Rethinking governance: The case for European engagement with non-state armed groups
- The Middle East is increasingly dominated by powerful non-state armed groups that combine politics and violence to directly challenge central governments’ traditional hold on power.
- Many armed groups have ties to regional backers, but their rise is a symptom of broader dysfunction caused by deep governance failures.
- Europe has a core interest in de-escalating regional conflicts and strengthening governance structures at the local and national levels.
- To achieve this, Europe must promote inclusive political processes that draw together weakening central states and ascendant non-state actors.
- The extensive power wielded by non-state actors, and the failure of European sanctions and no-contact policies on these groups, shows that European governments need to adopt a pragmatic strategy for engagement with them.
- The European Union and its member states should be prepared to talk with all stakeholders: both traditional states and non-state armed groups.
- European governments should make the strategic case for engagement to their domestic audiences and international partners.
Conflict and societal upheaval have transformed the political configuration of countries across the Middle East and North Africa during the past decade. The deterioration of long-standing, centralised state structures has been one of the most notable effects of this shift. This trend poses a threat not just to the established regional order but also to the traditional way of conducting European foreign policy, which has long centred on engagement with strong nation-states. Across the Middle East and North Africa, some of the greatest beneficiaries of this systemic breakdown have been non-state armed groups (NSAGs), which operate independently of, and often in opposition to, state authority.
While NSAGs frequently resort to violence to advance their interests and benefit from the support of external powers engaged in geopolitical struggles, these groups have also become powerful political actors that derive domestic legitimacy from substantial popular support. Armed groups increasingly aspire to govern – either in direct competition with, or by taking over, state structures – and, in doing so, are transforming key theatres of conflict in Europe’s southern neighbourhood.
Europeans face urgent questions about how to respond to competing governance structures and the ascendancy of alternative centres of power. In Lebanon, Hizbullah’s relationship with the state and the European Union’s possible designation of the group’s political wing as a terrorist organisation is an increasingly important issue. In Syria, Europeans need to shape a strategy for dealing with non-regime forces that have established pseudo-state structures in the north-east and Idlib. Similarly, in Yemen, Europeans need to address the Houthis’ de facto takeover of the state. In Iraq, Kataib Hizbullah – the most powerful group among the Hashd al-Shaabi (also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces) – refuses to fully integrate into state security structures, while increasing its foothold in government bodies. In Palestine, where elections loom, Europeans need to decide how to adjust to Hamas’s strong position in Gaza. Meanwhile, in Libya, some European states actively support a powerful armed group that dominates the east, the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF), while others back the internationally recognised government in Tripoli.
As central governments and NSAGs compete for power and legitimacy, European strategy remains stunted by fears that countenancing alternative governance structures, such as decentralisation, would lead to further state implosion. The lack of a European policy for actively engaging with many of the most influential NSAGs has been equally counterproductive.
But regional stability now depends on drawing rival power structures and actors into inclusive systems of governance that prevent a broader unravelling. The reality is that, for many countries, there is no possibility of a return to the centralised governance structures that prevailed prior to the 2011 Arab uprisings. Ultimately, it will be up to citizens in the region to shape their political orders, particularly on the issue of centralisation. Nonetheless, Europeans can do more to stabilise broken state structures, including by supporting platforms for constructive political dialogue between the central authorities and NSAGs.
This paper explores the implications of these power shifts for European policy. It focuses on seven groups, spread across six countries in which Europe has key interests. They are: Hamas in Palestine, the Houthis in Yemen, Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria, Kataib Hizbullah and affiliated groups in Iraq, and the Libyan Arab Armed Forces (LAAF) in Libya.
The case for European engagement
European governments rightly take issue with the ideological and political positions espoused by many of these groups. Most, if not all, of the NSAGs covered in this paper have been accused of indiscriminately killing civilians and illegitimately challenging the central authority of their host countries. But the groups have immense power on the ground due to their military capabilities, control of territory, alternative governance mechanisms, and popular support. If Europe is to promote the structural changes that underpin long-term conflict stabilisation and governance reform, it will need to engage with these powerful actors. The fact that many of these NSAGs still aspire to become players within existing state structures – rather than to remake the state in their image – suggests that there is some space for constructive dialogue.
