Islamic State in Iraq – a brief history.

‘You don’t slip into a civil war overnight. You don’t go to sleep and the following day there is civil war. Civil war creeps forward insidiously in very subtle ways, and we need to detect its early signs’ – Mowaffak al-Rubie, Iraqi statesman and civil rights campaigner.

On 10th June 2014 Mosul fell to Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, following a four-day siege pitting the victorious force of 1,300 against a 60,000-strong Iraqi military contingent. The events of the ‘hundred days of ISIS’ initiated a period of frenzied crisis in an outside world startled by the expansion of this new jihadi front. As Jessica Stern and Jim Berger reflected in their account of ‘the state of terror’ nine months later, ‘the world awakened to the threat of ISIS in the summer of 2014, but that is not where its story begins’. In this essay I will seek to contextualise the dramatic emergence of ISIS within a broader longue durée: one that experienced the increasing fragmentation of Iraqi society and the subsequent surge of sectarian conflict.

Approaching the sectarian civil war that has raged in Iraq, on and off, since the 2003 invasion within a long-term framework is key to understanding what made the growth of Islamic State possible. Such a framework, moreover, provides a valuable grounding in our understandings of sectarian violence – a phenomenon whose salience is negotiated fluidly and temporally, at the nexus of other social, political, and economic dynamics. As Fanar Haddad has revealed, the ‘fact is that the social and political relevance of sectarian identity advances and recedes according to wider socioeconomic and political conditions’. Examining these wider conditions is the key to understanding the ‘who’s and ‘how’s of ISIS. For there was nothing inevitable about the emergence of ISIS – nor the sectarian competition upon which it is predicated. Rather, it is the product of a history of external and internal policy decisions that eroded the coherence of Iraqi society, thus creating the conflictual domestic environment that allowed for ISIS’ rise.

The foundations of the Iraqi state

In the words of Pierre-Jean Luizard:

‘Avant d’en arriver à l’apocalyptique enchaînement de conflits sanglants… qui accompagne une véritable descente aux enfers pour le pays à partir de la fin des années 1970, il convient d’examiner plus près les caractéristiques fondamentales de cette société irakienne soumise aux assauts et à la prédation permanents d’un État créé dans les conditions particulièrement conflictuelles…’

For Luizard, the import of the institution of the nation state laid the groundwork for sectarian competition for control of the Iraqi political apparatus. The erection of the Iraqi state in the period between 1920 and 1925, in fact, constituted ‘un véritable tremblement de terre’ – one that first institutionalised the sectarian divide by manipulating ‘la convergence de deux projets politiques, celui de la puissance mandataire – la Grande-Bretagne – et celui d’une élite arabe sunnite qui, après avoir servi de relais local à l’Empire ottoman, monopolise l’ensemble du pouvoir, notamment militaire’. From its very inception, therefore, the Iraqi state was set up in opposition to the consolidation of civil society. The capture of the state infrastructure by the Ba’ath Party aggravated this trend. As Toby Dodge articulates, ‘since seizing power in 1968 the Ba’th regime efficiently used extreme levels of violence and… patronage to co-opt or break any independent vestiges of civil society. Autonomous collective social structures beyond the control of the state simply did not exist’. The point is corroborated by Fawaz Gerges who views ISIS as a reflection of the ‘bitter inheritance of decades of Ba’athist rule that tore apart Iraq’s social fabric [that] left deep wounds that are still festering’. The disruption of oppositional channels (such as the Communist Party and the National Democratic Party) inhibited the development of political society, and concentrated alternative identities within the mould of communitarianism – there to be incubated until the opening up of political discourse. The International Crisis Group is thus correct to assert that ‘if the current outbreak of sectarianism does not flow directly from the sectarian policies of the previous regime, it arguably follows from that regime’s very nature’.

A state of war

This foundational aggravation of sectarianism was further exacerbated during the period of Saddam Hussein’s early presidency: a period dominated by war. Whilst the costs of the Iran-Iraq War were borne across Iraqi society, its trauma was nonetheless more powerfully felt amongst Shi’is. Amatzia Baram points out that it was Iraqi Shi’is who ‘served mainly in the infantry units, and these units suffered the heaviest casualties. This was another reason for frustration. It is true that most Shi’is saw themselves as both Arabs and Iraqis and were averse to the idea of an Iranian occupation of Iraq, but nonetheless they were deeply disturbed by being forced to fight and kill their Iranian coreligionists’. More generally, the war brought with it massive economic decline, leaving the Iraqi economy, in Haddad’s words, ‘in dire straits’ – and with subsequently widening social cleavages. It was Iraq’s post-war economic weaknesses that prompted Saddam to invade Kuwait in August 1990 – both in a bid to capture valuable resources and in anger at Kuwaiti over-production, which was driving down the profits to be made from petroleum export.

