ISIS: Hassan/Weiss versus Cockburn

isisThe review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

And now here’s the whole thing:

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.

Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.

By 2014, he writes, “the armed opposition was dominated by ISIS”. You might as well apply the insult to the Iraqi army. From January 2014, in response to popular pressure, every Syrian oppositional militia declared war against ISIS, pushed it out of the north west, and weakened it in its eastern strongholds. They gave hundreds of lives in this battle. Compare the success of these “farmers and dentists” (as Obama disparagingly called them) to the failure of the US-trained Iraqi army, which in June fled from a small ISIS force in Mosul. ISIS brought the American weapons it captured to bear on Syria, and surged back to the areas it had lost. This episode – alongside the anti-ISIS resistance of the Sheitat tribe, and the anti-ISIS activism of schoolteacher Souad Nawfal and others – is present in the Weiss and Hassan book, absent in Cockburn’s.

For Cockburn, Sunni jihadism is an essence without context. The war on terror failed, he says, because it didn’t confront such Sunni states as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He blames – rightly – Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology, a form of Islamism “that imposes sharia law” (but all Islamisms – Iranian as well as Saudi – seek sharia) for the ideological background from which ISIS arises. Repeatedly he images Sunni jihadists as Nazis and Shia as Jews. He’s almost silent, however, on the more immediate background.

For him, it’s the Syrian opposition which “has allowed or encouraged the conflict to become a vicious sectarian war.” He doesn’t consider that Assad might have had something to do with it, by sending Alawi death squads into Sunni villages to murder and rape, or by releasing violent Salafists from prison in 2011 at the same time he was targetting secular, peaceful activists for detention and assassination. Neither does he blame the Iranian-backed Shia jihadist militias from Lebanon and Iraq who fight on Assad’s frontlines. These facts are documented in Weiss and Hassan’s book; they are absent from Cockburn’s.

Cockburn vastly exaggerates Western support of the Syrian opposition, when the Americans’ main role was to prevent Arab states from sending the heavy weaponry Syrians so desperately needed to resist Assad’s blitzkrieg. One justification given by commentators for the failure to support the Free Army early on was that Islamists might benefit. Of course, the opposite happened – starved for funds, guns and ammunition, the moderate leadership was unable to win loyalty, or establish central control and discipline. Many of its fighters either despaired and left the country or gravitated towards the much better-funded Islamist brigades. Unhindered, Assad’s barrel bombs and scuds implemented a scorched earth strategy, traumatising Syrians and producing a vacuum in which jihadism flourished.

Cockburn has conducted no interviews with ISIS fighters. His informants tend to be government officials or those steered into his path by these officials, ranging from “one senior Iraqi source” to “an intelligence officer from a Middle East country neighbouring Syria.”

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

Because Cockburn’s a much-awarded, veteran correspondent, his opinions are echoed and magnified until they attain the status of fact, even amongst those who should know better. A group of Syrian leftist revolutionaries invited to meet Noam Chomsky in Beirut were astounded to hear the great man explain that their cause was doomed. Chomsky knew because his friend Patrick had told him, and “Patrick knows what’s happening in Syria better than anybody”.

Increasingly a deluded ‘realism’ calls for cooperation with Assad against the greater jihadist enemy. It was precisely in order to provoke these calls that Assad did his utmost to create a jihadist threat, and why – until June 2014, when ISIS became a threat to his regime – he refrained from bombing the organisation. Even today, when the Free Army and ISIS fight, Assad bombs the Free Army. Former State Department official Fred Hof describes the unofficial ISIS-Assad collusion like this: “Their top tactical priority in Syria is identical: destroy the Syrian nationalist opposition.”

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