European governments do neither themselves nor the region any favours by refusing to talk with these NSAGs. They must resist intensifying pressure from the likes of the United States and regional powers to cut off contact with these groups. At the same time, European engagement with NSAGs is a more realistic and effective approach that reflects governance realities on the ground – one that should aim to draw key power brokers into inclusive political processes. One recent example of how this can work is US-sponsored talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which reflect a long-overdue acknowledgment that the group cannot be permanently excluded from peace negotiations. This experience holds important lessons for the Middle East – both in terms of the diplomatic openings that political engagement can create and the deep challenges that such talks will continue to face.
An engagement-driven strategy on these NSAGs may be the most effective means of addressing core public grievances and creating stable, long-lasting institutions and governance models. Europeans must carefully calibrate this approach if they are to avoid further hollowing out state structures or empowering actors who threaten European interests. Hizbullah’s dominance in Lebanon, for instance, continues to be one factor blocking urgently needed reform. In Iraq, Kataib Hizbullah regularly launches rocket attacks on US bases. There is also a danger of European overreach, which could hamper the pursuit of stability and coherent governance. European support for the LAAF – which is not a national army despite its name – has empowered the group at the expense of central structures, in one clear example of this dynamic.
Europe should respond to these challenges by opting for calibrated engagement rather than disengagement. This should be a means not to legitimise the actions of NSAGs but rather to create platforms to support necessary political dialogue between these groups and central state authorities. It should be clear by now that isolation of, coercion of, or asymmetric warfare against these groups has consistently failed to end conflict without some form of simultaneous political outreach. This approach can serve to factor in not just the ambitions of these groups but also those of local and Western governments.
Europeans may not wield decisive military influence in the devastating conflicts that rage across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet a more active policy of political engagement with all relevant actors could allow them to make a significant contribution to ending conflict and supporting the establishment of more stable governance systems. Here, it is critical that Europeans change the domestic political narrative about engagement with NSAGs, acknowledging that this approach is a necessary step towards strengthening inclusive political processes, preventing wider instability, and holding countries together – rather than being the sell-out to terrorists as is too often suggested.
The rise of NSAGs and new governance models
As the series of case studies in this project suggests, NSAGs have developed popular support bases that lend them a degree of legitimacy and influence as political actors. In doing so, these groups have successfully challenged the monopoly on power traditionally held by the central state, presenting themselves as not just alternative sources of coercive force but also of governance and public services. This role has become ever more important as local populations face growing hardship due to the coronavirus crisis (a problem exacerbated by the significant decline in international donor support for aid operations).
The region is now home to a vast range of NSAGs that function as de facto authorities, spanning a broad spectrum of political and ideological views. They range from groups that the EU labels as terrorists, such as Hamas and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), to those that receive support from European governments, such as the SDF and the LAAF.
Each of the groups in the case studies included in this project already has some form of governance authority. Many, if not all, have taken on a hybrid role in which they exist alongside, and are somewhat integrated into, existing state structures, even as they act outside the control of central states. As the essays explain, Hamas, Hizbullah, and Kataib Hizbullah all tread this line. Since the mid-2000s, Hizbullah has sought to be part of Lebanon’s central governance system, a position from which it now exerts considerable control over the country’s political trajectory. Hamas, meanwhile, views its participation in the Palestinian political system – including the Palestinian Authority – as a potential means to escape its political and geographic isolation in Gaza. These groups have often accepted at least some of the existing rules of the game, due to a combination of international and domestic pressure, along with calculations relating to their own interests. On occasion, they have used the ballot box to enter the established political system.
In Yemen, the Houthis claim to have assumed the powers of the central state and have taken over control of administrative structures in the territory they control. The SDF and HTS now run alternative governance systems in the parts of Syria they dominate – even though they do not contest the fundamental viability of the Syrian state writ large (despite rejecting the current leadership of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus).
By comparison, the rise of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2014 brought with it a competing model – one in which the group actively sought to reimagine the existing system and challenged the legitimacy of both the Syrian and Iraqi states. This was one of the many reasons for the group’s eventual downfall as a territorial power.
