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The Ethical Quagmire of Proxy Militia in Contemporary Security Governance

by Luke Hally

International engagements in interstate warfare have altered the amalgamation and structure of conventional military decorum and competency overlap of achieving state aims. This change has become further entrenched in security doctrine within an overt structure of security governance. Proxy militia utilisation has remained a staple of conflict since antiquity yet is frequently scrutinised for its effectiveness in achieving security aims and adhering to similar ethical scrutiny of core state armed force units. 

Particularly when it comes to internationally recognised conventions that govern the rules of engagements and protection of combatants in warfare, this quagmire becomes further reflected. Under the core treaties and legal obligations, the Hague Regulations and the Third Geneva Convention stand to promulgate a legal precedent of protection which would enshrine a judicial coverage that would include proxy militias. Further clarity of this internationally recognised precedent is also found under Volume II, Chapter 1, Section D, Rule 4, which states that militias are now incorporated under the rules of engagement of international warfare. Through these specific rules of engagement, the dilemma of effective security sector governance oversight in conflict management arises. The wording of these regulations includes the following conditions of requirement.

1. to be commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates;

2. to have a fixed distinctive emblem recognisable at a distance; 

3. to carry arms openly;

4. to conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.

Most notably, within the fourth stipulation of operating within accordance with the laws and customs of war. This oversight dilemma of utilising these proxy militia has arisen consistently in conventional contemporary state engagements within recent years. This dilemma calls into question the likelihood probability of adherence towards these regulatory measures by an oftentimes unregulated force at the behest of a particular state command structure. This has remained concurrent throughout the development of modern nation-state foreign policy optics, even before becoming enshrined in the legal precedent of global consensus. 

Highlighting an initial example of this politically sensitive engagement of security-focused foreign policy is the 1970 Arms Crisis in the Republic of Ireland. During this crisis, the topic of militia training and arming became a significant point of contention within the nation’s domestic politics. Particularly when the revelations of this foreign policy engagement became public, coinciding with a subsequent trial and significant cabinet reshuffle. The Fianna Fáil led government had become embroiled in a battle of legitimation of being the torchbearer of Republicanism within Ireland and had thus decided upon supporting proxy defence militias in Catholic areas of Northern Ireland during the Troubles. This support involved both financial aid of 100, 000 pounds, weapons training at cross border camps, and finally, the supply of arms and munitions to the defensive militias. The arms supply became the main point of political contention due to the exposure of the initial plan and the ethical quagmire of some of this material support entering the hands of IRA factions.

This embarrassment on the world stage reflects this quagmire of end route support of external militia. Within contemporary conflicts, this embarrassment is heightened due to the international consensus of proxy militia incorporation within state security apparatus in a formal manner. This formality has raised important questions towards the basis of rules of engagement of the incorporated militia. Most notably, these questions have arisen within the contemporary theatres of Syria and Libya. Specifically, the engagements of Turkish foreign policy decision-making regarding proxy force utilisation to forward external state security aims. This main body of militia conglomeration and application within both these theatres of war takes the form of the so-called Syrian National Army. The SNA is comprised of an amalgam of different rebel factions of the Syrian Civil war, ranging from secular democrats, radical Islamists, and ethno-nationalist factions. This incorporation under the command of the Turkish Armed Forces has led to a range of ethical implications of adhering to international law, alongside embarrassment of foreign policy projections through association with extremist groups. Pertinent examples of this element of ethical quagmire can be found within factions of the SNA, such as Al-Nusra Front, later named Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. This purported Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda has been complicit in multiple atrocities and terror acts, gaining a reputation unfavourable for further public military cooperation by the Turkish state, who later declared HTS as a terrorist organisation.  

Turkish state foreign policy embarrassment has become a consistent staple in its involvement of cooperative support and command of the SNA and its amalgam of factions. A further pertinent example of international law breaches by the actions of these factions occurred in October 2019, after Ahrar al-Sharqiya assassinated the Secretary-General of the Future Syrian Party, Hevrin Khalaf. It was during the 2019 Turkish military invasion into Syria that the murder of this prominent diplomat, along with nine others, took place on the M4 highway in Northeastern Syria. The brutality of the act of their execution undoubtedly constitutes a war crime under international law, which directly reflects upon Turkish command structure and state involvement within the utilisation of these proxy militias to forward aims.

Further examples of where this ethical quagmire raises questions upon the effectiveness of militia adherence to international law can be witnessed within the wider Iraqi and Libyan theatres. In this instance, there are examples of both atrocities and material siphoning from proxy forces under the central command of the United States of America. This is specifically found within the structure of Iraqi domestic security governance, where the informal militias of the Popular Mobilisation Units engage in security preservation within the county. A quagmire arises due to the U.S. support for the Iraq state forces, including that of the PMUs. As the PMU are established as an informal militia, the ability to ensure a well-established line of command and control is called into question, particularly with regards to criticisms of sectarian violence and utilisation by Iran to project power within the country. This development has created logistical dilemmas of material support of the U.S. to the Iraqi government, with U.S made heavy weapons, armour, and financial aid routinely siphoned into the hands of the PMU militia. The political rhetoric of U.S support for the PMU militia deteriorated rapidly from 2016 to 2021, from U.S. Lt Gen. Stephen J. Townsend referring to the militia as “remarkably disciplined” to the U.S. State Department then denouncing the militia as Iranian backed proxies.

The most pertinent reflection of the ethical and legal quagmire of proxy force utilisation can be found within the Libyan theatre of war. The two main factions of the Second Libyan Civil War include the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army. The GNA, in this case, is a U.N. recognised state entity, yet the LNA acts as a vying state power under Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The major dilemma, in this case, is that the global power consensus of backing and support lies within the LNA, as opposed to the GNA, which received previous unanimous support from the UN Security Council in 2015. The dilemma of this involvement and backing is that in both instances, proxy force support and the actions of those forces violate international law. Both the LNA and GNA factions have engaged in war crime atrocities, such as mass murder and attacks on civilians. A further embarrassment of foreign policy optics for international militia patrons is that within the structure of both factions are militia complicit in genocide and terror offences. These include the likes of the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, complicit in the Darfur genocide and Khartoum massacre, bolstering the ranks of the LNA and members of the Turkish backed proxy group Syrian National Army within the ranks of the GNA.

These examples in three instances of ongoing contemporary conflicts reflect the dilemmas that arise upon the foreign exportation of security governance competencies. Not only do these groups routinely violate international law, but they fall under an informal command structure that is not easily contained in its direction nor actions by state backers. This reality creates risks far greater than rewards for achieving security aims and often results in foreign policy embarrassments of state backers. The gains of utilising these groups are frequently negated in long term security governance planning, as allegiances and motivations shift within the informal associations of the militia groups. This process results in foreign policy failure, substantial financial and military investment loss and an unconstrained entity that routinely violates international law. This ethical quagmire in contemporary conflict requires a global re-evaluation of the norms and procedures of state security actions and regulatory measures of proxy militia groups involved in conflict situations. 

Foto by Tasnim News Agency

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