In a process of profound importance, five Arab states in the Middle East have effectively ceased to exist over the last decade. The five states in question are Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and Libya. It is possible that more will follow.
But in all these cases, the result has been remarkably similar — it is the ceding of power from strong central authorities to a variety of political-military organizations, usually but not always organized around a shared sectarian or ethnic origin. The Middle East today is overshadowed by this process.
We are living in the time of the militias.
The causes of their disappearance are not all the same. In two cases (Iraq, Libya) it was western military intervention which began the process of collapse. In another case (Lebanon) it is intervention from a Middle Eastern state (Iran) which is at the root of the definitive hollowing out of the state.
Observe: in Syria, the clearest-cut case, the country is now effectively separated into separated ethnic and sectarian enclaves — an area dominated by Bashar Assad in the south and west, an area dominated by the Sunni jihadi Islamic State group in the east, three non-contiguous Kurdish enclaves across the north, an area under the domination of al-Qaeda and its allies in the northwest and a small area in the southwest held jointly by al-Qaeda and a variety of other Sunni Arab militias supported by the west.
The important point to note here is that the area controlled by Assad (around 40% of the total area of Syria) does not essentially differ in its militia-nature from the other areas.
On the contrary, Assad has been able to survive because he is aligned with the force best designed to successfully exploit the fragmentation of Arab states and the emergence of militias seeking to impose their authority on the ruins of the state.
This force is Iran, and more specifically the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and its Qods Force.
This force is a unique body. It exists for the precise purpose of building proxy paramilitary organizations to serve the Iranian regional interest. At a time like the present, the possession of such a force is an enormous advantage.
Assad’s large, mainly Sunni Arab conventional army became largely useless to him in 2011/12. The IRGC stepped in and created for him one of its own preferred force types. Today, this militia (the National Defense Forces) along with other Iranian-created or -sponsored militia forces from neighboring Iraq and Lebanon are largely responsible for Assad’s survival. But he survives as a warlord and militia chief, not as a “president” or the head of a state.