A key dynamic in the proliferation of NSAGs across the Middle East is the intimate relationship that many of them have with external backers. Regional and extra-regional powers have come to see the power vacuums created by the deterioration of central state structures and the emergence of NSAGs as a key means of projecting geopolitical influence and competing with their rivals. These countries often have incredibly complex relations with NSAGs, ranging from that of direct proxies to that of wary, distrustful partners temporarily united by common goals.
Turkey and Iran are some of the most prominent state actors in this area. Ankara has transformed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Sunni-dominated Syrian rebel groups into its own proxy force. It has used them to gain control over large swathes of northern Syria, and deployed them to support Turkish foreign policy interests in Libya and, most recently, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey has also actively promoted and supported a governance system in Syria that is increasingly tied to Turkish state structures. Meanwhile, Iran has exploited regional instability and weak central states to extend its regional influence through a network of local armed groups in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon. Iran has focused less on localised forms of governance, being more willing to defer to its local partners on this while concentrating on the deployment of forces to control areas it views as vital to its national security.
Elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates has become the patron of the Southern Transitional Council, a secessionist group in Yemen. The UAE has also emerged as a key supporter of the LAAF. As part of its efforts, Abu Dhabi promotes a secular governance model designed to counter political Islam and its regional supporters – which, in reality, usually means backing military strongmen. This contrasts with Qatar and Turkey, which are often accused of predominantly supporting Islamist groups, including those in Libya.
Although global powers such as the US and Russia mostly rely on conventional military force to project power in the region, they too have sometimes instrumentalised NSAGs for geopolitical purposes. In Syria, the SDF provides the US with a means to both fight ISIS and confront Iran and the Assad regime. Russia, though more committed to the vision of strong central states, has nonetheless worked with pro-regime but largely autonomous militia groups across Syria.
Europe’s track record
Europe has a core interest in de-escalating regional conflicts that fuel the migration and terrorism challenges that have rocked the continent in recent years. Stable, sustainable governance structures should play an important role in this regard. Given the rising influence of NSAGs and the Middle Eastern powers that back them, European countries need to strike a delicate balance between supporting status quo governance structures and engaging with emerging groups and alternative frameworks of power.
For the moment, European countries appear to be torn between a desire to preserve an increasingly defunct regional order and an acknowledgment that the realities of power on the ground are moving in the opposite direction. Across various conflict theatres, European states have followed different approaches depending on their perceived interests, ideologies, and geopolitical calculations. But, while its policy needs to adapt to local dynamics, Europe has often adopted a contradictory approach, undercutting its broader policy goals and sowing confusion about what it seeks to achieve.
To be sure, European governments have, at times, shown a degree of realism in engaging with non-state armed actors. For example, France and the United Kingdom have actively supported the SDF as a means of combating ISIS. More limited European engagement with the LAAF – primarily by France – reflects some governments’ belief that the group’s head, Khalifa Haftar, can be a valuable partner in stabilising Libya and countering terrorist groups. Sometimes, European engagement with NSAGs is discreet and led by security and intelligence agents, especially in dealings with groups labelled as terrorists on transactional issues such as hostage releases.
Some European countries have also taken on the role of outside mediators. Norway, for instance, mediated talks between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Sweden, meanwhile, hosted peace talks between the Yemeni government and the Houthis in 2018, while the UK has supported a quiet dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis. France, Italy, and Germany, for their part, have all hosted Haftar as part of Libyan peace talks.
Despite these examples of realpolitik European outreach, there is an increasingly powerful trend in the opposite direction. European countries cling to the vision of powerful states in which legitimacy lies in centralised systems, while maintaining an aversion to contact with NSAGs engaged in violence and competition with central authorities. This approach has formed a narrative that has become part of domestic politics, thereby making it ever harder for governments to move in the opposite direction. The trend has been reinforced by external political pressure. Europe’s long-standing unwillingness to recognise the Houthis in Yemen and its steps to sanction Hizbullah have been driven by the demands of the US and its Middle Eastern partners.
The limits of change through coercion
This ascendant ideological sentiment in European policy is reflected in the growing tendency of the EU and its member states to apply pressure on NSAGs through political isolation and sanctions. European policymakers see this approach as a means to marginalise these groups until they are willing to change their behaviour. But, while this approach is effective in signalling European discontent, it usually does little to make the behaviour of these groups more constructive. Moreover, though terrorist designations do not formally preclude contact with a group, they have often gone hand in hand with a de facto or formal policy of no contact. This limits Europe’s capacity to engage with key actors that shape developments on the ground.
