Telling the story backwards: Patrick Cockburn’s take on Syria

This article first appeared in the Daily Beast. Cockburn has since claimed that his eyewitness description of an alleged massacre in Adra was a “printing error”. Since the publication of this article, Cockburn has also called on Britain to forge an anti-ISIS military alliance with the regime, which is responsible for over 90% of all civilian deaths in Syria. 

by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad

Patrick Cockburn, the Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent, has an eclectic following. He is admired by Noam Chomsky and Rand Paul; and last December, when he won the British equivalent of a Pulitzer for his coverage of Syria and Iraq, the judges declared his journalism in a “league of its own” and wondered “whether the Government should [consider] pensioning off the whole of MI6 and [hire] Patrick Cockburn instead.”Cockburn is conscious of his exalted position. He frequently admonishes his colleagues against the distortions born of “political bias and simple error.” In his recent book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he declares, “there is no alternative to first-hand reporting”. He adds: “Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources.”

Journalists rarely admit such things—even those as self-aware as Cockburn is. Consider this gripping, first-hand account of the slaughter of religious minorities by the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that appears on page 89 of his book. “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.

But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have occurred but Cockburn certainly did not witness it.

Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”

The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.

I first reported on Cockburn’s discrepancy in an article for The National and in a review of his book for In These Times. Cockburn corresponded with the latter’s editor last March. In an email sent on March 20, the editor offered him a chance to clarify if he had witnessed a different incident in early 2014 that also met the description given by Abu Ali? Cockburn never replied. (He also did not reply to requests for comment for this article.)

Cockburn’s apparent need to embellish might make sense if one looks at the main argument of his book. For him, Bashar al-Assad is at war with jihadi terrorism; the West has erred in supporting his opponents; and to support the opposition is to support ISIS.

To support this contention, Cockburn in his book quotes “an intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria” who tells him: “ISIS members ‘say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.’”

It is understandable why Cockburn would grant an intelligence officer anonymity, but what reason might there be for extending anonymity to the officer’s country? Could it be that the “country neighboring Syria” is Iraq, or Iran—both key Assad allies?

For over a year, Syria’s nationalist rebels have been at war with ISIS, which expanded mainly by seizing territory that they had earlier liberated from the regime. ISIS has led a war of attrition against the anti-Assad rebellion, assassinating its leaders, harassing its fighters, and disappearing civil society activists. Starting on New Year’s Day 2014, a rebel coalition led by the Free Syria Army (FSA), the Islamic Front (IF), Ahrar al-Sham (AS)—and even Jabhat al-Nusra—united to drive IS out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, and parts of Aleppo and Damascus.

But far from applauding the rebels for confronting ISIS, Cockburn lumps ISIS with the moderates, noting at the time that “the bitterly divided rebels are fighting their own civil war in which 700 people have died in recent days.” That the fighters are divided along ISIS/anti-ISIS lines, and that ISIS captured and executed 100 of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham rebels during its retreat, gets barely a mention. “The internecine warfare in the highly fragmented rebel movement”, he writes, “will further discredit them at home and abroad.”

By contrast, Cockburn takes a generous view of the regime’s belated and brief confrontation with ISIS. He has pronounced Assad’s army its “main military opponent”, deserving of western support. But facts tell a different story. According to a Carter Center study, the regime has spared ISIS in 90 percent of its attacks; and an IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) study finds that in 2014, the regime targeted ISIS in only 6 percent of its attacks (ISIS in turn directed its fire on the regime in only 13 percent its operations).

For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists.

This isn’t Cockburn’s only apparent omission. During the battle for Kobani, Cockburn briefly elevated the Kurds to the status of “the main military opponents” of ISIS, a position he usually reserves for the Assad regime. When the siege of the town was finally broken on January 26, the main Kurdish resistance force, the YPG, issued a statement thanking “brigades of the Free Syrian Army who fought shoulder to shoulder with our forces.” But Cockburn, who has dismissed the existence of nationalist rebels such as the FSA as “pure fantasy,” he ignored the Kurds’ own nod to their allies.

