reality of politics and governance in the Middle East. Nonetheless, it remains the prevailing operating framework, upon which most Western policies and prescriptions for so-called “failing” or transitional states are premised. Mansour argues that this state-centric, neo-Weberian framework prejudices Western states against engaging with hybrid actors like the Popular Mobilization Force, which do not neatly fit neo-Weberian assumptions and categories of state versus non-state, or formal versus informal power. Moreover, hybrid actors that can buck state authority and operate through alternate institutions and power channels might be seen as a threat to this idea of a state in exclusive control.

Mansour argues that the hybrid actor concept might be viewed as an effort to pull policymakers out of these binaries, and to force them to deal with the greater ambiguity and hybridity in these arenas by putting a name to it. Conceptually it may well do so, but that will do little to shift the legal and policy parameters that policymakers must operate within. The second driver underlying Western states’ state-centric preferences is that the tools of statecraft and the principles of international law have largely inherited that neo-Weberian, Westphalian architecture. International law reinforces these categorical distinctions between state and non-state actors, between sovereignty and the lack thereof. Legal obligations and treatment are contingent on that legal status. As a result, a category in the middle — like that of hybrid actors — is figuratively less like splitting the difference than of falling between two stools.

Even just on the practical day-to-day level, the instruments that policymakers have available to them to try to induce cooperation or deter unwanted behavior — the carrots and sticks of bilateral relations — tend to be based on status, designed for or limited to certain categories of actors. Domestic law may make certain types of funding arrangements or partnerships available only to state actors, which could determine or bar the level of practical engagement possible in a hybridized security system. Domestic or international law might trigger different sanctions or punitive measures for non-state actors engaging in unlawful behavior, even when their actions are no different to those of state actors. At its core, the international system is doctrinally and practically still a state and state actors’ world.

Exceptions to State-Centrism

All of this has contributed to a default preference for working with state partners, and a reluctance to recognize non-state actors or those with a slightly speculative or recently brokered state status. However, while state-centrism is the rule, it has been riddled with exceptions. To an increasing degree, Western states have found ways to work with hybrid, non-state, or substate forces where expediency demanded it, and in some cases even pushed for their partners’ political or legal recognition.

The United States has been the most expansive in engaging with hybrid or non-state security actors. U.S. Special Forces or intelligence operatives have partnered with a range of non-state or hybrid forces as part of their global counter-terrorism campaigns. The United States mobilized tens of thousands of non-state forces as part of its counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, in multiple local defense initiatives in Afghanistan, and with the Sunni sahwa (Awakening) forces. When ISIL seized half of northern and central Iraq in June 2014, and the Iraqi army collapsed, the U.S. instinct was to again turn to substate and nonstate partners: The initial U.S. strategy emphasized support to Kurdish and “tribal security forces”, leading to a second U.S.-promoted Sunni Tribal Mobilization Force in Iraq, alongside the larger Popular Mobilization Force. From 2012 to the present, the United States has also supported a range of decidedly non-state (the different Free Syria Army forces) or hybrid (arguably, the Syrian Democratic Forces) forces in Syria, with both covert and overt assistance programs.

France and the United Kingdom have also been willing to work with a range of tribal militias, clans, and other hybrid actors in some of the same counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency environments, from early British tribal engagement efforts in Afghanistan, to both countries’ support to the Free Syria Army and the Syrian Democratic Forces. France has forged partnerships with militias and other hybrid security modalities across the Sahel. More recently, French crisis management in Lebanon and Libya has included direct engagement with Hizballah, and with Haftar’s Libyan Arab Armed Forces. This has proven controversial precisely because it suggests a degree of recognition and conferral of legitimacy to these actors.

Other countries have been more reluctant to partner with substate, non-state, or hybrid actors. However, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and other Western countries have bent the rules and tacitly cooperated with, or provided some support to, such actors where their global engagements have necessitated it — from supporting the militias masquerading as the Libyan coast guard, to providing arms and training to the Kurdish Peshmerga as part of anti-ISIL efforts, to non-lethal support to the Free Syrian Army. In Somalia, a United Nations University study on militias and hybridity noted that the results of the decades-long state-building project were so dismal, and pro-government militias proved so crucial to fighting al-Shabaab, that even countries like Germany have been willing to consider support to the more state-linked of these militias.

Being willing to partner with or support local forces as part of a short-term tactical engagement is not the same as full recognition, of course, but it can contribute to whether these actors are perceived as legitimate or significant in their own domestic spheres. Over time, it may contribute to institutionalization or official status. Western states have often pushed for their preferred non-state or hybrid partners to be institutionalized as a way to fill gaps in the state or build the security sector from the bottom up. Examples include U.S. efforts to institutionalize various local defense initiatives in Afghanistan and to convert first the Sons of Iraq and then the post-2014 Tribal Mobilization Forces into an Iraqi National Guard, as well as continuing discussions about how to integrate or institutionalize anti-Shabaab or anti-Boko Haram militias in Somalia and Nigeria.

In other cases, hybrid actors have been able to leverage international support and engagement to increase their domestic authority and ambitions. Decades of U.S. support (political, military, and other) to the Iraqi Kurdish parties allowed them to achieve the quasi-statehood that they enjoy in northern Iraq. France and other countries’ engagement with Haftar’s forces have been critiqued for de facto building his domestic prestige and position. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces tried to leverage U.S. political and diplomatic engagement and support into a seat at the table in Syrian peace talks.

