Hybrid Security, Frozen Conflicts, and Peace in MENA
The wars in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen—for all their devastation—have hastened regional transformations in international collaborations and domestic institutions. Wars in the twentieth century propelled many MENA states to build large standing armies and assume greater control over national economies. Contemporary conflicts reverse this trajectory. States do not claim, much less hold, a monopoly over the use of force. Instead, these wars generate new forms of hybrid security governance. Armed non-state actors, motivated by private economic interest and linked to foreign backers, both compete and collude with the diminished central government.
State building—facilitating national reconciliation and enabling central governments to reassert their ambit by disarming militias and warlords—is the conventional approach for dealing with such internal disorder. But hybrid security thwarts this centralizing impetus. These wars are on a trajectory toward becoming frozen conflicts. Militias and warlords are steadily embedding in governance and security provisions across wide swaths of territory. States are receding to mostly symbolic placeholders, with limited practical role in governing. Outside interventions for peace must accept and steer this centrifugal momentum, not fight it. Instead of reflexively trying to reconsolidate states, they must seek to negotiate a devolution whereby non-state actors assume greater responsibilities for governance and stability.
War, Fragmentation, and Integration in MENA
If MENA’s wars in the twentieth century were drivers of state building, then the wars of the twenty-first century are catalysts of state collapse. Iraq’s civil war of the mid-2000s presaged the course of later regional conflicts. The disbanding of the Iraqi army left the Iraqi population at the mercy of ex-regime loyalists, Islamists, tribal chieftains, leaders, political party operatives, organized crime syndicates, and anyone else capable of coercion. The wars in Yemen, Syria, and Libya began differently but followed a similar pattern. The patrimonial logic of regime survival ensured that if security services defected, they were sure to splinter, allowing other armed actors to step forward. These groups’ alignment with regimes or rebels was often less important than their position relative to local populations. Some were thinly-disguised mafias, others village or neighborhood self-defense forces. Economic gain and political postures drove patterns of alliance or opposition to state authorities. What materialized, in Yezid Sayigh’s words, were “novel, hybrid forms” of security governance combining “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.”
The fractal nature of order in MENA is especially apparent when considering MENA’s conflicts from a peripheral perspective. Iraqi politics is typically seen as pitting a Shi’a-dominated central government against a Sunni minority, with Kurds backing the Shi’is in return for autonomy. But this national-level narrative elides complex provincial and local dynamics. In Mosul, following defeat of the Islamic State, the PMU worked with local Sunni Arab factions who had appealed to Baghdad to counter Kurdish encroachment. Shi’i militias in Basra concomitantly battled one another to capture the spoils of the oil industry and cross-border trade, both licit and illicit.
"Hybrid security order succeeds by freezing belligerents in place, entrenching them in slivers of territory beyond the practical reach of the state but still under its symbolic umbrella. Transforming bastions of self-defense into islands of relative prosperity and peace could set a salutary example to others."
Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli and the eastern government, dominated by the Khalifa Haftar, are jealous mirrors of each other. Each has its own parliament, central bank, national oil company, and security services—all purporting to be the true embodiment of the Libyan state. But their military campaigns depend on tribal fighters, mercenaries, Islamist and Salafi factions, separatists, and organized crime syndicates. Consequently, the battle for supremacy in the Fezzan versus Sirte involves different sets of belligerents and disparate agendas.
In Yemen, “militias—and no longer the army—are currently at the center of Yemen’s hybrid military structure,” according to Eleanorea Ardemagni, Ahmed Nagi, and Mareike Tranfeld. Aden and the south are under the nominal control of the internationally recognized government of Yemen (GoY), yet subject to competition between various military factions, the southern separatist movements, tribal chiefs, and radical Islamists. In Marib, governors, tribal leaders, and officials from the central bank voice support for the GoY, but operate autonomously. Only the Houthi rebels, ironically, approach a monopoly over force in Sana’a and the northern region, overseeing a repressive security force that roots out opposition. As in Libya, the central bank has become a key focus of conflict, with both the Houthis and the GoY appointing rival bank directors and each issuing separate currencies. A survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) in 2019 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%), the continuation of the war (22%), and poverty, disease, and lack of services (20%). Respondents in Aden, by contrast, listed militias and armed groups as the biggest threat (26%), followed by thefts and weak state authorities (20%) and then poverty, disease, and lack of services (14%).
