Tuesday, 30 September 2014
More Banality and More Evil
by DAVID ALTHEIDE
When philosopher Hannah Arendt witnessed the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, she was struck by his ‘unthinking’ nature in the way that he went about the ordinary business of carrying out the holocaust. He was not only following orders, he was following procedures, normal ways of acting in a complex, but deadly, organization. That ordinary people can carry out evil deeds led Professor Arendt to suggest that the “banality of evil” was a critical problem that had to be recognized as a modern condition. The Israeli war with Gaza provided riveting visuals of the bombardment of homes, shops, hospitals, schools, several of which served as United Nations’ “safe havens,” that killed and wounded thousands. Israel responded to Hamas’ rain of rockets by bombing and invading Gaza, attacking urban living areas where Hamas fighters were alleged to be operating with a network of tunnels. The Palestinian death toll in Gaza stands at more than 2,000 with nearly 10,000 wounded.
More than 300 children have died. Included in the carnage were 26 members of the Abu Jame’ family, who were killed in a single strike. Sixty-four Israeli soldiers and three civilians have died. When U.N. observers denied that there were any weapons in their smashed shelters, the Israeli reply was that they would investigate the shelling. After all, Israel had good intensions; targeted homes were called minutes before they exploded. If civilians were killed, it was because Hamas was said to be operating in bad faith, using these urban settings for their operations, basically using the civilians as shields. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu stated during a Fox News interview on July 21, 2014: “This is the most grotesque war that I’ve ever seen…Hamas actually wants to pile up as many civilian deaths as possible.” The fault was Hamas’ because there was no intent to kill civilians. Dead adults and dead children were a result of a normal war operation, part of a normal way of thinking about strategy.
And it happened before. The 22-day war, which began Dec. 27, 2008, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The official response was that Hamas was responsible for any civilian casualties because they live, train, store and fire rockets near where people live. A spokeswoman explained: “We have no intention of harming civilians. . .Hamas “cynically uses” civilians by operating in their midst, she said, adding, “Sometimes there can be situations where civilians get hurt.” Israel’s foreign minister, Tzipi Livini, promised officials from the Czech Republic, Sweden and France, who were seeking a ceasefire, that Israel would “change the equation” in the region, adding that in other conflicts:
“. . . we are not asking the world to take part in the battle and send their forces in — we are only asking them to allow us to carry it out until we reach a point in which we decide our goals have been reached for this point.”
A few days prior, President George W. Bush stated that Hamas was to blame because it “unleashed a barrage of rockets and mortars that deliberately targeted innocent Israelis — an act of terror that is opposed by the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, President (Mahmoud) Abbas.” Israel insisted that it tried to make telephone calls (as it did in the 2014 attacks) and drop pamphlets warning residents that their homes would be blown up soon, so they should leave. Children die from routine military planning against terrorism. This is justified by the terrorism narrative, which holds that since terrorism (and terrorists) do not follow civilized rules of warfare and target civilians, then fighting against them can also be outside acceptable limits, e.g., torture, kidnapping, and widespread killing of civilians in the pursuit of terrorists. There was no intent to harm others, just the terrorists themselves, but if the others get in the way, well, that is just too bad. Indeed, the United States has helped normalize killing civilians since the 9/11 attacks. President Obama promised to revisit the drone program, but instead doubled the drone strikes of his predecessor George W. Bush. The President stated in his drone policy on (May 22, 2013): that killing civilians and children was not the intent, but just “heartbreaking tragedies.”
The basic idea is that you do what is necessary against this horrific threat, and if civilian deaths occur, so be it. Going after targets that may include civilians and children is standard procedure and okay. It is not personal or political. It is banal. Perhaps courageous citizens and leaders will demand an end to this narrative.
David Altheide, PhD, is Emeritus Regents’ Professor on the faculty of Justice and Social Inquiry in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, where he taught for 37 years. His forthcoming book is: Media Edge: Medial Logic and Social Reality (Lang).
Creating More War and Backlash
by SHAMUS COOKE
Sometimes bad ideas die slowly. It was only one year ago that Obama announced he would bomb the Syrian government, only to change his mind at the last minute. Now the same fetid war talk is sprouting fresh roots in the ever-fertile U.S. military. Various media outlets reported that Obama might “enforce a no fly zone in Syria to protect civilians from the Syrian government.”
This just weeks after the U.S. public was told that ISIS was the reason the U.S. military was now in Syria. The 2014 media sound bites mimic the 2013 scare tactics, copying the “humanitarian motives” behind the push towards war with the Syrian government. For example, in 2013 The New York Times blandly discussed the “no fly zone” option:
“To establish buffer zones to protect parts of Turkey or Jordan to provide safe havens for Syrian rebels and a base for delivering humanitarian assistance would require imposing a limited no-fly zone and deploying thousands of American ground forces.”
Fast forward to September 27th 2014, where The New York Times published an article called, “U.S. Considers No Fly Zone to Protect Civilians,” where we read:
“The Obama administration has not ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over northeastern Syria to protect civilians from airstrikes by the Syrian government…Creating a buffer, or no-fly zone, would require warplanes to disable the Syrian government’s air defense system through airstrikes.”
A no-fly zone would also require that the U.S. prevent the Syrian air force from flying over Syrian airspace by destroying Syrian fighter jets, i.e., full scale war with the Syrian government and possibly its allies. This last part is always left out, so as to not anger the American public.
Under international law no country has any legal right to carve out a “buffer zone” within another country, even if the no-fly zone was actually well intended. For example, even Canada cannot legally create a buffer zone in Ferguson, Missouri to protect civilians from police violence.
The Syrian government is not bombing random civilians near the Turkish border; they are attacking ISIS and its ideological cousins. These are the same groups that Obama says that he’s waging a war on.
Do civilians die when Syria attacks with bombs? Yes, which is one reason that a lot of popular anger is channeled towards the government in these areas, the same way that anger is now mounting against the U.S. bombings that kill civilians in Syria.
