Of states and militias

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 7 Mar 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said reviews some of the challenges facing the security and cohesion of the Middle East


The “international order” and “regional orders” are typically made up of sovereign states. These have rights and obligations in times of war and peace, laid out in international law and the charters and regulatory frameworks of international and regional organisations.

Non-state political and economic bodies, regardless of their influence, do not have any status within these orders unless granted one by the United Nations, as is the case with such international organisations as the World Trade Organisation, the International Red Cross, and the International Red Crescent. Thus, transnational companies, as powerful as they may be, must operate by the rules and systems established by international economic bodies.

The authority to make decisions regarding war and peace is perhaps the most important prerogative of sovereign states.

In fact, this has given rise to one of the defining characteristics of the modern state: its monopoly on the right to legitimate recourse to arms. Other entities that breach this principle are in breach of international legitimacy and actively undermine the legitimacy of the state.

Yet here in the Middle East and the Arab region, in particular, the state faces the unprecedented challenge of a host of paramilitary factions and militias that have appropriated the sovereign right to make decisions on war and peace beneath the rubric of “The Axis of Resistance.”

The threat to the Arab state is concrete, as exemplified by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) militias in Iraq, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) militias and Hizbullah brigades in Syria, the Hizbullah paramilitary organisation in Lebanon, the Ansarullah (Houthi) movement in Yemen, and Hamas, which has undermined the political unity of the Palestinians even before the creation of the Palestinian state.

During the past four decades, the above-mentioned groups have hijacked the sovereign decision-making power over recourse to armed force by wielding military force within their countries to influence policy and electoral decisions or using it externally to affect decisions regarding truces and ceasefires.

In doing so, they have assumed assorted mantels, from fighting “tyranny and corruption” and defending the Palestinian cause to resistance against colonialism and imperialism and fighting terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and IS.

However, the situation is more complex for, taken together, these groups form the “forward defence” for the Iranian regime. Not that they have made a secret of their relations with that regime. Some of them, like the Lebanese Hizbullah, align themselves within the loyalty constellation emanating from the Iranian Shiite seminary in Qom and the line of authority that starts with the Supreme Leader of Iran, which passes through the IRGC. 

Moreover, although these groups have different religious doctrinal outlooks, including Sunni ones, as with Hamas which is closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, they all rely heavily on Tehran for weapons, training, and funding. It is a consummately strategic relationship. But, for prudence’s sake, it allows these groups a degree of leeway in their tactical decisions so they can maintain a distance from Tehran. But that is just in the details; the strategic objectives are the same.

The fifth Gaza war epitomises strategic circumstances in the Middle East which, until recently, had seemed on course to a longed-for stability. The process began with the AlUla Declaration adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit of January 2021, clearing the way for efforts to de-escalate regional conflicts and to promote peace.

Reconciliation processes were set into motion between Arab powers and Qatar and Turkey, and diplomatic relations were restored between these powers and Iran.  In the same spirit, tripartite negotiations took place between Arab powers, the US, and Israel with the aim of normalising relations with the latter in tandem with steps to establish a Palestinian State. Moreover, the momentum towards regional stability was underpinned by the current development and reform processes unfolding in many Arab states. All this was put into grave jeopardy by the Hamas attack on 7 October.  

The ensuing explosion of hostilities was not limited to the aggression on Gaza and its impacts on the Palestinians. Hizbullah, proclaiming itself a supporter of their cause, took part in the war on the Lebanese and Syrian fronts while, to the south, the Houthis in Yemen threatened international navigation and trade in the Red Sea, and, to the east, the PMF in Iraq attacked the US anti-IS coalition bases in Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.

These violent developments on all fronts have created dangerous tinderboxes that could further disrupt regional stability. Moreover, the decisions that led to these situations were not taken by states. The Palestinian National Authority had no say in Hamas’ decision to launch the 7 October operation.

The Lebanese state, as represented by its government, parliament, and national army, is not involved in the battle on that front. Nor did the governments in Syria and Iraq have a voice in the decisions that led to the situations in which they now find themselves.

It was only natural for the Arab countries to condemn Israel’s belligerent behaviour separately and collectively in international forums, and to simultaneously push for a humanitarian truce leading to a ceasefire and then a peace process based on the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Achieving these ends is crucial to safeguarding the Arab state from the storms of instability.

However, once achieved, the resultant stability could still be jeopardised by militias that exist to sow instability and destabilise the Arab state.

Worse yet, in appropriating sovereign state prerogatives regarding decisions of war and peace, these militias pose a danger to the entire region and the world.

You have only to look at the dynamics of the Red Sea battle theatre to understand that, even if a truce slows the escalatory trend, the presence of the militias means that another war is just a question of time.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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