ISIS feeds on Iraq’s political instability and oil

ISIS feeds on Iraq’s political instability and oil

For 15 years, Iraq has been under constant media attention. From the suspicions of hidden weapons of mass destruction to the high level violence of the Islamic State (ISIS), a lot has been said on what is happening in Iraq, why it is happening, and how it got there. However, since 2014, the increase in opinions, debates, and experts on terrorism has only contributed to a lack of meaning.

Iraq has been in a constant state of political chaos, of which the 2003 US-led intervention was the starting point. Driven by the idea of American idealism and transforming the intervention into an ideological war, the US goal behind the invasion of Iraq was to establish democracy in the Middle East. But at what price for Iraq?

Roots of Iraq’s downfall

Driven by the will of democratisation, the first dramatic decision that precipitated Iraq’s downfall was the US coalition that President George W. Bush imposed on Baghdad. This strategic mistake, which only led to the current political chaos, was to impose democracy and to impose a leader without including society into this decision-making process. The recent protests in Baghdad clearly embody the lack of representation and the high level of elite corruption.

Following Saddam Hussein’s downfall, the Iraqi population did not have access to basic services, such as water and electricity. This gave the impression that the population’s interests were being neglected. The Iraqi elites only compounded the situation by doing nothing to eradicate endemic corruption and initiate necessary reforms in order to assist the country.

The second decision that highlights Iraq’s political chaos is the de-Ba’athification process. It aimed at dissolving the unique party and the first circles of the regime, thereby promoting the renewal of the elites. Whereas this process could have been highly beneficial in establishing a successful representative and participatory democracy, the Iraqi context transformed de-Ba’athification into a destructive process.

Indeed, the Iraqi state has undergone 10 years of embargo, as well as several wars that led to a decadent and even absent state framework. The process of de-Ba’athification did not only influence central power, but all the institutions within society as well, leading to the total downfall of the state. Even in 2016, while it can be said that there is an Iraqi government, there is no corresponding Iraqi state.

Using the chaotic political context to rise

The Islamic State (ISIS) wants to be a state unto itself and has built its power on the Iraqi state’s downfall. ISIS is led by Sunnis and appears to be a response to the community politics of the US, based on the three-way split between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds.

As illustrated by the 2004 Fallujah battle, promoting communitarianism is not the right solution to address Iraq’s problem. This battle embodies the Sunni dissidence and the creation of a new fighting entity. It can also be compared to a War of Secession since it will eventually lead to the secession of a hybrid state from the formal Iraqi state.  This resultant hybrid state, which does not encompass national frontiers, has already established itself across both Iraq and Syria.

In this regard, ISIS is a symptom of the underlying disease of political instability in Iraq, along with the chaos created by the 2003 US-led invasion. Defeating the group militarily is important, but it only treats the symptom, with the possibility remaining that the underlying disease might return. For example, in 2009 the US withdrew from Iraq since Al-Qaeda was largely defeated. Nevertheless, the remnants of Al-Qaeda capitalized on the growing chaos in Syria, sectarian tensions, a crippled national army, and the absence of a stable, functional and representative government in order to rebuild their organization and thus create the Islamic State.

Continuing to capitalize on Iraq’s political instability?

The continuing political crisis in Iraq has a negative impact on the fight against ISIS. This is because the instability in the capital is pulling security forces away from the front-line against ISIS and from the perimeter security of the capital.

The United Nations Head of Mission to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin points out that the Islamic State is the only party who benefits from the political divisions and chaos. However, such an argument must be qualified.

The Islamic State will not succeed strictly because of the ongoing protests. However, the protests will distract Iraqi officials from the fight against the group.  This political crisis is exacerbated by Iraq’s deepening economic crisis due to low oil prices and the costs of the war against ISIS.

The absence of economic diversity

Having the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, and the highest in the Middle East after Saudi Arabia and Iran, Iraq is estimated to have 143 billion barrels. Since oil represents 54% of Iraq’s GDP, 99% of its exports, and 93% of the government’s fiscal revenues, it is by far the central pillar of Iraq’s economy. Since Iraq is so heavily reliant on oil for its economy, ISIS disruptions of Iraq’s oil sector results in a significant drop in Iraq’s oil production, with consequent devastating effects for the entire Iraqi economy.

As a result, oil’s price has fallen by more than half over the past year, and the volume of Iraq’s exports has fallen by a fifth. The country’s fiscal problems, in short, are almost as big as its political ones. Yet, ISIS is using both political and economic instability in order to grow. By destroying and controlling oil-producing regions, the group is trying to asphyxiate and thereby annihilate Iraq’s primary source of revenue. This has a direct impact on the revenue the state will use to fight back against ISIS.

Iraq’s situation cannot wait for long-term stability. Iraq needs to immediately accomplish major, comprehensive development projects in order to finally establish a stable and viable Iraqi state.

As an example,  the state can provide microloans and other financial support to help small businesses succeed and contribute to a prosperous economic environment. This will help to overcome the lack of economic diversity and Iraq’s one-product economy.

Finally, Iraq needs to start taking its future into its own hands. The final solution to the ongoing political and economic chaos will not come from external actors, but rather from its own initiative.

About Author

Jason Dozier

Jason specializes in crisis management and the organizational development of terrorist groups. He currently works for the Embassy of Malta in Paris where he serves as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador. Jason holds a Master’s in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London concentrating on a comparative analysis between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also obtained a Bachelor in International Relations from the Institute of International Relations in Paris.