If Obama truly wanted to target ISIS he would have included Syria, Iran, and Russia in his anti-ISIS “coalition.” These nations were excluded because Obama’s coalition is the exact same one that only months before was a U.S.-led coalition against the Syrian government. The grouping maintains its original purpose but puts on a new shirt to fool a media that’s content with surface explanations.
But as soon as the newly dressed U.S. coalition started bombing ISIS, various “partners” announced, unsurprisingly, that Assad was “the real problem.” Obama’s Gulf state monarchy partners never had the stomach to fight ISIS, because they and the U.S. are primarily responsible for its growth, as countries like Qatar dumped money and extremist fighters into the arms of ISIS. Qatar recently reiterated that the Syrian government was the “main problem,” not ISIS.
When Obama announced his strategy to fight ISIS, he snuck in a plan to further invest in the Syrian rebels, whom politicians claimed would be used against ISIS. But these rebels are rebelling against the Syrian government, not ISIS.
Obama even discussed his intent at the UN to use the Syrian rebels against the government:
“…America is training and equipping the Syrian opposition to be a counterweight to the terrorists of ISIL and the brutality of the Assad regime.”
The public talk of a no-fly zone is accompanied by no explanation as to the possible repercussions, including the real danger of an even larger regional war that would likely kill an additional hundreds of thousands and create millions more refugees.
Any U.S. attack on the Syrian government would likely happen sooner than later. The “coalition” of Arab monarchies has lost its patience. The members of this coalition blindly followed Obama into attacking Syria a year ago and were enraged that the president backed out. Saudi Arabia protested by refusing a seat at the UN Security Council.
Obama’s regional follower-allies have invested in an expensive war for three years and have taken on millions of Syrian refugees, creating a destabilizing effect across the region among nations already politically fragile. These shaky regimes cannot support — and would not survive — another three years of war as they wait for Obama to deliver the Syrian deathblow. They demand decisive action, and soon.
History is already condemning the U.S.-led destruction of multiple civilizations in the Middle East, reducing the once-functioning and modern nations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria to dysfunction and chaos, where millions of people flee violence and lose their dignity to the hopelessness of refugee camps. Funding rebels or imposing no fly zones in an already-demolished region will inevitably create more war and backlash.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pentagon provides scant information about people dying at its hands, while reports of civilian casualties emerge from the ground
"Once it served its purpose of justifying the start of the bombing campaign in Syria, the Khorasan narrative simply evaporated as quickly as it materialized,"Intercept writers reveal
Nobody criticises the Israeli government when it swaps prisoners with Hezbollah
He’s offered to do a deal with Isis. No, not David Cameron. Not Obama, of course. I’m talking about Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader. He’s demanding that the Lebanese government swap Islamist prisoners for 21 soldiers and policemen held by Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra.
In case you had forgotten – or just missed the story, because these were Lebanese men, not Westerners – I should add that one of the soldiers was shot in the head. Two were beheaded. On video, of course. So their families could see their decapitation in the comfort of their home.
So let us be clear about this. The Lebanese army, the only serious institution in the country, was ambushed last August in the Sunni town of Arsal on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Arsal is both a town and a refugee camp, and a home to Isis – mortal enemies, as we journos like to say, of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – which is why Jumblatt will not be condemned by Messrs Cameron or Obama. After all, Cameron and Obama are bombing Isis, aren’t they? But they also want to overthrow Assad, don’t they? Problem.
Now, Jumblatt is a generous guy – and why wouldn’t he be when the families of the 21 still missing soldiers and cops pleaded with him to tell the Lebanese government to exchange their sons and husbands and brothers for imprisoned Islamists? Jumblatt’s spokesman announced that the government “cannot negotiate under the edge of a knife”. But we all know what that means. You can.
And I’m struck by how different the Lebanese are from the Brits. This morning, the families of the 21 soldiers and policemen plan to pitch tents in front of the homes of government ministers. Yesterday, they blocked roads across Lebanon. At least one newspaper has claimed that the government is killing its own soldiers by refusing to negotiate.
Prisoners held in Roumieh jail north of Beirut for their part in fighting the army in 2007 in the Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared have still not been tried. Isis wants them freed. Interesting. Because they belonged to a group called Fatah al-Islam and were – at the time – allegedly sent into Lebanon with the permission of the Syrian authorities. Is Fatah al-Islam really Isis? Did Isis exist in 2007 – seven years ago?
But just so we remember that the Lebanese are human, that they are just like us, here is the text of a message that Lance Corporal Sulieman Dirani of the Lebanese army sent to his family – courtesy of Isis, of course – in which he called upon his relatives to protest on the streets of Lebanon: “I call on the Lebanese Army and the Lebanese state to work with conscience and to have sympathy with our parents and mothers and consider us their sons. I call on them to see how our mothers and fathers are sleeping in the streets with no one feeling for them or showing any interest in the matter.”
And maybe these soldiers will live. The Lebanese government has one tough man who deals with kidnapped civilians. He’s called Abbas Ibrahim, a brave man who used to walk, unarmed, into the Ein el-Helweh Palestinian camp in Sidon to talk to Osama bin Laden’s men. He’s now head of the Lebanese “General Security”. And yes, he is a general. He organised the freeing of Christian nuns held by the Jabhat al-Nusra in the Syrian town of Yabroud. Many others owe their life to this man. It’s not his courage I’m talking about. It’s the fact that the Lebanese government is prepared to talk to the bad guys. We don’t do that, of course. But why not?
Perfectly reasonable, respectable governments swap prisoners. Take Israel. It hands over Hezbollah fighters for just a few captured Israeli soldiers. It’s done this many times. Nobody criticises the Israeli government. David Cameron certainly doesn’t. All over the Middle East, captives are freed for other captives. The release of lords and seigneurs and soldiers in return for other captives goes back to the time of the Crusades.
