- Hybrid security order prevails in much of the Arab region, with the army and police sharing prerogatives for violence with a bevy of armed non-state actors;
- However, even as states rely on armed non-state actors operating in far-flung periphery zones, leaders have also tried to retain countervailing forces, special operations or praetorian guards to protect the regime in case of popular unrest or coups;
- Undertaking coup-proof measures in the context of hybrid security governance is something new: Iraq is a prominent case for the analysis of tensions between militias and praetorianism in action.
The Arab world has witnessed profound violence since the uprisings of 2011. The conflicts in Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have costs hundreds of thousands of lives and unquantifiable damage to people and infrastructure alike. The wars have catalyzed deep transformations in the ways central governments manage and control the use of violence. Across the region the official agents of the state, such as the army and police services, increasingly share prerogatives for violence with a bevy of armed non-state actors. The result is a hybrid security order wherein armies and police collaborate, tacitly or explicitly, with village guards, tribal forces, warlords, and militias in the provision of security.
Even as states rely on militias, warlords, and other non-state actors operating in far-flung periphery zones, leaders have also tried to retain countervailing forces to protect the leader and capital from popular unrest or elite coups. These forces, variously labelled as special forces, shock troops, or praetorian guards, defend the ruler from his ostensive supporters. They do not necessarily operate harmoniously with pro-government militias. Rather, as highlighted in the case of Iraq, the tensions between violence devolution through militias and the need to defend regimes through centralized praetorian forces ultimately complicates security sector reforms.
The ‘Coup Proofing’ Imperative in the Middle East
Military coups have been a feature of Arab politics since the 1930s. The 1950 and 1960 saw nearly endemic coups as army officers seized power in Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, among others. To counteract this risk, many leaders tried to “coup-proof” their regimes. They established dedicated intelligence services to monitor the army, selected commanding officers on the basis of political loyalty instead of skill, distributed political and economic benefits to the military to ensure obedience, and set-up parallel or counterweight forces that might combat armed insurrection if required. Many of these measures, analysts believe, hindered the performance of Arab armies in combat.
Erica De Bruin’s recent work underscores the paradoxical effects of these strategies. Using a dataset covering 110 countries over the span of fifty years, she finds that counterweight forces helped regimes defeat coups and increased the survivability of regimes. However, counterweights did not seem to deter coup plotting or significantly affect the number of coup attempts. If anything, the mere act of trying to establish a counterweight force is more likely to spur the impetus for rebellion.
A key issue is the specific type of counterweight force involved. De Bruin defines a counterweight force as one that is independent from military command and the defense ministry, with operational control resting instead with the executive, the interior ministry, or other government bodies and which is deployed within sixty miles of the capital to ensure the ability to intercept a potential coup. Yet, many different types of forces can play this role. Indeed, counterweight forces are often asked to fulfill multiple security functions, including engaging guerrillas and insurgent forces during civil wars and supporting the army against foreign foes in international wars. Some counterweight forces are better equipped for double duty. For instance, paramilitary and part-time militia forces with light arms and decentralized structures operating across the national territory can pitch in to defend the streets in case of an uprising or a coup. They may also be adept counterinsurgent forces because they have greater familiarity and personal knowledge of civilians in their areas of operation. But they are less effective in combating better-equipped professional armies. The ranks of the praetorian guards, on the other hand, are staffed with fully trained professional soldiers. They receive the benefits of advanced equipment and extra pay, and they are deliberately quarantined from the rest of society. This enables them to defend the regime and serve at the front in foreign wars. However, their advanced equipped and elite ethos may be a liability when it comes to counterinsurgent operations when support from civilians, and not just sheer firepower, are often determinative. Overall, the reliance on paramilitary and militias versus praetorian guards can affect the ability to withstand popular unrest, insurgency, as well as coups.
Militia and Praetorian in Iraq
In many ways, Iraq epitomizes the challenges of hybrid security orders and the tensions between militia and praetorianism. Iraq’s reliance on hybrid forces dates back to 2003 and its profound localization of security structures is well-known. With the dismantling of the army, Iraqi communities needed protection, services, and leadership. A host of actors stepped in, some associated with tribal and clan groups, others with religious factions, some organized crime, and some with various competing political factions. The Popular Mobilization Units (hashd ash-shaabi) are the latest installation of pro-government militia in Iraq. PMU emerged following the rise of the Islamic State in 2014. PMU inducted some previously extant militias, plus new volunteers. Some elements of the PMU were closely tied to Iran.