Those now designated by the EU as terrorist groups span a broad ideological spectrum that includes the military wing of Lebanon’s Shia Hizbullah, the secular PKK, and several Palestinian groups, such as the Islamist Hamas and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The EU maintains a separate set of measures targeting ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and their affiliates. Countries such as the Netherlands and the UK maintain their own, more expansive, designation lists.
The approach has, at times, injected a degree of ambiguity and confusion into European policy. Perhaps the most obvious recent example of this is the debate about whether to designate Hizbullah’s political wing as a terrorist organisation. The EU has, to date, only designated its military wing, but a growing number of European states (the UK, Germany, Lithuania, and Estonia) have listed the movement as a whole. Some European governments are now pushing for an EU ban on the entire group. This stands in stark contrast to France, which says that Europeans need to maintain dialogue with Hizbullah given its central role in Lebanon.
Sanctions certainly sometimes have value. Where Europe adopts them in a limited and targeted manner – such as against individuals rather than entire groups or sectors of the economy – these measures, or the threat of them, can advance European policy. Sanctions can also provide important law enforcement and counter-terrorism tools, allowing governments to disrupt the flow of illicit financing, narcotics, and arms.
Increasingly, though, Europeans appear to use sanctions as a universal political bludgeon. The measures seem ever more disconnected from the reality of regional dynamics – in a fashion that does little to protect their interests or help them achieve their stabilisation goals. This approach is visible in its crudest form in the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign, which targets and sanctions Iranian-backed groups across the region, but has resulted in counter-escalation and further instability in countries such as Iraq.
By and large, European no-contact and sanctions policies have failed to substantively alter the position of groups on the ground.Instead, these policies have cut off vital interactions with actors wielding significant local influence, while also weakening moderate members of NSAGs who are relatively open to political talks. For example, the EU’s 14-year policy of boycotting and attempting to isolate Hamas – due to the group’s political and ideological views – has shown how non-engagement can be highly counterproductive. The EU initiated this boycott only after Hamas accepted the democratic rules of the game by winning a free and fair election. In doing so, the EU has weakened moderate factions within the group, while limiting European influence relative to that of actors such as Qatar and Iran.
Sanctions and terrorist designations have also had a major humanitarian impact, by complicating the work of aid organisations in areas under the de facto control of armed groups. Many of these NGOs, whose efforts align with European stabilisation interests and broader humanitarian imperatives, worry that they could become entangled in the complex web of counter-terrorism laws. For example, many NGOs view sweeping counter-terrorism legislation that the UK passed in 2019 as having curtailed the delivery of humanitarian aid. Meanwhile, terrorist designations also threaten efforts to reduce violence through humanitarian negotiations with armed groups.
How engagement can help create stable governance structures
The rise of NSAGs in their current form stems from the long-running failure of governance systems. These systems cannot be rebuilt without major overhauls. Europeans need to adapt to the emerging system of power across the region, including the rise of NSAGs. In doing so, Europeans can be more effective in helping defuse conflict, and in creating opportunities for inclusive political tracks designed to establish more durable governance structures and long-term stability.
This approach will differ from country to country and must be rooted in locally owned solutions. While the process may involve some form of decentralised order and the devolution of power, the specifics of governance structures should – and, ultimately, will – fall to the populations of states in the Middle East and North Africa. But European policy should support inclusive political processes that draw together weakening central states and ascendant non-state actors in an attempt to secure new governance pacts. This approach will need to involve greater European outreach to NSAGs, positioning them as essential participants in conflict resolution and stabilisation efforts.
The effort may be slow to progress, and political openings could quickly close. It will sometimes mean talking to unpleasant, often violent, groups that have no experience of multi-party electoral politics. Some groups – such as Kataib Hizbullah, HTS, and the Houthis – may use the cover provided by political engagement and state integration to block efforts that challenge their exclusive authority. Other groups, such as Hamas and Hizbullah, have a history of brokering deals with opponents and have more experience of political brinkmanship.