The impacts of such a drastic policy decision hardly need spelling out. The disaster of January-February 1991 marked the beginning of a crucial phase in the creation of contemporary conflict. Significantly, for many Shi’is the defeat was to be understood in sectarian terms. One southern officer recounts the sense of anger and victimisation felt by Shi’i recruits fleeing the advance of Operation Desert Storm:

‘We were anxious to withdraw [from Kuwait], to end the mad adventure… We understood that he [Saddam] wanted the Allies to wipe us out: he had already withdrawn the Republican Guard to safety… We walked a hundred kilometres towards the Iraqi territories, hungry, thirsty and exhausted. In Zubeir we decided to put an end to Saddam and his regime. We shot at his posters.’

The frustrations of retreating soldiers mothballed into the massive ‘intifada’ of March 1991. The regime’s response to the intifada was salt to an open wound, and crystallised the embryonic sense within the Shi’i community that they existed in opposition to a captive Sunni state. The tactics employed by the predominantly Sunni Republican Guard in the taming of the uprising continue to exercise a powerful memory: particularly the use of Shi’i women and children as human shields for the advancing tank crews, alongside the massacres of between 25,000-100,000 in public squares. Southern Shi’is were accused of being ‘strangers to the Arab nation’. In his account of the repression, Luizard views it as driving a wedge within the national community – with necessarily long-term ramifications:

‘La distinction entre nationalité A et nationalité B (dite ‘de rattachement iranien’), exhumée pour l’occasion, est également employée contre des religieux chiites irakiens. Elle restera constamment une épée de Damoclès menaçant la communauté chiite d’Irak, toujours susceptible d’être accusée d’être une ‘cinquième colonne’ iranienne en Irak.’

Crisis and decline

The sectarianism of 1991 was born in a decade of war. The crises of the following decade were merely to consolidate the divide. The imposition of UN sanctions under Resolution 661 in August 1990 brought the Iraqi economy to its knees. In so doing, it established the conditions for a competition over scarce resources that would find its expression through the sectarian idiom.

Of the decision to impose sanctions, Dennis Halliday (who resigned from his post of UN Humanitarian Coordinator in protest over the issue) claimed that it was ‘biting into the fabric of society in less visible but almost equally devastating ways… What should be of concern is the possibility of more fundamentalist Islamic thinking developing. It is not well understood as a possible spin-off of the sanctions regime. We are pushing people to take extreme positions’. 70% of the Iraqi population found themselves below the poverty line in the 1990s – with income per capita dropping from $2,279 in 1984 to $450 by 1995. Meanwhile, hyperinflation took hold of the economy such that even the Ministry of Planning was forced to report levels of inflation as high as 24000% in 1994. In December 1995, the Baghdad daily run by Saddam’s son ‘Uday published a letter sent by a ‘group of citizens’ complaining that the cost of a basket of potatoes, onions, and cauliflowers (one kilogram apiece) amounted to over a third of their monthly salaries. Two years later, even a university lecturers’ monthly salary (a princely $8) fell well short of covering the costs of maintaining a family of four (estimated by the University of Baghdad as $165 per month). It was in this context of material hardship that sectarian identities came to acquire a new salience. Haddad thus describes the sanctions era as ‘the incubator of post-2003 Iraqi society’.

As the strength of nationalist sentiment declined, amidst scenes of economic collapse, Iraqi society underwent a novel re-Islamisation. One Iraqi intellectual claimed that ‘in the 1990s every Iraqi became concerned with his own life, he just wanted to survive. The government is not with him, it doesn’t give him a salary, food was scarce and jobs were unavailable. I mean teachers became taxi drivers and cigarette sellers. How is someone like that going to have a nationalistic sense? How can he defend the state in such circumstances?’ Nascent religious identity presented itself as ready and willing to fill the void of the waning Iraqi nation. Thus a reporter noted in 2002 that ‘more and more Iraqis are going to the mosque; more and more Iraqi women are wearing the veil. This is an unusual phenomenon in a country that has always been staunchly secular… But for Iraqis, struggling with life after two wars and 12 years of sanctions, religion is slowly becoming a refuge’. These words are reflected in the sentiment of a female interviewee who explained that ‘we feel we need support, we need peace, so we pray… Everybody seeks a refuge somewhere. Some people here turned to art, I turned to God’.

