Two Iraqi soldiers stand guard in Baghdad's Tahrir square on June 16, 2014.

Two Iraqi soldiers stand guard in Baghdad's Tahrir square on June 16, 2014. Khalid Mohammed/AP

How Baghdad Might Fall: Plain Old Bribery

A much-underestimated driver in war is cold, hard cash – and ISIS has plenty of it. By Steve LeVine

In rebellions, power sometimes changes hands not in the fight but in a “negotiated” conquest. That is, the folks inside the capital city sense the momentum shifting against them, perceive either gain or survival by changing sides, and hand the place over through defection or assassination.

In Iraq, most analyses are that Baghdad won’t fall because its population is mostly Shia Muslims, who are bucking up against a Sunni offensive led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

But there are scenarios in which Baghdad could go. Ken Pollack of the Brookings Institution suggests that one place to watch is Anbar province (the large region west of Baghdad, bordering Syria and Jordan—see map below). It could tip the balance if its own well of Sunni militants join the battle and attack either Baghdad or the hallowed cities of Karbala and Najaf (south of the capital), thus diverting the Shia forces.

But another, much-underestimated driver in war is plain cash. One reason for the success of some of today’s most assertive insurgent armies is money—muscle gets you so far, but when you are rich, you can make even more progress. Money was a major factor in the Taliban’s original 1996 capture of Kabul–the Taliban bought off key commanders on the other side–and plays a leading role in its perseverance today .

In the case of Iraq, ISIL may have some $1.3 billion in cash and assets at its disposal, according to a report in the Guardian. That includes $875 million that it accumulated in Syria prior to its lightning advance in Iraq, for instance by seizing control over oil-rich Raqqa province. The group produces the oil and delivers it in tanker trucks. Among its customers is the Assad regime.

In addition, ISIL may have made off with some $420 million worth of Iraqi dinars when it captured Mosul last week. If the reports of the heist are accurate, that could be used for payoffs. That may not sound like a lot when you’re buying what amounts to the keys to an entire country, but it could be sufficient–the Taliban needed only a few million dollars, including $3 million from Osama bin Laden , to bribe the final group of commanders standing between Jalalabad and Kabul.

Bribery is an art, and usually requires an exceedingly well-connected intermediary who knows both the pressure points and how to navigate them. Jamie Webster of IHS, an energy consultancy in Washington, DC, told Quartz that that part may be a problem–the Baghdad side may too disorganized for any effective negotiation to take place. Yet chaos is often a friend to the actors who carry out such work.