- In fractured Arab states (as Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq), defense structures are no more army-centred. It’s the sunset of the armies as pillars of national defense sectors, reflecting a wider context in which state institutions have lost capacity and legitimacy;
- The hybrid model has been key to understand the complex forms of security delivery that emerged after 2011. However, the fragmentation and, later, the hybridization between segments of the armies and legalised militias have shaped new military entities, the “re-generated military forces”, which stand now a step beyond hybridity;
- These forces are something more –and else- than the sum of two single parts, they are governance-oriented and show five recurrent features.
Since 2011, the military has become even more influential in shaping state-society balances. Nevertheless, in fractured Arab states (Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq), defense structures are no more army-centred, reflecting a wider context in which state institutions have lost capacity and legitimacy. It’s the sunset of the armies as pillars of national defense sectors. Conversely, today fractured armies have become partners within composite and fluid military umbrellas made up of sub-national and hybrid military groups. So far, security hybridization has revealed the best approach to study these mixed and complex forms of security delivery, showing the entrenching of formal and informal military agents.
In this changed environment, the armies are stuck in a double asymmetry. In fact, they face extra-legal system forces, which also adopt non-conventional fighting tactics and, to counter them, the armies legalise, or partner with militias/auxiliaries. In many cases, these militias/auxiliaries have turned from local insurgents to hybrid forces, and sometimes even to proxy players of foreign states. As a result, multiple security players grow and evolve within state boundaries: these ultimately craft new power balances affecting the political, social and economic fields.
Beyond Hybridity: Seeking New Lenses and a New Terminology
However, after a decade of expanding hybridization, can we still portray fractured Arab states’ military reality in binary terms, thereby stressing the dichotomy between “armies” and “militias”? On the ground, it is increasingly difficult to draw boundaries among them since they can’t be categorized as opposite poles of an imaginary continuum any longer.
Because today armies often comprise legalised militias, security hybridization has widened the perceived meaning of ´regular military forces`, despite (former) militias often remain autonomous in terms of goals, command, and accountability.
On the one hand, armies integrate some militias: these acquire legal status and technically become part of the army itself (think about the Hadhrami Elite Forces in Yemen). On the other hand, segments of armies coalesce with militias, thus turning into new entities (as the Ali Abdullah Saleh’s loyalists of the Republican Guard with Ansar Allah in Yemen). This process produces a double legitimacy gap, as “most of the armed actors that emerged after the revolution [in Libya] gained, in one way or another, an affiliation with the state, a process that legitimized them while delegitimizing the higher authorities they were affiliated with”.
For a long time, these hybrid military umbrellas have fought jointly, delivering security governance -and governance more broadly- side by side. Due to hybridization, new military entities are now emerging, reassembling political, social and economic relationships. Against this backdrop, the dichotomy between “armies” and “militias” in fractured Arab states –on which hybridity, as the by-product of a binary reflection, is built upon– currently fails to accurately portray reality on the ground. At this point and in these contexts, other terms are necessary to grasp better the evolution of military forces.
Some authors are refocusing the analysis from hybridity in military forces to the nature of the state. For instance, Renad Mansour reflects on a “network of power” approach to overcome the “hybridity compromise” which separates the state from the society; instead, “nodal connections” between state and society allow to transcend the debate on the formality and informality of military agents, tracing power connections “regardless of where they [groups] sit”.
Introducing Re-generated military forces.
Security hybridization has transformed fractured armies in contested Arab states. The fragmentation and, later on, the hybridization between segments of the armies and legalised militias have shaped new military entities which stand, at this point, a step beyond hybridity, and can be analysed as something else -and more- than two single parts.
These entities can be framed as re-generated military forces, where re-generation doesn’t refer to ´quality`, but only to the ´outcome of an ongoing process`: protracted and stratified hybridization has produced new, re-generated military forces with respect to both pre-2011 military actors and the emerging hybrid umbrellas that formed immediately after the 2011 uprisings.
For instance, in Yemen, two Emirati-backed and secessionist Southern militias, the Hadhrami Elite Forces and the Security Belt Forces, have been technically part, respectively, of the Yemeni army and the ministry of Interior since 2016. Under the Houthis’ de facto authority, members of the disbanded pro-Saleh Republican Guard and the Ansar Allah militia have progressively merged, since 2015, into a new military entity.
In Syria, Russia has integrated “various irregular and rebel groups” into the Syrian Arab Army’s units, as in the case of the Local Defense Forces, which were institutionalised into the army as auxiliary forces. In 2017, the Fifth Corps were created as volunteer-based forces under the Ministry of Defense to be deployed alongside army units and other foreign-supported groups.
In Libya –where the national army was extremely weak before 2011- the paradigm is reversed: militias have exploited their state affiliation to co-opt segments of the formal security apparatus into their ranks (in the west and in the south of the country). Meanwhile, in the east, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), the ´would-be national army`, comprise formal units with varied tribal composition and auxiliary local forces.
Due to hybridization, Iraq’s military trajectory has reached a precise shape: duality. In fact, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Hashd al-Shaabi embody a dual military system. The Hashds were legalised in 2016 and the Prime Minister released a decree ordering their formal integration into the national armed forces in 2019: but they continue to be autonomous players in the country.
Re-generated military forces: Five recurrent features.
The boundaries between ´who belonged to the army` before 2011 and ´who later received legal status` are narrowing in terms of organization, status, benefits, and accountability, as power relations reshape within these states. Contamination between fractured armies and militias generates new military forces, which reassemble within loose and fluid defense structures.
Re-generated military forces show five recurrent features:
1) multiple and competing power centres: re-generated military forces lack an agreed and unified chain of command, opting instead for ad hoc schemes depending on the battlefield;
2) de-structured and localised organization: re-generated military forces blend armies’ hierarchical structure with the decentralized and horizontal shape of bottom-up militias; these mixed organizations are highly dependent on local balances and identities, with particular regard to mobilization;
3) combination of military capabilities with militarized police tasks: re-generated military forces manage coercion and patrolling and are better equipped –and motivated- to counter internal threats rather than external challenges; also “the policing scene is highly-fragmented, with the police having been infiltrated by militias”;
4) strong role in welfare provision: re-generated military forces are governance-oriented and actively engaged in service delivery, thus joining military and economic-social tasks across the same territory;
5) high external influence and penetration by foreign state powers: re-generated military forces are often supported by external state actors vying for influence; this dynamic enhances competing Security Sector Reform (SSR) projects, feeding internal instability.
Towards a new research agenda. Why re-generated military forces are here to stay
Two factors suggest these military entities are likely to persist in the medium- to long-term. First, re-generated military forces are widely governance-oriented. They are not only able –and willing- to conquer territories but also to hold them and to provide emergency responses, as occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic: this is telling of the contested nature of the State in fractured Arab countries. For instance, “militarised models of governance” have spread in Libya, especially in the areas held by the LAAF, given the replacement of elected municipal mayors with military figures.
Second, re-generated military forces are the outcome of incomplete processes of integration: despite formal legalization, the armies are often unable to integrate militias, due to mutual mistrust, continuing rivalry, and lack of political will. Moreover, financially-exhausted governments in fractured Arab states can’t provide regular salaries to soldiers, or if they can, they can’t compete with those offered by militias, especially if militias are backed by external powers, as occurs in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Libya.
As the institutional capacity of states erodes, the military factor finds new ways -and new shapes- to be decisive in power balances. It is a challenge to traditional categorizations: these have nuanced due to enduring states’ crisis. In this framework, a post-hybridity research agenda waits for definition.