Double Standards and Hybrid Hypocrisy

The above shortlist of recent Western engagement with non-state or hybrid actors seems like a case where the exceptions swamp the rule, and makes Western protestations about the need to protect state sovereignty and its monopoly on force (the sort of neo-Weberian/Westphalian precepts discussed above) appear fungible. It might also be seen as a double standard. In Iraq, for example, the United States (and its coalition partners) publicly and privately labelled the fully legalized Popular Mobilization Forces and their leaders as “militias” and “terrorists,” even as they supported Sunni tribal forces with a much weaker legal and political standing. (U.S. and coalition training and support was provided to the Tribal Mobilization Force even before a November 2016 parliamentary edict legalized the larger Popular Mobilization Force — before this all such mobilization was likely unconstitutional under Article 9B. The United States had tried and failed to have the tribal forces it supported vested in an Iraqi National Guard, and later accepted their incorporation under the Popular Mobilization Forces after the latter was legalized).

This is not to suggest that U.S. wariness of the Popular Mobilization Forces has been unjustified. Their independence and refusal to sublimate their forces into regular command and control certainly undermines state authority. Their generally anti-American inclinations mean that Iran has had a powerful friend in Iraqi politics. Nonetheless, Iraqis would be quick to point out that other constituencies that the United States backed without hesitation — notably the other main hybrid actors in Iraq, the main Kurdish political parties — were also willing to strike a deal with regional neighbors against U.S. interests, and posed as much or more of a threat to Iraqi state authority. After the Kurdish independence referendum reignited tensions between Kurdish parties and Baghdad, U.S.-supplied tanks and armaments provided to both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government forces faced off against each other.

While those in Iraq or other affected countries may see this as a form of hybrid hypocrisy, the United States and other Western allies see it as simply regional politics. There is a common thread between U.S. lack of recognition and open hostility to the Popular Mobilization Force, Hizballah, and the Houthis: Iran. Regardless of evidence of these groups’ own agency or interests, or their domestic sources of legitimacy, the United States has continued to view these hybrid forces as instruments of Iranian policy. The United States does not spurn the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Hizballah for that matter, because they are hybrid actors, but rather because their political and military ascension is viewed as part of the wider regional competition.

This would suggest that the litmus test for whether states are willing to engage with or even tacitly recognize these non-state or quasi-state forces has less to do with their status — the degree of legal title or positions they enjoy — or even whether more nuanced categories, like that of hybrid actors, are accepted to describe them. The test is where the groups fit into geopolitical realities and political preferences.

Nonetheless, there is a way that the hybrid status of these groups invites a more ad hoc approach. Not only the United States but also many other Western states engaged in security sector reform, stabilization, or reconstruction and relief in Iraq (sectors in which the Popular Mobilization Forces are inevitably significant), refuse to do more than tacitly acknowledge the Popular Mobilization Forces because the leading groups have a serious and longstanding record of abuses and criminality. Iraqi state forces and leaders are little better in that regard, with an arguably even longer list of allegations of civilian harm, war crimes, abusive and un-democratic crackdowns, and criminal activities and smuggling. However, while states certainly might also make judgements about other state actors, or their political leaders, there is already a baseline of legal recognition and engagement when it comes to other state actors. There is a stronger presumption against blacklisting another state, or deciding to sanction or target its leaders, than there is with non-state or hybrid actors. The United States might more easily decide to disrupt, dismantle, and even target the leadership of the Popular Mobilization Forces because they are viewed as a “bad actor,” a proxy for Iran or antithetical to U.S. interests, than it might do when considering another Iraqi state actor or institution with the same tendencies, beliefs, and anti-American bias.

A Long-Term Dynamic Requiring a Long-Term Strategy

What all of the above suggests is that while Western states are open to working with more non-state or hybrid forms — some even doing so quite regularly — such engagement tends to be more ad hoc, politically subjective, and ultimately limited in nature. Even the positive partnerships and examples of engagement described above have been short-term, with Western states withdrawing support when the immediate security crisis passed. Such short-term and politically circumscribed engagement may be understandable, given the limitations in the tools of statecraft and the problematic nature of many of these groups. However, the other contributions in this series suggest that this may limit the opportunities that the United States and other Western states have to engage more strategically in these hybridized security environments. These powerful hybrid actors are not going away any time soon. As the staying power of groups like Hizballah and the Kurdistan Regional Government parties illustrates, they may well be powerful players in these countries and the region for decades to come. Because of their own substantial political power and the flexibility that their hybrid positioning gives them, they cannot be easily gotten rid of, whether by folding them into the state — i.e., through disarmament and reintegration processes — or by subduing and dismantling them through political or military pressure. Engaging with the challenges posed by these actors, and the issues that led to their generation, may require a more strategic and long-term approach.



Erica Gaston is an international lawyer and policy analyst with over a decade of experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and other countries, and is currently working on a Chatham House research project on hybrid armed actors in the Middle East and North Africa. She is a non-resident fellow with the Global Public Policy institute, and a Gates Foundation scholar at the University of Cambridge. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Stanford University, and a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School.

Image: Voice of America (Photo by Henry Ridgwell)