But there are other problems in Lebanon. A third of the population is now Syrian. And the military are deeply concerned that Isis is inside the country. Not just in Arsal. But in the south of Lebanon, too. Syrian refugees are now making their way into the country from Shebaa, close to the Israeli border. In fact, part of Shebaa is claimed by Israel – although maps from the old French mandate suggest the land is inside occupied Syria. But the Israelis must have been concerned to hear that a new slogan has been added to the walls of Hasbaya, a small and beautiful town just north of Shebaa. It calls for a future Islamic State in Lebanon.
by PAUL CRAIG ROBERTS
One might think that by now even Americans would have caught on to the constant stream of false alarms that Washington sounds in order to deceive the people into supporting its hidden agendas.
The public fell for the lie that the Taliban in Afghanistan are terrorists allied with al Qaeda. Americans fought a war for 13 years that enriched Dick Cheney’s firm, Halliburton, and other private interests only to end in another Washington failure.
The public fell for the lie that Saddam Hussein in Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” that were a threat to America and that if the US did not invade Iraq Americans risked a “mushroom cloud going up over an American city.” With the rise of ISIS, this long war apparently is far from over. Billions of dollars more in profits will pour into the coffers of the US military security complex as Washington fights those who are redrawing the false Middle East boundaries created by the British and French after WW I when the British and French seized territories of the former Ottoman Empire.
The American public fell for the lies told about Gaddafi in Libya. The formerly stable and prosperous country is now in chaos.
The American public fell for the lie that Iran has, or is building, nuclear weapons. Sanctioned and reviled by the West, Iran has shifted toward an Eastern orientation, thereby removing a principal oil producer from Western influence.
The public fell for the lie that Assad of Syria used “chemical weapons against his own people.” The jihadists that Washington sent to overthrow Assad have turned out to be, according to Washington’s propaganda, a threat to America.
The greatest threat to the world is Washington’s insistence on its hegemony. The ideology of a handful of neoconservatives is the basis for this insistence. We face the situation in which a handful of American neoconservative psychopaths claim to determine the fate of countries.
Many still believe Washington’s lies, but increasingly the world sees Washington as the greatest threat to peace and life on earth. The claim that America is “exceptional and indispensable” is used to justify Washington’s right to dictate to other countries.
The casualties of Washington’s bombings are invariably civilians, and the deaths will produce more recruits for ISIS. Already there are calls for Washington to reintroduce “boots on the ground” in Iraq. Otherwise, Western civilization is doomed, and our heads will be cut off. The newly created propaganda of a “Russian threat” requires more NATO spending and more military bases on Russia’s borders. A “quick reaction force” is being created to respond to a nonexistent threat of a Russian invasion of the Baltics, Poland, and Europe.
Usually it takes the American public a year, or two, three, or four to realize that it has been deceived by lies and propaganda, but by that time the public has swallowed a new set of lies and propaganda and is all concerned about the latest “threat.” The American public seems incapable of understanding that just as the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth, threat was a hoax, so is the sixth threat, and so will be the seventh, eighth, and ninth.
Moreover, none of these American military attacks on other countries have resulted in a better situation, as Vladimir Putin honestly states. Yet, the public and its representatives in Congress support each new military adventure despite the record of deception and failure.
Perhaps if Americans were taught their true history in place of idealistic fairy tales, they would be less gullible and less susceptible to government propaganda. I have recommended Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the US, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the US, and now I recommend Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers, the story of the long rule of John Foster and Allen Dulles over the State Department and CIA and their demonization of reformist governments that they often succeeded in overthrowing. Kinzer’s history of the Dulles brothers’ plots to overthrow six governments provides insight into how Washington operates today.
In 1953 the Dulles brothers overthrew Iran’s elected leader, Mossadegh and imposed the Shah, thus poisoning American-Iranian relations through the present day. Americans might yet be led into a costly and pointless war with Iran, because of the Dulles brothers poisoning of relations in 1953.
The Dulles brothers overthrew Guatemala’s popular president Arbenz, because his land reform threatened the interest of the Dulles brothers’ Sullivan & Cromwell law firm’s United Fruit Company client. The brothers launched an amazing disinformation campaign depicting Arbenz as a dangerous communist who was a threat to Western civilization. The brothers enlisted dictators such as Somoza in Nicaragua and Batista in Cuba against Arbenz. The CIA organized air strikes and an invasion force. But nothing could happen until Arbenz’s strong support among the people in Guatemala could be shattered. The brothers arranged this through Cardinal Spellman, who enlisted Archbishop Rossell y Arellano. “A pastoral letter was read on April 9, 1954 in all Guatemalan churches.”
A masterpiece of propaganda, the pastoral letter misrepresented Arbenz as a dangerous communist who was the enemy of all Guatemalans. False radio broadcasts produced a fake reality of freedom fighter victories and army defections. Arbenz asked the UN to send fact finders, but Washington prevented that from happening. American journalists, with the exception of James Reston, supported the lies. Washington threatened and bought off Guatemala’s senior military commanders, who forced Arbenz to resign. The CIA’s chosen and well paid “liberator,” Col. Castillo Armas, was installed as Arbenz’s successor.
We recently witnessed a similar operation in Ukraine.
President Eisenhower thanked the CIA for averting “a Communist beachhead in our hemisphere,” and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles gave a national TV and radio address in which he declared that the events in Guatemala “expose the evil purpose of the Kremlin.” This despite the uncontested fact that the only outside power operating in Guatemala was the Dulles brothers.
What had really happened is that a democratic and reformist government was overthrown because it compensated United Fruit Company for the nationalization of the company’s fallow land at a value listed by the company on its tax returns. America’s leading law firm or perhaps more accurately, America’s foreign policy-maker, Sullivan & Cromwell, had no intention of permitting a democratic government to prevail over the interests of the law firm’s client, especially when senior partners of the firm controlled both overt and covert US foreign policy. The two brothers, whose family members were invested in the United Fruit Company, simply applied the resources of the CIA, State Department, and US media to the protection of their private interests. The extraordinary gullibility of the American people, the corrupt American media, and the indoctrinated and impotent Congress allowed the Dulles brothers to succeed in overthrowing a democracy.
