Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1254, (9 - 22 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The explosion of sectarian militias

While the regional phenomenon of sectarian militias goes back decades, the last ten years have seen qualitative leaps in their growth, challenging the very foundation of nation-states, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Ahram Weekly

The sectarian militia is part of the growing phenomena of unconventional military and security apparatuses, amidst the panoply of complex and interwoven changes that have taken place in the regional strategic environment over the past decade.

While signs of this phenomenon may date further back — specifically, to the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979, which sought to establish political arms abroad among Shia communities — a Sunni parallel only emerged later, sometimes as a reaction to Shia moves.

The overall purpose is to ignite and sustain intense conflicts in a regional environment that is in the midst of upheaval and geostrategic shifts. This is with an eye to replacing the conventional nation-state map with one based on sectarian partitions between Shia and Sunni entities, supported by sectarian militias as opposed to modern standing armies, and espousing radical religious ideologies instead of the established creed.


FORMATIVE PHASES: The first generation in the rise of this phenomenon might be described as sectarian with nationalist features. The model is to be found in Hizbullah, created by Lebanese Shia elements during the Lebanese civil war, which came to play a national role in the defence against external threats.

Its battles with Israel served as a means for it to obtain broad popular support outside its sectarian base, including among Sunni communities. A similar case was the Badr militia that was formed in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Made up of opponents to the Saddam Hussein regime, and supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, it was among the first militias to enter Iraq following the US invasion and fall of the Saddam regime.

Like Hizbullah, during its earlier stages, it had no Sunni counterpart. The Iraqi regime was secularist. The embryonic generation of the phenomenon would, in subsequent phases, assume an explicitly sectarian face, whether in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria.

Initially, however, this generation best represents the non-state actors that played political roles in these countries before security/military roles. Later, some Sunni counterparts would not follow the pattern of the Shia militias’ evolution. This applies to most Palestinian organisations.

The second generation was shaped by developments after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, to the armed revolution in Syria, and by the failure to rehabilitate the Iraqi national army and the offensive waged by the Syrian army to repress the Syrian revolution. During this period more Shia militias emerged and engaged in battles in which violations against Sunnis occurred.

This coincided with the emergence of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQI), which marked the second phase in the evolution of the mother Al-Qaeda organisation before it fissured into ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and Al-Nusra Front in Syria, which retains its Al-Qaeda affiliation. This was the generation of the spread of the phenomenon, but not the generation of full-fledged sectarian war, as the priority, in the case of Iraq, was to confront the US occupier.

The third generation brought not only further proliferation of the militias but also their unification under umbrella frameworks. On the Shia front, the “Popular Mobilisation” consists of a majority of Shia militias, including Muqtada Sadr’s “Peace Brigades”, Badr organisation’s military wing, Hizbullah Iraq Brigades, Ahl Al-Haqq units, Nujaba (noble ones) Party of God, Master of Martyrs and Jihad and Construction Brigades, and Tayar Al-Risali, Al-Kharasani, Ashoura and Atabat brigades.

All these militias have their counterparts in Syria, where they fight alongside the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Not long afterwards there emerged an umbrella organisation for the Sunni militias called the Syrian Army of Conquest, which consists of Al-Nusra Front, Ahrar Al-Sham Al-Islamiya (Freemen of Islamic Syria), Syrian Hawks, Jund Al-Aqsa (Soldiers of Al-Aqsa Mosque), Sham (or Syrian) Corps, Haqq Regiment of Rural Idlib, Sunni Army and Ajnad Al-Sham (Syrian Soldiers).

The umbrella phenomenon has spread beyond the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula where Al-Qaeda has established a franchise in Hadramawt in Yemen, while more recently the Islamic State (IS) group has attracted the fealty of jihadist takfiri movements in 12 countries, most notably Libya, Egypt (where the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis declared the IS in Sinai Province) and West Africa with Boko Haram’s declaration of allegiance.


FUNDING: The Islamist (whether Shia or Sunni) militias have numerous sources of funding. They often received financial support from regional powers, but eventually they also built up networks of funding channels. The Shia militias were founded with official Iranian support but also relied on donations at holy sites, a portion of alms, funds from some agencies connected with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and contributions from prominent Shia businessmen.

These militias are thus believed to control unofficial economies worth billions of dollars. More recently, the Iraq government gave official support to the People’s Mobilisation umbrella group to the tune of $7 billion from the state budget last year.

