Dynamics of Intervention

Patrick Cockburn, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising

OR Books, 144pp, £9.00, ISBN 9781939293596

reviewed by Daniel Whittall

‘The deteriorating situation in Iraq and Syria may now have gone too far to re-create genuinely unitary states.’ So writes Patrick Cockburn towards the end of The Jihadis Return, a remarkably timely intervention that explores the recent history and present dynamics of what Cockburn terms ‘al’Qa’ida type movements’, foremost amongst which is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). It is a gloomy prognosis, one which represents the final nail in the already-rotten coffin of the American-led invasion of Iraq and its efforts to bring ‘democracy’ to that country. However, as Cockburn shows, the rise of ISIS has implications not only for the legacy of Western military interventionism in the region, but also for the way in which the Arab Spring may come to be viewed historically.

On 10 June 10 2014, ISIS took control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. At the time, it seemed to many as though the organisation had come out of nowhere. Not for Cockburn, however. In December 2013, having been asked by the Independent newspaper to nominate a Middle East leader of the year, Cockburn wrote that ‘the most successful leader in the Middle East this year is surely Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu D’ua.’ At this point, few non-specialists had heard of al-Baghdadi. Indeed, as Cockburn notes in The Jihadis Return, ‘the Western media had largely stopped reporting’ on events in Iraq. Only six months later, practically every serious newspaper editor in the English-speaking world was scrambling frantically to publish a profile of al-Baghdadi and the organisation he fronts.

From where has al-Baghdadi’s success arisen? The killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 was supposed to have removed the leading figurehead of global Jihadism. And yet, Cockburn suggests that it is since Bin Laden’s death that ‘al-Qa’ida affiliates or clones have had their greatest successes’. Al-Baghdadi took control of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) in 2010, and although his extreme secrecy limits what can be known about his precise role in the organisation, Cockburn suggests that AQI ‘became increasingly well organized, even issuing detailed annual reports itemizing its operations in each Iraqi province.’ Then, when the Syrian civil war began, al-Baghdadi established Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) as an al-Qa’ida affiliate in Syria.

It is worth recalling that Sunni unrest in Iraq did not spring from nowhere in the early 2010s. Indeed, a full-blown Sunni insurgency had been under way practically since the US-led intervention in Iraq. As Cockburn wrote in his 2006 book The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq, following the arrival of US troops, for the general Iraqi population ‘disillusion set in fast. Among the Sunni it was total. The US military never came close to crushing their resistance. Insurgent forces seemed able to concentrate and attack at will.’ Divisions in Iraq between Sunni, Shia and Kurdish communities are long-running, but decisions taken by the occupying forces in collaboration with certain factions in the Iraqi political elite undoubtedly worsened the situation. In The Occupation, Cockburn showed how the four and a half months it took to appoint a new Prime Minister following the 2005 Iraqi elections highlighted ‘the degree to which Iraqi leaders were out of touch with their own country’. The appointment of Nuri al-Maliki as Prime Minister came with US blessing. ‘This is someone with whom we can work’, remarked US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in her enthusiastic reception of the new Prime Minister. Maliki, writes Cockburn in The Jihadis Return, has ‘played a central role in pushing the Sunni community in Iraq into the arms of ISIS.’ His government has been barely less oppressive than that which preceded it. ‘There may be less state violence than before 2003’, remarks Cockburn, ‘but only because the State is weaker. The Maliki government’s methods are equally brutal: Iraqi prisons are full of people who have made false confessions under torture or the threat of it. Sunni villages near Fallujah are full of families with sons on death row.’ The rise of ISIS, then, has been a phenomenon largely inseparable from the mess that has been made in Iraq by Western intervention.

And yet, it is events in Syria that have been just as important in fuelling ISIS and other al-Qa’ida type organisations, providing them not only with new recruits, but also with resources and weaponry. The rate at which the Syrian revolution against Bashar al-Assad has degenerated is stunning, and Cockburn poses the choice facing the Syrian people today in stark terms: ‘Syrians have to choose between a violent dictatorship … or an opposition that shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy and sends pictures of decapitated soldiers to parents of their victims.’

Again, divisions in Syrian society have deep roots. Assad himself rose to power supposedly as a representative of an exploited underclass of poverty-stricken peasants and rural farmers. And yet, it was precisely these groups who were to suffer most under Assad’s regime. Four years of drought prior to 2011 pushed an already struggling community into desperation, and as rural migrants fled to the cities Syria saw a rapid growth in shanty towns on the outskirts of its urban areas. Meanwhile, as salaries failed to keep up with inflation the urban middle classes began to increasingly suffer, and cheap foreign imports put many small companies out of business. The seeds of the Syrian revolution lie not just in religious differences, but in the dire economic circumstances confronting the general populous. In its origins, the Syrian revolution was genuinely driven by popular anger at the social, economic and political situation of the country. When the revolution began, Western governments chose to back the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against Assad. But the FSA resorted to looting and banditry, especially when it made incursions into areas supportive of Assad. Such actions meant that when al-Qa’ida type organisations such as ISIS, JAN, Ahrar al-Sham or the Army of Islam took control of areas from the FSA their arrival was at first welcomed by local residents who valued the return of law and order that initially accompanied them.

