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Ruslan Mamedov

MSc in International Relations, Program Coordinator (MENA) at the Russian International Affairs Councill

The problem of non-governmental and irregular armed groups in the Middle East is becoming increasingly relevant in the context of discussions about post-conflict settlement and the role of these groups in regional processes moving forward .1 In the current situation, the major actors cannot stick exclusively to the state-centric approach and are turning to a multi-actor approach, which takes into account both the interrelations between countries and the interactions between all the elements of global politics. In the context of the Middle East, these elements include non-governmental and irregular armed groups.

There is the opinion that the main contradiction between Russia and Iran is the difference in approaches to international relations. Proponents of this view believe that, while Russia prefers rationalism and the state-centric approach, Iran, which has long been involved in regional processes, is increasingly basing its foreign policy on strengthening ties with non-governmental actors in the Middle East.

This argument appears dubious, however, seeing as Moscow maintains contacts not just with official governments, but with non-governmental actors as well. At the same time, at the strategic level, Russia advocates the restoration of governmental institutions, which is critical not only to developing more constructive relations between Moscow and the regional capitals, but also to the regional countries themselves, and to their ability to ensure their own security. In this sense, the approaches of Russia and Iran may indeed differ.


The problem of non-governmental and irregular armed groups in the Middle East is becoming increasingly relevant in the context of discussions about post-conflict settlement and the role of these groups in regional processes moving forward [1].1 In the current situation, the major actors cannot stick exclusively to the state-centric approach and are turning to a multi-actor approach, which takes into account both the interrelations between countries and the interactions between all the elements of global politics. In the context of the Middle East, these elements include non-governmental and irregular armed groups.

There is the opinion that the main contradiction between Russia and Iran is the difference in approaches to international relations. Proponents of this view believe that, while Russia prefers rationalism and the state-centric approach, Iran, which has long been involved in regional processes, is increasingly basing its foreign policy on strengthening ties with non-governmental actors in the Middle East.

This argument appears dubious, however, seeing as Moscow maintains contacts not just with official governments, but with non-governmental actors as well. At the same time, at the strategic level, Russia advocates the restoration of governmental institutions, which is critical not only to developing more constructive relations between Moscow and the regional capitals, but also to the regional countries themselves, and to their ability to ensure their own security. In this sense, the approaches of Russia and Iran may indeed differ.

Regional Security Problems in the Middle East as Viewed by Moscow and Tehran

Yulia Sveshnikova, Hamidreza Azizi:
War of Interests for Peace in Syria

Given the absence of an institutionalized regional order, certain loyalty structures in Iran which are responsible for regional policy and security have created a security system of their own. Iran has been relying on its regional influence, including religious and cultural influence, to build so-called Islamic resistance by financing projects to create and maintain cross-border non-governmental actors in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and — some analysts believe — Yemen. [2]2 Some experts explain Iran’s policy by its desire to consolidate a fairly large territory in the Middle East predominantly populated by Shiites. The very term Shiite Crescent, coined by King Abdullah II of Jordan, has been used widely by the Arab media (such as Qatar’s Al Jazeera) and in Israeli publications, and has caught on in the English-language press. In reality, however, Iran’s foreign policy does not boil down to the Shiite factor: it is determined by the complex of threats that the country is facing.

Iranian experts emphasize two threats in particular. First, there is NATO’s presence in the region, and specifically in nearly all the countries bordering Iran. It should be noted that the erosion of statehood in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan, which does nothing to help stability in Iran, is also perceived as a consequence of NATO’s activity. The threat of NATO invading the countries bordering Iran and the risks associated with the Alliance’s withdrawal from other countries in the absence of new, efficient national security institutions, remain tangible. Second, there is the threat emanating from Israel and the unresolved conflict with Palestine. Many researchers also point to the standoff between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the main destabilizing factor in the Middle East. However, the situation appears somewhat different from Tehran’s viewpoint. Strange as it may seem, Iran perceives its contradictions with Saudi Arabia as less important, and tends not to view them in isolation from the fact that there are U.S. troops present on Saudi soil and in other Gulf states. The main factor of tension for Iran is the presence of U.S. military bases in the Gulf, and the country has been consistent in its calls for these to be withdrawn.

Russia, for its part, sees little sense in the U.S. troops leaving the region, because the vacuum that would form in this case could be filled by completely non-constructive forces (even though Moscow often challenges the constructive nature of Washington’s actions). Russia is more inclined to view the Middle East as a field for cooperation with the United States in the delineation of areas of responsibility. In returning to the region in 2015 (when the Russian Aerospace Forces began operating in Syria), Moscow, among other things, sought to demonstrate to Western elites its adherence to the multipolar world order, which relies on shared approaches and cooperation in addressing existing problems.

