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by Patrick Cockburn
Published in the Middle East in London, May-June 2015

This slim book reads like a series of extended journalist features that have been stapled together with an updated afterword. It has the feel of a work in progress, with some repetitions and an uneven narrative that loops back to look again and again at certain key events, such as the fall of Mosul. But these faults are also the virtues of this honest and well informed work: it’s structure a necessary reflection of the search for historical truth amongst the smoke of rumour, conspiracy theories, polemic and propaganda. It also looks to the wide horizon, providing a fascinating insight into the nature of media coverage, the role of the modern war-reporter as well as providing a reading of the key players in the modern diplomatic chess game. The author, Patrick Cockburn, is the very opposite of a flak-jacket-wearing media blonde gazing out from our newscreens. He is a 65-year-old, who habitually looks at the world through half-closed lizard-like eyes and since contracting polio as a six-year-old has walked with a stick. He has the advantage of being Irish-born (one of the few determinedly non-aligned nations) and of growing up within a family of free-thinking foreign correspondents that includes his father (Claude) and two brothers (Alexander and Andrew). He has been described as ‘the best western journalist at work in Iraq today’ (Seymour Hersh) ‘one of the most accurate and intrepid journalists in Iraq’ (Sidney Blumenthal) and has won the Martha Gellhorn prize (2005), the James Cameron Prize (2006) and the Orwell prize (2009) for his journalism. He was also the first to identify Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a man worth watching, a year before he rose to worldwide notoriety. The key date at the centre of Cockburn’s book is the fall of Mosul on 10th June, 2014. Like all political events that have captured the world’s imagination, be it the first Palestinian Intifada (December 1987), 9:11 (2001) or the Arab Spring (December 2010) it came like a bolt from the blue, catching intelligence chiefs and analysts without briefing papers to hand. Even the official ISIS spokesman (Abu Mohammed al-Adnani) confessed that our “enemies and supporters alike are flabbergasted”. Comparisons were made with Napoleon’s campaigns and the fall of Saigon.

The facts still remain startling. A group of 1,300-6,000 guerrilla fighters defeated a professional army of 60,000 men after just four days of fighting, capturing control of a city with a population of two million. The national army of Iraq, a 350,000-strong force, created at the cost of 41 billion dollars over the last decade, was revealed to be a paper tiger. Indeed for the 105 days after the fall of Mosul, ISIS extended its control over an ever-widening extent of territory, as first Barji then Tikrit fell to its fighters. The ISIS leadership did not over-extend themselves by pushing ever further south into Iraq, but turned their attention to rounding out their rule over northern Syria. After the well-regarded Kurdish fighters were pushed right back against the Turkish frontier, it was widely feared that nothing would now stand in their way. A new Islamic Empire was about to be born without anyone having an inkling. How could this have happened?

But for Patrick Cockburn the signals were already discernible. He argues that ISIS, although its leader might be Iraqi in origin, must be seen as a product of the Syrian civil war. It grew out of the Sunni resistance to the Asad regime of Syria, which was strongly supported by both the democratically elected Islamist regime of Turkey (providing an open border and areas of safety and supply) and was lavishly funded by the monarchies of Saudi Kingdom and the Gulf. It grew to become the cuckoo in the nest of the Syrian resistance, slowly annexing all the hundreds of rival groups (some of them backed by the USA and its western allies) and acquiring an impressive arsenal of up-to-date weaponry on the way. Over 2013 both the Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra - their closest rivals in extremism - were subsumed. It had also become clear that the Asad regime was not about to collapse, and was holding onto the heartland of western and central Syria and would probably take back control of a war-shattered Aleppo. For Iran, Russia and the Hizbullah of Lebanon all remained deeply committed in their support of their old ally.

Another important ingredient in the ‘surprise’ success of ISIS in the borderlands of Iraq and Syria was the kleptocracy that was governing post-conquest Iraq. Every element of state-expenditure was siphoned of energy by corruption, even the army and police which were under-manned, under-armed and demoralized. The military leadership was farcical, with all effective authority resting with rival groups of Shia militia. Mosul is a Sunni city, which had no love for the Shia prime minister of Iraq or his henchman. And it seems likely that through protection rackets and selective assassination, ISIS had already cleared the city of Mosul of any inconvenient liberal or moderate voices amongst the Sunni community, not to mention all local journalists. The final bizarre twist in the fall of the city was the cowardice of the high command. Three leading Iraqi generals fled by helicopter after the first day of fighting, apparently instructing their junior officers to disband their forces.

To further understand these actions we must look at ISIS’s skilful use of propaganda. The ISIS leadership used scenes of public violence, especially the execution of prisoners of war and humiliation of the Shia, to demoralise their enemy. Patrick Cockburn has sifted through this nebulous world to identify the verifiable acts of propaganda terrorism from the false. Identifying borrowed footage of atrocities, taken from as far afield as Afghanistan and the chainsaw-wielding drug-barons in Mexico. He also looks at the importance of false but still powerful stories, quoting the tale of babies being thrown out of hospital incubators in Kuwait, and the Viagra-fuelled rape of prisoners by Gadaffi’s soldiers as examples. Neither of these incidents ever actually happened, yet they helped fuel decision-making at the time. ISIS propaganda is also a recruiting tool, attracting both Chechen veterans and thousands of youthful volunteers from such peaceful nations as Morocco and Tunisia. Cockburn also tells us that that analysis of the language in these propaganda clips reveals that it seldom rises above the most childish abuse of the Shia enemy and formulaic boasts of future victories.

So by the end of this short book you understand that Iraq and Syria is in danger of becoming the cockpit of another Thirty Years War. The Sunni states of Turkey, the Gulf and Saudi Arabia (with its ally Pakistan) on one side with Russia, Iran and Shiite Lebanon on the other. The USA could be a vital arbitrator between these two forces (through the long reach of its airforce if nothing else) except that its entire foreign policy is based on a blind, almost wilful misreading of the events of 9: 11.

For all the factual trails back from 9:11 (which has been compared to the Pearl Harbour of 2001) lead towards Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But these two Muslim states were considered to be such vital allies, that it was decided to attack another Muslim state instead. So the invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the USA and its dependent allies is not only a crime, but one that was spectacularly ill-advised. Even the pen of Jonathan Swift, might have wondered where to start in satirising such ignorance. In the meanwhile, we have Irish born Patrick Cockburn, to help us understand the murderous mess that arose in the aftermath of that invasion, and which threatens to overwhelm both Syria and Iraq.

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