Middle East’s ‘demons’ now an unstoppable force, writes veteran correspondent
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'The whole area is disintegrating'

Middle East’s ‘demons’ now an unstoppable force, writes veteran correspondent

In book of on-scene diaries ‘The Age of Jihad,’ Patrick Cockburn describes why the sectarian holy war in the Middle East is now an unclosable Pandora’s box

Patrick Cockburn was The Independent's Jerusalem correspondent from 1995-1999. (courtesy)
Patrick Cockburn was The Independent's Jerusalem correspondent from 1995-1999. (courtesy)

LONDON — In the closing sentence of “The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East,” Patrick Cockburn gives a chilling warning to his readers.

“The demons released by this age of chaos and war in the Middle East have become an unstoppable force,” the veteran Irish foreign correspondent writes.

Existential threat is a phrase so overused in the political discourse of the Middle East nowadays, that it often tends to lose value or meaning. But for millions of citizens across Iraq and Syria, according to Cockburn, the term is an extremely frightening and very real prospect.

“The whole area is disintegrating,” says Cockburn, who has worked as a journalist in the Middle East for the past four decades.

“There are multiple reasons for this,” he explains. “Some are oil states. These look powerful, because they’ve got a lot of money. But they are much more fragile than they appear because the money is concentrated on the top.”

Mismanagement of oil revenues is a huge problem for many Middle Eastern states right now, Cockburn believes. Primarily because of the hierarchical structures within governments they helped to create, exacerbating corruption and sectarianism in equal measure.

The journalist cites Iraq as a typical example of a nation state where badly managed oil revenues has resulted in a chaotic failed state.

Cover of 'The Age of Jihad' by Patrick Cockburn. (Courtesy)
Cover of ‘The Age of Jihad’ by Patrick Cockburn. (Courtesy)

“In Iraq, the population is around 33 million. Seven million are on the government payroll, so it’s really important who controls the government — because in a Shia government, the Shia community is going to be plugged into the only source of revenue and jobs. This enormously increases sectarianism, because the Sunnis are excluded.”

Cockburn documents in his diaries — which first appeared as articles sporadically, in both The Independent and the London Review of Books — the civil wars, between 2001 and 2015, across Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya.

While the Middle East has been far from stable in the 100 years since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Cockburn argues that the territory has now entered into an unprecedented phase: civil wars across the region where Sunni fundamentalist jihadis play a leading role.

“What people often miss about [Sunni] jihadism is that if you have a suicide bomber it allows you to organize with great military precision a very powerful weapon,” says Cockburn. “That’s one of the reasons why IS (Islamic State) dominate the opposition in Syria and Iraq — because they are all lead by suicide bombers. They are fighting people who have air power and sophisticated equipment. But suicide bombing is the lethal precision that allows them to break through.”

A Saudi hand

There have been questions about Saudi involvement, whether it is secretly helping to finance IS’s takeover of northern Iraq, and if it’s true that the Sunni dominated Arabian kingdom is stoking an already escalating Sunni-Shia conflict across much of the Islamic world.

“Well if you talk to people in Baghdad, they are convinced IS’s money still comes from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia, partially through blackmail. And mostly through private individuals,” says Cockburn. “Also, you have to remember there isn’t much difference between the private and public [spheres] in Saudi Arabia.”

‘People in Baghdad are convinced IS’s money still comes from the Gulf and Saudi Arabia’

While some Western strategic experts and academics on the Middle East say IS have become self sufficient through oil, taxes, and other means of self financing, Cockburn doesn’t agree.

“When you have guys as ruthless as the leadership of Islamic State, you would have to suspect that they are looking at individuals in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf for funds,” says Cockburn.

“So experts in the West are wrong on this matter. There is much more money [coming] in the direction from the [Gulf] than people [first thought].”

Cockburn covers the current Syrian war in his latest book, too, documenting the conflict in real time reporting, from 2011 to 2014. In a retrospective introduction to one of the pieces, entitled “Revolution to Sectarian War,” the journalist claims that there is a “balance of hatred and terror which makes it unlikely that anyone in Syria will win a complete victory.”

What that exactly means requires some explanation.

Syrians walk over rubble following air strikes on Aleppo on October 12, 2016. (AFP/Ameer Alhabli)
Syrians walk over rubble following air strikes on Aleppo on October 12, 2016. (AFP/Ameer Alhabli)

“Well what happens on the battlefield is very important here,” says Cockburn. “So who is winning and who controls the most population matters. And not just on the domestic front, either. It’s also about who gives backing from the outside. So you have this stalemate where the [Syrian] government does quite well, once it gets backing from the Iranians and Hezbollah. But then the backers of the opposition will pump in more money and more weapons, and it will go the other way.”

Cockburn is keen to point out that the Syrian war is a deeply complex, multi-ethnic, and multi-faceted conflict.

The US, for instance, he writes, would like Assad to go, but not if IS or al-Nusra Front replaces him. Turkey regards IS, the Syrian Kurds, and the Assad government as enemies whom it would like to see defeated. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies — in public at least — take a somewhat similar approach.

‘Who is winning and who controls the most population matters’

But Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, are all determined that Assad should survive, says Cockburn.

These internal and external pressures counter balance each other, the journalist claims.

Unfortunately, this means that the horror the Syrian people are currently experiencing will go on until the regional players decide that nobody is going to win and bring the fighting to a stop.

With the United States recently accusing the Kremlin of joining with the Syrian Air Force to carry out a brutal bombing campaign against the besieged city of Aleppo, talks with Russia have now been suspended.