Keep in mind that this use of the US government in behalf of private interests occurred 60 years ago long before the corrupt Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama regimes. And no doubt in earlier times as well.
The Dulles brothers next intended victim was Ho Chi Minh. Ho, a nationalist leader, asked for America’s help in freeing Vietnam from French colonial rule. But John Foster Dulles, a self-righteous anti-communist, miscast Ho as a Communist Threat who was springing the domino theory on the Western innocents. Nationalism and anti-colonialism, Foster declared, were merely a cloak for communist subversion.
Paul Kattenburg, the State Department desk officer for Vietnam suggested that instead of war, the US should give Ho $500 million in reconstruction aid to rebuild the country from war and French misrule, which would free Ho from dependence on Russian and Chinese support, and, thereby, influence. Ho appealed to Washington several times, but the demonic inflexibility of the Dulles brothers prevented any sensible response. Instead, the hysteria whipped-up over the “communist threat” by the Dulles brothers landed the United States in the long, costly, fiasco known as the Vietnam War. Kattenburg later wrote that it was suicidal for the US “to cut out its eyes and ears, to castrate its analytic capacity, to shut itself off from the truth because of blind prejudice.” Unfortunately for Americans and the world, castrated analytic capacity is Washington’s strongest suit.
The Dulles brothers’ next targets were President Sukarno of Indonesia, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba of Congo, and Fidel Castro. The plot against Castro was such a disastrous failure that it cost Allen Dulles his job. President Kennedy lost confidence in the agency and told his brother Bobby that after his reelection he was going to break the CIA into a thousand pieces. When President Kennedy removed Allen Dulles, the CIA understood the threat and struck first.
Warren Nutter, my Ph.D. dissertation chairman, later Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, taught his students that for the US government to maintain the people’s trust, which democracy requires, the government’s policies must be affirmations of our principles and be openly communicated to the people. Hidden agendas, such as those of the Dulles brothers and the Clinton, Bush and Obama regimes, must rely on secrecy and manipulation and, thereby, arouse the distrust of the people. If Americans are too brainwashed to notice, many foreign nationals are not.
The US government’s secret agendas have cost Americans and many peoples in the world tremendously. Essentially, the Foster brothers created the Cold War with their secret agendas and anti-communist hysteria. Secret agendas committed Americans to long, costly, and unnecessary wars in Vietnam and the Middle East. Secret CIA and military agendas intending regime change in Cuba were blocked by President John F. Kennedy and resulted in the assassination of a president, who, for all his faults, was likely to have ended the Cold War twenty years before Ronald Reagan seized the opportunity.
Secret agendas have prevailed for so long that the American people themselves are now corrupted. As the saying goes, “a fish rots from the head.” The rot in Washington now permeates the country.
Paul Craig Roberts is a former Assistant Secretary of the US Treasury and Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal. Roberts’ How the Economy Was Lost is now available from CounterPunch in electronic format. His latest book is How America Was Lost.
Another Terror Trap
by WILLIAM COHN
Last Fall, we were told that the United States had to wage war against the Assad regime in Syria. This Fall, we are told the US must wage war against Syrian rebels seeking to overthrow the Assad regime. How can this be logically explained? Has the world changed so dramatically in one year?
In fact, despite dramatic changes things remain very much the same. The world today, just as a year ago and a decade ago, is marked by: a growing gap between the haves and have-nots; a reflex for military solutions to political problems; a flagrant disregard for law; and, hypocritical policy which reacts to the symptoms of terror rather than addressing its causes.
Yes, the Islamic States’ actions are barbaric and there is great volatility in the Mid-East, but the policy of the West has enabled these developments. Just as Al-Qaeda was born from US support of the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, ISIS comes from the US war in Iraq. We can also look to the intervention of the West in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and its overall regional policy, to explain the regional chaos and spread of Islamic extremism.
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on September 25, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani criticized Western nations for sowing extremism in the Middle East, saying, “Certain intelligence agencies have put blades in the hands of mad men who now spare no one. All those who have played a role in founding and supporting these terror groups must now acknowledge their errors.” Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Sadly, the West is again repeating its erroneous ways.
Despite Obama’s bellicose rhetoric at the UN this week, there is no military solution to terrorism. A comprehensive study on How Terrorist Groups End by the Rand Corporation underscores the need for political, not military, solutions. Iraq may need to be a confederation. Iran and other disfavored groups will need to be part of a grand-negotiation. Bombs cannot bring peace in the region.
Robert McNamara set forth guidelines for the wise use of military force in The Fog of War: “If we can’t persuade nations with comparable values of the merits of our cause, we’d better re-examine our reasoning.” Europe, stung by the Iraq experience, has not supported the bombing of ISIL in Syria. America’s coalition for that bombing is five brutal Arab autocracies (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Bahrain).
Former Bush legal advisor John Bellinger III recently said, “Many European governments really are sticklers on international law rules on the use of force, particularly after the Iraq war. This may look a lot more justifiable, but they nonetheless feel the obligation to have a legal basis.” Think about that. The Bush lawyer is saying that the US doesn’t need a legal basis to bomb Syria. The legal justification given by the Obama team has mutated from the absurd (Syrian extremists were plotting an imminent attack against the US) to the creative (If Iraq so requests, the US can chase its enemies across land borders).
A sane approach to ending terrorism would address its economic as well as its political roots, recognizing that the rise of the rest enhances the security of the West. It would aim to redress the failure of globalization to deliver on its promise. And, it would recognize that democracy must begin at home, not in Baghdad or Damascus.
