Non-state actors no more: The evolution of militant groups in the Middle East

Al Majalla outlines the Middle East's long history of non-state actors, what it means for the region's people and prospects for peace.

Non-state actors play an outsized role in the region's conflicts and wars. Hezbollah is a prime example of how these actors have blurred the lines between militancy and national governance.
Sebastien Thibault
Non-state actors play an outsized role in the region's conflicts and wars. Hezbollah is a prime example of how these actors have blurred the lines between militancy and national governance.

Non-state actors no more: The evolution of militant groups in the Middle East

Beirut: Global politics and international relations have long been complex. The terminology – and concepts – used to understand the mechanisms that define the world are shaped and reshaped by evolving frameworks. Over time, connotations and definitions can change.

Sometimes, this evolution runs long and far enough to leave economic, social and political terms marooned from their origins, so much so that they can become misleading at face value.

This is now on show in the Middle East.

Civil non-governmental organisations (NGOs) – have filled the void left by a lack of institutions traditionally associated with the role of recognised national governments.

Additionally, political organisations with foreign affiliations have been on the rise. They often thrive when the national government cannot operate properly.

The rise of non-state actors

Known as “non-state actors”, many of these groups have evolved to take on a more direct role in some societies, most significantly Hezbollah, which has moved from being a militia to a dominant political power in Lebanon.

Al Majalla outlines the long history of this phenomenon, what it means for the people of the region and prospects for peace.

Foreign-backed political organisations have been on the rise. They often thrive when the national government cannot operate properly.

What's in a name?

NGOs have developed the necessary expertise and professionalism to handle technical issues required for effective governance when lacking in the state. As such, their activities have often diverged from their name.

The same is true of non-state actors.

Their definition among political scientists is a little more technical: international or trans-state entities with the financial resources and political leverage to influence nation-states.

The discrepancy between how NGOs and non-state actors were named and what they now do highlights the complex nature of their current role in the global system, which has run beyond their origins. It also shows what happens when a vacuum is left when traditional or established governments retreat or fail.

Among the most harmful impacts are when non-state actors, which can include political groups or militias, resort to militarisation or violence to advance narrow ideological, religious, or sectarian ideologies. These tactics pose a significant danger to the broader society.

The Arab world – and the Middle East – provides poignant examples of the influence of this geopolitical phenomenon on national and international politics, from the Cold War and Islamic revolution to the present day.

Sebastien Thibault

'Axis of Resistance'

The exceptional challenges created by non-state actors can be traced back to Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which marked the beginning of an effort to establish a network of affiliated militias across the region and in various countries worldwide.

These militias have undermined the sovereignty of nations. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the so-called "Shiite Crescent"  — a string of Iran-backed militias stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean — emerged. 

The beacon of this crescent is the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which stands out as the most powerful group within Iran's militant empire and calls itself the 'Axis of Resistance'. This axis exemplifies the profound and destabilising influence this kind of non-state actor can wield.

But, the tactics used by this axis are not new.

Soviet-backed groups

The Soviet Union had a strategy in the Cold War to use violent non-state actors as part of a strategy to export revolution and bolster opposition to the global capitalist system.

During this era – from the end of World War II to the demise of the Soviet Union in late 1991 – Moscow financially backed numerous groups that contested the legitimacy of established governments, including in the Middle East.

The beacon of Iran's so-called 'Axis of Resistance' is the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which stands out as the most powerful group within Iran's militant empire.

These entities emerged as rebel and military organisations spearheading what was known as the "Arab and International Liberation Movement." Their aim was, theoretically, to transition their countries to a form of popular democracy.

They failed for several reasons, not least because an alliance formed between the Eastern bloc and numerous oppressive regimes worldwide.

That alliance often sidelined communist and Marxist parties in these countries, intended to serve as vanguards for disseminating Soviet Marxist ideology. And so, many Arab communist parties suffered under dictatorial regimes allied with the Soviet bloc.

A prime example of this is the suppression of communists in Egypt and Syria by Arab nationalist regimes, specifically under Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the Ba'athist Hafez al-Assad in Syria.

The era — which included the Arab and Global Liberation Movement — coincided with the rise of the New Left in 1968, which was marked by student movements in Western Europe.

These movements shifted their ideological icons from Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin to figures like the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara and the Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, resonating with a generation of young people questioning the legitimacy of authority as an abstract concept.

Around the same time, the defeat of Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1967 war – and the subsequent disillusionment with the prospect of liberating Palestine through traditional armies and Arab regimes – paved the way for the ascendancy of the Palestinian revolution.


The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) emerged as a significant non-state actor, adopting armed struggle as a means to liberate territory and challenging Abdel Nasser's monopoly on the occupied people's cause.