The Ba’ath Party sought to capitalise on this new-found religiosity, and indeed nurtured its growth, by initiating a widespread ‘Faith Campaign’ – seemingly at odds with its previously avowedly secular identity. It is wrong to view the Faith Campaign as the sole root of all Iraq’s contemporary sectarian divisions, as does Kyle Orton when he writes that ‘far from holding down religious militancy and sectarianism, Mr. Hussein incubated them, preparing the ground for an armed Salafist movement’. For the original bent of the campaign was ecumenical in style – as exemplified in Saddam’s 1992 address rejecting sectarianism: ‘O formidable Iraqi people! Our enemies… divide the Iraqis according to the sects/schools of the one religion… This one is an Arab, that one is a Kurd… this one is a Sunni and that one is a Shi’i’. Above all, the Ba’ath Party sought to instrumentalise religion as a secular tool for the piecing-back-together of the Iraqi social mosaic. Hence, a senior party official was able to advocate Islamisation within the framework of conventional secular ideology, claiming that ‘Iraq has always been a secular state and the Ba’th has always been a secular party… But [now] we are aiming at a better understanding of religion as a factor uniting people’ in a time of crisis.

On the other hand, it is true that such intentions fell short of realising their ecumenical ends. The Islamisation campaign did indeed have a narrowly sectarian edge – most obviously in elaborate plans for the construction of grand mosques (almost exclusively in Sunni areas) whilst the rest of the country starved. Equally, the Faith Campaign introduced strict regulation of Shi’i ceremonies, including the enforced registration of all those who attended Shi’i ceremonies. Again, then, we see how the evolution of the political climate over time worked to harden the divisions within Iraqi society – which perhaps adds legitimacy to Orton’s conclusion that ‘the groundwork for the emergence of the militant jihadist group was laid many years earlier – by the government of Saddam Hussein’.

The new jihadi front

There is a broad consensus in the academic literature that the US-led invasion of 2003 activated the civil strife sewn in the social and economic decline of preceding decades. Apart from anything else, the invasion situated an already fragile society as the new locus for an ailing global jihad – one displaced by the invasion of Afghanistan two years previously. Thomas Hegghammer argues that after the fall of the Taliban ‘the various local branches of the al-Qa’ida network were strategically disoriented, and it seemed that old ideological debates and dividing lines started reappearing’. The invasion of Iraq arrived, therefore, in the nick of time to put the jihadist movement on life support. Abu Musab al-Suri, among others, claimed that the war in Iraq rescued the movement ‘almost single-handedly’. Stern and Berger describe Iraq after 2003 as ‘a lightning rod for jihadists, who flocked to a country where they had not been able to operate successfully before in order to confront American troops’. Moreover, ‘the invasion reinforced jihadi claims about America’s hegemonic designs on the Middle East, providing a recruiting bonanza at a time when the terrorists needed it most’. The invasion seemed to reaffirm al-Qaeda’s warnings regarding America’s nefarious ‘appetite for Muslim territory as well as Muslim blood’ – as elaborated in Osama bin Laden’s 2004 statement:

‘America has attacked Iraq and soon will also attack Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan. You should be aware the infidels cannot bear the existence of Muslims and want to capture their resources and destroy them.’

The subsequent fall of Saddam established a political vacuum, which al-Qaeda in Iraq planned to occupy upon the departure of American troops. Thus, Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to the leadership of AQI under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling for him to ‘establish an Islamic authority or emirate, then develop it and support it until it achieves the level of caliphate – over as much territory as you can to spread its power in Iraq, i.e., in Sunni Arab areas, in order to fill the void stemming from the departure of the Americans, immediately upon their exit and before un-Islamic forces attempt to fill this void’. Gerges’ words are apt here, in his assertion that ‘America’s destruction of Iraqi institutions, particularly its dismantling of the Ba’ath Party and the army, created a vacuum that unleashed a fierce power struggle and allowed non-state actors, including al-Qaeda, to infiltrate the fragile body politic’.