Still, Cockburn believes the Russians would have a lot to gain by hammering out a peace agreement in Syria. Primarily because it could re-establish them as a superpower. Moreover, achieving peace in Syria without the Russians is highly unlikely, he believes.

Syrian government forces gather in the largely deserted Palestinian refugee camp of Handarat, north of Aleppo, on September 24, 2016 after they captured the area following multiple Russian air strikes. (AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN)
Syrian government forces gather in the largely deserted Palestinian refugee camp of Handarat, north of Aleppo, on September 24, 2016 after they captured the area following multiple Russian air strikes. (AFP PHOTO / GEORGE OURFALIAN)

“The Russians have always wanted to have a war on terror with the Americans to re-establish themselves,” says Cockburn, who served as a Moscow correspondent for The Independent from 1999 to 2001. From the Americans perspective, if they are not going to overthrow Assad militarily, then they need somebody who can put enough pressure on Assad to possibly abide by ceasefires.”

The numerous crises and wars described in Cockburn’s book tend to cross-infect each other. And it’s impossible, he believes, to move one piece of the political chessboard across the Middle East, without impacting the other.

It’s this crucial point, the journalist posits, that’s caused Western foreign policy in the region to sow such chaos since the beginning of this century.

“One could take a broad sweeping view as to why all of these states [across the Middle East] are weak,” Cockburn explains. But one also has to be very specific as to why we have these wars in Iraq and Syria actually happen. They are not wholly inevitable.”

The fate of Israel

Cockburn was stationed in Jerusalem as The Independent’s correspondent from 1995 to 1999. In his last year, he wrote an article where he said he found “Israel had changed significantly for the worse.”

“There is far less dissent than there used to be, and such dissent is more often treated as disloyalty,” he added at the time.

Today, Cockburn seems less bothered to talk about Israel at length when asked.

“Syria breaking up: is that in the interests of Israel or not?” he says rather nonchalantly. “You wouldn’t have a powerful Syrian army. But then the powerful Syrian army wasn’t attacking Israel. So you are choosing between the devil you know, and the devil you don’t know. But the devil you don’t know can be frightening.”

Political campaign posters in Jerusalem ahead of the 2009 elections (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Political campaign posters in Jerusalem ahead of the 2009 elections (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

So what kind of state will emerge in Syria? And how could that potentially affect Israel’s security?

“There is a possibility that [Syria] could become something along the lines of a jihadi state,” says Cockburn. “And this would be very dangerous for Israel.”

Given how drastically the politics of Sunni Muslims have changed across the Middle East over the last decade, things have changed for Palestinian cause, as well as their relationships with potential political and military allies.

‘The problem doesn’t just disappear, and it always has the potential to reemerge at some point’

“The Palestinians have been weakened by their own divisions and by their former allies in Damascus and elsewhere,” says Cockburn. “But on the other hand they are still there in the West Bank and Gaza. The problem doesn’t just disappear, even if it marginalizes in terms of international attention. There hasn’t been a resolution, and it always has the potential to reemerge at some point.”

One really cannot comprehend the current war in Syria, and the rise of the Islamic State, Cockburn says, without understanding how the United States destroyed Iraq by opening up rife sectarian divisions between the country’s three communities, Shia, Sunni and Kurds.

All three are presently in a permanent state of tribal confrontation, and this has a destabilizing impact on all of Iraq’s neighbors.

Rocking the boat

Cockburn claims that once the Americans came in and overthrew the state in Iraq in 2003, it was inevitable that there was going to be a social sectarian revolution.

“The Americans never quite understood this,” says Cockburn. “The Shia were very keen to have a perfectly democratic election, because they knew that, having a majority of the population, they would win. So for quite some time the Americans were plugged into this social sectarian Shia revolution taking power.”

‘For quite some time the Americans were plugged into this social sectarian Shia revolution taking power’

The invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 essentially meant an internal revolutionary change in the country, because it ended Sunni Arab rule, which had been ongoing for hundreds of years — first under the Ottomans, then under the British, and then after Iraq’s Independence [in 1932].

In 2003, the Americans dissolved the army and the security services in Iraq. Previously, these had been prime instruments of the Sunnis who had power over 80% of the population in Iraq, the Shia and Kurds.

Cockburn says that while American officials may have seen themselves as mediating forces between competing Iraqi communities, their military presence actually made things worse, destabilizing the sectarian balance of power across Iraq and moving into neighboring states like Syria.

Western ignorance played a huge role too, the journalist explains.

Cockburn recalls one Iraqi he interviewed, who described how he met with then US president George W. Bush, who was intrigued to learn that Iraq is inhabited by two sorts of Muslims, Sunni and Shia, with deep differences between them.

President George Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln just prior to making his famous 'Mission Accomplished' speech. (Public domain)
President George Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln just prior to making his famous ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech. (Public domain)

Did the United States deeply misunderstand Iraq from the moment they invaded in 2003?

“Misunderstand, yes. But we should add the word underestimate too,” says Cockburn. “When people say misunderstand, it presupposes there was a great effort to understand Iraq. There wasn’t. The Americans or British didn’t really care what the Iraqis thought. But then they found out fairly rapidly that it mattered an awful lot what Iraqis thought. Because Sunnis started fighting and then later the Shia.”

“Most Iraqis you talk to today say the Iraqi sanctions [imposed by the Americans as far back as 1990] destroyed Iraqi society, and that the American invasion [in 2003] destroyed the Iraqi state,” says Cockburn. “And they say they never recovered from either. It’s pretty hard to disagree with that assessment.”

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