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Tuesday, 28 February 2017 23:03

Patrick Cockburn, The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East, London: Verso Books

Written by Maria Tare

The broader Middle Eastern and Northern Africa region has entered an extended period of turmoil where states are collapsing and regimes are being overthrown. While the roots of these conflicts are long-established, eruptions since 2001 are recurring with a ferocity implying that none will come together again in a capacity of state unity. Patrick Cockburn's indefatigable coverage provides a crucial tour d'horizon of the civil wars and insurgencies that have been shattering the societies' central core while demonstrating the variety of reasons as to why these conflicts are ongoing and foremost, as to why religion in the Middle East is now the glue that holds societies together.

In a meticulously assembled chronicle of dispatches, notes and edited press briefs between 2001 and 2015, one gets to experience, firstly, the overthrow of the Afghanistan-based Taliban in 2001, and, secondly, the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Due to the return of the Taliban from 2009 to 2012, Cockburn visited Afghanistan on several occasions. While the Arab Uprisings in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen in 2011 are also included, the author's narrative was established by his coverage of Iraq and Syria. Cockburn's profound knowledge of the region, allows him to draw parallels as to why "it is here, more than anywhere else that political, national and religious tectonic plates meet and grind together with devastating effect".

The justification of the above is much dependent on the style of the book itself; the author took the initiative of unfolding the events from a two-angled perspective, providing initially the vividness and credibility of eyewitness reporting. This was always considered very important for war correspondence but became a necessity following the post 9/11 conflicts, where sophisticated propaganda played a massive role in the manipulation of public opinion. Building on the latter, one finds a retrospective explanation and analysis through the dissemination of information about the situation on the ground from the perspective of today. Supposedly, the only requirement from the readers is a certain amount of critical thinking; Cockburn does not follow the sensationalist media playbook.

Furthermore, the hypothesis is that the event which ripped the Middle East apart was the American-led invasion of 2003. Nowadays, a vocal majority recognizes that the Iraq War was a foolish act to say the least. Yet, despite the fact it received then widespread support, it is now considered conventional wisdom. The rapid overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Ba'ath regime seemed to justify the blundering progress of American and European foreign policy marked by the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. According to Cockburn, Iraqi people originally welcomed the fall of Saddam Hussein, for no other reason than the restoration of their pre-UN economic sanctions normality. The invasion of 2003 may have destroyed the Iraqi state apparatus and army but the country's society and economy had been disintegrated long ago. The successful invasion was falsely perceived as a successful occupation.

Regardless to what was promised, the American forces were never really able to rebuild the Iraqi state; in fact, they haven't been able to do so, even to this day. The so called "nation building" process by foreign powers –in this case the US- implied a sense of superiority that sort of "de-legitimized" it in the eyes of the proud Iraqi people. Consequently, the deterioration of sectarian and ethnic conflicts between the three main Iraqi communities became its immediate aftermath. Furthermore, it destabilized Iraq's relations with its neighbors. As long as American troops were in Iraq, the country's neighbors were always going to foster Sunni or Shia guerilla groups.

Several questions had been raised on the reason why so much went wrong so quickly and foremost, whether the Bush administration had any plans for a post-war settlement. First of all, the US lacked a reliable local partner in Baghdad or in Kabul. So it was only the exiled enemies of the regime that were providing information and supporting their wishful thinking, which turned out to be very pervasive. Nevertheless, one with basic knowledge of Jacobite history would have known better. Obama's administration could not afford and did not make that mistake; The US air campaign over the past years targeting ISIS enclaves has only been successful when conducted in coordination with Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq, and with Iraq's central government. But mostly, above all, the US undervalued the extent to which foreign occupation brings forth resistance.

As the narrative flows and one "travels" in the lands of the Middle East through the pages of the book, one can only marvel at how the same patterns were followed and the same mistakes were repeated. Cockburn's reports, dating back to 2001, reveal that when it comes to administering the Middle East affairs there does not seem to be a learning curve among governments. Without having proper understanding of the situation on the ground, complex events are being oversimplified. Western media is very much complicit in this process.

For the cases mentioned in the book to be directly affected by the Arab Spring, there was a general agreement that all ills stemmed from the suppressive domestic regime which stood in the way of a brave new flourishing world. External powers, domestic opposition, and the international media aligned in their eagerness to overthrow police states –be they in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or Yemen. For Cockburn, this seemed very simple minded; the demonization of single rulers could be very misleading and deceptive.

The "success story" for this peculiar partnership was depicted in the Libyan uprising. The case was built in a black-and-white vision which demonized the old regime while at the same time "romanticized" the role of the rebels. Unfortunately, they believed too much of their own propaganda. Libya, which has now descended into a chaotic civil war, allowed for an honest rebellion to be hijacked by extremists aiming to get their hands on the oil revenues.

Moving forward to 2012, regional and international media as well as foreign intelligence, joined forces in cultivating a belief that Bashar al-Assad would fall as Gaddafi had. But the situation was very different to that of Libya; a popular uprising against a dictatorship where political and economic power is biased towards a group of people around the center of the government was the only common ground to be found. Assad who remains up to this day dominant of Syria's state structure was in 2012 in control of thirteen (out of fourteen) provincial capitals. There was an important Syrian political opposition in exile but with slight influence; while instead the ones' with real influence, the armed opposition commonly known as the moderate opposition, was, and still is, dominated by Salafi jihadists connected with most notably, the Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front. Furthermore, the sectarian divisions were greatly underestimated. Libya's population, almost entirely Sunni Muslim, did not dive into the sectarian battle between Sunni and Alawites as Syria did. Assad had the support of the Alawite community along with the minorities'. The fall of Assad, whether they liked him or not, would create a power vacuum filled by ISIL or al-Qaida clones that would eagerly once again rob them of their homes, of their lives.

The wars in Iraq, since the Allied invasion, and in Syria, since the Arab Spring, whereas taken the form of civil wars, are instigated formerly by the ambitions of their outside backers – be it the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey or Saudi Arabia. Having said that, Cockburn also issues the importance of a non-partial narrative for a better understanding of these wars; a biased and wishful thinking approach seems counterproductive in depicting the whole picture of these wars. To some extent, this approach also failed in predicting ISIL's resurgence. While the birth of the "caliphate" marked the most radical change to the political geography in the Middle East since the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the siege of Mosul in early 2014 revealed, on the one hand, the little understanding of the situation both internal and foreign intelligence held, while on the other hand, paved the way for more successful operations of the Islamic State. Why is the Islamic State so powerful? Rather than being a religion cult with people prepared to die, the author also tries to interpret the reasons behind their opponents' lack of efficacy. The first conclusion to be drawn, states that corruption on every level of the Iraqi and Syrian army had indeed devastating effects. But the Iraqi Sunni endorsement to the revolt of the Syrian Sunnis in 2011 could only be explained as an outcome to the Sunnis feeling marginalized and excluded from power-sharing agreements in Shia-led governments that followed after 2003, Cockburn suggests.

Nevertheless, whatever the verdict, Patrick Cockburn, has proved his determination to alienate himself from sophisticated propaganda by his immediate reporting on the ground. What is mostly though his writings so compelling, is the way he brings the situation to life, reminding us of the human costs these wars all bear; throughout his interviews, one could tell the great deal of affection he carries both for the people affected promptly by the atrocities and the landscapes of the region.