Nonetheless, in this environment, the pursuit of quick wins leads to flawed policy – a fact that is hard to swallow for the many European governments that operate on short-term political cycles. Engagement acts as an important first step in a longer-term effort designed to reduce conflict and humanitarian suffering; engagement also helps create the building blocks of political processes that better reflect the reality of governance on the ground. The objective for European countries should be to alter conflict trajectories by persuading NSAGs to engage in political dialogue with central governments and other relevant forces. This would increase European influence over the process and gradually push the needle towards local and regional stability.
European engagement with these groups can serve as a channel through which to foster inclusive and sustainable political processes. As one UK government report found, the exclusion of unpalatable non-state actors makes “political settlements volatile and unstable since it means that the interests of powerful elites are not represented and it exacerbates the risk that bargains are misaligned with the underlying configuration of power”.
While it is not in the gift of Europeans to determine future governance models in the region, they can use channels of communication with both existing – though weakening – central governments and NSAGs to strengthen negotiating processes. This speaks to a second – and, at times, more uncertain and contentious – goal of European engagement with these groups: improving the standing of their members who advocate participation in political processes rather than armed violence.
The case studies in this paper emphasise the point. In Palestine, moderate elements within Hamas, which are more open to a political process, have been marginalised by international sanctions on the group. In Syria, meanwhile, HTS has moved away from its extremist transnational leanings in a bid for international recognition and support.
Critics of political co-optation may point to Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian election as having legitimised the movement and allowed it to exert greater influence over the Palestinian political system. But the group’s decision to engage constructively in Palestine’s electoral system – eventually forming a shorted-live Palestinian Authority government (thereby implicitly recognising Israel and the realities created by the Oslo Accords, both of which it formally opposes) – could have marked an important turning point in the broader conflict with Israel, had the EU and the US not sought to sanction the group and remove it from power. Given subsequent developments – the group’s entrenchment in Gaza and continued conflict with Israel, as well as the fragmentation of the Palestinian political system – the lesson is that calibrated engagement offers a better path forward than simply cutting ties and attempting to isolate NSAGs.
The pitfalls of excessive engagement
It is crucial to strike the right balance in deciding when and how to engage with NSAGs. While this paper advocates a more forward-leaning approach to engagement with problematic actors, there is a clear risk that Europe could over-emphasise its relationships with NSAGs at the expense of internationally recognised governments. This has the potential to further weaken still-functioning institutions, to the detriment of both stability and peace-making efforts.
In some cases, this approach has arguably been deliberate European policy. In Syria, Western states have supported armed opposition groups in an ultimately failed effort to unseat the Assad regime (as distinct from the support they have given to the SDF, with the predominant aim of fighting ISIS). In Libya, France and other EU states have backed Haftar at the expense of the internationally recognised government in Tripoli – which, as Emadeddin Badi highlights in his essay on the LAAF, has emboldened the group’s military campaign. But, after almost a decade of fighting in Libya and Syria, treating armed groups as proxies to help achieve military solutions to political struggles has failed to bring about stability or unseat their central governments.
Even where NSAGs have engaged in legitimate struggles aligned with European interests, Europe has sometimes overreached – adopting an approach similar to that of the regional actors who have fuelled conflict over the past decade. In these circumstances, Europe is not protecting its interests by feeding wider conflict rather than looking to whole-heartedly invest in viable political tracks – tracks based on an honest assessment of the reality on the ground. (In the cases of Syria and Libya, this necessitates an acknowledgment that neither Damascus nor Tripoli was going to fall to opposition groups and Haftar respectively without substantial deployments of conventional military assets – which neither the US nor Europe was prepared to support.)
Even when the objective is not to weaken state structures and political institutions, engaging with and empowering armed groups can still involve acute dilemmas. These dilemmas can include clear opposition to the views espoused by NSAGs, governments’ fear of the domestic political costs of these channels becoming public, and opposition from foreign partners.
European governments sometimes worry that, by granting international recognition to NSAGs, they would unduly legitimise the ideological or political positions of these groups. They also fear that this could reward behaviour that amounts to an armed takeover of the state, further undermining central governments and institutional structures. For instance, many European countries have been unwilling to engage with the Houthis not only out of a desire to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia, but also out of concern about the group’s ideology, human rights violations, and illegal seizure of power. Similarly, critics of engagement point to the manner in which Hizbullah has undermined the Lebanese state, using its military might to establish its dominance.