War pushed coercive control into smaller segments while pulling the region into a new global hierarchy. Oil revenues financed massive arms imports. Both states and rebels have tried to use access to oil to punish rivals and entice strategic partners. These partners, though, seldom share the objectives of regional belligerents. For the US, the key concern is that radical actors will seize portions of “ungoverned” territories. Outside intervention linked MENA into a clandestine archipelago of forward operating bases, rendition hubs, and interrogation centers where the global war on terror could be mounted. Warlords and militias are the crucial interlocutor in these types of campaign, as John Allen and Giampiero Massolo observe, states secondary or superfluous. Armed drones and other new technology enable outside actors to circumvent state control and traverse international boundaries in ways that mock any claim to sovereignty. The old image of the MENA’s strategic map, with each country shaded a different hue indicating its geopolitical alignment within a global hierarchy, is anachronistic. The regional circuits of power, as Abboud describes, feature intersecting patron-proxy ties arcing across highly differentiated space.
Syria epitomizes such crosshatched circuitry. Syria’s war appears at the national level as a clash between the minority-backed Assad government and the Sunni majority, but looks very different at the local level. The competition in the northeast, containing the country’s largest oil fields and substantial agricultural lands, featured continual infighting between Sunni Arab tribes. The added element of Kurdish fighters added to the complexity of the situation. The Assad regime and the Islamic State both took advantage of these local rivalries to impose control over the area. The US, European powers, the Gulf states, and Turkey initially backed the fractious mix of Sunni Arab fighting groups. Islamists forces seemed to swamp the more secular oriented rebels. Russia and Iran, meanwhile, bolstered the Syrian government, which held on to Damascus and the coastal strip. Iran dispatched Lebanese Hezbollah, the Iraqi PMU, and other Shi’is militias from as far away as Afghanistan. Intense military pressure, competing sponsors, and incessant infighting splintered the opposition. The US shifted its attention to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which had previously aligned with Damascus and controlled self-proclaimed autonomous cantons in Hasakah. Turkey picked up the remnants of the Sunni Arab opposition, turning them against the PYD while propping up the last Islamist holdout. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are moving tentatively to rapprochement with Assad, even as they search for other levers to counter Iran.
Libya’s war transposes these circuits. The Russian private military contractors that bolster Haftar’s forces had fought previously in Ukraine and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE provide money, weapons, and air support to Haftar. France supported Haftar’s campaign in the Fezzan in order to protect French assets in the Sahel. The GNA, in response, relies on the United Nations to maintain its status as the sole recognized government and depends militarily on Turkey. Ankara’s recently-dispatched expeditionary force included several thousand Syrian rebels, many enticed by the promise of better wages.
Yet even where states seem functionally moribund, statehood as a general model retains moral weight. Lebanese citizens use ethno-sectarian identification instrumentally to access welfare institutions and ensure personal security through sectarian militias like Hezbollah. Yet public opinion surveys show that they still overwhelmingly identify themselves as Lebanese. It is the state, not the sect, to which they most readily refer. Similarly, mass protests in Iraq in 2019-20 mobilized under the slogan “We want a homeland!” (nurid watan), articulating a sense of a post-sectarian national identity while demanding responsive and transparent governance. Public opinion surveys show low esteem for nearly every organ of the state. Amidst this cynicism, however, respondents still indicated a strong attachment to state-based identity as an abstract principle. Similar evidence comes from YPC polling. Nearly half (46%) opined that in general the Yemeni state alone should handle security provision and very few had positive opinions of militias. Again, this confidence in the state was more abstract than real. Only 36 percent wanted the state as sole security provider in their specific region.