The PLO, under Yasser Arafat, garnered popular Arab support, becoming the leading voice seeking international acknowledgement of the Palestinian people's rights.

Later, Arafat made the strategic decision to engage in peace talks, culminating in the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, transitioning the PLO from an active non-state actor to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, in what was envisaged as a preliminary step towards establishing a sovereign Palestinian state.

US President Bill Clinton (C) stands between PLO leader Yasser Arafat (R) and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (L) on September 13, 1993, after signing the Oslo Accords.

Read more: 30 years after Oslo, Palestinian state elusive as ever


Iran's support for violent non-state actors has had a detrimental impact on the region. Hezbollah's development is among the most revealing.

It began as a modest Shiite militia during the Lebanese civil war from 1975 to 1990, but since then, it has become the international vanguard of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the religiously motivated Wilayat al-Faqih initiative, which seeks a means to administer the religious affairs of the Muslim world.

Hezbollah's origins can be traced back to a visit by a delegation of Shiite militants to Tehran following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in which they sought military support.

Even before Imam Khomeini's return from exile in France in 1979 and the subsequent overthrow of his communist allies in the revolution, several Iranian anti-Shah exiles had already established a political and military network in Lebanon during the 1970s.

This network orbited around the influential Shiite figure Imam Musa al-Sadr and the PLO, laying the groundwork for what would become an intellectual and logistical hub that, after relocating to Iran, embraced the concept of "exporting the revolution" through non-state actors.

This effort began with the provision of equipment to Lebanese visitors in Tehran, preceding the arrival of the first IRGC units in Lebanon's Baalbek region, where they trained and indoctrinated young Shiites in Khomeini's ideology, diverging from traditional Lebanese Shiite beliefs.

Hezbollah's formal establishment was announced in 1985. It followed a spate of suicide attacks against Western targets and the kidnapping of Western hostages in Lebanon.

The declaration underscored an outright rejection of the legitimacy of the then-existing Lebanese regime, dominated by Maronite Christians, whom Hezbollah viewed as collaborators with Western and Israeli imperialism.

Hezbollah's initial mission statement expressed its goal to dismantle the political influence of Maronites aligned with Israel and to establish an Islamic state, asserting that sovereignty belongs to God rather than Zionists or Maronites.

It also categorically denied the legitimacy of the Lebanese state established in 1943 and later the Taif Accord, which concluded the Lebanese civil war in 1990, arguing that the accord perpetuated an illegitimate and unfair political structure.

Hezbollah's initial mission statement expressed its goal to dismantle the political influence of Maronites aligned with Israel and to establish an Islamic state.

But Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, who had gained influence over Lebanon in what was seen as a consolation prize for his role in the first Gulf War, managed to integrate Hezbollah into Lebanon's parliamentary system.

The signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 by the Israeli government and the PLO marked a significant turning point.

Hezbollah held protests against the agreement, and al-Assad's forces attacked demonstrators, resulting in the deaths of nine members, highlighting a deep-seated rift between Tehran and Damascus, initially manifesting in Beirut.

Turning point

The transformation of Hezbollah due to the Iranian-Syrian dispute played a pivotal role in altering the organisation's trajectory.

Hezbollah shifted from being a regional non-state actor closely aligned with Iran's IRGC to a formidable player in a broader military alliance with both Iran and Syria.

This partnership involved Iran providing Hezbollah with training, financial support, and strategic guidance, positioning the group as a key instrument in diplomatic negotiations, particularly with the United States.

At the same time, Syria used Hezbollah as a powerful military entity against Israel, aiming to influence negotiations related to the Golan Heights and Lake Kinneret.

Syrian influence meticulously kept Hezbollah out of the Lebanese political fray, directing its focus towards military engagement in Southern Lebanon.

This approach allowed Hezbollah to build relationships within Lebanon's corrupt political system and forge connections with sect leaders and the economic elite during Prime Minister Rafik Hariri's tenure.

Hezbollah positioned itself as disinterested in being part of the political system, which helped distance it from politicians tainted by corruption. It claimed its function was solely dedicated to liberating Southern Lebanon from Israeli control.

Hezbollah members during the funeral of one of its fighters.

However, Hezbollah's assassination of Hariri in February 2005 was a turning point. Having rid itself of a political rival, the group moved to position itself as a political player.

It wasn't a natural integration but more of an abrupt shake-up as it stepped in to fill the political vacuum left behind when Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon following the assassination.

Hezbollah's inclusion in the Lebanese Council of Ministers in 2005 and insertion into the state's framework marked a departure from its previous rejection of legitimacy in the country. 