Such are the internal dynamics of the Syrian civil war. The picture remains woefully incomplete without consideration of the role played by outside intervention in Syria, however. Foreign governments, including those in the West but, much more significantly, regional powers including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, not to mention Turkey, gambled early on that Assad would fall just as rapidly as Muammar Gaddafi had in Libya. Testimony from defectors suggests that meetings of the FSA military council were often attended by representatives of these regional powers, as well as intelligence officers from the USA, Britain and France. Qatar and, especially since 2013, Saudi Arabia, have been the primary funders of al’Qa’ida type groups in Syria and elsewhere, with Saudi involvement in particular being driven by the Wahhabism of the Saudi ruling elite. Wahhabism offers a literalist reading of Islamic scripture, rejecting all other forms of Islamic worship, particularly Shi’ism, as well as non-Muslim beliefs. In Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism is exclusively recognised by the educational and judicial system, and there are close links between such beliefs and the Salafism of many jihadis. The Saudis anti-Shia stance, long-rooted as it is, was dramatically accelerated by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the Iranian Revolution of the same year, in which Iran became a Shia theocracy under Ayatollah Khomeini. This pushed the Saudis into an alliance with the US and Pakistan, and led Saudi Arabia to fund a variety of organisations, including jihadist groups, who might help destabilise nearby Shia-led governments. In the 9/11 Commission Report, Saudi Arabia was even identified as the main funder of al-Qa’ida, not that one would be able to tell from the response of the US and other governments.

By providing arms, funding and recruits to the groups fighting against Assad in Syria, Saudi Arabia has effectively backed the rise of Sunni jihadists. Cockburn convincingly argues that there has been no way of guaranteeing that funding and weaponry given to supposedly more ‘moderate’ groupings within the FSA has not fallen into the hands of the al-Qa’ida type groups. But the Saudis have not been alone. The CIA has channelled weaponry to the Syrian opposition. In effect, Cockburn suggests, the US government have armed al-Qa’ida type groups, precisely the same groups who are now posing the sternest test yet of the US-installed government in Iraq. Cockburn suggests that Western governments ‘entirely misread the situation in Iraq and Syria.’ The Sunni insurgency in Iraq had fallen to a low point prior to events in Syria, and it was only when ISIS was able to capitalise on a resurgent Sunni revolt across both Syria and northern Iraq that they made real advances.

Yet Cockburn also highlights the importance of the degeneration of the revolutionary energy that initially inspired the Arab Spring, and which propelled popular movements towards the remarkable overthrowing of tyrannical governments across the region, from Egypt to Libya. Much of this degeneration can be blamed on the resilience of political and military elites in the respective countries, backed by funds, weaponry and political power. For Cockburn, the primary failing of such oppositional movements was that their demands were often framed as being ‘all about personal freedom: social and economic inequalities were rarely declared to be issues, even when they were driving popular rage against the status quo’. Nevertheless, to blame these movements entirely would be to go too far. The political terrain on which they have had to operate is described by Cockburn as ‘particularly tricky’, a description which seems altogether too polite in the context of a region dominated by religious and military elites with their varied but inherently conservative ideologies, as well as often brutal regimes of rule, accompanied by foreign intervention that has been so extensive that many Syrians, Cockburn suggests, ‘now see the outcome of their civil war resting largely with the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.’

The political geography of the region is now more in flux than it has been for decades. The border between Iraq and Syria has effectively evaporated in the face of the establishment of the Caliphate of the Islamic State. The border between Turkey and Syria is routinely used to channel recruits and weaponry to the Syrian opposition, as is that between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Meanwhile, Western governments are using the opportunity presented by the rise of ISIS to remind their citizens of the need for their own anti-democratic controls on civilian populations. In Britain, for example, the media and political elites have become obsessed with the possibility that British fighters in Syria might return to foster terrorist groupings in the UK despite it being the case that, as Owen Bennett-Jones put it in a recent piece in the London Review of Books, ‘in reality there is nothing even approaching an existential threat to the UK’ at present. Cockburn suggests that if American drones were to begin killing ISIS fighters then an organisation renowned for its propensity for spectacular revenge killings – witness recent videos of the killing of Iraqi soldiers or Shia civilians – might be tempted to turn its forces against the USA. Until then, though, it will be more preoccupied with fighting its own wars, not just with the Iraqi and Syrian governments, but increasingly against other al-Qa’ida type movements with which it has had disagreements. Despite Baghdadi having founded JAN in Syria, for example, he has since broken with that grouping, and JAN and ISIS are now at war with one-another.

The fall of Mosul, which ISIS took with as few as 1,300 fighters from an Iraqi army totalling 350,000 and on which $41.6 billion had been spent since 2011 alone, ranks in Cockburn’s words as ‘one of the great military debacles in history’. The Jihadis Return is a supreme excavation of the dynamics of overseas intervention, internal corruption and religious conservatism and extremism that lie behind the rise of ISIS – recently re-branded ‘The Islamic State’ – and other al-Qa’ida-type groups. Although they have global aspirations, the focus of the group’s activities will, it seems, remain local for the time being, centred on establishing their continuing influence in the region and on securing their own re-organisation of its political geography. And yet, as Wahhabism expands its influence across Sunni Islam courtesy of its Saudi Arabian backing, Cockburn argues that ‘all 1.6 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world’s people, will be increasingly affected’. If the malign impact of Western interventionism in the Middle East has long been apparent, attention today is still too little focused on the correspondingly malign influence of conservative religious and political elites across the region itself, many of whom have received and continue to receive the backing of the American and British governments. Cockburn’s book superbly brings these two dynamics of intervention into the same analytic frame. Yet there are no easy answers on offer here. Instead, the conclusions to be drawn seem inevitable – ‘The Middle East is entering a long period of ferment in which counterrevolution may prove as difficult to consolidate as revolution itself.’
Daniel Whittall teaches Geography and Economics at a college in West Yorkshire.