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  • Published in Book Reviews

Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of Islamic State shows how and why the West bears responsibility for the crisis, argues Sean Ledwith

The rise of the Islamic State

Patrick Cockburn, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution (Verso 2015), xx, 172pp.

June 10th of this year marked the first anniversary of the fall of the Iraqi city of Mosul to the forces of Islamic State. For many in the West this is the point at which the now infamous organisation broke through into popular consciousness. Since then IS (also known as Isis) has come to dominate the policy debate concerning the Middle East to an extent that would have been regarded as improbable by most commentators a few months beforehand. The spectacular territorial gains made by IS over the past year having left Western politicians reeling in disarray as they struggle to develop a coherent response.

The spectacle of military vehicles speeding through the desert, carrying IS combatants as they triumphantly wave black flags, has become ubiquitous on the television news. Obama, Cameron and their cabinet underlings have resorted to superficial rhetoric about IS being an almost supernatural force that cannot be explained by the conventions of traditional political analysis. Less than three years after US troops ignominiously withdrew from Iraq, the skies over the country are filled again with the roar of US military jets pounding targets with supposedly laser-guided precision.

Despite this deployment of imperial firepower, Islamic State has sustained momentum as witnessed by the recent coverage of Iraqi government military vehicles hurtling out of Ramadi to avoid the advancing forces. Predictably, the regime in Baghdad and its Western-backers collectively deny any responsibility for this blood-soaked imbroglio. Patrick Cockburn’s new study of the conflict, The Rise of Islamic State, however, incisively punctures this lie. The author has deservedly acquired a matchless reputation for fearless and insightful reporting from the front-line of the region’s hotspots that puts to shame the hollow rhetoric that emerges from Western politicians.

Anglo-American actions and the roots of Isis

Cockburn forensically analyses the real story of how Anglo-American bungling in the region since the 2003 invasion has spawned the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ that is ISIS (p.7). The flimsy narrative peddled by Cameron and others about Islamic State being little more than an assortment of deranged fanatics not only fails to offer a coherent analysis but also permits Bush and Blair to escape responsibility for the mess. Cockburn excoriates those two and their successors: ‘It was evident that Western governments had entirely misread the situation in Iraq and Syria’ (p.137).

Not the least of the blunders committed by Western policy-makers in recent years was the assumption that pouring money into the coffers of the corrupt Shia-dominated government in Baghdad would be enough to stabilise the security situation in the wake of the US withdrawal. One of the astonishing features of the IS expansion has been the organisation’s ability to overwhelm with relative ease the superior size and hardware of the state forces opposing them. Cockburn notes, ‘the Iraqi government had an army with 350 000 soldiers on which it had spent $41.6 billion in the three years since 2011’ (p.xi).Despite this apparentadvantage, government troops have repeatedly melted away at the mere possibility of having to confront IS. The decisive capture of Mosul last year was accomplished by a mere 1300 fighters up against a combined army and police force of 60 000, defending a city of 2 million people! (p. 11).

Cockburn does not accuse government soldiers of lacking backbone or being exceptionally cowardly. Their unwillingness to fight is entirely understandable, he argues, in light of the venality and lack of leadership displayed by their senior officers. He notes how any thought of a counter-offensive last summer was derailed when three top Iraq generals promptly ‘climbed into a helicopter and fled to Kurdistan’ (p.15). Apart fromthe embarrassing failure of the government forces to deliver a credible military response to IS, the author notes the other aspect of the situation conveniently neglected by Western politicians is that IS can rely on a not inconsiderable amount of local support. The Sunni community represent a minority of the national population but in cities such as Mosul and Tikrit they are the majority and have come to perceive government forces, not Islamic State, as the supreme threat.

Iraqi Sunnis and the Iraqi state

Cockburn reminds us the conflict is far more complex than the monochrome goodies versus baddies narrative Western politicians would like their domestic audiences to accept. The shambolic retreat of the official Iraqi army from the Sunni regions was not caused by the advancing threat of IS alone. After describing the chaotic scenes in the city as government troops scrambled into fleeing vehicles, the author remarks: ‘The crowd’s attack revealed that the fall of Mosul was the result of a popular uprising as well as a military assault’ (p.16). No Western politician would ever have the honesty to recognise it, but the hard reality is that many Iraqi Sunnis regard IS as their only realistic means of defence in the face of government sponsored sectarianism.

Cockburn does not downplay the barbarism and brutality that undoubtedly characterises the rule of Islamic State forces once they occupy an area, but he also provides an important reality check: until Western policy-makers understand the ability of the group to appeal to besieged Sunni communities there is no prospect of a lasting settlement in the country. He quotes a source in Mosul who is repulsed by the savagery of IS but, typically, sees them as a regrettable necessity to defend the city against indiscriminate attack from the regime in Baghdad and its US ally:

‘I have just heard from a relative who visitedus to check us after that terrible night. He says because of this bombardment youngsters are joining ISIS in tens if not in hundreds because this increases hatred towards the government, which doesn’t care about us as Sunnis being killed and targeted’ (pp. xvii-xviii).

Fantasies of air power and catastrophic consequences

The chronic recidivism of the US military in holding that aerial supremacy is sufficient to roll back unconventional forces such as IS is deftly exposed by Cockburn. He recounts how the American air strikes that commenced last August were based on the familiar delusion that technological superiority can compensate for the absence of sustainable political engagement.  He notes that it was apparent by October that this would be hopelessly ineffectual and that it would, in fact, only serve to intensify the loyalty of many Sunnis to Islamic State: ‘Airpower is no substitute for a reliable ally on the ground and may be counterproductive in terms of alienating the local population’ (p.xviii).