Policies must extend security. Terror sown will be terror reaped. The bombing of Syria began as the UN climate summit convened. What could extend security more than the triple win of finding clean renewable sources to meet our energy needs, reversing global warming and its catastrophic consequences, and ending our sick addiction to fossil fuels and oil wars? Perpetual war can never bring peace or security, only insanity.
William Cohn, a member of the California Bar, lectures on law, ethics and critical thinking at New York University and the University of New York in Prague.
by TARIQ ALI and PATRICK COCKBURN
Tariq Ali: I’m in conversation with Patrick Cockburn, who can only be described as a veteran reporter and courageous journalist who has covered the wars of the United States in the Middle East since they began with the invasion of Iraq, and was reporting from the region a long time before on the sanctions against Iraq, the Gulf wars. We’re now at a critical stage where a new organisation has emerged.
Patrick has written a new book, The Jihadis Return, which is an extended essay on the emergence of ISIS and its links to the Sunni population in Iraq and the likely consequences of this for the region. Because there’s absolutely no doubt that what this opens up is yet another front in the unending war that has become a total misery for the people who live in the Arab world today. Patrick, let’s begin by sort of inquiring about the origins of the Islamic State group, ISIS as they call themselves, where do they come out from and when did this start?
Patrick Cockburn: Well they come most immediately from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was at the height of its influence in 2006 [and] 2007 when it was an element–but not the only element–in the Sunni resistance to a Shia government and the American occupation. Ideologically, it comes out of the Jihadi movement and actually its religious beliefs are not that much different from Saudi Wahhabism, the variant of the Islam which is effectively the state religion of Saudi Arabia with its denigration of Shia as heretics, [along with] Christians and Jews. It’s just carrying these beliefs to a higher and more violent level but it’s very much in the context of the Jihadi movement
Tariq Ali: Can I just interrupt you there? This Jihadi movement did not exist in Iraq as such prior to the American invasion and occupation.
Patrick Cockburn: No, it didn’t. And Saddam arrested anybody who was an obvious Jihadi. I mean, it was always an absurd pretence at the time of the invasion of Iraq to say that Saddam had any connection with the Jihadis or 9/11. Though such was the volume of propaganda at the time that 60% of Americans believed that somehow Saddam was linked to 9/11
Tariq Ali: So following through on this, we have the American occupation, we have a Shia government, which they have effectively put into power, and we have the beginnings of an uprising in the early days of the occupation, which involved not just Sunnis but also Muqtada al-Sadr who was very hostile to the occupation. What happened to break up this sort of resistance, which was initially a combined resistance, such as Shia groups like Muqtada sending medical aid and help to the besieged Fallujah? Why did that break up?
Patrick Cockburn: The unity between the Sunni and Shia resistance to the Americans was always tentative, although taken very seriously by the Americans. I mean, the memoirs of American generals at the time said they were really worried that these two groups would unite in resisting the occupation. And it’s perhaps one of the many disasters to have happened to Iraq that they didn’t unite, that they remained sectarian, in fact remained more sectarian, on the Sunni side.
Tariq Ali: And so, if we come down to the speed with which this particular organisation swept through parts of Iraq, which you yourself talk about in the book, how do you explain the total collapse of the Iraqi army, Patrick? Is it in that sense not too much different from the army created by the West in Afghanistan, the fact that they are not prepared to fight and die for the United States?At that time it was, al-Qaeda and Iraq was only one of a number of serious resistance movements to the occupation but it was very evident in Baghdad at the time when I went to American briefings that anything that happened was attributed by the spokesman, the military spokesman, to al-Qaeda. Of course this played well back in the US, but in Iraq it had quite the contrary effect which people who were against the occupation think, oh it’s al-Qaeda who’s doing all this resisting, let’s go an get a black flag and join them…
Patrick Cockburn: Yeah, and even more so. I mean I think this is, it’s difficult to think of another example in history, where there are 300 or 350 thousand men in the Iraqi army, they’d spent 41.6 billion dollars on this army over the last three years. But it disintegrated because of an attack by maybe a couple of thousand people in Mosul. Why did it happen? Well, the army was rather extraordinary. I mean one Iraqi general I was talking to who’d been forcibly retired said at the beginning of the disaster was the Americans, [who] when they set it up, insisted that supplies and things like that should be outsourced, privatised.
So immediately a colonel of a battalion nominally of 600 men would get money for 600 men, [but] in fact there were only 200 men in it, and would pocket the difference, which was spread out among the officers. And this applied to fuel, it applied to ammunition… At the time of the fall of Mosul there are meant to be 30,000 troops there. In fact, it’s estimated that only one in three was there. Because what you did was: you joined the army, you got your full salary and then you kicked back half that salary to your officer, who spread it among the officers. So I remember about a year ago talking to a senior Iraqi politician, and who said look: the army’s going to collapse if it’s attacked. I said surely some will fight, he said: no no no, you don’t understand. These officers are not soldiers, they’re investors!
They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment. Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about 20,000 dollars, more recently it cost you about $200,000. You want to be divisional commander, and there are 15 divisions, it will cost you about 2 million. Of course, there are other ways of making money. Checkpoints on the roads act as sort of customs barriers and a tariff on each truck going through would be paid. So that’s why they ran away, led by their commanding officer, the three commanding generals got into a helicopter in civilian clothes and fled to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. And that led to the final dissolution of the army.
Tariq Ali: It is one of the most astonishing events in recent history, Patrick. I mean can you think of any other equivalent, even in the last century?
Patrick Cockburn: I can’t think of any of such a large well-equipped army disintegrating. You could say that Saddam’s army disintegrated in ’91 when attacked by the Americans, and again in 2003. But then it was attacked by the largest military force in the world and was being bombed. So it’s not a parallel. It of course shows that ISIS was quite effective in spreading terror through social media, by films of it decapitating Shia captives. So the soldiers were terrified of ISIS.
