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Robin Yassin-Kassab

ISIS: Hassan/Weiss versus Cockburn

with 4 comments

isisThe review below was published at the Guardian. Unfortunately the heart of the review was cut from the published version. I’ll put it here first of all, because it shows that Patrick Cockburn actually makes stuff up in order to defend Assad and Iran and to slander the Syrian people. Here it is:

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

And now here’s the whole thing:

ISIS feeds first on state dysfunction, second on Sunni outrage. In Iraq – where its leadership is local – Sunni Arabs are a minority displaced from their privileged position by America’s invasion. Their revanchism is exacerbated by the sectarian oppression practised by the elected but Iranian-backed government. In Syria – where most ISIS leaders are foreign – Sunnis are an oppresssed majority, the prime targets of a counter-revolutionary tyranny headed by mafias but claiming and exploiting Alawi sectarian identity.

Under other names, ISIS first grew in Iraq as it would later in Syria, by exploiting resistance to occupation, American in one case, that of a delegitimised regime in the other. Drawing on research by the Guardian’s Martin Chulov as well as their own, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan show how Syria’s regime collaborated with Iraqi Baathists and Salafist extremists, facilitating the passage of bombers to Iraq who would do more to precipitate civil war than to shake off American occupation. This was a message to America to leave Syria alone.

Popular disgust and the US-backed Awakening movement eventually drove al-Qaida out of Sunni Iraq. The jihadists waited; their moment returned when peaceful Sunni protests were repressed by live fire in 2013. Heading a Baathist-Islamist coalition, ISIS then captured huge swathes of the country and set about its reign of terror.

Weiss and Hassan have produced a detailed and immensely readable book. Their informants include American military officials, American, Jordanian and Iraqi intelligence operatives, defected Syrian spies and diplomats, and – most fascinating of all – Syrians who work for ISIS (these are divided into such categories as politickers, pragmatists, opportunists and fence-sitters). They provide useful insights into ISIS governance – a combination of divide-and-rule, indoctrination and fear – and are well placed for the task. Hassan, an expert on tribal and jihadist dynamics, is from Syria’s east. Weiss reported from liberated al-Bab, outside Aleppo, before ISIS took it over.

Cockburn’s book, on the other hand, is more polemic than analysis. While Weiss and Hassan give a sense of the vital civil movements which coincide with jihadism and Assadism in Syria, Cockburn sees only an opposition which “shoots children in the face for minor blasphemy”. He concedes the first revolutionaries wanted democracy, but still talks of “the uprising of the Sunni in Syria in 2011”. The label doesn’t account for (to take a few examples) the widespread chant ‘The Syrian People are One’, or Alawi actress Fadwa Suleiman leading protests in Sunni Homs, or Communist Christian George Sabra leading the Syrian National Council.

By 2014, he writes, “the armed opposition was dominated by ISIS”. You might as well apply the insult to the Iraqi army. From January 2014, in response to popular pressure, every Syrian oppositional militia declared war against ISIS, pushed it out of the north west, and weakened it in its eastern strongholds. They gave hundreds of lives in this battle. Compare the success of these “farmers and dentists” (as Obama disparagingly called them) to the failure of the US-trained Iraqi army, which in June fled from a small ISIS force in Mosul. ISIS brought the American weapons it captured to bear on Syria, and surged back to the areas it had lost. This episode – alongside the anti-ISIS resistance of the Sheitat tribe, and the anti-ISIS activism of schoolteacher Souad Nawfal and others – is present in the Weiss and Hassan book, absent in Cockburn’s.

For Cockburn, Sunni jihadism is an essence without context. The war on terror failed, he says, because it didn’t confront such Sunni states as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. He blames – rightly – Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology, a form of Islamism “that imposes sharia law” (but all Islamisms – Iranian as well as Saudi – seek sharia) for the ideological background from which ISIS arises. Repeatedly he images Sunni jihadists as Nazis and Shia as Jews. He’s almost silent, however, on the more immediate background.

For him, it’s the Syrian opposition which “has allowed or encouraged the conflict to become a vicious sectarian war.” He doesn’t consider that Assad might have had something to do with it, by sending Alawi death squads into Sunni villages to murder and rape, or by releasing violent Salafists from prison in 2011 at the same time he was targetting secular, peaceful activists for detention and assassination. Neither does he blame the Iranian-backed Shia jihadist militias from Lebanon and Iraq who fight on Assad’s frontlines. These facts are documented in Weiss and Hassan’s book; they are absent from Cockburn’s.

Cockburn vastly exaggerates Western support of the Syrian opposition, when the Americans’ main role was to prevent Arab states from sending the heavy weaponry Syrians so desperately needed to resist Assad’s blitzkrieg. One justification given by commentators for the failure to support the Free Army early on was that Islamists might benefit. Of course, the opposite happened – starved for funds, guns and ammunition, the moderate leadership was unable to win loyalty, or establish central control and discipline. Many of its fighters either despaired and left the country or gravitated towards the much better-funded Islamist brigades. Unhindered, Assad’s barrel bombs and scuds implemented a scorched earth strategy, traumatising Syrians and producing a vacuum in which jihadism flourished.

Cockburn has conducted no interviews with ISIS fighters. His informants tend to be government officials or those steered into his path by these officials, ranging from “one senior Iraqi source” to “an intelligence officer from a Middle East country neighbouring Syria.”

“There is no alternative to first-hand reporting,” he nevertheless opines; and “journalists rarely fully admit to themselves … the degree to which they rely on secondary or self-interested sources”. Which brings us to the question of Cockburn’s reliability. In the book he states, in early 2014, “I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex … where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” This alleged massacre was reported by Russian and Syrian state media (Russia is Assad’s imperial sponsor, providing his weapons and defending him at the Security Council); yet international organisations have no record of it. But Cockburn’s original report of the incident, in a January 28, 2014 column for The Independent, states that, rather than witnessing it, he was told the story by “a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali”.