Conversely, the Coalition Provisional Authority’s efforts to rebuild the Iraqi state were half-hearted at best. More problematically, the CPA approached policy-making through the lens of sectarianism, rather than with a view to constructing a cohesive national community. The ICG reported that in the eyes of the Americans, ‘the old regime was perceived as based in the Sunni Arab community, a view that meshed with the predominance of opposition parties rooted in the other two principal communities, the Shi’ites and Kurds. The destruction of these key institutions therefore had a sectarian aura’. Foremost among such policies was Paul Bremer’s decision to disband the Iraqi army, leaving 100,000 Sunni Ba’athists ‘unemployed, angry, and for the military personnel, armed’, according to Stern and Berger. Subsequent revelations regarding ISIS’ military command structure demonstrated the implications of such a move, leading Christoph Reuter to conclude that in this miscalculation the CPA was complicit in the empowerment of ‘its most bitter and intelligent enemies’. A former CPA official lamented, similarly candidly, the failure to go beyond sectarianism as a major limiting factor for the prospects of post-invasion Iraq:

‘Senior CPA advisors and the political leadership in both Washington and Baghdad saw Iraq as an amalgam of three monolithic communities, and as long as you kept the Shi’ites and Kurds happy, success was guaranteed, because they were not Ba’athists, formed the majority, and essentially had the same ideas as liberal Americans. This simplistic mindset explains most of the mistakes of US policy, including the disbandment of the army and Ba’ath Party, which they also saw in sectarian terms. Today we have the sectarian and ethnically-based politics that the US always claimed existed, a self-fulfilling prophecy.’

The new Iraqi state structure, therefore, contained many of the same flaws as the ancien régime – but in reverse. The 2005 Constitution, in particular, enshrined the communitarian tug-of-war over the levers of the state, partitioning power between a Kurdish President, Shi’i Prime Minister, and Arab Sunni Speaker of the Council of Representatives – government ‘à la libanaise’, according to Luizard! This federalist ‘masque… sert à cacher que les bases du nouveau pouvoir sont tout sauf citoyennes. Chacun est en effet sollicité sur la base de son appartenance communautaire… Les partis politiques cèdent la place à des partis religieux et ethniques’. In essence, for Luizard, the new system was one of de jure sectarianism, where it had previously been de facto.

From 2005, moreover, the American-initiated stratagem of dividing responsibilities between sects became increasingly sacrosanct. For the sake of ‘national unity’, each administrative office had to reflect unspoken quotas: a Shi’a minister, for instance, was required to have both Sunni and Kurdish deputies with all three ostensibly able to veto policy. The result, however, was a legislative and administrative logjam, a ‘frozen republic’ where imperative laws were never discussed and there was no effective policy-making, nor implementation. The constitutional flaws were numerous and varied but the clause that, due to the constitution’s lack of accuracy, endowed whoever was the prime minister with the ‘keys of the kingdom’, was that which ambiguously designated the prime minister at the same time commander in chief of the army. As a consequence, it came with no surprise that Maliki, widely deemed a weak middle-ground candidate, when he was elected in 2005, took advantage of every inch of this loophole. He essentially carried out both the interior and the defence minister’s posts himself: anxious about plots, he monopolized these offices for the interests of his own family, cronies and associates of his ‘State of Law’ coalition.

Furthermore, although on paper most powers were supposed to be transferred to provinces rather than to the central government, all Iraq’s income from oil, which constituted 97% of the total of government revenues, was in Baghdad’s hands. This allowed Maliki and his allies extensive authority to give or withhold favour, or even blackmail, on the basis of sectarian or personal preferences. Through a modus operandi very similar to that of Saddam Hussein, he recurrently recompensed loyal Shi’a tribal chiefs with gold-plated revolvers. On the other hand, adversaries of the government often found themselves and their own followers displaced from government jobs and contracts in a country where the state employs almost 60% of the formal workforce. Maliki repeatedly employed loyalist security thugs to harass Sunni political opponents, or, alternatively, labelled them ‘terrorists’ to expedite their prosecution by a compliant judiciary. As a consequence, Iraq’s agenda for development came to be absolutely secondary to any political interest, undermining the already wrinkled infrastructure. In point of fact, more than ten years after the American-led invasion, notwithstanding the billions of dollars spent to reconstruct the shattered electricity grid, only the Kurdish autonomous region seems to have enjoyed a semi-regular power supply.