And also the whole Sunni community, about 20% of Iraqis, maybe 6 million in the Sunni provinces, were alienated by the Nouri al-Malaki’s regime. They were persecuted, they couldn’t get jobs, collective punishment, young men in villages around Fallujah - sometimes there aren’t many young men because they’re all in jail – and some were on death row going to be executed for crimes which somebody had already been executed for. It was completely arbitrary. So not surprisingly to this day it’s one of the reasons that ISIS still has support, that for all its bloodthirstiness, for a lot of the Sunni community it’s better than the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Shia militias coming back.
Tariq Ali: I mean this is something which apart from yourself and possibly one other journalist in the entire Western media is not being reported at all, that however violent and brutal this group seems and is, it does have some support among the population…
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, ISIS has a number of different kinds of support. It has support of the alienated Sunni community in Iraq and also in Syria. That at least their victors, after all these people have been defeated - they were defeated in ’91 by the Americans, they were defeated again in 2003, they were marginalised, persecuted – so victory is important to them. I think also they appeal to jobless young men, I mean sometimes referred to as the underclass, but actually just the poor, poor young men.
Tariq Ali: Poor and unemployed.
Patrick Cockburn: Poor, unemployed young men with nothing in front of them: this does have an appeal for them. And the alternative is pretty bad. I mean, the few successful counterattacks made primarily by the Shia and Kurdish militias, that they’ve immediately driven out the Sunni from areas were ISIS had driven out the Shia. So from the Sunni point of view, they don’t have much alternative but to stick with ISIS.
Tariq Ali: And is there no alternative Sunni organisation, which at least offers a different political programme apart from this sort of fanaticism shown by ISIS. I mean, what about the Association of Sunni Scholars?
Patrick Cockburn: Many sort of went along with ISIS trying to sort of ride the tiger. And … it was believed in Baghdad, and I think really until about a month ago, that, yes, ISIS had appeared to have won these great victories but in fact they were simply the shock troops of the Sunni community. And there were tribes and there were former army officers and there were others like the scholars who would displace them once the Sunni had got what they wanted.
Tariq Ali: And we thought this was wishful thinking because ISIS tends to monopolise power just as soon as it can, even when it took power in an area in combination with others. It’s also extremely paranoid, so it’s going to kill anybody whom it thinks is preparing to stab it in the back or rise up against it. In Mosul for instance, they seem to have taken hostage about 300 people. But former generals, sort of Sunni dignitaries, the sort of people who they suspect might lead that sort of resistance. And in Syria, in Deir ez-Zo province, one tribe sort of rose up against them, they crushed it immediately and executed 700 of its members. So I think it’s just wishful thinking to imagine that ISIS is going to be displaced in the areas it has conquered.
Let’s come to the next point. A lot of people have speculated that the Saudis in some form or the other, if not the government directly, people close to the government in Saudi Arabia, were partially responsible for creating, helping and funding this force as a sort of proto-Saudi intervention against Shia domination in Iraq after the occupation. To what extent is this true, if at all?
Patrick Cockburn: There’s some truth in it, but you want to avoid a conspiracy theory that the Saudis are the sort of master who moves the pawns on the board, which is sometimes believed in parts of the Middle East. The Saudis have always been behind the Jihadi movement in general, above all abroad, not within Saudi Arabia. And generally they will support those who oppose Shia governments, and don’t really distinguish or didn’t really distinguish who they were supporting. But it’s also pretty clear that a lot of their support did go to ISIS, did go to other groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, this was all through private donors, not just Saudi Arabia, but Kuwait and Qatar, and Turkey.
The US and Britain would [try to] distinguish between the moderate Syrian opposition in this corner and the Jihadi extreme opposition in the other corner. But actually the two were together, I mean there was a report this very week by a research organisation itemising various weapons in the hands of ISIS that appear to have been supplied by Saudi Arabia last year to the supposedly moderate Syrian opposition, but were immediately transferred because the gap between the two is much more limited than you’d imagine…
Tariq Ali: Yeah. And there’s a report in, I think, in the newspapers today as we speak, that Steven Sotloff was sold to ISIS by a supposedly moderate Syrian organisation who captured him.
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, his family are saying this. And it’s also interesting that immediately the American spokesmen say: no no no that didn’t happen, because they can see how far this undermines what may be their policy to be announced today by Obama of building up a moderate opposition, a third force, which is going to supposedly fight Assad and fight ISIS simultaneously
Tariq Ali: It’s pure fantasy
Patrick Cockburn: It’s fantasy … in that form. But I mean it’s interesting that the commanding general of the Free Syrian Army says that the Free Syrian Army commanders in Syria, now get their orders directly from the Americans. He said he and the other officers in Turkey were meant to be the headquarters and the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. He said I think it’s 16 commanders in northern Syria and some other, about 60 of the smaller groups in the South, now get their equipment, advice and instructions directly from the Americans
Tariq Ali: But Patrick, this again is pretty astonishing. That here we had, not so long ago, the entire Western world led by the United States determined to get rid of Assad, arming all these people, and as you’ve pointed out arms flowing from one group to the other in the battle against Assad. And now we are facing a situation where the United States might actually be bombing ISIS sites inside Syria. Is this possible?
Patrick Cockburn: Well I think so. I think they’ve gone so far down this road to suggesting this that I think it’ll certainly happen at some point. One of the strengths of ISIS is being able to operate in Iraq and Syria
Tariq Ali: At the same time…
Patrick Cockburn: At the same time. And in fact its potential constituency in Syria is bigger than Iraq, because only 20 percent of Iraqis are Syri, are Sunni Arabs and 60 percent of Syrians are Sunni Arabs. So potentially they could dominate the Syrian opposition and not all of course of Syrian Sunni Arabs support the opposition, quite a lot support the government. But they can have a far bigger reach there and they are still expanding. I mean they are 30 miles from Aleppo. They inflicted some of the biggest defeats, in fact the biggest defeats, which the Syrian army has suffered in three years. [These] were inflicted in Raqqah province within the last month by ISIS.