The rebels themselves further affirm statehood’s normative gravity. Pro-government militias bolster their own legitimacy by claiming the mantle of the state. Rebels labor to duplicate the extensive bureaucracies they had grown up under, issuing birth certificates, irrigation licenses, and other documentation, collecting taxes, running schools, and providing security as Drevon and Haenni and Sosnowski highlight. The more ambitious and disciplined, as discussed above, go so far as to establish alternative fiscal institutions. Even the Islamic State exhibited remarkably state-like features at its zenith. If statehood did not exist in MENA, it would have to be invented.
But such idealized, even heroic, states are unlikely to arrive. Temporary ceasefires and tacit truces, as Alexandra Stark notes, have not staunched the hemorrhage of state power in Yemen or in Libya. The periodic pauses embolden armed non-state actors even further. Syria and Iraq struggle to reestablish administrative and security presence as they embarked on reconstruction while still mopping up areas of rebel rule. Despite proclamations about national unity and consolidation, schemes to reallocate abandoned properties and privatize states assets aim to appease erstwhile militia allies and further embed hybrid security governance into the social fabric. Rebels may be defeated, but states are far from reasserting their monopoly over violence. Violence abates, but conflicts remain as belligerents get steadily frozen into place.
Toward a Frozen Hybrid Peace?
Frozen conflicts often appear as uncomfortable purgatory between full-on hostilities and substantial conflict resolution. Even when fighting has ceased, William Zartman writes, “Frozen conflicts do not naturally sublimate into the air, but can explode with deep violence." Conventional policy prescriptions derive from liberal ontologies that posit responsible and capable states as essential to a livable order. The aim, accordingly, is to gradually revive state power and reestablish national cohesion. But the MENA’s interlinking crises are now so protracted and hybrid security governance so entrenched that it is worth looking beyond this orthodoxy. Intervening powers already engaging non-state actors, especially after efforts to work through enfeebled states prove remiss. In these routine improvisations, warlords are bribed to deliver humanitarian aid and militias recruited to patrol sensitive areas. Yet these measures are still framed as intermediate steps in the belated transition to a centralized, competent statehood. If states are unable to provide security directly, they should at least arbitrate and select who does.
But these efforts are often fruitless, even farcical. Armed actors may take salaries and uniforms from the state, but the closer the central government gets to curbing their power, the more obstreperous they are likely to become. The sheer spatial dispersion of power in hybrid security governance ensures that multiple actors are able to stand in the state’s way.The challenge of managing hybrid security in MENA is not to privilege states and prepare them for eventual supremacy but to negotiate the immediate devolution of functional responsibilities. Armed non-state actors are not spoilers, but partners in a host of local settings and a range of governance domains. It is the sidelined and exhausted state that is most liable to be obstructionist and renege on its commitment to retreat. Political initiatives must work top-down and bottom-up at once, engaging the fragile state, peripheral non-state actors and foreign interveners concurrently. No actor will be singularly determinative in setting policy. Stalemates and grand bargains are more likely than victories.
Hybrid security order succeeds by freezing belligerents in place, entrenching them in slivers of territory beyond the practical reach of the state but still under its symbolic umbrella. Continued self-rule in places like Marib, the Green Mountains in Libya, or Hasakah in Syria, are objectives, not drawbacks. Transforming bastions of self-defense into island of relative prosperity and peace could set a salutary example to others. The aim is to find a co-constitutive mode where non-state actors assume more responsibility for governance from the state. Hybrid security imposes significant ceiling on human flourishing. But MENA states, even at their best, were seldom up to the task of delivering meaningful representation or socio-economic inclusion. Moreover, the supposition that areas lost to state control are necessarily lawless and chaotic has proven badly unfounded. Indeed, innovation, improvisation, and linkages to global capital, ideas, and people continue, albeit unconventionally.
Some envision hybrid security as portending rough and ready balances of power. But the fragility of hybrid security governance and the collective memory of devastating wars, the kind of stillness that Hermez describes, can also instill forbearance. It is this awareness, now painfully imprinted across the region, which offers the best hopes for freezing conflicts as a way toward peace.
This article was originally published by The Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS)
Professor, Virginia Tech School of Public and International Affairs.
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Bernstein Fellow, Washington Institute