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The Middle East Correspondent Who Predicted the Rise of ISIS Tells Us About His 30-Year Career

In conversation with one of the most respected Middle East correspondents in the world.
March 25, 2016, 2:35pm

Patrick Cockburn's new book, Chaos & Caliphate , begins with an epigraph from W.B. Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…" Despite being one of the most exhausted quotations in modern poetry it feels appropriate, mapping the tone and subject of Cockburn's journalism. Writing The Second Coming in 1919, Yeats envisaged a "rough beast" in a "waste of desert sand" emerging from the wreckage of the First World War. Out of the ongoing wars in the Middle East, Cockburn sees something similar: ISIS re-drawing colonial frontiers in fresh blood, perfecting its spectacle of terror. "The demons released by this age of chaos and war in the Middle East have become an unstoppable force," he writes in the conclusion. Cockburn's glass is not half-full.


But why should it be? As foreign correspondent for the Independent, his somber analysis has proved prophetic over the years. While the West ignored the UN's murderous sanctions imposed on Iraq in the 1990s—"Iraqis saw their social and economic standards fall from the same level as Greece to that of Mali"—he documented their destabilizing effects. After the 2003 Anglo-American invasion, he was struck by the "ignorance and arrogance of the neo-cons" who believed turning Iraq into an American protectorate would be an easy job; he understood the country would degenerate into sectarian strife. When NATO exploited the Arab Spring to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011, he wrote the consequence would be "disintegration" as a regressive Islamism captured Libya's institutions. A year before ISIS captured Mosul in 2014 and became a household name, he named its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the "Middle East's leader of the year"; Cockburn's book The Rise of Islamic State is considered the essential primer on the organization.

Granted, these predictions may have been obvious to anti-war movements or progressive forces within the Middle East, but they were rarely heard in the mainstream discourse—as we discuss below, Cockburn is critical of his profession's blindness. Also, unlike those of anti-war movements, his arguments are listened to by the powerful. A private e-mail from political advisor Sidney Blumenthal to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, released by Wikileaks, praises him: "[Cockburn] is one of the best informed on-the-ground journalists… He was almost always correct on Iraq." (Presumably Clinton didn't follow this up.) We spoke to Patrick aboutChaos & Caliphate—a collection of his reporting from the last 30 years.


VICE: Chaos & Caliphate is about disintegration—"things falling apart." Was this inspired by ISIS' transformation of the map?

People go on about frontiers but these countries have been around quite a long time. The frontier most ignored by Islamic State is between Iraq and Syria but actually their own administrative divisions are divided between the two countries—differences have grown up between Iraq and Syria. The dividing line between Turkey and Syria [is] the old railway line between Aleppo and Mosul—but the Kurds on the southern side have learned Arabic and the ones on the north speak Turkish.

If you go from north-west Pakistan to north-east Nigeria you have eight wars—maybe nine if you include South Sudan—with states failing: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan. So you have this tremendous disorder and that's what the book is about—how and why it happened.

A prominent theme is how nationalism and socialism lost their capacity to mobilize the masses in Arab countries.

When these post-colonial governments came into power, like Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein, they were authoritarian but had a theory: they were under-developed nations so the leaders concentrated resources on regaining national sovereignty and controlling their own destiny. These had concrete aims, like in Libya or Iraq, to take control of oil and give the benefits to Libyans or Iraqis. To some extent this happened. But as time went on it became more and more corrupt and all these oil-states began to resemble each other, developing a client-patronage system in which everybody has a job but not much work. Then the elites would steal as much as they could. This is certainly one contribution to the breakdown of states in the region.

The western powers —France, Britain, US, NATO—appear incredibly inept the way you describe them. It's as if they can't even do imperialism properly anymore.
Yes it is. It's a very amateur, uncertain imperial venture. You can see in some cases, like in France, memories of the old French empire—keeping a grip on the Francophone countries—are still an instinct. But the interventions are mixed up now with a "humanitarian" justification; a supposed concern for human rights: we're going to save the people of Benghazi and so on. It hasn't turned out too well for the people of Benghazi in the long-term.

What did the British do? First they wanted to go along with the Americans and help formulate their policy as the big ally. Then they got involved in Afghanistan without thinking it through; they had a small army outside Basra. It gets marginalized—it's far too small—so even if you think of it as an imperialist venture then it's a completely cack-handed one. In 2006 we go to Helmand: an incredibly bad idea since the British are very unpopular in that area going back to the 19th century. A lot of Afghans thought it was British revenge for defeats at that time. There's something very feckless about it.