A similar pattern characterizes the Iraqi army, which, after being formally disbanded, never reconstituted as a national army: soldiers, lacking in morale and discipline, were only interested in their salaries – and corruption among battalion commanders was rife. The army, thus, became a money-making machine: senior officers made huge profits by appropriating the difference in funds from the number of soldiers they declared to have under arms and the actual soldiers they had while ordinary soldiers transformed checkpoints into extortion rackets. The army ended up being powerless and unable to fulfil its basic function – that is, keeping order and stability (as witnessed at Mosul).

Accordingly, corruption was sectarianised. This resulted in the identification of the de-Ba’athification process that was being carried out as part of the American-led occupation, with a procedural de-Sunnification of society, which further exacerbated a pervasive sense of alienation and persecution. The feeling of being not only denied a fair share but punished for complaining inflamed Sunni despair, to the point that many Sunnis were willing to join extremist factions – as long as they advanced their cause.

The ICG responded ominously to this retrenchment of institutional sectarianism: warning that ‘2005 will be remembered as the year Iraq’s latent sectarianism took wings’. Yet, whereas in 2005 sectarianism embodied the foundations on which the country’s new political order was established and the system by means of which political parties managed to assign to their members the senior ministerial position, by 2011 it had acquired two novel functions. On the one hand, politicians used sectarianism to divert the electorate’s attention from its own ineptitude; on the other, since there was no real progress in standards of living, government officials advocated that at least sectarian interests were being protected. Sectarianism became the only safeguard in the face of present state failure and the alibi for past miscarriages: it was the only objective worth pursuing.

The morning after the night before

The ICG’s major concern in this respect was the outbreak of widespread sectarian instability. Iraqi society after 2003 found itself within the grip of a chain reaction of violence. By 2006, the climate of fear had become so pervasive an element of Iraqi public life that mere rumours could provoke mass outbreaks of panic: as on the occasion of a Shi’i gathering in Baghdad when hundreds of worshippers were trampled in an stampede to escape a non-existent attack. Certain groups endeavoured to exploit such circumstances in a war of provocation – with attacks on Shi’i communities (as in Hilla in February 2005, leaving 125 dead) generating counterattacks on Sunnis (as at Hurriya, with 30 casualties). The end product was the increasing alienation of each community from its ‘rival’.

Whilst the Shi’i militias have been the focus of much attention in this respect, the government itself did not escape complicity. Amongst observers there exists a pervasive view of the government of Nouri al-Maliki as an administration at war with its Sunni adversaries. Certainly, Maliki’s policies exhibited a blatant sectarian character. Only the day after US troops left Iraqi soil, Maliki issued the arrest warrant for his Sunni vice president. The arrest ignited protests amongst Sunnis, whose repression at Hawijah in April 2013 led to the death of at least fifty protesters and the radicalisation of the movement. This cycle of aggression exemplifies the strategic approach of extremist agents – revealing their ability to tamper with the social environment for specific political ends. Jessica Lewis is right to argue that ISIS and its predecessors have been engaged in a long-term struggle to generate the optimal conditions for the extension of their roots in Sunni Iraq, ‘where ISIS targeted Shi’a civilians in Baghdad viciously for over a year in order to accelerate a sectarian reaction by the Iraqi Security Forces, especially against the anti-government protest movement ignited against PM Maliki in December 2012. The protest movement provided ISIS with more opportunities to exacerbate the sectarian divide in Iraq, which it exploited’.


Of the events at Hawijah, a member of the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association questioned in view of such a trend, ‘Why does the world talk of masked terrorism and not of organised terrorism? Why does the world talk of terrorists and ignores state terrorism? There are gangs that exploit state instruments and kill and execute people with government-issued weapons driving government cars’. The opening had been created for ISIS to step in and instrumentalise Sunni grievances, such as those expressed by a Mosul Sunni (in correspondence with Patrick Cockburn) following the explosion of a government missile in the city: ‘Maliki’s forces have already demolished the University of Tikrit. It has become havoc and rubble like the entire city. If Maliki reaches us in Mosul he will kill its people or turn them into refugees’. Cockburn goes so far as to argue that ISIS presented itself as a refuge for Sunnis in the face of regime-sponsored aggression, citing an email from a Sunni friend who writes of a bombing by the Iraqi air force that ‘the air strikes focused on wholly civilian neighbourhoods… The bombing hurt civilians only and demolished the generator. Now we don’t have any electricity… because of this bombardment, youngsters are joining ISIS in tens if not in hundreds because this increases hatred towards the government, which doesn’t care about us as Sunnis being killed and targeted’. Accordingly, Cockburn presents the siege of Mosul as ‘the result of a popular uprising as well as a military assault’, as characterised in the recollections of a Shi’i private who remembered how the people of Mosul ‘threw stones at us and shouted: ‘We don’t want you in our city! You are Maliki’s sons! You are the sons of mutta! [the Shi’a tradition of temporary marriage much derided by Sunni] You are Safavids! You are the army of Iran!’

