Studies 17 April, 2024

Introducing Re-Generated Security Forces in Yemen

The Crisis of the Hybrid Model in Fractured Arab States

Eleonora Ardemagni

Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, MENA Centre. She is also a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, an Adjunct Professor at ASERI (Graduate School of Economics and International Relations, Milan), and a Former Gulf Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation (2015-2020). She is the author of The Houthis: Adaptable Players in Yemen’s Multiple Geographies (CRiSSMA-Catholic University, 2019) and co-editor of From Warlords to Statelords: Armed Groups and Power Trajectories in Libya and Yemen (Ledizioni-LediPublishing, 2022).

Introduction: The Problem with Hybridity

This paper argues that the hybrid model is no longer sufficient to frame and understand the reality of security actors in fractured Arab states. In countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya, the army’s composition has profoundly changed since the 2011 uprisings, as state institutions underwent legitimacy crises, violent contestations, and multidimensional collapses. In this framework, politicized armies have fragmented along different loyalties because of shifting political-military balances. This has resulted in an ongoing disordered restructuring process that involves the gradual replacement by governments of a significant part of the army’s soldiers and officers with fighters integrated from armed groups. For this reason, the hybrid lens of analysis risks being inapplicable, since in these countries “armies” and “militias” no longer appear as two distinct poles of an imaginary security continuum.

acrobat Icon Due to integration, most of the current security actors in fractured Arab states have become something more, and different from the sum of two distinct segments: “armies” and “militias”, undermining the explanatory effectiveness of hybridity. The categories applied from 2010-2020 are increasingly inaccurate. Filling a theoretical and analytical gap, this paper introduces the concept of “re-generated security forces” to make sense of the new security forces in fractured Arab states, shedding light on their governance-oriented function. There is no academic consensus on how hybrid security actors can be defined, even though some shared parameters provide us a rough definition. Since 2011, security hybridization has marked most of the dynamics occurring in countries like Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, as many armed groups have been legalized or institutionalized as part of the regular defence sector, producing hybridity between formal armies and armed groups.

However, another phenomenon can also be observed in fractured Arab states, especially in countries ravaged by prolonged conflicts such as Yemen, Syria, and Libya: armed groups and/or fighters becoming gradually integrated into what remains of regular armies. This alters previous balances within regular armies whose composition significantly differs today, according to local and regional identities and religious affiliations, from the pre-2011 status quo. Therefore, analysing these security actors through the hybridization lens overlooks the fact that armies now employ a significant number of former armed groups or fighters. This new dynamic challenges the hybridization concept that, to be theoretically effective, requires two distinct realities to meet and merge. Therefore, the emergence of a new phenomenon implies the need for an updated lens of analysis to frame and understand security landscapes which are shaped by the growing governance role of forces blending segments of armies and of militias: re-generated security forces. Re-generation does not refer to the “quality” of these forces, but to the “outcome of an ongoing process”. In fact, stratified hybridization, the frequent replacement of soldiers with fighters within the armies, and the de facto governance of military groups in contexts of protracted wars (Yemen, Libya, and Syria) have produced new military forces with respect to both pre-2011 military actors and the hybrid umbrellas that formed immediately after the uprisings.

As the armies’ structural collapse after 2011 paved the way for security hybridization, prolonged conflicts have allowed re-generated military forces to take shape, building territorial control on the ground. Yemen epitomizes the trajectory of the post-2011 security landscape, as well as of its actors. Since the anti-government uprising, the army fractured due to the protests against Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency, with many units and officers – alongside the overwhelming part of the Republican Guard – siding with the Houthis against the internationally recognized government since late 2014. After the Houthi coup in Sanaa in early 2015, several armed groups established to fight the Houthis’ military advancement towards South were later legalized as part of the regular security sector (i.e., the Security Belt Forces under the Ministry of Interior in 2016), while maintaining relevant autonomy on the ground (hybridization). At the same time, the regular army has formally placed other armed groups (such as the Hadhrami Elite Forces in 2016) under its command, while also integrating into the army’s ranks fighters from the Southern Resistance who fought the Houthis since 2015 (integration).

The Yemen case raises two issues. First, security hybridization does not necessarily produce real integration. Legalized armed groups tend to continue acting autonomously despite being formally part of the state’s chain of command. Second, hybridization and integration are not necessarily “in sequence” phenomena, since they can develop in parallel as co-present dynamics, with integration tending to increase in number and frequency as the conflict goes on. Aiming to push forward the academic and think tank debate on non-state hybrid actors, the paper addresses the following questions: Why is hybridity no longer effective in framing and understanding current security players in fractured Arab states? Given this gap, what is the most effective concept instead to frame and understand current security players?

This paper addresses the post-2011 evolution of hybrid security actors in fractured Arab states, with Yemen as a case study, shedding light on the effectiveness and the crisis of hybridity as a pattern of analysis. It begins by problematizing the limits of hybridity in explaining the current scenario, reflecting on the post-2011 academic and think tank debate around hybrid actors and the lack of a coherent definition to frame them. The trajectory of security actors in Yemen emphasizes the security landscapes’ evolution in fractured Arab states. Hybridization and integration can rise in parallel, however, as the conflict persists, integration in the army’s ranks significantly alters the physiognomy of the army in comparison to pre-2011 balances, adding a distinct variable to security hybridization. It studies the integration variable regardless of the outcome of the integration process. The majority of formally integrated armed groups and fighters continue to act autonomously on the ground despite integration. In fact, integration is a broad concept which can imply a variety of policy tools, goals, and expectations. The integration factor alters the original army’s composition, disempowering the hybridity’s potential to explain the evolution of the security landscape. The concept of re-generated military forces explains instead the new reality in which governance-oriented forces control and “govern” portions of the territory.