The British media’s coverage of the civil war in Syria since 2011 has been simply woeful. From the start is has been dominated by the illusions and self-interest of the British state, and its imperial masters in Washington DC.
But Patrick Cockburn’s brilliant reporting has been perhaps the brightest exception to this rule. His coverage of the region in general has been essential.
His new book is called The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution. This slim volume packs insight onto almost every page, all done with Cockburn’s sternly realistic, yet compassionate style of journalism.
His many trips to Iraq and Syria over the last few years along with his network on contacts there mean this is the best account to date of the rise of Islamic State, the fanatical and bloodthirsty organisation that began life as an offshoot of al-Qaida.
Cockburn’s narrative starts with the events of summer 2014, when shocked TV audiences around the world watched in horror as the group swept over vast territories in Iraq, routing the Iraqi army with minimal effort.
The so-called “Islamic State in Iraq and Sham” (Greater Syria, or the Levant) seemed to be living up to its name, already in control, as it was, of large and important territories in eastern and northern Syria.
But as Cockburn notes, this defeat had been a realistic prospect for a while. He says that the Iraqi army, tens of thousands strong, was not so much defeated. It simply did not put up a fight. Fear generated by the horrific propaganda of ISIS, combined with endemic corruption in the ranks of the Iraqi army meant that many soldiers and officers just went home, or fled out of areas assaulted by ISIS.
The main strength of Cockburn’s narrative is the way he puts two major factors in the rise of ISIS front and centre, where they belong: firstly, the legacy of the 2003 US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq; and second, the support (sometimes indirect) for ISIS from Gulf oil and gas regimes (Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE), along with Turkey, in their short-sighted determination (which was also driven by sectarian hatred) to bring down Basahar al-Assad as the president of Syria.
Cockburn explains that the American occupation of Iraq, and the subsequent disbandment of the Iraqi army led furious (and well-trained) Iraqi army officers to flood into the then-nascent resistance against US occupation. Cockburn’s account shows that this need not have been the case, since the vast majority of Iraqi army did not really fight the invasion, as they were not willing to die for Saddam Hussein: most simply went home.
These occupation policies, combined with the “dirty war” strategy of US Colonel James Steele (a veteran of US proxy wars in 1980s Central America). Steele recruited sectarian death squads, which set about torturing and killing their opponents. This, combined with the policy of disbanding the Iraqi army that Cockburn reports here, led directly to the establishment and slow rise of al-Qaida in Iraq – the direct forerunner of the “Islamic State”
The occupation also had another malign legacy: the influence of Bush-era neoliberalism, which fuelled endemic corruption. “Asked about the Iraqi military’s cause of defeat [in June 2014], one recently retired Iraqi general was emphatic: ‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ It started, he said, when the Americans told the Iraqi army to outsource food and other supplies around 2005. A battalion commander was paid for a unit of 600 soldiers, but had only 200 men under arms and pocketed the difference, which meant enormous profits. The army became a money-making machine for senior officers … On top of this, well-trained Sunni officers were sidelined.” (64-65)
He continues: “Why has corruption in Iraq been so bad? The simple answer that Iraqis give is that ‘UN sanctions destroyed Iraqi society in the 1990s and the Americans destroyed the Iraqi state in 2003′” (68).
There are also important insights into the machinations behind the multi-layered conflict that is the civil war in Syria, which he describes as comprising “five different conflicts that cross-infect and exacerbate each other … a genuine popular revolution … soon became intertwined with the struggle of the Sunni against the Alawites, and that fed into the Shia-Sunni conflict in the region as a whole, with a standoff between the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni states on the one side and Iran, Iraq, and the Lebanese Shia on the other… [And finally] a revived cold war between Moscow and the West” (94).
Of these wars, he says that, according to one unnamed “senior Iraqi source” the “re-emergence of ISIS was significantly aided in 2011 and 2012 by Turkish military intelligence that encouraged experienced Iraqi officers, who may have participated in guerrilla war against the US occupation, to work with the movement” (77). Cockburn is sceptical, and says this claim may just be another “Middle East conspiracy theory,” but nonetheless notes that such jihadi groups have a record of being easily manipulated by foreign intelligence services.
Quoting an interview with a former “Free Syrian Army” commander translated by the Brown Moses blog, Cockburn also notes the extent to which the armed opposition was “under the thumb of foreign backers at the end of 2013.”
In the custody of ISIS (after having defected to them) Saddam al-Jamal tells his interviewers (or perhaps interrogators) in the video that his FSA brigade was at first funded and directed by Qatar, but later was switched to the Saudis. Military council meetings were “invariably attended by representatives of the Saudi, UAE, Jordanian, and Qatari intelligence services, as well as intelligence officers from the US, Britain and France”.
At one such meeting that apparently took place in Turkey, the then deputy defence minister of Saudi Arabia Prince Salman bin Sultan (not to be confused with Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz who was named the new King this week after his half-brother King Abdallah died) personally attended and asked leaders of the armed opposition to present their cases for arms and cash (85-6).
If the book has a weakness, it is the over-reliance, at times, on anonymous sources. However, considering the deadly circumstances that prevail in Syria and Iraq, such precautions are inevitable, and Cockburn’s evident scepticism and even-handed treatment of his sources leaves his account transparent enough that readers can usually still judge for themselves. Also, those who have read Cockburn’s four-part series “Al-Qaida, the second act” in The Independent will find a lot of reused material here. But considering the brilliance of that particular ground breaking series, that is no bad thing.
If Cockburn’s nuanced analysis seems somewhat bleak at times, it is only because the facts in the region really are that bleak. He concludes with the warning that “the Islamic State is fast becoming a geographic and political fact on the map” (161).
He also cautions that things could get even worse: “if Turkey does join the civil war in Syria against Assad, a crucial ally of Iran, then Iranian leaders have said that ‘Turkey will pay a price’.”
This may sound like an outlandish or unlikely prospect. But then, so did the rise of ISIS before the summer of 2014. And Cockburn has been warning about them for years.