These are valid concerns. But it should go without saying that engagement – especially in a limited form – does not equate to legitimisation or acceptance of a group’s political and ideological worldview. The inclusive policies advocated by the authors of this paper should not result in the type of excessive engagement that enables NSAGs to highjack political processes. Engagement should come with not only incentives but also disincentives – including a willingness to downscale ties and the benefits that accompany them.
There are cases in which the EU and its member states will vociferously contest the positions of armed groups. But where there is value in transactional engagement with them – such as on humanitarian issues – these interactions could begin a longer-term process geared towards testing whether Europe can play a role drawing the group into an inclusive political process. While the barrier to participation would be particularly high for groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, the peace talks involving the Afghan Taliban show that it may not be insurmountable.
As Elizabeth Tsurkov outlines in her essay on HTS, there are signs that a degree of engagement with the group might be productive. Although it started as a direct offshoot of al-Qaeda, the group has taken on an increasingly Syrian agenda and is signalling a pragmatic turn away from its hardline position. This could make the group a prime candidate for some form of careful engagement, to explore whether Europe could push it further in this direction. In a similar vein, Inna Rudolf, writing about Kataib Hizbullah, proposes engaging in a pragmatic, backchannel dialogue with the hardline group to better understand and respond to its end goals, including its vision for governance in Iraq.
More broadly, it is wrong to dismiss on principle any engagement with NSAGs labelled as terrorists. While the military campaign against ISIS has proven effective in rolling back its territorial gains and thwarting its ambitions to establish a ‘caliphate’, the group is once again gaining strength – with more than 10,000 fighters now active in Iraq and Syria, according to one recent UN estimate. Past experience suggests that ISIS could reassert itself by once again exploiting Sunnis’ grievances with the central government.
Although European countries have little appetite to engage with ISIS, there may be something to gain from contact with some of its constituent groups – be they Sunni tribes along the Euphrates or the former Ba’athist fighters who formed its initial base in Iraq. This outreach could form part of an attempt to peel away the least-hardline members from the groups and drive a wedge between the leadership and its popular base. Although this is the third pillar of modern counter-insurgency strategy, Europe has tended to privilege the other two – military pressure and humanitarian aid.
Ultimately, there are ways to engage with NSAGs without playing into their hands. International interlocutors retain the power to determine the timing, political level, and agenda of talks. As diplomats and former officials interviewed for this paper and who are currently engaged in conflict mediation efforts emphasise, it is crucial to use these channels to deliver hard messages. This engagement could be an important means of pushing these groups towards more constructive positions on key issues, and of making clear that the benefits of engagement are conditional on progress in talks.
As the region’s political and military environment evolves, European thinking on regional governance and engagement with NSAGs remains ineffective. The moment is ripe for change. In countries where years of conflict have fragmented the state, and where NSAGs control and govern territory with popular support, Europeans need to realise that it will be impossible to go back to the status quo ante. Many Europeans equate political inclusivity with diverse political representation and a focus on democratic and civil participation. But, in view of the ascendancy of NSAGs across the region, they should also equate this with a focus on the inclusion of the key actors shaping developments on the ground.
Europeans have at least one unique advantage in engagement with regional NSAGs: their relatively minimal political baggage in comparison to both the US and Middle Eastern states. Many in the region perceive Europeans as relatively neutral actors who maintain valuable diplomatic channels with most of the key sponsors of these groups.
European governments now have an opportunity to reclaim some of the political ground they have lost to other actors, including Turkey and Iran, by adopting a strategy that protects European interests. At a time when the US is set to continue decreasing its presence in the Middle East, Europe needs to be prepared to safeguard its core interests without American support. Accordingly, European governments should pursue a new regional strategy based on the followingprinciples.
Prioritise reform and good governance
Regardless of whether they engage with NSAGs, European governments should acknowledge that the groups’ growing presence is a symptom of deeper regional dysfunction. One of the most effective means of responding to the rise of NSAGs is to bolster effective and legitimate state governance systems that pre-emptively reduce the incentives to form such groups. This strategy would require Europeans to increase their focus on institutional reform and governance support, and to work to quickly defuse – rather than encourage and, at worst, provide arms to – conflicts that push countries towards breakdown. In addition, European countries should support local justice and accountability efforts as part of their initiatives to strengthen governance structures.