Less frequently remarked, though, is the countervailing effort to create a praetorian guard in Iraq, particularly the Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) and other Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). Indeed, the rise of these praetorian guards in Iraq parallels that of the militias. ISOF originated in the period immediately after the downfall of Saddam. ISOF elements received more intensive vetting and advanced training at the hands of US military trainers, aiming to create an elite strike force-style squad. The idea was that this force would be above the sectarian tensions that had plagued other institution-building efforts in Iraq, including the rebuilding of the Iraqi army more generally. Overall, the plan was for ISOF and CTS to conduct precision counter-terrorism operations.
Over time, however, Iraqi leaders began to treat ISOF and CTS more as praetorian guards tasked to defend the regime. As soon as the US relinquished command control over ISOF and CTS in 2006, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved to assert his personal authority. Without parliamentary approval, ISOF command was placed under his office alone, to the exclusion of the both the ministry of defense and interior. Through early 2010, ISOF was at the forefront of campaigns against suspected Sunni insurgents. While ISOF — amounting to some 13,000 troops by 2013 — probably remained Iraq’s most effective combat force, its politicization eventually became a problem. Command appointments were increasingly politicized and favored regime loyalists. Many saw ISOF as the prime minister’s private army, waging war on political opponents. This further complicated Iraq’s civil-military relations as other Iraqi security units were by default seen as disloyal or ineffective. The mixture of regular army and federal police garrisoning Mosul buckled and disintegrated when a few hundred Islamic State fighters marched on the city in the summer of 2014. Yet Maliki refused to dispatch ISOF forces as reinforcements, possibly out of fear of weakening protection around the capital region. Only belatedly and after repeated setbacks in the anti-IS campaign did ISOF and the PMU militias come to work closely together, linking state and non-state coercive power.
The symbiosis between the formal and informal underscores the hybrid nature of the Iraqi security environment. This has resulted in instability and political volatility as these different sets of actors grapple for authority, influence, and access to state resources. Nevertheless, a degree of co-operation has emerged as formal security forces have become more and more dependent on militias.
Coup-proofing is nothing new in the Arab world. Undertaking such measures in the context of hybrid security governance, however, is. The interdependence between state and non-state coercive power in Iraq can be witnessed across the Middle East in varying forms. Militia devolution and praetorian retrenchment occur in different measures across the hybrid security domain. The Syrian Arab Army buckled and fragmented in the early days of the uprising. Yet the Assad regime held on by expanding its ties to militia elements, the notorious shabiha, and retaining the loyalties of the Republic Guard. Praetorians and militias play different roles and they have different outlooks and different priorities. Sometimes these are complementary or symbiotic; sometimes contradictory. Thus, the challenge to states is not just how much devolution to allow, but how to counteract that centrifugal pressure simultaneously. These pressures are sure to complicate any future efforts for reforms of the security sector.
 Ranj Alaaldin et al., The Rise and the Future of Militias in the MENA Region, ISPI-Brookings Doha Report, 2019.
 Lutterbeck, Derek. "Coup-Proofing in the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) Region." Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. 2021.
 De Bruin, Erica. How to Prevent Coups D'état: Counterbalancing and Regime Survival. Cornell University Press, 2020.
 Sunil Dasgupta, Paramilitary Groups: Local Alliances in Counterinsurgency Operations, Brookings Counterinsurgency and Pakistan Series, 2009, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/06_counterinsurgency_dasgupta.pdf.
 Ranj Alaaldin, Proxy War in Iraq, PWP Conflict Studies, 2019, Virginia Tech Press: https://doi.org/10.21061/proxy-wars-alaaldin.
 David Witty, The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services, Brookings Institution, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/David-Witty-Paper_Final_Web.pdf; Hoekstra, Quint. "How Mosul fell: the role of coup-proofing in the 2014 partial collapse of the Iraqi security forces." International Politics (2019): 1-20.
 Üngör, Uğur Ümit. "Shabbiha: Paramilitary groups, mass violence and social polarization in Homs." Violence: An International Journal 1.1 (2020): 59-79; Gregory Waters, Syria’s Republic Guard: Growth and Fragmentation, Middle East Institute, December 2018, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2018-12/RG%20Report%2012-12.pdf.