“I could never have imagined that it is possible to have someone killed for 100 dollars in Baghdad ten years after Saddam Hussein was overthrown,” admitted an Iraqi to a correspondent of The Independent. Chaos and the constant inability to do something about it is the focus of The Rise of Islamic State.
It is a pessimistic read. In October 2014, when it was written, no one had yet managed to stop the Jihadis, and the international media sat on a hill near the Turkish border and observed through long-range lenses how the surrounded Kurdish resistance was repelling ISIS units in Kobanî. And there are reasons to be pessimistic—according to the author’s explanations, ISIS has achieved remarkably more than Al-Qaeda ever could.
The book is full of examples of factors that facilitated the establishment, rise and victory of the Islamic state—these primarily included the unwise steps of the Shiite government in Iraq and the fact that the Western states were blind to the situation.
A large part of the book deals with the conquering of Mosul, a city with two million inhabitants, in June 2014. ISIS fighters numbering 1,300 forced the nominally 60,000-troop Iraqi army to flee. Through the anatomy if this battle, the author explains everything that is rotten in the state of Iraq—officers had listed more soldiers than were actually present and took their wages. The officers fled mid-battle.
After the defeat, the situation continued to be bad. After large investments had been made in the defence capability of Iraq, soldiers went into battle with four magazines; there was not enough fuel for cars attacking Fallujah in a state rich in oil; and although documents stated that 140 helicopters had been purchased for Iraq, only one was employed in the counterattack on Tikrit—the funds for purchasing the rest had probably been stolen. Cockburn says that the Iraqis did not act like they had just lost half of their state at all—neither did the country have a minister of defence, nor a minister of internal affairs, and the appointment of new officers for these positions was delayed, while ISIS was positioned about twenty kilometres away from Baghdad. Instead of looking for help, the Iraqis blamed the Kurds for secretly working with ISIS. For a long time they lived in the false hope that the Sunni, frustrated by the Shiite dominance, could be appeased with a few positions and other cosmetic changes. The West, on the other hand, viewed the rise of ISIS as if it was “a Bedouin raiding party that appears dramatically from the desert, wins spectacular victories, and then retreats to its strongholds, leaving the status quo little changed,” explains Cockburn.
All of this turned out to be wrong. Cockburn is not afraid of judging – it could be said that this is one of the most judgemental books written on the matter. According to Cockburn, the entire focus of the West’s War on Terror has been wrong. It was wrong to go to Afghanistan and Iraq, while remaining an ally of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the DNA of which is clearly involved in the birth of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS. He estimates that those countries (not necessarily on the state level and not always on purpose) hold the key positions in supporting radicalism. The author does not specify in detail what the Western states should have done with Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. It also remains unclear whether “doing something” about these two powerful countries, be it in the form of economic, political or even military pressure, would even be feasible for the Western states. Using power against the region’s most oil-rich country that is also holy for all Muslims may include a considerable risk of escalation.
Getting rid of the members of the Iraqi Ba’ath party turned out to be a wrong decision that left many people idle. In essence, the de-Ba’athification helped to replace the Sunni dictatorship with the cruel dominance of the Shiites. Stories about the Arab spring somewhat resembling the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 turned out to be erroneous and naive.
Cockburn could be criticized for supporting Assad. He claims that it is wrong to try and achieve peace in Syria without offering a compromise to President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad controls the majority of the population on the territory of Syria, and most of the provincial capitals, which is why the approach to opposing Syria (i.e. “The precondition is overthrowing Assad”) is not realistic.
“The moderate opposition” the West has extensively discussed is a fantasy. Cockburn presents the following explanation to prove this: at one point, the US started notifying Assad about the location of American air strikes but did not notify the Free Syrian Army in the fear that the information would be passed on to Jabhat al-Nusra, a branch of Al-Qaeda. This information also seems plausible on the basis of my personal experiences in relation to Syria: I saw people from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army communicate quite freely several times. Cockburn suggests we need to consider that if al-Assad should fall, ISIS will be the second strongest army in the country and everything else does not count. Evidently, the author’s advice is to adapt to the situation.
Cockburn is pessimistic about the potential intervention of the West’s armies: he asks how they should now achieve what the US could not achieve in Iraq in eight years and with 150,000 soldiers.
It is wrong to underline the Lebanon war, where the warring parties were simply said to have tired of combat. Actually, Syria was allowed to do whatever it wanted in Lebanon by the end of the war, as thanks for joining the anti-Saddam coalition.
Cockburn no longer believes in the survival of unitary states. One scenario is that they will break up amidst bloody strife like India and Pakistan, and a wave of immigration will follow. In conclusion, the book causes restless dreams, and if the author is right, professionals specialising in Iraq and Syria will have no trouble earning their daily bread for quite a long time.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.