This strategy could include an increased European willingness to support meaningful security sector reforms. Such reforms would be designed to address the weaknesses that provide room for NSAGs to emerge in the first place (as seen in the ISIS takeover of Mosul in 2014, during which the Iraqi Army effectively collapsed). These reforms could also support the demobilisation of NSAGs as part of a sustainable political process. In countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, the European strategy should involve continued support for state institutions and security structures – with the aim of limiting the influence of NSAGs.
Promote inclusive long-term engagement
As a general principle, the EU should be prepared to talk with everybody. Europeans ought to recognise the importance of maintaining channels with all relevant actors in conflict-affected areas, especially those with which they disagree. This is the only realistic way to de-escalate conflicts and promote governance structures that address the local grievances behind the rise of NSAGs.
European governments must make the political case for engagement to their domestic audiences early on and in the right way. Experience suggests that European voters understand the importance of talks in ending conflict, and that terrorists cannot be beaten by armed force alone. But governments have spent years priming voters to oppose engagement by equating talks with weakness. It is possible to turn this around – but it will require careful communication. While European governments will always be responsive to domestic political dynamics, they need to better acknowledge the strategic value of talking to armed groups – recognising that Europe has an interest in maintaining diplomatic channels with the actors that are key to stabilisation efforts.
It will be important for European actors to accept at the outset that political talks with NSAGs may not ultimately deliver negotiated settlements, and that they could simmer for years or even decades before bearing fruit. Nonetheless, these talks should start as soon as possible – to explore the sides’ positions and interests, communicate key European concerns, and support viable de-escalation measures, such as humanitarian access and ceasefires. While conditions for a negotiated settlement may not be in place until much further along in the process, dialogue can help move the dial in this direction. Initial European engagement with NSAGs can be indirect, low-level, and deniable – to ensure it does not provide these groups with too much legitimacy or material support.
European governments should use these channels to deter human rights violations committed by NSAGs, and to outline the conditions under which they would offer support in return for behavioural change by such groups. But beyond merely opening channels of communication and easing humanitarian suffering, the key strategic aim of engagement should be to create opportunities for political dialogue between NSAGs and central states. This should centre on efforts to draw NSAGs away from the use of military force, and towards inclusive political processes in which they acknowledge the need for mutual compromise. European countries should carefully calibrate their engagement with NSAGs lest these groups engulf state institutions to the extent that they see no value in compromise. Where this has already happened – such as in Yemen – European governments should use engagement to press the NSAG towards a renewed political track with other local actors, as a condition for international legitimacy or the extension of financial aid.
To this end, Europeans should now widen their engagement with the Houthis as a critical pathway towards creating an inclusive and sustainable power-sharing agreement in Yemen. In Syria, Europeans should explore opening channels of communication with HTS – seeking to create humanitarian and political space on the ground, and testing whether the group is genuinely willing to move towards a more pragmatic position. Europeans should also insist on the SDF’s inclusion in UN-led political talks, despite Turkish opposition. In Iraq, Europeans can establish discreet communication channels with groups such as Kataib Hizbullah, with the immediate aim of reducing attacks on diplomatic and military facilities in Iraq.
In Libya, European governments that actively engage the LAAF should use these channels to press the group to commit to a meaningful political track with Libya’s internationally recognised government. They should also broaden the focus of their engagement with eastern Libyan groups to include actors other than Haftar, who has proven unwilling to participate in an inclusive political process.
Apply designations and sanctions carefully
Europeans should reduce their dependence on sanctions and stop treating these measures as a means of first resort. As discussed above, sanctions can be a valuable tool if used sparingly, in a targeted manner that is tied to achievable goals, and with a clear exit strategy. They can also help disrupt the flow of illicit financing, narcotics, and arms. But sanctions must not become a default policy doctrine – as increasingly appears to be the case.
In their current form, these measures have too often proven to be a blunt instrument that reduces European agency and does little to change the behaviour of NSAGs. An over-reliance on sanctions and terrorist designations undermines the influence and relevance of European countries – while marginalising moderates within these groups who are potentially more open to constructive engagement. Moreover, experience suggests that, once applied, terrorist designations and sanctions become virtually immovable. This makes it extremely difficult to reward incremental behavioural changes by the targeted group.
