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Truthdigger of the Week: Patrick Cockburn

Alexander Reed Kelly
Associate Editor
In December 2010, Alex was arrested for civil disobedience outside the White House alongside Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges, Pentagon whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, healthcare activist Margaret Flowers and…
Alexander Reed Kelly

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

One of the major stories of the summer, the takeover of huge portions of Syria and Iraq by a highly organized militant strain of political Islam, came as a surprise to many in the West. But not to Patrick Cockburn. A journalist whose coverage of the Middle East goes back three-and-a-half decades, the Ireland-born Cockburn, whose family Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer described as responsible for some of the most important reporting of the last 50 years (he is the brother of fellow journalists Andrew Cockburn and the recently deceased Alexander Cockburn, and the son of Claud Cockburn), was lauded by colleague Seymour Hersh as “quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today.” A look at the reporter’s new book about the region’s latest, most ferocious and conspicuously ambitious pretenders to power will give readers an idea why.

The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising,” published by OR Books, began to take form earlier this year during Cockburn’s work on a series of lectures and articles. Describing his thesis in the book’s acknowledgements, the author explains that what “seemed a marginal opinion in 2013 and early 2014” — that the stability of post-intervention Iraq was endangered by jihadis overtaking moderates in the struggle in neighboring Syria — was borne out “spectacularly” by the militant group ISIS’ capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul in mid-June. With a quarter of that country and a third of Syria now under its control, ISIS declared sovereignty over a territory larger than Britain and home to a population (6 million) that exceeds some European countries.

“A state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and the black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers,” the 43-year-old leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, told the world upon announcing his caliphate in late June. “Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s.”

Baghdadi’s vision of regional order has the ring of a grand social program, but the formulation is dangerously exclusive of anyone who would not convert to extreme Sunni Islam. People living in and around ISIS’ area of control are numerously and deeply divided by religion, ethnicity and wealth, and they now face tremendous pressure to cooperate with their new self-proclaimed leader. Chiefs of neighboring states, cities and communities that are not yet subject to ISIS rule are scrambling to preserve their own power while Western governments that spent hundreds of billions of dollars on a decade-long “war on terror” are only now awakening to the deliberate and much-advertised threats to their own populations — and potentially their physical offices — from a movement Cockburn describes as “a hundred times bigger and much better organized than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden.” Even that group, responsible for the infamous attacks of 9/11, has rejected ISIS as too extreme.

The whole story of the sources and causes of ISIS’ strength and success is not likely to be revealed by officialdom. But Cockburn shared some of his understanding of the decisive events, interests and actors in a recent conversation with Truthdig.

Key to the destruction of the Iraqi state, founded as a kingdom in 1932 and then a republic in 1958 (see footage of the country’s liberalizing, mid-20th century days here), were the U.N sanctions of the 1990s, the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the subsequent occupation. The first event crushed the nation’s economy, the second gutted its governing apparatus. A period of conflict that saw only brief pauses followed, and with it the degradation of popular morale and the creation of a political and economic environment that selected and rewarded groups and individuals most capable of brutality and corruption. Unelected office went up for sale. Buyers recouped their costs by charging whatever they could to their charges below. And the predominantly Sunni population, which enjoyed some favor under Hussein, suffered disadvantage under the discriminatory rule of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

A similar environment prevailed under Syria’s Assad regime, which governed by fiat and made a lifestyle of neglecting the welfare of its citizens. A drought in 2011 drove huge numbers of farmers into urban centers that were not suited to support them. Uprisings across the Arab world that same year lit the fuse of mass frustration and pushed the country into a civil war that has become no less vicious midway through its fourth year.

“These groups come out of war,” Cockburn explained, speaking of ISIS and the militias it has absorbed and trained. “It’s very difficult to think that a group like the Islamic State would have emerged from anything but a ferocious, cruel war. And that’s the one thing it’s good at. It’s sort of a religious, military machine.” Frustration with state disinterest and the circumstances of life is its chief fuel. “This would have great appeal to Sunni young men who have grown up in poverty, without a job, without hope. Suddenly there is an organization they can join. And it’s Islamic, yes, but it’s victorious. And that has tremendous appeal,” he said.

It’s not just the thrill of victory that encourages impressionable young men to become soldiers for ISIS. The group is providing administrative services to families, the elderly, women and children where the Syrian and Iraqi governments do not.

“What is the benefit of supporting them?” Cockburn asked. “Well, these guys, they try to make sure there’s distribution of bread. And in a place like Raqqa that is the capital of [ISIS in] Syria, they have a consumer protection unit. Shops that charge too much, they close them down. They make sure electricity and water are running. From their point of view, people don’t have to love them or even like them. They think, ‘Well … they’re better than the other opposition who kind of behave like bandits, you know, make no effort to administer anything.’ ” The opposite is true in places where the Syrian government is functional; locals are grateful for the services it provides and are afraid of opposing official power. “It’s sort of a balance of fear,” Cockburn noted.

“The same thing is true in Iraq,” he said. “That’s kind of human life. In history, it’s often written that the people of this area supported one side against another. It was often the case that people didn’t support either side but they thought that one was a little bit less dangerous or less corrupt at that moment in time than the opposition. People are often caught in a vise between two alternatives, neither of which they would have chosen if they’d been given a choice.”Add to the disorder foreign support in the form of weapons and funding — whether from the United States, Russia or Saudi Arabia — and the interplay of forces in these points of conflict grow even more jagged and complex, not to mention deadly for locals. The Obama administration casts the current violence as a result of the region’s general condition and events that preceded its leadership. But the inescapable truth is that the U.S. provided cover for a rebellion in Syria that is now dominated by ISIS. Cockburn confirmed that what’s happening there and across the border is also “a consequence of [White House] policy in Syria,” and that this policy has worked U.S. leaders into a corner of contradictions.

“The Islamic State is so strong because it was able to develop in Iraq and move and use its expertise and grow in Syria,” he summarized. “And it used its strength in Syria to come back this year into Iraq. And now it’s back in Syria winning victories.” The growth of ISIS was virtually invisible in the press before this summer, he added, “because as we’ve just seen with the decapitation of James Foley, an American journalist, foreign reporters aren’t going there.” With Western governments wary of further direct involvement and locals likely to grow more enraged by foreign intervention, the best chance at suppressing ISIS militarily and healing the region would involve a coalition of forces pulled from neighboring states. But that’s unlikely at this time, he wrote.

“The war is not over and the battle lines will move back and forward,” he concludes in the book. “Many players inside and outside the country are involved and Iraq and Syria have a way of delivering unexpected events and nasty surprises.”

For people trapped within the territories under ISIS rule — whether they are Shiite, Sunni, Yezidi, Christian or otherwise — the victories Cockburn speaks of mean that a band of fanatical bigots willing to shed any blood to realize their hopes of self-determination — but who also make the water run — often appear to be the best available choice. Cockburn’s brisk, cleanly written and adequately detailed book gives observers who might see little more than religious lunacy in the brutality of ISIS a chance to grasp the terrible predicament confronting its members and those who submit to them. “The Jihadis Return” is the definitive primer on the next generation of unshakeable horror sprung from a place where unalloyed decency does not survive. For his contribution to our understanding of the region and those who inhabit it, Patrick Cockburn is our Truthdigger of the Week.

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