Tariq Ali: Okay, now let’s come to the third factor in the situation, not discussed seriously but often referred to. The Kurdish parties in Syria and in Iraq are clearly opposed to all this and are fighting ISIS as best they can.The Kurds in Syria are under siege from them, the Kurds in Iraq are determined to fight them. To what extent is this effective and why was the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq not capable of dealing with them in a tougher way at the very beginning?
Patrick Cockburn: I think probably the reputation of the Peshmerga in Iraq was exaggerated anyway. They haven’t fought anybody apart from their own [separatist] war and that was in the 90s, for many years. They were always good at mountain ambushes and at public relations, but otherwise it was always a bit exaggerated. I mean maybe it’s not their fault, they were fighting Saddam’s enormous army. But that was exaggerated. And also it has become an oil state…many Kurds are just interested in making money and so forth. Now they say they weren’t properly equipped.
Well, you know, you can buy arms … it doesn’t all have to come from America. Why are there all this big hotels in Erbil their capital, and why didn’t they have some heavy machine guns? And they also have got a 600 mile border to defend. And also they took advantage of the fall of Mosul to extend their territories into territories [that are] disputed with the Arabs. This made the Arabs in these mixed areas much more anti-Kurdish than they had been previously. So there was acceptability to what ISIS did in advancing among the Arabs, and one of the many toxic effects of this is that the populations are now separating. First of all the Yazidis and the Kurds and others fled, and now the Sunni Arabs are fleeing these areas to avoid revenge attacks
Tariq Ali: And what about the Syrian Kurds?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, that’s different because they are 10% of the population in Syria. They’re in enclaves mostly in the North East and the North.
Tariq Ali: And Assad has given them autonomy, this is true?
Patrick Cockburn: Not quite, but they’ve sort of [made an] opportunistic withdrawal, because he knows that … ISIS is going to attack them … and actually you know, the people that are attacking them are not just ISIS but Jabhat al-Nusra. All the other opposition groups suddenly come together to attack the Kurds in these areas. I mean it also undermines that idea that there is a moderate opposition and a Jihadi opposition. That the Free Syrian Army and all these others come to attack the Kurds. The [dominant] Kurds there are … the PKK which is basically the Turkish Kurdish opposition. But they are much more effective fighters than the Iraqi Peshmerga. In fact, they rescued quite a lot of the Yazidis in Sinjar in Western Kurdistan
Tariq Ali: The Syrian Kurd state….
Patrick Cockburn: The Syrian Kurds, yeah. Somewhat to the embarrassment of the [Kurds] of Erbil
Tariq Ali: Yeah. So, coming to the key thing now. You’ve written that the Skykes-Picot agreement has probably finally finished. This was the agreement after the First World War whereby Ottoman lands in the Arab world were divided up between France and Britain. But Patrick, you may be right. In 2006 I felt that there was no future for Iraq as a state because of what had happened and you’d probably have a Shia state and a pro-Saudi Sunni state and a Kurdish state. Do you think this is going to happen now in some shape or form over the next five years?
Patrick Cockburn: In some shape, but not exactly, you know I don’t think map-makers are going to sort of have the borders of their new states there. But I think you’ll effectively have three sovereign states in Iraq. And you do have that already. I mean, you’re a Shia in Baghdad. If I’m in Baghdad, I can’t go an hour North of Baghdad without having my head chopped off. Likewise a Kurd in the North and likewise any Sunni who tries to come through any checkpoint in Baghdad or into Kurdistan is likely to be arrested…
Tariq Ali: Well you’ve been visiting Baghdad for years, Patrick. Are you telling me that effectively there are ethnic borders now in Baghdad and you can’t move from one part of the city to the other?
Patrick Cockburn: No. Between Baghdad and the rest of Iraq you can’t. I mean there are Sunni parts of Baghdad, but you had a sectarian civil war 2006-7 in which the Sunni basically lost. So they have quite small enclaves in Baghdad. There aren’t many mixed areas left, the Shia dominate the city. Now these Sunni areas could rise up, but they’re also vulnerable to counterattack from the Shia majority. There could be a battle for Baghdad but the Sunni in the city are likely to lose it, which is one of the reasons why they are terrified.
Tariq Ali: And there’s a Kurdish population in Baghdad too, let’s not forget…
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, but a lot of them are, have melted into the local population.
Tariq Ali: Intermarriages?
Patrick Cockburn: Intermarriages…. There’s never been sort of hardcore Kurdish areas or enclaves in Baghdad with their own militia, which is true of the Shia, and in a covert way is true of the Sunni as well.
Tariq Ali: If we just move to Syria for a bit. What is your impression of the current state of play with the sort of emergence of ISIS, not just the emergence but the successes of ISIS, with the Americans in NATO now trying to work up some sort of a plot or, not a plot, but openly debating how to destroy the organisation. Surely this is going to, I mean, immediately strengthen the Assad regime, regardless of what is intended or not…
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. And that’s of course what has put them in such a muddle. I mean ISIS controls about 35, 40% of Syria. In eastern Syria, they control the oil fields. They’re very close to Aleppo, which was the biggest city in Syria. They could take over the rebel held part and then maybe they could take over the whole city. This would be more significant than taking Mosul in Iraq. Jihadi organisations, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, but also ISIS, are close to Hama, the fourth biggest city in Syria. So they’re in a strong position. It wouldn’t take much for ISIS to reach the Mediterranean there, where they were before they did a tactical withdrawal earlier in the year.
So it’s rather an extraordinary situation that you have America and the other Westerners and powers saying we’re going to intervene against ISIS but we’re not going to do anything to help Assad. But Assad is the main enemy of ISIS and if they’re trying to weaken Assad then they help ISIS. And it’s the result of their, to my mind, catastrophic policies over the last two years. It has been evident since the end of 2012 that Assad was not going to go, previous to that there was a presumption that in 2011 and 2012, in the Western capitals and elsewhere, that he was going to follow Gaddafi–he was going to go down. But they’ve sort of pretended that he was going to go. [In] negotiations in Geneva earlier this year it was said … that the only thing worth talking about was transition, Assad going.