But at the same time capitalists seem to be able to profit from any situation. Iraq may have disintegrated but ExxonMobil were still able to sign lucrative oil contracts with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north.
They did sign some contracts but that area is now controlled by Islamic State. At the time they signed them it was dubious because it was territory claimed by both the KRG and the Iraqi government in Baghdad—but currently that area is controlled by Islamic State.

People talk about partitioning Iraq as if it were an easy thing to do. A friend of mine in Iraq said, "It's going to be like the partition of India in 1947"—which is what happened, is happening. Wherever there was a mixed community, the most powerful group is taking over.

In your writing, identity—Sunni, Shia, Kurd—is very important. Do you worry that by not focusing on other things, like class, you'll turn these sectarian groups into rigid categories, furthering the idea of an eternal, unresolvable conflict between, say, Sunni and Shia?
Sectarianism is very important but other things come into it. Let's take eastern Syria: there's a sectarian element between the Sunni Arabs and the minorities, it's very central to what's happening. But there's also a social element: eastern Syria is very poor. There was a great drought beforehand. The Alawites had moved to the cities while the Baath Party—that used to favor peasants in the countryside and redistribution of land—had become a wholly self-centered establishment in the cities. The social contract they had before had gone.


When the Baath Party [Assad's political party] first came they did look after diverse communities who had previously been marginalized. Then gradually that disappeared and what made it worse was, in the 90s, you begin to have neoliberalism coming in so there's a reduction in state provision—factories which employed people or the health service. These began to diminish in a place where there was no accountability and no real law. Free market meant crony capitalism in which all the money was stolen by a well-connected group around the center.

You quote an Iraqi Sunni a few years ago as saying, "If the Sunni were given proper jobs and pensions then the anger would ebb away." Is that still true?
It's true that a lot of this is economic. I remember a teacher telling me, "If you ask any of my students what they want they all say a work visa in Europe. But if you could offer them a job in Iraq then only 5 percent still want to leave." But it's gotten worse over the last year. I was just in Iraqi Kurdistan and there's no money. Much of the population work for the government and they're not getting their salaries. These are the people who are subsequently being drowned in the Aegean. They're desperate.

In the Syria Kurdish settlement of Rojava, the ruling ideology is democratic confederalism—it's egalitarian, feminist, and socialistic. Is Rojava a sign of hope in the Middle East or has it been idealized?
If you take the whole of Syria then most Syrians are worse off. In the area where the Kurds have taken over if you're a Kurd then you're better off. In many other areas there are militias supposedly defending people but they're actually parasitic. But in Syrian Kurdistan they do fight pretty hard—that's why they're allied with the Americans.


How far is it democratic? One can be over-romantic about this. For example, in wartime you need support. One thing the local government [in Rojava] is unpopular for is they're conscripting young men to join the YPG [the armed wing of the Kurdish government]—families don't like that. There's a good chance of their sons and daughters getting killed so quite a lot have moved elsewhere. On the other hand, if you trying to fight Islamic State what choice do you have but conscripting people?

One verb that re-occurs in this book when you describe the state of foreign corresponding is "regurgitate." You've noticed that many journalists simply reproduce what they're told.

I think journalists kid themselves when it comes to people giving them information. Nobody tells you something without a reason. I think journalists have always thought they were more in charge of things than they were really: they weren't really investigators or spies, they were messengers.

You see it in the New York Times and others: "Informed sources said…" Well why are they saying this? It's never spelled out what are the self-interests of these informants; you'd think all these people came from heaven.

If we bring it back to the Middle East: all the opposition movements during 2011 had well-developed PR operations, whether it was in Libya or Syria, at a time when nothing else was particularly well developed! I noticed this in Benghazi—there's nothing wrong with this—but everything to do with the press was well-organized: demonstrations with placards in grammatical English, atrocity stories, spokesmen who were effective. But when you actually went to the front-line you found there were more journalists than fighters.


You mention an American journalist in Libya who, when you were trying to nuance the situation, chastised you and said, "Remember who the good guys are!" Is that common?
It is common. You look at all these places: there was a real social upsurge and desire to get rid of these ghastly police states. But that very soon dissipated into sectarian attacks—in Libya the Transitional Government replaced Gaddafi and one of its first demands was an end to the ban on polygamy. There was a downplaying in Syria of the degree to which the Muslim Brotherhood was sectarian; and there was wishful thinking on the part of Syrian exiles and liberals that somehow this didn't matter much: the one thing that mattered was getting rid of Assad.

