The Jihadis Return

Patrick Cockburn РPublished by OR Books


In this new book, released mere weeks after ISIS’s stunning capture of Mosul and Tikrit, veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn uses the rise of ISIS to present his analysis of the Syrian Civil War, the viability of Iraq as a nation-state and the consequences of this upheval for the region at large.

Cockburn neatly picks apart the myth that the twin goals of toppling the Assad and defeating ISIS can be met by arming the “moderate” secular armed opposition to Assad; summed up in a quote from a Middle Eastern Intelligence officer that ISIS “are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats or force or cash payments”.

Although he is no supporter of Assad, Cockburn argues that the militarisation of the conflict allowed foreign fighters with very harmful ideologies and alien agendas to gain prominence before a national leadership and political programme could establish itself. Not only, he says, was this detrimental to Syria, but it has also helped destabilise Iraq.

Itis Cockburn’s depiction of the intricacies of the corrupt, nepotistic, sectarian yet nominally democratic regime in Iraq that the book really shines. Quotes from locals such as “people pay money to get into the army – but are investors not soldiers” spell out not only why Iraqi people are so disaffected wit their government but also why 6,000 ISIS fighters were able to take Mosul and Tikrit from an army and police force that, on paper, numbers one million.

ISIS’s support, or rather tolerance, from Iraq’s Sunni Arab population has its roots in America’s policy of de-Ba’athification, in which the Iraqi Ba’athist military was immediately disbanded after the 2003 occupation and members of the Ba’ath Party (around 90% of Sunni Arab professionals) was forced to leave their posts and in many cases the country, destroying civil society in Sunni Arab areas.

The Ba’ath party’s military wing had re-organised as the Naqshbandi Army and supported ISIS’s takeover of Mosul and Tikrit. It is these ex-Ba’athist officers who , together with veteran jihadis, have lent ISIS their tactical nous. In addition to this, ISIS has been paying for new fighters from the proceeds of taxes and oil revenue, allowing them to swell from 6,000 to 30,000 in a matter of months.

While ISIS’s failures against the YPG, the Syrian faction of the Kurdish guerilla movement, are heartening, military defeat of ISIS would not mean much without the paradigm shifts in the policies of regional and global powers achieving inclusive political change in Iraq and Syria.

Although the book correctly notes that ISIS’s emergence is evidence of the war on terror’s failure, it never questions the actual motive of the Iraqi or Afghan wars. Similarly, Cockburn suggests that the reason for this failure is the unwillingness of the Bush administration to confront Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

While the secret services of Saudia Arabia and Pakistan are undoubtedly the driving forces behind Islamist terrorism in the world, there is no mention of the history of the US and Britain’s integral role in creating and continually propping up these entities. Much of their influence could easily be reigned in through diplomatic channels and it is absurd to suggest, as Cockburn does, that these two countries were ignored by the US. He also fails to mention Turkey’s membership of NATO, or Qatar’s role as host of the US Central Command’s forward headquarters (a key launching site of the US invasion of Iraq).

These omissions ultimately tie into a popular right-wing narrative that America could easily defeat the arch-enemy of Islamist terrorism were it not for the naivety and double-dealing Muslim allies. Despite this, the book is an indispensable account of how tragic errors by regional actors have led to the development of an outlaw state the size of Britain, and growing.

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