Historically, Iraq enjoyed some of the world’s most productive soils. Agriculture represented more than 18 percent of the country’s economic output in 1995, but over the last 30 years its key role in the economy fell victim to Iraq’s decades-long conflicts. By 2019, agriculture accounted for only 2 percent of economic output.  

Meanwhile, in neighboring Syria, the agriculture sector has sustained itself through nine years of civil conflict amid a deepening economic crisis and widespread popular discontent but now is at risk. Though the sector still accounts for 26 percent of the country’s economy, today food insecurity represents a pervasive threat for 60 percent of the country’s population or 12.4 million Syrians. Ongoing state land confiscations displace farmers throughout the country, cementing the seeds of deeper instability in rural areas as well as uncertainty about the future of agrarian development. 

Outcomes for Iraq’s agriculture sector after years of armed conflict show the likely trajectory of the sector in Syria. An examination of the dynamics of post-war agriculture in Iraq indicates strong similarities with Syria's fledgling reconstruction process. 

The decline of Iraq’s agriculture sector began well before the past decade in which ISIS devasted parts of the country. While militants’ profiteering contributed to Iraqi agricultural decline, it did not cause the problem. Well-entrenched cronies and systemic corruption emerging from the wars in the late 1980s and early 2000s inflicted their malign influence many years before the creation of ISIS. 

The Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) sent thousands of young farmers from their fields to the battleground in one of the first blows to Iraqi agriculture. Saddam Hussein’s privatization of state-owned industries—including agricultural factories producing wheat, barley rice, dates, and cotton attempted to revive the sector. This process granted ownership of food-producing factories to a limited number of families. Syria’s "selective liberalization" process (1970–2000) launched by Hafez al Assad has had a similar effect. 

These crony structures drove Iraq’s emerging rural business elite to engage in activities maximizing short-term returns at the expense of long-term food sustainability. By the early 1990s, Iraq’s poorly planned irrigation projects caused a massive depletion of water sources. Iraq produced nearly 1 million tons of dates, representing 75 percent of global consumption before 1980. But Saddam Hussein’s neglect of agriculture and massive tree destructions cut date production by half at the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988.

Developments following the Iran-Iraq war enabled cronies through the concentration of land ownership in the hands of a few Iraqi families. The U.S. invasion both disrupted and solidified these patronage networks. The 2003 war period saw the resurgence of Iraq’s cronies within a new American paradigm: armed militias allied with the United States set up checkpoints and smuggling routes for oil and food products.

In post-2003 Iraq, the United States perceived existing state-bourgeoisie networks as incompatible with its state-building project and sought to disband them. The networks were dissolved, but the U.S. decision to purge Saddam loyalists extended to all regime-linked individuals. In Saddam’s dual state-liberal system, the production of seeds and fertilizers had largely remained in the hands of state-owned but largely family-run small enterprises. This decision accelerated a surge in food insecurity after the 2003 war. Iraq’s post-2003 war reconstruction framework saw the attribution of state contracts to prominent members of Iraq’s Governing Council who benefited from strong links with Pentagon officials. For example, Ahud Farouki, the business associate of Iraqi National Congress Chair, Ahmad Chalabi, was awarded $80 million in contracts to provide security for the country's oil fields. 

Though most rural land was left unusable, due to explosives and water shortages, stabilization and reconstruction efforts mostly targeted urban areas. U.S. led policies applied in tandem with Iraqi companies unintentionally pushed small agricultural enterprises out of the market and greatly contributed to the disenfranchisement of farmers across the country. After years of social conflict, post-war reconstruction processes further undervalued the sector by directing funds and contracts toward other, more directly profitable, sectors of the economy. 

Furthermore, U.S.-endorsed reconstruction contracts mirrored Saddam-era cronyism by purging the market and awarding contracts to close allies. Although these contracts managed to decouple the linkages between the old regime and the sector, they failed at sustainable reconstruction, which could have enabled partial economic recovery. As a result, today’s agricultural market remains underdeveloped and continues to suffer from the exclusion of smaller actors. Over 15 years after the war, it is undeniable that this large amount of funding failed to translate into tangible prospects for long-lasting political stability in Iraq, as the country remains fraught with civil unrest and food insecurity.

Following ISIS’s invasion and occupation of rural northern Iraq in 2014, most farmers found themselves without access to their land and migrated to urban centers. On the outskirts of Mosul, ISIS's war profiteering networks sold roughly 40 percent of farmers’ agricultural machinery and destroyed the rest. Nationwide, the invasion reduced Iraq’s agricultural production capacity by at least 40 percent. 

Agricultural developments in Syria today reflect similar cronyism, in part fostered by conflict dynamics as in Iraq. Since the onset of Syria’s war, rural businessmen have used the chaos as an opportunity to smuggle necessities and install checkpoints to tax food cargo throughout the country. The Qaterji Brothers, for instance, provide a striking example of those who profited from the conflict by importing wheat from ISIS-held areas around Damascus. The monopoly gained by new wartime business elite led to increased costs of farming inputs while causing further market disruptions. These developments strike a strong resemblance to the war profiteering networks observed throughout the Iraqi conflict.  

Furthermore, cronyism is growing in Syria via the 2016 adoption of public-private partnership laws. By allowing the private sector to accumulate capital through high-margin government contracts, this new legislative framework provides Syria’s new urban tycoons, such as Samer Foz, Wassim Qattan, and Mohammed Hamcho, with a golden opportunity to profit from Syrian cities’ reconstruction, while neglecting the need for long-term investment in rural areas and agriculture.

Observing processes of cronyism in conflict-ridden societies indicates funding may not be nearly sufficient for the sustainable reconstruction of Syria, which is estimated to cost between $250 billion to $1 trillion. Foreign aid contracts and reconstruction projects have mainly focused on reviving oil and gas production as well as urban infrastructures. But these projects largely neglect long-term investment in productive sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing industry, indispensable to food security, combating poverty, and sustainable transition to peace in Syria.

Reconstruction of the Syrian agricultural sector would benefit from an attentive look at the results of these dynamics in post-2003 Iraq. Both reconstruction processes continue to be captive to deeply embedded cronyism, with foreign involvement further entrenching corruption. A more equitable allocation of funds and contracts in Syria would positively impact the long-term structure of the economy, reconstruction efforts, as well as post-war reconciliation among citizens. 

Preventing the entrenchment of pervasive cronyism should be a main consideration of policy discussions on Middle East reconstruction processes. If left unchecked, cronyism has the potential to destroy prospects for long-lasting nation-building in Syria and post-conflict societies across the world.

Chloé Bernadaux is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southern California, and a research assistant at the Middle East Institute. Follow her on twitter @Cbernadaux.