SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 182 October 2014

The rise of Isis

The Jihadis Return: Isis and the new Sunni uprising

By Patrick Cockburn

Published by OR Books, 2014, £9

Reviewed by Paul Gerrard

The imperialist powers are squirming. Things are not going their way in the Middle East. A year ago, the US, UK, France, etc, were contemplating air strikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria in support of the ‘moderate’ opposition around the Free Syrian Army. A year later, it appears that the FSA has all but melted away and the right-wing Islamists (often described as ‘jihadis’) of Isis have swept across Syria and Iraq, threatening Baghdad and, more recently, Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. (Isis, also known as Isil, is the acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which now calls itself Islamic State.)

Western air strikes are back on the agenda, but this time aimed at Assad’s enemies, and against a much worse backdrop. How did Barack Obama and the rest of them get into this morass? Can they extricate themselves? These are the questions Patrick Cockburn, veteran award-winning reporter on the Middle East, seeks to explore in his latest book, The Jihadis Return. His answers give the imperialists no comfort.

Remember the infamous ‘global war on terror’ unleashed by George W Bush after 9/11? Thirteen years on, with conscious or unconscious irony, Obama echoes Bush’s words about ‘hunting down terrorists wherever we find them’. The war on terror grinds on, with no end in sight. Cockburn points to the links between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and the 9/11 attackers, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden: "The anti-terror war would be waged without any confrontation with Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, two close US allies, despite the fact that without these two countries 9/11 was unlikely to have happened".

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened up a new phase in its history which, according to Cockburn, ended with Isis capturing Mosul in June of this year. The dismantlement of Iraq’s Ba’athist state and army during the US occupation, and their replacement by a conspicuously sectarian Shia-led regime, have fuelled unresolved grievances in Sunni areas. Isis has effectively placed itself at the head of a Sunni uprising, and this partly explains the speed at which it has advanced – moving, as Isis puts it, "like a serpent between rocks". It has used shock troops to capture easy targets without getting bogged down in prolonged fighting, and relies on alliances with Sunni tribes to form local administrations.

As Isis advanced the Iraqi army collapsed, and Cockburn provides plenty of evidence that this was due partly to endemic corruption. It began under the US occupation – for example, with the decision to outsource food and supplies. A battalion commander would be paid for the 600 soldiers under his command but might only have 200 men under arms, enabling him to pocket the difference. Typically, "a general could become a field commander at a cost of $2 million and would then have to recoup his investment from kickbacks at checkpoints on the roads, charging every goods vehicle that passed through". This culture of corruption spread throughout the ranks. To cap it all, experienced Ba’athist officers from Saddam Hussein’s former regime, dismissed or side-lined under the US/UK occupation, now lead Isis units into battle.

In Syria, Isis fought its rivals in and around the Free Syrian Army (FSA) for the leadership of the anti-Assad uprising, the so-called civil war within the civil war. Cockburn’s impression is that the FSA is "wholly controlled by Arab and western intelligence services". Elsewhere he has described it as a ‘ghost army’. Militias confidently declared by the US to be ‘moderate’ were fighting alongside jihadi units and often sharing equipment with them. An unnamed intelligence officer says that Isis members "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". This suggests that Obama risks seeing his latest instalment of weapons ending up in the same hands. Moreover, since January 2014, Isis, having brushed aside the FSA, has been fighting it out with the al-Qaida affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other rival militias.

In its rapid military advance, Isis has been able to generate its own funds through ransoms (not just of western journalists), taxes on ‘non-believers’, and sales of oil on the black market. There are other sources of funding, of course, namely the oil-rich monarchies. Under US pressure, semi-official funding from Saudi Arabia and others is on the wane, but private ‘investors’ continue to be attracted to Isis’ success. Cockburn is clear that, however repulsive Isis’ actions are, "the jihadists were often welcomed by local people for restoring law and order after the looting and banditry of the western-backed Free Syrian Army". And, if the Sunnis fear Isis, they fear even more the revenge attacks by Shia militias or government troops.

Cockburn provides useful analysis of the geopolitical factors underlying religious conflict in the region. While western liberals despair at the apparently unending sectarian violence, Cockburn is clear that it is the imperialist powers which have deliberately ramped up the divisions: "The four wars fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the past twelve years have all involved overt or covert foreign intervention in deeply divided countries. In each case the involvement of the west exacerbated existing differences and pushed hostile parties towards civil war".

After the fall of Saddam’s Sunni-based regime, the US backed an administration based on a Shia elite clearly acting in their own interests. At the UN, Russia blocked action against the Shia/Alawite regime in Syria, while the US, in alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni regimes, financed the opposition to Assad.

While the Arab Spring is not central to the book, Cockburn has interesting points to make about it. He takes a sober line on the impact of social media: "Innovations in information technology may have changed the odds marginally in favour of the opposition, but not enough to prevent counter-revolution, as the military coup in Egypt on July 3, 2013 underscored". Cockburn is clear about the weaknesses of the Arab uprisings, where "social and economic inequalities were rarely declared to be issues". He stresses "the need for leadership, organisation, unity, and policies that amounted to more than a vague humanitarian agenda".

Cockburn’s analysis of jihadism sometimes lacks balance. While he criticises the western media for their demonization of Hussein or Gaddafi, Cockburn has a tendency to overstate the importance of Saudi Arabia and its propagation of Wahhabism. While this particularly brutal form of fundamentalism may play a role in attracting naive, young, male Muslims, especially from abroad, it holds little appeal for the general Sunni population who accept Isis out of fear – and the fear of Shia militia reprisals. Isis is successful despite, not because of, its ideology. Cockburn’s analogy between jihadism and fascism is not particularly helpful given the very different social roots of the two movements.

But there is much in this book to engage socialists. Cockburn is invariably well-informed and insightful. His informants are usually anonymous but their testimony is no less powerful for that. Above all, what animates him is his opposition to the ruling class and its machinations, including the attempt to use the threat of jihadism to attack democratic rights: "The US, closely followed by Britain, has fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and adopted procedures normally associated with police states, such as imprisonment without trial, rendition, torture, and domestic espionage… in the face of these controversial security measures the movements against which they are aimed have not been defeated but rather have grown stronger".

The war on terror, Patrick Cockburn writes, "has demonstrably failed". As the Con-Dem government blusters about new measures, we would do well to remember that.

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