Cockburn’s 160 pages are an introduction to the rapid rise of Islamic State (IS) across Iraq and Syria.
Recycling material from articles in the Independent and London Review of Books Cockburn charts how Islamists from various groups came to dominate the Syrian rebellion after 2012 and changed it from one of predominantly secular and democratic opposition to the ultra-conservative. In which Saudi Wahhabism and Saudi and Gulf state funding played a big role.
Cockburn argues here, as he has in the past, the invasion of Iraq created a sectarian war between Shia and Sunni. Subsequently a US-backed Awakening Movement drove al Qaeda out of Iraq and in the aftermath the Shia sectarian Government of Maliki excluded Sunni militias from the new Iraqi state. All this has impeded the Shia-dominated Iraqi army’s attempt to drive the jihadists out of Iraq. A disenfranchised Sunni population combined with a deeply corrupt Iraqi army allowed IS to move through Iraq like a “serpent through rocks”. IS were able to pick off weak areas, encountering a Sunni population which either accepted their takeover or were unwilling to back a sectarian Shia state.
The west has failed to challenge how the Saudi state continues to export its ideology across the Middle East and increasingly into Europe. The Saudis fund mosques and religious organisations, as well as conservative elements of the Pakistani security services.
The US and UK are particularly complicit, maintaining a close relationships to the Saudi royal family. Solidarity has previously outlined the roots of the IS group, something which cockburn does not really expand on. However he correctly traces the group’s ideological leanings back to the Afghan jihadist war against the Soviet Union and the increasing militarisation of Saudi-sponsored groups.
Cockburn believes the fall of Assad was prematurely predicted by the EU, US and Turkey. Because the regime has survived the conflict has spilled over into civil war, with the Salafist opposition the most homogenous, ruthless and best equipped to become the dominant force against the regime.
Whereas the Free Syrian Army regarded the conflict as one of Syrians fighting Assad, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), IS and others have gathered fighters from across the Arab peninsula and, indeed, the world. IS’s break with al-Qaeda allowed it to focus on sectarian destruction and ultimately the establishment of the Islamic State (as they see it), governed from Raqqa.
IS started as the official al-Qaeda section of Iraq but soon dropped their affiliation, allowing JAN to take on the franchise. JAN and IS share an almost identical hostility to religious minorities, women and LGBT people, but has a slightly less bombastic and bloodthirsty methodology. JAN have engaged in bloody fighting with IS and other rebels as well as fighting alongside them, particularly since the start of the US-led bombing.
Unlike al-Qaeda, IS have territory, oil production, taxation and infrastructure that supplements ransom, looting and donations from wealthy Arabs. It also has many former Ba’athist military and state functionaries on its payroll. It is much more than just an armed militia.
The book ends with the siege of Kobane which at the time of publication was was still underway. Cockburn sees some hope in the Kurdish forces of the YPG, noting that IS have defeated large sections of the Syrian, Iraqi armies and held back the Iraqi Peshmerga. The defeat of IS in Kobane is a small step towards the destruction of the group. It would be a mistake however to view any potential collapse of IS as the ending of the powerful sectarian ideology that drives it forward.
The lessons of the Iraq war and troop surge show that such groups cannot be destroyed by military force alone.