But Assad obviously wasn’t going to go, because there are 14 provincial capitals in Syria and he held 13 of them. So if you said that, in fact, you were saying: well, then the war will go on because he wasn’t going to go. And I think for a time, they - Washington, and the others, and the Saudis – were not unhappy with this. It was something they could live with because he was there but he was weak and was probably going to stay there. And then the Jihadis were there, but they were involved in their own civil war. But the great miscalculation was that on the Jihadis side one group would win out, which was ISIS. And secondly, this wasn’t going to remain Syrian on Syrian, or Iraqi on Iraqi, or even Muslim on Muslim, that after all the new caliphate claims the allegiance of all Muslims and claims the allegiance of the world. So its ambitions….
Tariq Ali: Are global…
Patrick Cockburn: Are global.
Tariq Ali: And its prospectus, which is very similar to the NATO prospectus, if you see both organisations’ prospectuses together, it’s obvious that ISIS has copied the NATO model. They have pictures like that one in their prospectus saying this is what we do, this is how many people we killed here, there. There’s no shame at all about what they are doing. So in a weird way, despite the ideology which is Wahhabi and sort of born-again Muslimism, literalism, they are quite modern in their approach in some ways are they not?
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, I mean rather amazingly so. You know, at the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011, blogging, new Twitter, YouTube, were considered progressive instruments that would erode the power of police states and authoritarianism and so forth. But in fact, the people that have put them to greatest use have been Jihadi organisations, and ISIS in particular, to spread their views, to spread terror, very effectively. The families of an Iraqi soldier in Baghdad, you know, a soldier’s wife, his mother, they’ve all seen this stuff so, they say: don’t go back to the army, you’ll be killed. So this is pretty effective
Tariq Ali: Patrick, what is the United States going to do now, what are its options? I mean do you think they can have any success in wiping out ISIS, which seems to be their plan. I mean how the hell are they going to do it without ground troops and all the available reports suggest that the Pentagon is opposed to putting in ground troops. I mean are they going to find some Arab countries to act as their auxiliaries?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, yes, … auxiliaries. I don’t think they’re going to commit troops. I mean look what happened: the Iraqi army fled, the Syrian army fought, it still lost. It lost an important air base in Raqqah province a few weeks ago although it fought very hard. So I think they’ll be very nervous of fighting ISIS. The US is looking, Obama says, for local partners. It’s a bit unclear what this means. Local partners in Baghdad, the parties have sort of come together because they’re all terrified of ISIS but when you look more closely the Kurds have agreed to nothing. The Sunni leaders have taken some jobs in Baghdad, but these are Sunni leaders who dare not go back their own cities and towns because they’d get their heads chopped off. So it’s still very disorganised and divided and has only sort of happened under pressure from the US and Iran who have parallel interests there.
Tariq Ali: Well they know exactly the obvious ally in this, were they looking for serious allies in the region, would actually be Iran. Which they’re not prepared to consider because they’ve demonised Iran to such a level and the Israelis would probably be hostile to any such notion. Because the Iranians could use any alliance with the Americans now to get a bomb quickly like General Zia did during the war against Afghanistan. But apart from Iran, who else is there with the firepower?
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, and also this applies to Syria as well. the Americans and the others are sort of refusing to make a choice … Say we put a coalition backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These people have money, they have influence on the Jihadis maybe, on the Sunni community, but they’re avoiding changing relations or ending confrontation with Iran and in Syria Russia matters a lot. They’re still hostile to Hezbollah … and the Kurds in Syria who are fighting ISIS rather effectively. So what is it? It’s really a recipe for a very long war in a very confused situation.
And, you know, what are they going to do if ISIS advances into Aleppo? Are they going to bomb it there at the same time as the Syrian Air Force is bombing ISIS? How do they know that Syrian Air Force planes are not going to try to shoot down American planes? Of course, what they will do, I think, is have covert relations with the Assad government. In fact, I’m told they already do–not to do a public U-turn but have a sort of an understanding with them, as to some degree happened in Iraq after 2003… Iraqis always used to say that Iran and the US wave their fists at each other over the table, but they sort of shake hands under the table
Tariq Ali: Which they did.
Patrick Cockburn: Oh absolutely.
Tariq Ali: Without the Iranian green light it would have been difficult for them to take Iraq just like that.
Patrick Cockburn: Oh yes. Why did we have Nouri al-Maliki as the disastrous Prime Minister of Iraq for eight years and then reappointed in 2010? And I remember an Iraqi friend of mine, a diplomat, rang me up when Maliki … basically got back as Prime Minister and said, you know, the great Satan America and the axis of evil Iran have come together with … catastrophic consequences for Iraqis.
Tariq Ali: Exactly. So Patrick, overall the situation is pretty grim and likely to remain so?
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, it’s grim because there are so many players involved. There are so many different crises entangled with each other that this is now likely to go on for a long time. There might have been a moment two years ago when they could’ve prevented ISIS taking off. Because really the war in Syria that changed the fortunes of ISIS. Previously in Iraq, it benefited from the alienation of the Sunni community, but suddenly the war in Syria relaunched ISIS, because it destabilised Iraq. It reignited the war in Iraq which had died down, but never quite ended. And Iraqi politicians, I remember Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister saying to me at that time, if the West allows the war in Syria to go on, that will inevitably destabilise Iraq and that is what has happened.
Tariq Ali: On that pessimistic note, we end this conversation. Thanks very much Patrick and we will talk again no doubt.
Patrick Cockburn: Great, thank you.
Tariq Ali is the author of The Obama Syndrome (Verso).
Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.