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Patrick Cockburn’s latest book is timely to say the least.
As the Western powers oversee a succession of seemingly endless bloody fiascos in the Middle East, Cockburn illuminates the intelligence illusions and diplomatic deceptions of Washington, London, Paris and Brussels that have shaped the murderous onslaught in Iraq and Syria by Islamist extremists seeking to establish a Sunni caliphate in the region.
He charts the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant from a minuscule splinter group into a powerful military and political force.
Cockburn has made many visits to Syria during the recent conflict and he shows how the efforts to topple the Assad government in Damascus ran aground on the stubborn reality that the Syrian government, despite its political and economic failings, retained a bedrock of support across key communities and was never an exclusive “Alawite dictatorship” as many in the West believed.
As to Iraq, he derides the corruption and inefficiency of the Iraqi government and argues that its incompetence and greed fuelled Sunni animosity and alienation.
The West’s attempt to promote supposedly moderate forces such as the Free Syrian Army were derailed as these forces followed increasingly hardened sectarian positions and even so were still outgunned and outfunded by ever-more extreme Islamist groups.
The very term jihadi is controversial, since the Koran’s usage of the word jihad refers more often to peaceful and spiritual struggle than to violent conflict.
Yet key Western allies in the Gulf — Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — have been pushing fundamentalist Wahhabi theology at the expense of other strains of Islam for several decades. Its network of Gulf-funded mosques and madrassas has acted as an incubator for Wahhabi extremism globally.
But the US and Britain have continued to placate and arm these states in return for trade opportunities and access to military bases, while the latter’s hostility to Iran dovetails with Western foreign policy.
We can also ask why it is that these Islamist forces have spent such efforts and spilt so much blood in attacking independent and non-aligned Arab states such as Syria, while neighbouring Palestine continues to bleed.
One is left with no other conclusion than that the jihadist forces’ anti-zionism, often mixed with a poisonous anti-semitism, is largely rhetorical and kept within limits acceptable to their Gulf sponsors.
Cockburn brings an intellectual depth that is rare outside the preserve of academics and a refreshing detachment from the “embedded” journalists who inevitably become compromised by their integration into military formations.
Currently Middle East correspondent for the Independent, he is scathing about the willingness of many of his press corps colleagues to uncritically repeat atrocity propaganda but he is professionally discreet enough not to name names.
His late father, the legendary Claud Cockburn who wrote for the Daily Worker as Frank Pitcairn, famously suggested that the only way a diplomatic or foreign correspondent could do their job properly when faced with military misinformation and diplomatic misdirection was to continually ask the question: “Why are these bastards lying to me?”
It’s heartening to see that Patrick Cockburn has kept this sceptical legacy alive and his latest work is essential to make sense of the latest phases of the Middle East crises.
OR Books, £9
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