The veracity of such oral histories may well be questioned. Nonetheless, there is value in the attempt to locate ISIS within the structure of the Sunni community. For a semblance of IS-run state infrastructure had existed in Mosul for a long time prior to its fall, including the levying of taxes amounting to $8 million per month. As early as 2006 a Baghdadi businessman was closing his concessions in Mosul because of the burden of payments he was making to al-Qaeda. On the other hand, Cockburn recounts how ‘ISIS has been careful not to alienate the local population’, in its quasi-governmental activities. Thus an ISIS spokesperson advised his peers to ‘accept repentance and recantations from those who are sincere, and do not bother those who do not bother you, and forgive your Sunni folk, and be gentle with your tribes’. Clearly, then, there has been a concerted attempt by ISIS and its predecessor AQI to establish itself within the Sunni community – a project facilitated by the growth of sectarianism since 1991, and inflamed by the activities of the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Maliki. The thriving sectarian polarization played into ISIS’s hands: by recalling Sunni Arabs’ grievances, it was able to justify sectarian bloodshed as acceptable and appropriate.

Within this programme, ISIS has co-opted (or been co-opted by) residual elements of the Ba’athist apparatus, which have become a central feature of the organisation. Tim Arango writes that ‘while fighters for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, once an offshoot of Al Qaeda, have taken on the most prominent role in the new insurgency, they have done so in alliance with a deeply rooted network of former loyalists to Saddam Hussein’. Certain documentary leaks have revealed the extent of the role played by loyalists, such as Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi: a former colonel in the intelligence service who had been ‘secretly pulling the strings at IS for years’, according to Reuter. More generally, Gerges suggests that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s military council consists of 13 officers, all of whom served under Saddam. The military structures inherited from the old regime, though hardly unproblematic and an almost certain cause for future conflict, add credence to Orton’s view that ‘the Islamic State was not created by removing Saddam Hussein’s regime; it was the afterlife of that regime’.


What conclusions can be drawn from this narrative, then? Above all, the focus on the long-term context of ISIS’ development reveals how crucial have been Iraq’s increasingly fragmented economic, political, and social structures in laying the groundwork for the ferment and outbreak of sectarianism. ISIS is the child of war, state failure, economic collapse, and social disharmony. A policy aiming to undermine its growth, therefore, must necessarily focus on countering these trends. Hence, as Gerges writes, ISIS ‘can thrive and sustain itself only in an environment of despair, state breakdown, and war. If these social conditions can be reversed, its appeal and potency will wither away’. Only functional and legitimate state institutions can mediate sectarian rivalries without resorting to violence or buy-offs: a broader, genuinely inclusive, domestic political system coupled with greater regional engagement is the necessary start-point. Pivotal in this respect have been conditions in the broader Middle East, beyond Iraq’s borders. The on-going civil war in Syria, for instance, provided the necessary base from which to revitalise al-Qaeda in Iraq – in Lewis’ words, it is ‘an exogenous advantage for ISIS’. Indeed, to discuss the situation in Iraq, as I have done, without reference to neighbouring Syria is, in many respects, absurd. The relationship between the two resembles in many ways the ‘Afpak’ link found elsewhere: for both conflicts are mutually enforcing. There is in fact something beyond rhetoric in ISIS’ claims to have ‘broken Sykes-Picot’.

In this essay I have nonetheless sought to locate ISIS within a broader narrative of state failure and economic crisis in the Middle East. It is by placing the organisation within the shifting social fabric of the past few decades that we can begin to understand which forces made its emergence possible. By teasing out the conditions that generated ISIS’ growth it becomes clear that it is not an isolated phenomenon, but rather part of a broader story of Iraq’s social landscape: made possible by a succession of conscious policy choices by various domestic and international actors. Situating ISIS within this framework, moreover, the reality that it is not the beginning of social discourse – an isolated and spontaneous ‘independent variable’ – comes to the fore of our analyses. Nor, implicitly, need it be the end.


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