At the moment, the areas of responsibility appear to be rather vague, but they are beginning to take shape. The policy of the United States is becoming more important in this context. Under President Barack Obama, Washington tried to reduce its excessive involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. The main development of that period was the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011. Understanding the necessity of decreasing its presence in the region, Washington concentrated on the Persian Gulf and Israel, not least because it was looking to control the important regional logistics routes.

The gradual withdrawal of the United States from the northern Middle East was accompanied by the strengthening role of Iran. However, the beginning of the Syrian crisis highlighted the inability of regional forces to find a political solution, particularly in light of the subsequent emergence of so-called Islamic State. The situation required the involvement of an external force to address the problems that the Obama administration did not consider to be priority issues.

When Russia launched its operation against so-called Islamic State in Syria, the presence of the Russian naval base in the Mediterranean became a key factor both for the eventual resolution of the Syrian crisis and for the establishment of a security system in the region. Nevertheless, both the regional and external actors have yet to amend their policies and come to realize the need to take Russia’s direct military presence into account when forming their foreign policies in the future.

Having found themselves on the same side of the barricades in Syria, Russia and Iran decided to engage in tactical cooperation, despite the differences in terms of their interests. Irrespective of how the Syrian conflict is resolved, it will be of paramount importance for Russia to preserve its naval base in that country. In this sense, Moscow is interested in a future Syrian regime that would recognize the legitimacy of the Russian military presence there. Russia also believes it is extremely important for the Syrian state to remain secular.

Iran’s interests are mainly connected with the opportunity to transport materiel and human resources via Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, in support of its immediate allies in the Islamic resistance (primarily Hezbollah). Tehran views Syria as the central piece in this allied structure. In the future, these countries might be used as transit states for Iranian oil and gas. There are, however, other motives behind Tehran’s activities, namely its desire to become an integral part of the region (somethingwhich contradicts the interests of a number of Arab states), and to have NATO troops driven away from the country’s borders.

Tehran’s approach to foreign policy has changed over time, largely due to the differences in the situation before and after the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear programme. In addition, the external political environment (such as relations with Washington) has influenced the infighting between reformists and conservatives inside the country. Under the reformist and moderate politicians, the chances of reaching compromise with other countries increased, whereas under the conservatives, Iran’s regional policy was extremely inflexible.

It is often posited that Iran uses reformist and moderate rhetoric as a mere front, while continuing with its general regional political agenda. While the President’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintained the appropriate favourable image by signing the JCPOA, the regional policy was in fact overseen by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, whose aim was to create loyal paramilitary forces in the neighbouring countries for the purpose of protecting “oppressed” Muslims. Among these forces are the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Syrian National Defence Forces (NDF). Created on the basis of Shiite solidarity (as many analysts assert, even though this is not always true), these forces might prove instrumental to Tehran in the future in terms of projecting its regional influence. Curiously, Gulf experts sometimes compare Tehran to the Vatican in an attempt to equate their significance to Shiites and Christians, respectively.

In our opinion, the emergence of non-governmental and irregular armed movements is not so much a consequence of Iran’s policy as it is a result of the erosion of statehood. This circumstance is conducive to Shiite political activism being manifested in its current form. It is possible that the Obama administration was proceeding from this same logic when it signed the JCPOA with Iran. In theory, the accord should have allowed Iran to begin the process of integrating itself into the global economy, which would reduce tensions with the United States and prompt Tehran to stop backing non-governmental forces in sovereign states. Israel and the Gulf monarchies viewed this approach as wishful thinking, arguing that Iran would continue with its policy no matter what [3].3

The Role of the Shiite Factor in Strengthening the Defensive Capacity of Syria and Iraq

Grigory Lukyanov, Ruslan Mamedov:
The Fifth Assault Corps. Back to Order in Syria?

Ever since the Syrian crisis broke out, Iran has actively supported Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Against the background of Western sanctions, the decision-making paralysis within the armed forces, and a decline in the effectiveness of combat operations, Iran proposed establishing the NDF as a parallel structure in Syria. The al-Assad regime agreed; in 2012–2013, the various existing non-governmental groups (with combined manpower of up to 100,000 fighters) started operating under the NDF umbrella. Iranian advisors were gaining ever greater clout in the newly established group. The NDF, however, was not homogenous. Some of its components were indeed being pay-rolled by Iran and using Shiite rhetoric, but their role appears to have been overstated. The NDF core continued to be represented by groups loyal to Damascus, those supporting the Syria al-Assad (al-Assad’s Syria) concept.