Washington’s military miscalculation is only the symptom of a deeper political failure that has characterised the haplesspolicies of Obama and his predecessor. Even among the upper echelons of the US foreign-policy establishment this critical perspective is not uncommon. Cockburn cites the remarks of senior diplomat, Richard Holbrooke: ‘We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country’ (p.5). The author traces the roots of the current crisis to the misconceived neo-con reaction to the 9/11 attacks, in which Iraq was targeted despite the glaring absence of any connection between the country and those responsible for bringing down the Twin Towers. He also underlines the absurdity of how the US response noticeably avoided any retaliation against Saudi Arabia and Pakistan ‘despite the fact that without the involvement of those two countries 9/11 was unlikely to have happened’ (p.4).

The calamitous Anglo-American invasion of Iraq two years after the attacks on New York and Washington set in motion the sequence of events that have culminated in the meteoric rise of Islamic State. The latter first emerged as an offshoot of Al Qaeda, the network that used to be regarded as the last word in ruthless violence but retrospectively looks like a bunch of amateurs compared to IS. Al Qaeda was practically non-existent in the country prior to the Bush-Blair misadventure but found itself presented with an opportunity to establish an embryonic presence as the occupation degenerated into a quagmire of Western-sponsored corruption, brutality and sectarianism.

Resistance, civil war and the rise of IS

In 2010 Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi took over the leadership of the faction that subsequently morphed into ISIS. He had spent five years in the notorious US detention centre of Camp Bucca, along with hundreds of other Sunni resistance fighters. Most Western commentators assume Al Baghdadi must be little more than swivel-eyed maniac, unworthy of further consideration. Cockburn points out, however, that he ‘is well educated with degrees in Islamic studies, including poetry, history and genealogy from the Islamic University of Bagdad’ (p. 44). Bearing in mind that this individual has presided over ‘the most radical change to the political geography of the Middle East since the Sykes Picot agreement’, the lamentable underestimation of Al Baghdadi by Western intelligence should receive greater coverage, argues the author, justifiably (p.27). The IS leader laid the foundations of the group’s penetration of Sunni resistance after his release in 2009, but it was the stunted popular uprising against the Assad regime in Syria that ultimately provided the momentum for exponential growth.

The initially secular and democratic nature of the Syrian opposition that emerged in 2011 was crushed with merciless force by Damascus, leaving those who wanted to continue resistance being forced to make an unpleasant choice ‘between a violent dictatorship in which power is monopolised by the presidency and brutish security services or an opposition that shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy and sends pictures of decapitated soldiers to the parents of their victims’ (p.81).Themilitarisation of the Syrian conflict enabled ISIS to pose as the defenders of that country’s Sunni population in the face of barrel-bombs and chemical gas attacksauthorised by a government ruling in the name of the Alawite/Shia minority.

Al Baghdadi and the rest of the group’s leadership adroitly perceived an opportunity to promote the idea that the struggles in the two neighbouring countries were part of a regional contest between Sunni and Shia. Cockburn notes the absence of a credible mainstream political alternative for Sunnis in both countries created the vacuum now being filled by Islamic State. He also emphasises the social dimension of the appeal of IS to many young, unemployed Syrian and Iraqi males, who not only face the daily threat of execution at the hands of rogue government forces, but also have negligible prospect of obtaining work or supporting their families. He cites the verdict of a NGO report of the crisis: ‘Many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms’ (p.69).

Global and regional rivalries

Cockburn describes how the conflict in the two states has been exacerbated by the pull of   centrifugal rivalry between wider regional and global powers. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies played an indispensable role in the formation of IS, through a bottomless pit of funding and supply of weaponry. The reactionary Sunni kingdoms regarded the group as a handy cat’s paw for curtailing the influence of the ‘Shia Crescent’, incorporating Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the regime in Iran. These regional players, in their turn, operate on the wider imperial chessboard presided over by the US and Russia. Cockburn does not regard these two as equally culpable in terms of sowing the seeds of terror.

Washington is the ultimate source of the nightmare due to its persistent meddling in the region during this century in particular. The US arrogantly felt it could push over Assad as easily as it disposed of Gaddafi in Libya, thanks to the deployment of a dose of airpower to soften up the besieged regime. Obama and his advisors utterly misread the nature of the conflict, and once the bombing option was taken off the table (due in no small part to Britain’s Stop the War movement) they calculated that supplying ground weapons to the anti-Assad forces might do the trick. The result was a classic case of imperial blowback:

‘Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to unseat Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria, run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the Al Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden’ (p.38).

Cockburn has no time for the nauseating hypocrisy of Western politicians who proclaim the campaign against IS to represent a clash between barbarism and civilised values. He notes how the group’s brand of hard-line Sunni ideology, Wahhabism, is not universally denounced in the West. If it is practised by ‘our’ allies the Saudis, Cameron and Obama are strangely mute, in contrast to their ritualistic soundbites of denunciation regarding the latest IS terror video. Western politicians displayed minimal support when ‘a Saudi who set up a liberal website on which clerics could be criticised was sentenced to a thousand lashes and seven years in prison’ (p.6). The Saudi regime also provides serious competition for IS in terms of a grisly penchant for beheadings; a hundred this year already.

He could also have added that the death toll from the campaigns of Islamic State is dwarfed by the million plus who perished during the US-inspired sanctions against Iraq, the 2003 invasion and its long, bloody aftermath. Regrettably, the author has little to say about the occasions when Sunni and Shia have temporarily joined forces to offer a glimpse of the real alternative to the region’s trauma, such as the short-lived Iraqi Spring of 2012; but as a searing indictment of the responsibility of the West for the mess, Cockburn’s book cannot be bettered.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Politics at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean has also written for Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, Historical MaterialismPolitical Studies Review and Reviews in History 

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