In his January 28 column, Cockburn credited U.S. airstrikes with helping the Kurds defend Kobani but made no mention of the FSA. Instead, he reported that, according to General James Mattis, “the time for supporting ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels had passed”. He added: “The Syrian armed opposition is increasingly under the control of ISIS and its rival, the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra” and that overthrowing Assad would only “benefit ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.”

On February 8, Cockburn again dismissed Syria’s nationalist opposition (“these barely exist outside a few pockets”). This time he used a statement by Joe Biden as evidence that jihadists, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were dominating the anti-Assad opposition. (Biden did not exclude the presence of a non-jihadist opposition, but Cockburn did.) Cockburn then criticized the U.S. for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS.”  The Kurds were already out of the picture.

Meanwhile the Kurds and the FSA continued their advance on Kobani and by February 19, according to the BBC, they had taken 240 of the surrounding villagesand were advancing on the strategic town of Tal Abyad.

On February 24, Cockburn made a glancing reference to the YPG advance without any mention of the FSA. The next day, he gave fuller coverage but framed the story as the first evidence of “military cooperation between the Syrian Kurds and the U.S. … continuing in offensive operations.” He used the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the same source as the BBC, but, unlike the BBC, made no mention of the FSA fighting alongside the Kurds.

The omission is telling.

On March 19, when Cockburn concluded a five-part series for The Independent on life under ISIS, he complained that “the U.S. and its allies are not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” (As a matter of fact, against the wishes of its regional Sunni allies, the U.S. has been providing air support to Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias,whose sectarian oppression was one cause of Sunni disillusionment and the rise of ISIS.)

Yet even as he presents the Syrian Army as a nemesis of ISIS, Cockburn hasn’t reported on a single instance where, since at least the start of the year, the regime has successfully confronted ISIS. More bizarrely, to emphasize “the importance of ground-air co-operation” in the fight against ISIS, he cites the example of Kobani, where Assad’s forces had no presence and where American air support helped the YPG—and the FSA—repel an ISIS offensive.

Perhaps Cockburn is loath to support the opposition because it now has a large Islamist component (a troubling development, no doubt). But Cockburn appears remarkably unconcerned about extreme Islamism when he is calling for airstrikes in support of the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.

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An Account Syncopated by Death: Littell’s Syrian Notebooks

syrian notebooksThis review was published at the National.

“The Kindly Ones”, one of the 21st Century’s great novels, is an epic inquiry into the intersection of state power and human evil. Its narrator is supremely civilised but also – and somehow without contradiction – an SS officer engaged in industrial-scale murder. The novel is set in the battlefields and death camps of World War Two.

The author, Jonathan Littell, previously worked for humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim in various war zones including Chechnya, in whose fate he sees Syrian parallels. In 1996 Chechnya won de facto independence. Then collusion between Russian security services and Islamist extremists weakened Chechen nationalists, made the country too dangerous for journalists, and drained international support. This facilitated Russia’s 1999 reinvasion and the total destruction of the capital, Grozny. The Russian strategy is echoed today in what French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius describes as the “objective complicity” between Assad and ISIS.

There are World War Two parallels too. Aleppo is the most bombed city since that conflict. Syria’s refugee crisis is the greatest since 1945. And the Assad regime, like Hitler’s, produces “thousands of naked bodies tortured and meticulously recorded by an obscenely precise administration.”

Perhaps these commonalities explain why Littell chose to bring his clear sight to bear on Syria’s war. He went in, for 17 days in January 2012, with renowned French photographer Mani. The experience led to a series of reports in Le Monde in February, and now to a book: “Syrian Notebooks: Inside the Homs Uprising.”

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Let’s Talk About Genocide: Shurat HaDin and The Genocide Legalization Conference

This week, the organization Shurat HaDin is having a conference titled “Towards a New Law of War”. They don’t hide where their alliances lie, and on their online conference page (nostalgically illustrated with WWII British bombers) you can find their Western-supremacist and racist agenda stated loud and clear:

…exchange ideas regarding the development of armed conflict legal doctrine favorable to Western democracies engaged in conflict against non­traditional, non­-democratic, non-­state actors.

Continue reading “Let’s Talk About Genocide: Shurat HaDin and The Genocide Legalization Conference”