Because Cockburn’s a much-awarded, veteran correspondent, his opinions are echoed and magnified until they attain the status of fact, even amongst those who should know better. A group of Syrian leftist revolutionaries invited to meet Noam Chomsky in Beirut were astounded to hear the great man explain that their cause was doomed. Chomsky knew because his friend Patrick had told him, and “Patrick knows what’s happening in Syria better than anybody”.

Increasingly a deluded ‘realism’ calls for cooperation with Assad against the greater jihadist enemy. It was precisely in order to provoke these calls that Assad did his utmost to create a jihadist threat, and why – until June 2014, when ISIS became a threat to his regime – he refrained from bombing the organisation. Even today, when the Free Army and ISIS fight, Assad bombs the Free Army. Former State Department official Fred Hof describes the unofficial ISIS-Assad collusion like this: “Their top tactical priority in Syria is identical: destroy the Syrian nationalist opposition.”

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 28, 2015 at 10:24 am

Posted in Iran, Iraq, Islamism, Syria

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4 Responses

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  1. Hi Robin

    I read your review in the Guardian, and just had a look through your longer, unedited review here.

    You say “Cockburn vastly exaggerates Western support of the Syrian opposition, when the Americans’ main role was to prevent Arab states from sending the heavy weaponry Syrians so desperately needed to resist Assad’s blitzkrieg.”

    I just wondered what you mean by “heavy weaponry”? I ask because the US has been sending anti-tank missiles to the Syria rebels and there are reports of the US helping to send anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels too (see http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jun/21/world/la-fg-wn-cia-syria-20130621 and http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304703804579382974196840680).

    What do you make of these reports?

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Ian Sinclair

    ianjs2014

    March 30, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    • Ian, you’re right on the anti-tank weapons. The US has provided a small number of TOW missiles to a few vetted groups since 2013. This has come in the context primarily of the opposition’s war with ISIS, though some missiles were used against the regime, and has never been enough to make a difference. Your second link (although I can only read the first sentences because of the pay wall) refers to Saudi Arabia providing missiles, not the US. These days Saudi Arabia is coordinating a lot less with the US – there has been a simmering dispute between the two countries over Syria. It’s certainly true that in 2012 – before Islamists came to dominate – (and later too) the Americans sent CIA people to the Turkish border to stop the Arabs and Turkey from delivering anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. I stick with my wording in this repsect – this was America’s main role. As for the anti-aircraft weapons, US advisors may or may not have trained a few rebels in them – the reports I heard said that the selected rebels went expecting to be trained on, then given, anti-aircrat weapons, but instead were trained with kalashnikovs. Certainly the US hasn’t sent in anti-aircraft weapons. Syrians who’ve lobbied in Washington have been told that that can’t happen – for a start because of the risk that they’d be used against Israel. The Gulf may have got a few in, however, and some have been captured from the regime. But obviously not nearly enough – Aleppo, the Ghouta, now Idlib have no protection from Assad’s barrel bombs.

      The problem with writing to a word count is that you can’t get all this information in. For a fuller treatment, see this: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/09/28/yet-again-on-those-hoary-old-allegations-that-the-us-has-armed-the-fsa-since-2012/

      Best wishes
      Robin

      Robin Yassin-Kassab

      March 30, 2015 at 9:01 pm

  2. Great article Robin this Cockburn is the very definition of a useful idiot. The attitude he expressed is the one some anti-communists used to argue that we should side with Germany. Ironic since Michel Aflaq was inspired after reading Alfred Rosenberg’s book Myth of the 20th Century. You’d think a professional journalist would be savvy to this kind of thing? Dose he not realise that’s exactly what the Baathists and Adolf Khamenei want? How gulibal can one be? Dose he not know in 1980s the Baath Party was part of a plot to blow up a UK passenger plan and kill about 360 innocent Brits? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hindawi_affair

    Daesh reminds me of the Taiping Rebellion in China. That happened in the Victorian ear when China was ruled by the Manchu (an ethnic minority of 2% of the population) Qing dynasty. This guy called Hong Xiquan failed all his exams then he had a dream where he saw a golden man, with a golden bearded in golden clothes who he saw as a father figure who told him to help his big brother figure fight a demon, while Confucius was being punished for his sins. So he took from this that he was wait for it…the…younger…brother….of…Jesus.
    So “Jesus jr” saw it as his holy duty to overthrow the Qing, wipe out the Manchus, replace Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Chinese Folk Religion with a new Christianity. He managed to round up followers mostly Han and Hakka (his race) to fight the hated Manchus. The established a separate country in the south called the Heavenly Kingdom of Taiping (a Chinese word for great heavenly piece). Like Daesh they banned practices they saw as sinful like polygamy, gambling, alcohol, private ownership of land, sexual segregation even for the married and they declared the sexes equal but divide. They even enforced uniform haircuts. Eventually they were defeated and the “King of Great Heavenly Peace” poisoned himself with mushrooms.

    So do think that ISIS/Daesh is similar to the Taiping Warriors? Both were lead by men of minority in war ravaged country and used religion to help build popular support against a government seen as weak and alien, to create a nation and sought to destroy the culture of the old county. not to mention the leaders of the movement both the saviour of man kind only to those who follow. Though obviously the new Caliph can’t claim to be a god in human form like Hong Xijquan did.

    So doo you agree with me that Daesh is just like a mini-Taiping Rebellion?

    niallfraserlove

    April 14, 2015 at 11:48 pm

  3. Robin Yassin-Kassab

    May 28, 2015 at 10:52 am


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