With representation in parliament and government, it gained access to political bargaining, benefiting from deals brokered by its principal Christian ally, Michel Aoun, and his son-in-law, Gebran Bassil.

From a militia to a training consultancy

The trajectory of Hezbollah – from Hariri's assassination to engagement with Israel in 2006, the 2008 conflict, to its involvement in Syria post-2012 – is quite the transformation. The group moved from being perceived as representing the oppressed to becoming part of a corrupt ruling class. 

With Iranian support, Hezbollah went from being a violent non-state actor to becoming a consultant of the 'Axis of Resistance', equipping its members with not only military training but also advanced technological tools and strategic planning.

The group now plays an important regional role in politics and conflicts. It straddles the line between being a militia and a political entity.

Over the past decade, the group has spearheaded an initiative to train and enhance the capabilities of pro-Iranian militias across the Middle East, including in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and notably among Palestinian factions such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

This involvement became evident on 7 October.

Hezbollah now holds a complex regional role in politics and conflicts. It straddles the line between being a militia and a political entity

Operation Al-Aqsa Flood demonstrated Hamas's advanced military capabilities, thanks to Iranian backing and Hezbollah tutelage. Despite Tehran's denials of any direct connection with the operation, the evidence suggests a deep level of involvement.

Non-state actor no more

Labelling Hezbollah and similar pro-Iranian groups as "non-state actors" nowadays is an oversimplification of their complex nature and affiliations.

Organisationally and religiously, these factions align with the IRGC. There is a coherence with Iranian state interests despite a non-Iranian membership base.

In fact, their objectives – and operations – align so closely with the Iranian regime's aspirations that they challenge the conventional definition of non-state actors. Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups exert substantial control over the states in which they operate, oftentimes becoming more powerful than the state itself.

Before Michel Aoun's presidency in 2016, Hezbollah operated as a state-within-a-state in Lebanon. However, as Lebanon's governance structures eroded, Hezbollah assumed an elevated position, as evidenced by its role in quelling anti-government protests in October 2019.

On its part, Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) have risen in ranks following a similar trajectory. They now hold significant power in the Iraqi state apparatus, and their loyalty to Iran is secured through financial incentives from the Iraqi government.

In Yemen, the Ansar Allah (Houthi) movement and Hamas in Gaza have also established de facto control, further blurring the lines between state and non-state governance.

Despite taking control, these groups often shirk the responsibilities and accountability typically associated with governmental authority.

Aerial view of Houthi recruits taking part in a military parade held by the movement on September 15, 2022, in Sana'a, Yemen.

Read more: Houthi militias: A minority group with a majority stake

Damaging labels and a route to hope

The international community's classification of Hezbollah and other pro-Iran militias as non-state actors is controversial and potentially damaging to the societies involved.

It comes from nations opposed to Iran's policies and regional dominance. There are broader implications from the forces at work as they alter the shape of regional politics.

In Lebanon, the acceptance of Hezbollah's arsenal as a legitimate tool for resistance and defence represents a significant change. There has been a shift from a fear of Iran to a form of full, normalised relations with it for political advantage.

This development poses a clear and present danger to the stability and integrity of Arab nations.

The reluctance among some Lebanese political activists – ostensibly part of the opposition with extensive experience in non-governmental organisations – to confront Hezbollah is troubling.

These individuals have become apologists for Hezbollah, defending them from accusations of corruption, which has thrust Lebanon into political and economic turmoil. Some claim that Hezbollah intends to distance itself from Iran and disarm, while others don't couch their stances behind naive optimism and are fully complicit in promoting the group's agenda. 

Hezbollah views those who oppose it with contempt and accuse activists of advancing Western agendas and being on the payroll of foreign embassies and organisations.

The repercussions of Hamas's 7 October attack on Israel and the resulting war and political turmoil have upended several narratives about non-state actors.

The repercussions of Hamas's 7 October attack on Israel and the resulting war and political turmoil have upended several narratives about non-state actors.

The image of Hezbollah and other violent non-state actors affiliated with Iran as 'liberators of Palestine' and champions of its people has been exposed for the lie it is.

This myth, supposedly the motivation for the group's behaviour, has been laid bare. Their actions have had direct negative impacts on their host entities and particularly on the Iranian regime itself.

The veneer of legitimacy

Meanwhile, the West's categorisation of the groups as non-state actors has inadvertently provided them with a veneer of legitimacy. It has helped enable their use of violence to acquire power and transformed the Arab Levant into a battleground.

While the West's role in this continues, the onus is on the people of the nations directly affected to courageously counter these militias.

Then they must develop their own political initiatives and strengthen their governance structures. It is imperative to acknowledge that violence begets violence, while peace and stability are the foundations on which human dignity and a prosperous society depend.

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