Following the signing of the JCPOA and the beginning of the Russian operation in Syria, the focus started to shift towards the greater role of the army once again. Faced with disorganization, the existence of a multitude of pro-government groups with different agendas and independently operating armed units, not to mention the deplorable state of logistics and communications and low morale, Russia began shoring up Syria’s governmental institutions, first and foremost its armed forces. The Syrian Army got its fourth corps in 2015, after which discussions began about the possibility of forming a fifth corps. The latter was expected to incorporate, among other things, fighters representing different NDF groups. In other words, the restoration of the Syrian armed forces did not begin with the Shiite ideology in mind, but rather with the aim of increasing the efficiency of pro-government forces in the fight against the opponents of Damascus.

The situation in Iraq was somewhat different. Pro-Iranian groups in the country had been set up prior to the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops and enjoyed direct influence on the Iraqi ministries of interior and defence, even before the emergence of so-called Islamic State in 2014 [4].4 On the other hand, Iraq’s Shiite community does not have a united opinion as to its loyalty to Tehran. While Iran’s statehood is founded on Vilayat-e Faqih principle (with the reins of power remaining in the hands of authoritative religious leaders), Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani — one of the most prominent Shiite leaders — opposes the politicization of religion and objects to the involvement of spiritual leaders in politics. The emergence of so-called Islamic State forced al-Sistani to issue a fatwa in 2014 calling on the people of Iraq to unite in the face of this threat to the country. The fatwa was addressed to the entire Iraqi population: it did not differentiate between Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, or any other religious denominations or ethnicities.

Shiite non-governmental paramilitary movements, previously fragmented, have consolidated under the umbrella of the PMF, whose strength eventually reached around 120,000 troops. The PMF includes both Shiites and Sunnis (between 6,000 and 16,000, according to different estimates), as well as representatives of other ethnicities and religious denominations.

It is worth mentioning that the Sunni paramilitaries is often referred to by the Iraqi media as the “Tribal Mobilization Forces.” The media specifically stresses the fact that the PMF also includes Christian units, which, despite the propaganda efforts of the forces, comprise a significantly smaller proportion than the representatives of other religious denominations. The PMF may therefore be viewed as a national Iraqi movement, meaning that there is no purely Shiite project in the country, especially given the existence of the Iraqi Army, which is usually supervised by Sunni ministers.

It appears that any attempts to establish regional stability through the creation and exploitation of non-governmental and irregular armed groups, including those based on Shiite ideology, are bound to fail. Moscow is already working to uphold Syria’s statehood and strengthen that country’s armed forces;one recent example was the formation of the Fifth Assault Corps).However, the success of the Russian approach depends on the international settlement talks and the reconciliation process within Syria. As for Iraq, the optimal solution would be to legitimize the pro-Iranian forces by incorporating them into the governmental security system, while preserving the country’s secular status, lest the Sunni population become radicalized. Whether this approach sits well with Tehran is a controversial question.

***

Tactically, Moscow maintains contacts with non-governmental and irregular armed groups. Strategically, however, it advocates for the restoration and strengthening of governmental security institutions (the armed forces and special services). This approach could increase the effectiveness of the fight against so-called Islamic State and other groups. Iran’s experience of operations in Iraq and particularly in Syria demonstrates that exploiting non-governmental and irregular armed groups does not work as planned. The existing groups may be expected to be disbanded as part of the post-conflict settlement process, and their soldiers may subsequently be incorporated into the armed forces in Syria, or into security agencies in Iraq.

First published in: The Greater Middle East in World Economy and International Relations (Global Development, iss. 18). Y .D. Kvashnin, N. V. Toganova, eds. Moscow: IMEMO, 2017, 152p. The article was submitted for publication on August 28, 2017. The term “irregular armed groups” was introduced into the text on the Russian International Affairs Council portal at the author’s request, after the issue had gone to press.

1. Durac V. The Role of Non-State Actors in Arab Countries after the Arab Uprisings // IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook, 2015, pp. 37–41.

2. Emirates Policy Center. The Doctrinal Foundations of Iran’s Geopolitical Project. PolicyPaper. AbuDhabi, 2015, 68p.

3. Emirates Policy Center…

4. Minyazhetdinov, I. K. The “Balkanization” of Iraq: The Factors of Reproduction and Distribution of Political Violence // Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century (the Middle East and North Africa). Moscow: Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, 2015, p. 263.


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  1. Korean Peninsula Crisis Has no Military Solution. How Can It Be Solved?
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     27 (26%)
    While the situation benefits Kim Jong-un's and Trump's domestic agenda, there will be no solution  
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