'An effective terrorist attack requires the complicity of governments’ - Patrick Cockburn interviewed on ISIS by the
Guardian, Start the Week and Newsnight
Patrick Cockburn’s latest book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution confronts the question of how things have gone so wrong in the Middle East, analysing the impact of the West’s foreign policy in the region. Just published, the book has already made a sizeable impact on media discourse, with a major profile interview with the Guardian that took place—poignantly—on the same day at the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, and reviews and features elsewhere.
David Shariatmadari draws attention to the complexity of the situation in a Guardian profile interview with Cockburn, noting how difficult it is to unpick the story:
[A] genuine revolt in Syria against a brutal dictatorship becomes intertwined with a broader sectarian struggle. The problem is compounded by interventions from western powers, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and others. Turkey refuses to shut its borders to extremist adventurers, and the Iraqi army, essentially a machine for corruption, disintegrated at its first real test. But the complexity of the situation should not be used as a get-out clause. ‘If you emphasise [that], and say everybody’s responsible, you let people off the hook,’ argues Cockburn. ‘I think that one should be very specific as to what’s gone wrong.’ He cites the Turkish border, the decision to turn a blind eye to whether support for anti-Assad rebels went to jihadists or non-jihadists, the insistence at the Geneva II peace conference that any solution must involve Assad’s exit. Putting his clear animus for the Syrian president to one side, he believes that demanding he step down is effectively asking for the war to continue. Instead, he thinks every effort should be made to de-escalate, with ceasefires brokered where possible between the government and non-jihadist opposition groups.
In a review of The Rise of Islamic State for the Spectator, Jonathan Rugman observes how
Cockburn, writing for the Independent for many years, has rightly been garlanded for spotting the emergence of IS much earlier than anyone else. He is at his best here when the sheer breadth of his experience lends huge authority to his argument. Which is that the entire ‘war on terror’ has failed since 11 September 2001 because Saudi Arabia (and Pakistan further east) were allies America didn’t want to offend. ‘Until the fall of Mosul,’ Cockburn writes, ‘nobody paid much attention.’
"The ‘Caliphate’ is inhabited by some six million people and is now larger than the United Kingdom. In the words of Patrick Cockburn, ‘a new and terrifying state has been born that will not easily disappear’. Yet far from appearing out of the blue in 2014, IS was fostered for years by those who profess to oppose it, as this book argues convincingly.
In the Independent, Cockburn observes that whilst “[t]he outside world may have been astonished by the explosive rise of Isis…Iraqi politicians had been warning me for several years that, if the war in Syria went on, it would destabilise Iraq and lead to the full-scale resumption of the Sunni-Shia civil war. They also predicted, with varying degrees of emphasis, that the Iraqi army was rotted with corruption and was not capable of fighting a battle.”
Cockburn writes about the process of publishing the book and how he was able to update his agenda-setting account while under attack in Baghdad
I would like to think it will help to fill a large gap in people's knowledge of what is happening in Iraq and Syria and the Middle East as a whole. It is not that newspaper, radio and television reporting of crises in the Middle East are necessarily wrong, but that the quality and quantity of the information conveyed is limited by the very urgency and brevity of daily reporting. This simply cannot explain something as complex as the reasons behind the rise of Islamic State. The only way this can be done is by means of well-informed and up-to-date books. Reading them is not just the best way of understanding what is happening; it is the only way of doing so.
Patrick Cockburn on Start the Week
Tom Sutcliffe talks to Patrick Cockburn about the rise of the Islamic State and the failure of the West's foreign policy in the Middle East - listen here.
Patrick Cockburn on Newsnight
The episode is available to view on iPlayer here.
Visit the Guardian to read Cockburn’s interview with David Shariatmadari in full.