The Sunni militias, too, have received massive funding from Sunni states, especially the Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, officially, moreover, in their formative phases. Eventually, the militias gained control over funding resources in the form of some oil-production sources, levies and spoils of war. IS came into possession of billions of dollars worth of military equipment when it defeated the Iraqi army in the battle of Al-Anbar.


RAMIFICATIONS: The proliferation of the phenomenon is a reflection of the broadening scope of the soft environment in the region. It also mirrors the collapse of the culture of religious tolerance and projects to promote interfaith understanding, the collapse of the nation state, the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that served as incubators for the phenomenon, mounting religious polarisation and the fall-back on identity ideologies and the rise of radical discourses following the failure of political, cultural and religious projects that represented official Islam in most states in the region.


AN ALTERNATIVE TO NATIONAL ARMIES: “Militia armies” have come to serve as the alternative to national armies in failed states, or states with collapsed defence and security apparatuses. In the Shia case in Iraq, attempts to assimilate the Popular Mobilisation forces into the official Iraqi army have so far failed.

Eventually, it was decided to fuse them into a national guard under the prime minister. But, effectively, they cannot be transformed into a regular army as their primary tasks are sectarian-oriented: protecting Shia holy sites and shrines and Shia regimes.

In a statement in November last year, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki acknowledged that were it not for these militias there would not be a standing government in Baghdad.

Also, in the final analysis, these militias do not recognise national armies. They do not subscribe to nationalist ideology or the concept of the overarching identity and authority of the state, but rather to religious ideologies, authorities and frames of reference.

Unofficial figures estimate that some 250,000 fighters fill the ranks of the Popular Mobilisation forces. The number of troops in the Iraqi army is equivalent or only slightly more. In Syria, Shia militia forces outnumber government troops and have led their own campaigns or fought in the front lines of battles in which the army secured the rear lines.

Sunni militias, too, outnumber the regime’s army. If no determined and effective action is taken to confront this growing phenomenon, national armies may soon find themselves challenged by the swelling ranks of sectarian militias.


ULTRA-EXTREMISM AND SHARP RELIGIOUS POLARISATION: In contrast to Shia militias’ “servants of the shrines” doctrine, there is the school of “calculated savagery” among the Sunni militias. Both are inspired by radical ideologies and seek to acquire virtual statelets or “provinces” in easy target areas where the nation-state option has failed or proven to be a pre-state entity.

Most militias are either military wings of domestic political forces, as is the case with most militias in the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation. They may also serve the interests of foreign powers that are engaged in proxy wars.


THE DANGER ZONES: Libya and Yemen are currently the most severe danger zones for this phenomenon. In Libya, the towns of Derna and Sirte were occupied by militias which declared the areas to be part of a Libyan “province” of IS. In Yemen, the only possible logic behind the Ansar Allah militia’s offensive in the south is to take control of Aden and use that as a platform to advance eastwards toward Makalla where Al-Qaeda is based, setting into motion a Shia Houthi-Sunni Al-Qaeda battle.


FUTURE SCENARIOS: The phenomenon is unlikely to wane in the foreseeable future as it is supported by various parties that believe they stand to gain from it. Even if the regional map of conflicts changes, the phenomenon will mutate according to the interests of the parties that sponsor the conflicts.

Observers anticipate that the US and Baghdad will agree to create a Sunni version of the Shia Popular Mobilisation forces to fight IS. It would be drawn from Iraqi tribes and also serve to drive a wedge between Iraqi Sunnis and IS.

The upshot would be a situation where Sunni and Shia sectarian armies in a single state confront IS, on the one hand, and confront each other on the other. Consequently, we will have a range of purely sectarian militias, with varying aims and objectives, facing off against another sectarian army bent on the establishment of an alternative state or caliphate, even if it fights militias of the same sect in order to accomplish this aim.

The measures that have so far been taken to confront the phenomenon are insufficient and cannot constitute a definitive solution. At best, in the most intense periods of confrontation, they could inflict some debilitating blows and setbacks.

Therefore, it is essential to promote the means to safeguard and enhance cohesive national armies, to develop the capacities of elite forces to contend with the new phenomenon and to accelerate the creation of a Joint Arab Force.

It is also important to resolve the Yemeni crisis as soon as possible to halt the cloning of the Syrian model and to curb the growing Iranian influence in the region, in light of current developments regarding its relations with the US which, perhaps, may create an umbrella of recognition for Iran’s regional expansion and simultaneously trigger an arms race in the region.

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