The causes of chaos: interview with Patrick Cockburn
Patrick Cockburn speaks to Chris Nineham about his latest book on the Middle East, Chaos and Caliphate
Chris Nineham: What is the significance of the current ceasefire in Syria and can it hold?
Patrick Cockburn: The first thing that needs to be said is that the Syrian ceasefire means that less people are being killed than would have been killed if there were no ceasefire. It is being criticised from many quarters for various reasons. It's not total; it was never intended to be total. It doesn’t cover Islamic State (IS) and the Al-Nusra front, the local Al-Qaeda franchise, and the armed opposition is dominated by these Salafi jihadi groups. But the fact that there has been a serious ceasefire for the first time in five years really is quite important. I think it has happened basically because the US and Russia wanted it to happen. These are the heavy hitters, these are the people who can put real pressure on the main players in the game, Damascus, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. People say dismissively that it is like a Lebanese ceasefire. Well, I was in Lebanon in the '80s, and the ceasefires were a lot better than the alternative. But survive or not, it is not a solution to Syria’s problems.
What were the Western powers aims in intervening in Syria, and how has their strategy changed?
The West intervened at quite an early stage. Its aim was to get rid of Assad and the Baathist government. The West disapproved of Assad because he didn’t support Western policy in the region. They thought they were onto a winner. Mubarak had gone, Ghadafi had gone, and the Western leaders’ view was Assad would be next. On top of this, the West’s main regional allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States and Turkey, all wanted Assad out. So the West had a naïve view that removing him would be easy.
In reality, the involvement of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and China in the background made Syria a very different proposition from, say, Libya. In Libya, Gaddafi was always isolated. The rebels would have lost in a straight fight with him, but once they had the massive backing of Western airpower, the rebels were inevitably going to win. In Syria, Assad was never isolated. He always had Russia and the other powers backing him up. Growing recognition of this fact and the emergence of Isis forced some changed in Western policy, but it remained irrational. The West’s fixation with Assad meant they massively underestimated the growth of jihadism. They were surprised when IS captured Mosul and most of Eastern Syria and Western Iraq. Remember that, at the beginning of 2014, President Obama was still comparing ISIS to a junior basketball team.
Their policy became utterly contradictory. They wanted Assad out, but they didn’t want Islamic State and Al-Nusra. They were always going to get one or the other. Their response was to fantasise that there was a moderate alternative. These were the famous 70,000 moderate fighters that David Cameron talked about last November. The problem was that they didn’t really exist. We know that because those who claim they exist never actually go to areas that they say are in moderate hands because they know that, if they did, they would be kidnapped very quickly.
IS in fact control most of the territory in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. In Syria, about two million people are under Islamic State, another two million are under other opposition groups, notably Al-Nusra, two million under the Kurds and ten million under the government. Those figures represent the approximate balance of power between the different forces in the country. Western leaders have been in denial. They have refused to recognise this reality, and so their plans have failed miserably.
What are the main factors that have led to the spread of terrorism over the last fifteen years?
Well, the decisive event was the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. If this hadn’t happened I don’t think we would have seen the rise of Islamic state and Al Nusra. The devastation and sectarian backlash created by the armed intervention produced the perfect conditions for sectarian jihadism. But it is not just about Iraq. If you look back over the last ten or fifteen years, the Western powers have confronted a string of independent states with opinions in contradiction to the West in the Middle East and North Africa. They have tried to get rid of them and replace them with sympathetic regimes. The arrogance and aggression of this whole project has turned many people against the West, but the further, connected problem is that the ‘sympathetic’ regimes produced tend to be weak and they tend to fall apart under pressure. They are weak because they are essentially imposed, but, to make matters worse, they have had almost no practical support from the West. So one outcome of the War on Terror has been states across the Middle East and North Africa that are failing or weakening. This is a change from the period of the Cold War. In those years, rivalry between the US and Russia for control meant that many regimes would be propped up by one side or another. This hasn’t been happening recently, at least until Russia intervened to help Assad.
Can Western military action be successful against IS?
Very unlikely. Partly, it depends on their partners on the ground. The partnership with the Kurds was reasonably successful because the Kurds have an effective and highly motivated military operation. But there are limitations to this when the Kurds move out of their core areas. But, with the Kurds, there is also a question of trust. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria are supported by Russia and the West because they are effective fighters. But they are frightened that, when the war is over, they will be abandoned to the mercies of the governments in Turkey, Damascus and Baghdad. They know that big powers won’t be interested in supporting them when the fighting has ended.
In both Iraq and Syria, one of the things that has been keeping IS going is the fragmentation of its opponents. This has been exacerbated by Western policy priorities. The US is very careful about who should defeat IS in Iraq. It doesn’t want the Shia militias to be too successful against IS because of their links to Iran and because they are not particularly pro-Western.
The situation is even clearer in Syria. Here, by far the biggest and most effective armed force is the Syrian army. The West has been careful not to back the Syrian army when it has been fighting IS. When Palmyra was captured in March 2015, the US fighter planes didn’t attack the advancing IS columns because they didn’t want to be seen to be supporting Assad. In theory, it should be possible to defeat Islamic State, but the reality of hostilities and rivalry on the ground and Western realpolitik mean that this isn’t going to happen any time soon.
There is a new military escalation by the West in Libya, backing a UN imposed government. What effect will this have?
It is unlikely to be successful because the fragmentation is so great in Libya. Much of the power in Libya in reality lies in the hands of militia that are strongly hostile to the West. Western intervention, as we have seen, tends to increase the sense of anti-Western feeling, so it is very unlikely that divisions can be overcome or that real progress will be made against IS.
Your new book Chaos and Caliphate addresses some of the central developments in the Middle East over the last few decades. What are its main themes, and how are they organised?
The book is a mixture of things. First, there are chapters featuring contemporary reportage that I did when covering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria and Libya and the protests in Bahrain and Egypt. These chapters aim to transmit with graphic, eyewitness accounts how the events actually unfolded on the ground. But these are interleaved with chapters of analysis that try and get to grips with the deeper meaning of what happened and try and draw general conclusions about the events and, in particular, how the intervention of regional powers—mostly with the backing of the West—managed to turn democratic uprisings into sectarian wars. They look at how this process has led to long-running wars and how all of this allowed the development of Islamic State and why it has been so successful in so many countries. The simplicities of Western foreign policy cannot come close to solving these problems.
The one thing we can be completely certain of about the War on Terror is that it has failed. After 9/11, Al–Qaeda was made up of a few hundred or very low thousands of people in a few camps in Afghanistan and on the North West frontier of Pakistan. Now similar organisations control an area bigger than Great Britain in Syria and Iraq and a large chunk of the South Coast of Yemen, about 250 miles in fact, the distance from Edinburgh to London. They control sections of Libya, and they are a growing force in Central Damascus as well as important areas in Africa. They are becoming a real threat as we know in Europe. This book was partly written in the hope that the West will develop a more realistic foreign policy, but I am not optimistic.