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Strategic Papers 17 August, 2020

Punching Above Weights: Combat Effectiveness of Armed Nonstate Actors in the Arab World and Beyond

Omar Ashour

Associate Professor of Security and Strategic Studies in the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies and Founding Director of the Critical Security Studies Graduate Program and the Director of the Strategic Studies Unit at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies. His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, insurgencies, state and non-state combat effectiveness, and democratization. He is the author of forthcoming book How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt and previously taught at the University of Exeter (UK) and at McGill University (Canada). He has served as a senior consultant for the United Nations on security sector reform, counterterrorism, and deradicalization issues.

Introduction

Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, there has been a steady rise in the military capacities and political roles of armed nonstate actors (ANSAs), challenging the traditional hegemony of armed state actors (ASAs) on the monopoly of force.[1] Security, Military, and Strategic Studies literature has demonstrated a significant rise in the victories of ANSAs over stronger ASAs or the inability of state armies to defeat much weaker nonstate militias.[2] This represents a change in historical patterns. One dataset has shown that in 286 insurgencies between 1800 and 2005, state armies were victors in only 25 percent of cases between 1976 and 2005. This contrasts the 90 percent victories for ASAs over ANSAs between 1826 and 1850.[3] Similar findings were replicated by other studies.[4] Overall, regardless of the dataset employed and the timeframe selected, the findings have been consistent: ANSAs have been altering a historical trend. Traditionally, the consensus was that state actors monopolize the means of violence and therefore are more capable of defeating nonstate actors on the battlefield. The trend applies to very different types of armed nonstate actors from the FARC in Colombia to the Taliban in Afghanistan and including secessionist and irredentist militias in Ukraine, Georgia and beyond. In the Arab World, a challenge to various armed and unarmed state actors is presented by the various cases of the “provinces” of the “Islamic State” organisation (known by its predecessor’s Arabic acronym, Daesh), Ansarullah (known as the Houthis) in Yemen, Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) and the Peshmerga Units in Iraq, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Organisation or HTS) and People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel or YPG) in Syria, Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, various Libyan and Sudanese ANSAs, and others. The aforementioned ANSAs have combat capacities and political clout traditionally reserved for state actors. The adversarial dyad of state versus nonstate armed actors does not capture the whole picture, however. Due to a host of factors – including the combat effectiveness of ANSAs – tens of ASAs have formed alliances with ANSAs to fight common enemies (including other ASAs). Perhaps, most notably, these include the relationships between Syria’s Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US in Syria; the “United Armed Forces of Novorossiya” and Russia; Hizbullah and Iran; the Yemeni “Security Belts” and the “Libyan National Army” militias and the UAE; among many others.

The victories of ANSAs, the inability of ASAs to defeat them, the operational and strategic alliances between ANSAs and ASAs, as well as the tactical developments in the combat capacities of both have all prompted a number of timely research questions. How did such a revolution in combat performances and political roles happen? Why did it happen? What are the strategic implications of such a trend for the Gulf region, the Arab World, the West and the rest of the world? How will this trend affect hybrid warfare outcomes in the Arab region and beyond? And what are the implications for stability, reforms, and democratisation in the Arab region? All these questions and more were addressed and discussed in the Strategic Studies Unit’s second annual conference, “Militias and Armies: Developments in Combat and Political Performances of Armed Nonstate and State Actors.” The conference was organised by and held at the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS). Scholars and practitioners discussed the main themes over seven sessions, focused on anti-status quo ANSAs, pro-status quo ANSAs, hybrid warfare and foreign interventions, transformations from ANSAs to ASAs and from ASAs to ANSAs, and the developments in the tactical capacities. The sessions covered over 30 ANSAs and ASAs in more than 20 countries. A selected number of the conference papers will be published in an edited volume by the Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies and the Strategic Studies Unit of the Centre will publish other selected papers. The volume will partly analyse the combat performance of ANSAs and the strategic implications of these developments as well as the transformations from ANSAs to ASAs and from ASAs to ANSAs.

The objective of this Strategic Paper is to offer a general framework explaining the military rise of ANSAs. It provides an analytical overview of the phenomenon and the literature that explains it. It presents some of the selected empirical case-studies and addresses some of the implications. The paper is composed of four sections. The following section briefly outlines a literature-based framework explaining the development of combat performances of ANSAs. The third section discusses some of the most salient case-studies of combat-effective ANSAs. The final section provides observations for future research agendas.[5]


[1] Azmi Bishara, The Army and Politics: Theoretical Problems and Arabic Examples (In Arabic) (Doha: The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, 2017).

[2] Omar Ashour, How ISIS Fights: Military Tactics in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (forthcoming in 2020); Omar Ashour, “How “Sinai Province” Fight? A Military-Political Analysis of the Sinaian Crisis” (In Arabic), Siyasat Arabiya, n. 33 (July 2018), pp. 7-21; Omar Ashour (ed.), Punching Above Their Weights: Combat Effectiveness of Armed Non-State Actors, (Doha: Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies), (forthcoming in 2021). See also: the proceedings of the annual conference of the Strategic Studies Unit entitled “Militias and Armies: Developments of Combat Capacities of Armed Non-State and State Actors,” Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), Doha, 24/2/2020, at: https://bit.ly/2K3hYzc

[3] J. Lyall & I. Wilson, “Rage against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars,’’ International Organization, vol. 63, no. 1(2009), pp. 67-106.

[4] B. Connable, & M. C. Libicki, How Insurgencies End (Arlington: Rand Publications, 2010).

[5] To focus on combat performance and related developments, the paper does not address the widespread human rights violations – some of which amount to crimes against humanity and genocidal practices – committed by the organizations mentioned in this paper. Also, due to space-limitations and thematic focus, the paper does not analyze the violent extremist, sectarianist, separatist, and ethno-nationalist ideologies, narratives, behaviors, and objectives of these organizations; all of which have destructive impacts on social cohesion, civil peace, social and political reforms, and democratisation in the Arab region and beyond. It should be noted here, however, that all of these organizations either used or are still using terrorism tactics, with the aim of intimidation and political-military pressure, indiscriminate mass-murders, or both. These tactics have both military and non-military implications. The paper focuses on the military ones.

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