Iraq and Syria: Do Profits Perpetuate Violence?

Iraq and Syria: Do Profits Perpetuate Violence?

Years of civil war and political instability in Iraq and Syria have seen non-state actors rise to prominence. Many take a hybrid form, in which they have been semi-institutionalised by the state, qualifying them for the state payroll. However, the majority of these militias sustain themselves in other ways, notably from the shadow economy. This begs the question: for how long will illicit and informal economic activity persist and does its profits perpetuate violence?

Since civil war broke out in Syria a decade ago, and as early as the beginning of the Oil-for-Food Programme in 1990s Iraq, informal and illicit economies have been significantly on the rise. This is largely as a consequence of declining state power, as both states grappled with bloody civil wars, forcing the regimes to rely on numerous armed actors to replace inadequate security. Now, representing mature hybrid forms, these armed groups make up a significant element of both the economy and the political landscape, as they are deeply intertwined in the post-war consensus.

There is a fear that because of the fruitful economic opportunities of militias in the post-war environment in Iraq and Syria, it’s in their interest to maintain violence and instability to justify their deployment. With high rates of unemployment and increasing militarisation of governance and the economy, forming, joining and sustaining militias has become one of the few profitable rent-seeking methods. If that is the case, these nations may enter a perpetual state of violence, so that militias can sustain their presence and maintain their profits.

State Weakness: Iraq

Today’s armed groups in Iraq predominantly consist of militias within the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU). The bulk of these groups filled in for state security after ISIS conquered Mosul in 2014. They reflect a plethora of command structures and variations of coercive, financial, political, and socio-religious power. Despite many of the groups enjoying the status of heroes, for their contribution towards defeating ISIS, they are losing their popularity and starting to be seen as criminal organisations, as attempts to integrate them into the Iraqi Security Forces have failed.

Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are known to be notoriously unruly groups, but recent developments indicate there is an emergence of shadow groups that are even freer from accountability.

In addition to their autonomy, the patronage links that these groups maintain with Baghdad exempt them from law and order. Instead, elites use them to buttress the power of the central state and resist inclusive government or widespread economic prosperity.

State Weakness: Syria

Similarly, in Syria there are various semi-autonomous groups which the regime depends upon for survival. Many are now part of the National Defense Force (NDF), as the Shabiha, an influential Alawite mafia-like gang, were integrated with other minority groups, such as Christians, Shia and Druze that had respectively formed their own militias. They have been gradually transformed from criminal gangs and militias into decentralised paramilitary groups and structured armed units. However, many forces within the NDF, as well as those outside it, remain beyond state control.

This produces a complicated dynamic for the Syrian regime. Its neoliberal policies of liberalisation and privatisation serve as instruments for the state to consolidate its power. As sections of the economy were privatised, they became conduits for patronage. However, to sustain this patrimonial system, the Syrian regime and its affiliates rely on raw force to accumulate wealth.

Common Trends

Across both countries, militias profit from informal and illicit economic activities such as smuggling, checkpoints, extortion, spot sales and looting. Oil smuggling is the most lucrative activity in these resource rich nations. For example, 10% of oil from Basra is intercepted and smuggled, and despite cracks downs, smuggling is still very prevalent.

Checkpoints are also very common and act as areas of contention between the locals and the militias that man them. Their extortionate rates and land grabs create hostile environments. Furthermore, when the coffers run dry, recruits, such as those from the NDF for example, compensate with crimes like robbing Roman antiquities from the museum in Palmyra.

In addition to informal and illicit economic activities, these militias depend upon support from private individuals and external states. The most powerful groups in the PMU, such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and the Badr Organisation, are aligned with Iran. Likewise in Syria, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps plays a major role in providing guidance, funding and arms to the NDF.

The Syrian and Iraqi states have to compete for influence not only with external states, but also with powerful individuals who joust for control with their respective armed affiliates, such as Rami Makhlouf and Ayman Jabar in Syria and Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.

Amongst these many ways of enrichment as well as the multitude of  potential patrons and leaders, further intra-militia rivalry and competition run the risk of escalating towards violence.

Long-Term Consequences

For military aged males, forming and joining armed groups is an attractive option because they receive much higher pay than they would if they were state authorities such as policemen and soldiers. This highlights the state’s inability to both supply jobs and protect its citizens; as militia members swell, so too does the predation of the state’s citizens. This is because they are operating in an increasingly cronyistic authoritarian state system.

As a result, it is apparent that the state is incapable of restraining the militias, and, therefore, it cannot recover its authority and provide citizens with protection. Hence there is a realistic possibility that trends of violence may increase. 

Over the next few weeks, successive articles will examine these phenomena in greater detail, and assess the risks they pose for the stability and future economies of these countries.

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