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Sectarianized geopolitical contests and the rise of armed sectarian nonstate actors

Article by Bassel F. Salloukh

November 12, 2018

Sectarianized geopolitical contests and the rise of armed sectarian nonstate actors

The rise of armed sectarian nonstate actors (NSAs) is one of the main consequences of the grand Saudi-Iranian contest over regional dominance unleashed in the wake of the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq.[1] Albeit this contest predated the popular uprisings, its sectarianization[2] after the uprisings led to the ‘return of the weak Arab state[3] and the concomitant rise of sectarian, ethnic, or tribal non-state actors. Whether in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, or Yemen local and transnational nonstate actors have assumed paramount domestic and geopolitical roles.

Two kinds of NSAs emerged as a consequence of this sectarianization of geopolitical contests: 1) armed, local or transnational, NSAs operating in a proxy capacity to advance the geopolitical interests of their regional patrons; and 2) others that pursue strictly local objectives but are nevertheless supported by regional states in a bid to accumulate more geopolitical capital. Hizballah, the plethora of groups organized in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and other NSAs in Syria and Libya are examples of the former type. The relationship between Iran and the Houthis in Yemen exemplifies the latter, however.

This explosion of local and transnational armed nonstate actors as a result of the return of the weak Arab state underscores another trend in regional dynamics: the changing nature of the system’s permeability, a process that began in earnest before the popular uprisings of 2011, but which has since intensified. The regime-induced, top-down, state-building permeability of the 1950s and 1960s,[4] driven by Arab nationalist ideology, is replaced by a bottom-up state-destroying permeability driven by sectarian nonstate actors.

This new kind of permeability expressed by transnational nonstate actors is bound to complicate future prospects for state rebuilding in the Arab world in at least two ways.

  • Demands for greater local autonomy by ethnic, tribal, or sectarian groups may have become irreversible and cannot be ignored any longer.
  • The type of post-war state that will emerge in Libya, Yemen, or even Syria, may be captured by different NSAs vying for the political economic and ideological control of ethnic, sectarian, or tribal parts of the population – much like the one that exists in Lebanon, or has been emerging in Iraq since 2003.

Given the destructive local and transnational roles played by armed sectarian nonstate actors, two kinds of bargains, at both the domestic and regional levels, are required to restore a modicum of political stability in post-war reconstituted states. First, there must be democratic power-sharing arrangements that cross-cut sectarian, ethnic, and tribal cleavages with interest-based ones, whether along regional or socioeconomic lines. Only this will launch the difficult process of peacebuilding, and state building and rebuilding, along a democratic path, thus reversing the erosion of the state’s ideological and infrastructural capabilities.

Second, there must be a grand regional geopolitical bargain identifying or acknowledging spheres of influence among the main international and regional actors vying for influence in the Middle East as a means of reducing fear and perception of nefarious intent. This is especially true for Saudi Arabia and Iran. Describing the contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia in existential or sectarian terms misses each state’s real security concerns. Riyadh views Tehran in offensive realist terms. By contrast, Iran considers itself engaged in a defensive realist confrontation with Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. From this perspective, transnational sectarian armed nonstate actors are instruments in Iran’s strategy to escape its regional isolation and deter potential American or Israeli attacks. Refusing to recognize Tehran’s newfound role in the Middle East and real geopolitical interests is a recipe for more wars in the region. By the same token, Saudi Arabia exerts substantial political influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and parts of post-war Syria as a balance to Iran’s overwhelming position in these crucial states. Moreover, Yemen will always remain Saudi Arabia’s security backyard. Consequently, Tehran may have to roll back its military and political engagement in Yemen – to alleviate Riyadh’s fears – in exchange for its reintegration into the system of regional states.

Only these dual bargains can help extricate the Middle East from the domestic and regional security dilemmas that have proliferated since the sectarianization of geopolitical contests after the popular uprisings.[5]

[1] Bassel F. Salloukh, The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East, The International Spectator 48, June 2013: 32-46.

[2] Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. 2017, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. New York: Oxford University Press

[3] Bassel F. Salloukh, 2017, Overlapping Contests and Middle East International Relations: The Return of the Weak Arab State, PS: Political Science and Politics 50: 660–63.

[4] Rex Brynen, Permeability Revisited: Reflections on the Regional Repercussions of the al-Aqsa Intifada, in Bassel F. Salloukh and Rex Brynen (ed.), 2004,  Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East, London: Ashgate Publishing Limited,  125–48.

[5] Marc Lynch, The New Arab Order: Power and Violence in Today’s Middle East, Foreign Affairs 97, 5, September/October 2018, 116-126.

Author: Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), “The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East” in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012), and the co-authored article “Elite Strategies, Civil Society, and Sectarian Identities in Postwar Lebanon” in International Journal of Middle East Studies (November 2013). His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings.

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