By John Bell
18 Aug 2014
The Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria; radical settlers in Israel; Hezbollah in Lebanon. Non-state actors, armed with guns and ideology, are prevailing over the state in the Middle East. Each has a different patron and even opposing ends, but they have a common source of strength.
States and governments in the Middle East are often corrupt, serving more as space for private interest and the harvest of greed than the allocation of resources and mediation of differences in society. They have also created and used non-state actors, who are sometimes proxies to achieve their political ends, gaining the advantage of deniability and flexibility in their political ambitions.
Of course, this is not only a regional phenomenon, the US worked with Mujahideen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and, today, Russia, is working with the rebels in Ukraine to achieve its ends. However, this reality provides no solace for the Middle East. Bin Laden turned on the US, and the Russians are smarting from the embarrassment after having very possibly downed an airliner.
These non-state actors are often fuelled by ideology, daring to do what the sponsor state will not, including recruiting high-strung young men for bold activities. Empowered by guns, they learn over time the value of threat, and exercising power over life and death.
In some cases, these organisations also learn to trump the state ideologically: They are more resolute, more committed, and utilise rhetoric that resonates, especially when backed by deadly action. Proxies can serve states in the short-term; they can be tools for implementing often nefarious policies, and outwitting opponents. But they can also become a large long-term problem. Sooner or later, the commitment and weaponry combine into hubris. When a state is weak due to distraction, corruption, or fragmentation, the proxy can then become the most relevant political actor on the stage.
In the Gulf, states and private backers have supported Sunni radical groups to further ideologies, and to fight the rise of Shia Iran in the region. One such group blossomed into the Islamic State, which exceeded any mandate or expectation by establishing a caliphate across large swathes of two Arab states, effectively erasing borders. Removing it now is a difficult proposition. The very states that helped created it will have trouble getting rid of it, and may even become its targets.
The Israeli government is involved in the support, subsidisation and protection of radical settlers in the West Bank. They may not be numerous, nor a direct state proxy, but they are influential politically. Their political brethren hold disproportionate power and influence in government policy and formation in Israel. No positive step in the peace process takes place without Israeli prime ministers building settlements to assuage these committed groups.
They also commit violent and destructive acts that can affect political trends: Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, Baruch Goldstein's murder spree in Hebron, and the tragic killling of Mohammad Abu Khdair in Jerusalem all arise out of their ideology.
In the 1980s, Iran helped build Hezbollah in Lebanon. It became an effective weapon against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and, potentially, defending Iran against attack. Unexpectedly, it has also served to save Bashar al-Assad from disaster. It is under control of a state and less likely to morph away from its patron; however, in this case, Lebanon, not Iran, is at risk.
Hezbollah is a legitimate party in Lebanon; however its weapons and ideology release it from normal state decision-making. It can turn its weapons on the Lebanese, and take the country to war unilaterally without reference to any other national process. Some argue that Hezbollah merely filled a Lebanese void but, if there were a strong state today in Lebanon, would Hizbollah relinquish its power? That would depend very much on the ideology of that state.
Indeed, today, many Palestinians see Hamas as a heroic resistance against Israeli occupation and aggression. However, the military wing of Hamas, as well as rogue elements in Hebron that had killed three Israelis in the West Bank, may have escalated the situation without the blessing of the political leadership. Indeed, Mohammad Deif, head of the armed wing, is reportedly more popular than political leaders such as Khaled Meshaal and Ismail Hanieh.
Israel has strengthened the military side of Hamas by its actions and helped destroy the political process of Palestinian reunification. Again, armed men with ideological fervour trump slower and sometimes dubious political processes.
It may be strange to conflate these disparate and inimical groups. Their effect varies from influencing political trends within a country to erasing borders. But, what binds them is cohesion, determination and a readiness to sacrifice that the states in the region, corrupt, oppressive or distracted as they are, do not. Over time, a natural temptation towards power accrues and these organisations develop "a mind of their own" - they begin to feel they can drive the agenda.
Hezbollah acts where the Lebanese state cannot; Hamas's military wing defends where the political arm cannot; Israeli settlers veer policy in ways the majority cannot; and the Islamic State group protects its own interests when governments cannot. Politics by proxy has triumphed over the more regulated affairs of states. Young men are fired up and empowered and the "cause" is more important than the state. If push comes to shove, the cause wins, and the state weakens and withers. It's a winning formula throughout the Levant, and the state is hollowed out.
The crucial and harsh reality is that the state itself that created the environment for these groups to thrive. The irresponsibility and tyranny of the leaders in the region, who shirk social responsibility or indulge in ideologies, creates the ground for the rise of dedicated cadres filling voids of meaning in young lives. Over time, these states weaken and suffer the consequences of their short sighted and rapacious policies, and today it may simply be too late to put the genii back in the bottle.
Most people see only the enemy's actors as the difficulty; one's own are in a heroic fight, the others are the problem. Yet, a bird's eye view of the region will demonstrate a weakening of all states due to this abuse of the proxy. The game is far from "under control": Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and other states are all in some kind of trouble as constructive political frameworks dissipate and waver.
By their very nature, these groups are committed to a singular cause and cannot fulfil the overall needs of any society in the region. Yet, today, they often either set a regional agenda or deflect constructive national purpose through violence. Their ultimate victims are the citizens who have far less ambitious goals, and who want normal lives. They want a state to represent them and deliver what they need. Instead, this majority finds itself having to adapt to the "other-worldly" goals of non-state actors, and the chaos and conflict they bring with them.
The region will only be on the right path again when states put aside some of their competition and greed, become less hollow, and trim the power of non-state actors. Only so will more stable and rational societies be created, away from the agendas of a dangerous (and abetted) few.
John Bell is Director of the Middle East Programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as Political Adviser to the Personal Representative of the UN Secretary-General for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.