Given these realities, the EU should not target the political wing of Hizbullah with a terrorist designation. The channels of communication between member states’ governments and the group provide an important means of delivering frank and firm messaging to Lebanon’s most powerful actor. Increased efforts to marginalise Hizbullah will only prove counterproductive in efforts to stabilise the country, while decreasing European relevance. European governments should instead make clear to Hizbullah that they will not provide large-scale financial support (as opposed to humanitarian aid) to the Lebanese government until the latter enacts economic and political reforms. This is a better way to build pressure to incentivise positive behavioural change.
This approach should determine European governments’ broader levels of engagement and potential financial support to countries where NSAGs are dominant. For example, European outreach to the Houthis and possible (non-humanitarian) financial support for Yemen should be tied to the group’s willingness to engage in an inclusive political process. As with European policy on Hizbullah, this approach would require a willingness to resist US pressure to sanction the group.
Similarly, the EU and its member states ought to step back from their counterproductive no-contact policy with Hamas. This approach could support UN and Egyptian efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel, and to facilitate Gaza’s development. These channels could also support Palestinian reunification efforts, governance reforms, and plans to hold long-delayed national elections. Ultimately, this would make a lasting peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians more likely.
Push back against regional spoilers
An effective European strategy on regional governance and NSAGs will require a smart approach to the sponsorship of these groups by states in Middle East and North Africa. Using a combination of pressure and incentives, European governments that have strong diplomatic relationships with these states should work to persuade them to press their proxies into inclusive political processes. This is particularly important when it comes to Iran’s ties to Hizbullah, Kataib Hizbullah, and the Houthis. European countries also need to engage in frank dialogue with Turkey, given its support for such groups in northern Syria. Needless to say, Europeans will only succeed on this track if they are willing to press the groups that they support in the same direction. The EU can further enhance this approach by working to block the flow of arms to NSAGs from all parties.
Ultimately, the success of a European engagement strategy will be limited by the lack of a broader diplomatic effort to de-escalate conflict between regional powers. European countries must, therefore, simultaneously focus on strengthening inclusive governance structures at the national level and easing wider geopolitical tensions that fuel proxy warfare.
For conflict-affected countries across the Middle East and North Africa, the future seems bleak. Dysfunctional governance and a breakdown in central state structures, combined with heightened conflict and insecurity, continue to provide fertile ground for NSAGs to gain popular support and military power. In this environment, Europeans need to formulate a comprehensive and coordinated approach to these groups’ shifting relationship with governance structures, not least by supporting inclusive political negotiations designed to create power-sharing agreements.
About the authors
Julien Barnes-Dacey is the director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His primary topic of focus is European policy on Syria, the wider Mashreq, and the Gulf. He has worked as a researcher and journalist across the Middle East. Based in Syria from 2007 to 2011, he reported for the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. He also headed the Middle East and North Africa practice at Control Risks, a private sector political consultancy.
Ellie Geranmayeh is a senior policy fellow and deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Her work is focused on European foreign policy in relation to Iran, particularly on the nuclear and regional dossiers, as well as sanctions. Previously, Geranmayeh worked at Herbert Smith Freehills LLP law firm.
Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow with the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Since joining ECFR, Lovatt has focused extensively on EU policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, domestic Palestinian politics, and Israeli regional policy. Prior to this, Lovatt worked as a researcher for the International Crisis Group and as a Schuman Fellow in the European Parliament focusing on Middle East policy.
The authors would like to thank the numerous officials and experts in both the Middle East and Europe interviewed for this project. We are particularly grateful for feedback on the introductory essay –whose views remain solely those of the authors – from Jonathan Powell, Jeremy Shapiro, Claire Hajaj, and Lucy Stuart. The authors of the individual essays, submitted without knowledge of the respective contributions, greatly enriched the project, for which we are very grateful. Special thanks go to Kelly Petillo, Chris Raggett, and the editorial team for their support within ECFR, as well as to Juan Ruitiña and Marco Ugolini for their work in developing the project website.
ECFR would also like to thank the governments of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden for their ongoing support for the Middle East and North Africa programme.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This paper, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.