Event Reports

Straddling Between Society and State in the Middle East

KAS and the Brookings Doha Center hold a workshop on non-state actors and the search for equilibrium in Iraq and Syria

In many countries of the Middle East non-state actors take over the actual responsibilities of the state and therefore disrupt the local equilibrium of power. The reasons for this are the instability and fragility in the region and the involved dysfunctional relationship between state and society. Thus many countries cannot even guarantee security for its people or basic needs, such as water and electricity services.

On October 8th and 9th, the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung and the Brookings Doha Center  therefore organized a workshop in order to better understand the evolvement of non-state actors, learn how competing power dynamics impact life on the ground, and discuss how both politics and civil society can cope with the resulting challenges to security and social cohesion in the Middle East. Taking place under Chatham-House rules, the workshop was attended by officials and civil society representatives from various Middle Eastern countries and researchers from regional, European and American think tanks. 

After welcoming words by Dr. Tarik Yousef, Director of the Brookings Doha Center, Dr. Malte Gaier, Acting Head of the KAS Syria/Iraq Office, and Ranj Alaaldin, Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, the panelists discussed the changing relationship between state and society in the Middle East and the role of non-state actors therein.

The participants identified a variety of different actors, ranging from profit-oriented criminal groups, smugglers and tribes, to ideological socio-political movements, paramilitary groups, militias, insurgents and secessionist movements. The debate that followed focused on how these actors increasingly dominate warfare, politics and governance through a mixture of confrontation and cooperation with the state, society and other competing non-state actors. However, they do not only operate in governance vacuums as foreign proxies or anti-state organizations. The debate showed that those groups often enjoy popular legitimacy and support in the societies they operate in and emerge from, providing public services and interacting with other stakeholders.

The workshop laid the groundwork for a nuanced and enhanced understanding of non-state actors, especially in Syria and Iraq. The resulting discussion established a framework for engaging with these groups for the purposes of promoting international laws and norms, establishing a stronger accountability nexus between civilians and armed groups, empowering civil-society and enhancing cooperation with government and state institutions where this is desired. Moreover, it stipulated an informed discussion on potential scenarios for conflict mitigation, as well as developing mechanisms that can establish rules and limits for warfare and access to communities that need urgent humanitarian support.