When you explain this some say, "Ah this isjustification for Assad." But it isn't. The media coverage of most what was happening, certainly in Syria, downplayed the extreme sectarianism of the effective opposition.

Related: Watch VICE News travel to Kilis, a Turkish town on the border with Syria, to meet some of the people who have now escaped the war, and hear their accounts of life under the bomb.

You refer jokingly to yourself in the book as a "professional pessimist." Where did this come from? Experience can be enlightening for a journalist but it can also become a burden.
It can. I was pessimistic about various things in the beginning because I was conscious about how real sectarianism was in places like Iraq. This is because I knew Iraq but, also, I was born in Ireland and started working as a journalist in Belfast. In Northern Ireland people tended to underestimate the real sectarian differences. So when anybody downplayed these differences in the Middle East—saying it was all fomented by Saddam Hussein or Assad—I was more skeptical than most would have been because of my background.

It's become fashionable recently for columnists to disavow their communist upbringing. Your father, Claud Cockburn, was a member of the Communist Party, a celebrated journalist, and fought in the Spanish Civil War. Have you taken his influence into your work?
My father was extremely radical—before and after becoming a communist. So I think I got from him a permanent skepticism. It doesn't have to be cynicism, which is different, but permanent skepticism is a good approach. My father used to say, "Governments do as much harm as they can and as much good as they must."


I was looking at his MI5 file, which comprised 28 different folders. It was actually very encouraging. In the 1930s my father worked for theTimesbut resigned to work forThe Week, a newsletter that was a bit likePrivate Eye. It was essentially anti-fascist. He sometimes wondered if it was having any effect but if you look at the documents you see the complete hysteria of Cabinet Ministers and others over revelations inThe Week, this little newsletter. They showed how a small publication could have a major impact on the powers that be, which I found encouraging.

Your writing has been praised by the anti-war left and figures like Noam Chomsky, as well as by the powerful. Why does it resonate across ideologies?
I'd like to think there's a certain sort of realism to my work, which is quite difficult to reach in the Middle East when you have this great vortex of crises going on.

I'd like to think I got quite a lot of these things right. If you look in the book it's evident from early 2003 that if the Americans tried to occupy Iraq it was going to be a disaster. Other people could see that. Also in Libya it should have been obvious that if Gaddafi goes down the consequence would be disintegration.

If you were the most imperialistic Brit or American in order to be successful you would want a realistic image of the political landscape; if you're against foreign intervention then again you need to have a realistic idea of the political-military landscape. I'd like to think the way I portrayed it was fairly close to the truth.


You're credited with being the first to recognize the rise of ISIS. How did that happen?
What I find amazing is that people didn't notice the rise of ISIS. You didn't have to go out into the desert with your binoculars or talk to a secret source under a palm tree to know this. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was transmuting into ISIS at the time it captured Fallujah, which is about half-an-hour's drive west of Baghdad. The Iraqi Army couldn't get them out. They were losing. But it didn't seem to have any impact on journalists?

Why not? There was this myth that the American 'Surge' had ended the war in Iraq—but if you looked closer you'd see how fragile it all was. A lot of these things that I got some credit for forecasting were up in lights—it's amazing that others didn't notice.

In some ways you are an optimist. You write about American foreign policy as 'miscalculations,' 'mistakes,' and 'disastrous policies.' This implies they can be changed. They're not fatally wedded to imperialist policy. They're not doomed.
I don't think they're wholly doomed. There was a series of interviews with Obama inThe Atlantic recently. And a lot of what I've been arguing for years seems to be what Obama actually believes.

What he believed in private.
In private, yes, but now he's suddenly revealed all this stuff. He discusses the instinct for the foreign policy establishment to intervene militarily with all these disastrous results. It was one of the reasons he didn't intervene in Syria in November 2013 when he was being urged to do just that.

And if we assume Hillary Clinton will be the next President…
Her record is not good. She supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003; she supported intervention in Libya in 2011; she supported an intervention in Syria in 2013. The only thing she didn't do, of course, were the things she was accused of doing by the Republicans in Benghazi. She wasn't responsible for that; but she was for almost everything else.

Chaos and the Caliphate is available at O/R books here.

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