The thirtieth anniversary, in 2023, of the signing of the Oslo Agreement that was supposed to bring peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, brought the beginning of a new phase of the struggle between the two peoples.
This new phase is a part of a wider set of confrontations, hot and cold, that will predominate the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf, in the foreseeable future.
This wide region will undergo, for several years, the chaotic repercussions of these hot and cold confrontations, before a new geopolitical and political economy order takes hold.
Several factors give momentum to these confrontations.
The first, which this article focuses on, is that in different parts of the region, non-state actors have managed, in the past few decades and particularly in the years since the failure of the Arab uprisings, to build political, economic, social, and cultural structures, and to coalesce them into statelets that are effectively independent from the states in which these non-state actors exist.
The most prominent example is Hizbollah in Lebanon, but there are other examples of groups in Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and Sudan, as well as ones at the margins of the Arab world, in the Sahel, that are trying to style themselves in similar hues. Hamas in Gaza also built and operated its political, economic, administrative, and fighting structures independently from the Palestinian Authority.
These non-state actors almost always espouse national objectives that not only the constituencies in their statelets, but large sections of the people of the states they are in, support. This widens their political base.
But the objectives of these non-state actors typically transcend the national. Often non-state actors adhere to doctrinal, typically religious, ideologies. Hizbollah, Hamas, the Popular Mobilisation in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen adhere to interpretations of Islam as both a theology as well as a governing frame of reference. In some cases, non-state actors rely on regional or international sponsors, either sharing the same ideology, such as in the case of Hizbollah and the Islamic Republic in Iran, or the non-state actors enter into transactional relationships with foreign sponsors that provide financial and logistical support, in return for the non-state actors acting as minor partners in dossiers of common interests. In many of these cases, religious, tribal, national objectives mix with the practical interests of the non-state actors. This often results in muddled political positioning for these non-state actors inside the countries they are based in. Often, however, the mixing of objectives widens the constituency of these non-state actors.
Popularity endows legitimacy, particularly when the processes and institutions of genuine representation are weak or lacking altogether. And since there are underlying, long-simmering feelings of victimisation amongst large sections of Arab societies – very often with justifiable reasons – the objectives and rhetoric of these non-state actors and their championing national aspirations, come to subtly merge with the feelings of victimisation.
But mixing the secular with the sacred imposes restrictions on the strategic choices of these non-state actors. They often become unable to adopt long-term political compromises. Their ideologies or the objectives they have anchored their political currency – and often legitimacy – on compel them to pursue highly challenging ends, even when pursuing these ends entails colossal costs to themselves and to their constituencies, let alone to the societies that these non-state actors have established themselves within.
This strategic determinism often leads to militancy becoming indispensable to the doctrines and ways of operations of these non-state actors.
When these ways of operations prove impactful, the enemies of these non-state actors change their strategic calculus. As I wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine in Summer 2020, Hamas, such as Hizbollah before it, has been working on developing new ways of attacking Israel that would ultimately compel Israel to rethink its national security parameters and assumptions. This became glaringly obvious in the wake of Hamas’s 7 October 2023 attacks on southern Israel.
The operations of these non-state actors also create dilemmas for the countries they are in. Because the operations of the non-state actors are a function of their independent decision-making from the parameters and restraints of the states they are in, the states’ geopolitical postures need updating as these actors gain more power and increase and widen their operations. For example, Lebanon has, for years, faced serious challenges in developing a sustained defence strategy particularly as Hizbollah has upgraded its operations and widened them regionally. Put another way, there is a strong argument that the strategic calculus of these non-state actors is different from that of the states they are in.
Non-state actors have become entrenched in several countries in the Arab world, and will continue in the foreseeable future to be a primary player in Middle Eastern geopolitics. This is why several key players in the region need to rethink their strategic calculuses and postures. The next article in this series will present which countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf will need to do so, and according to which parameters.