Patrick Cockburn is an Irish journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and, presently, The Independent. Among the most experienced commentators on Iraq, he has written four books on the country's recent history. Cockburn's latest book is The Age of Jihad.
transcriptAaron Maté: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. The Pentagon says it's shifted to annihilation tactics in its campaign against the Islamic State.Speaker 2: We have already shifted from attrition tactics where we shove them from one position to another in Iraq and Syria to annihilation tactics where we surround them. Our intention is that the foreign fighters do not survive the fight.Aaron Maté: Those tactics appear to be killing more civilians. Monitoring groups say more innocents are dying in increased coalition bombings of the Islamic State in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. According to Air Wars, the US is now killing more civilians in Russia on a regular basis. The toll could grow as the battle for Raqqa intensifies in the coming weeks. Patrick Coburn is a long time Middle East correspondent for the newspaper, The Independent. Patrick, welcome.Patrick Coburn: Thank you.Aaron Maté: You've been in and out of Syria, covering the war there, many times. Can you talk about the context right now for this spike in civilian casualties that we're seeing from US led bombings?Patrick Coburn: You've always had civilian casualties from bombing, and there's always sort of been a hypocrisy about this, that where you have ISIS fighters and civilians, that somehow you can distinguish between the two. Air Forces always say, oh we've got pinpoint accuracy. Maybe, but they don't really know where they are. They know where exactly where they are. Often they're in the, civilians and fighters are in the same building. Consequently you have more civilian casualties. It appears that since Trump became president, that the bombing, that bombers can be called in more easily. Often, now this was happening before. Often it's local guys are earning money by passing information about ISIS, saying they're in that building or they're in that room. But after all these guys' priority is to make some money, so when they get it wrong, it's no sweat. They still make money. You have buildings being bombed in Raqqa I think it was that the jail had been bombed. Somebody said that's a Taliban jail, but of course if you were in a Taliban jail, most people didn't like the Taliban but they got killed as well. You see that in Syria. You see this in Iraq and Mosul. I was in, people in East Mosul, I was talking to them on the phone, who are being bombed, that somebody identifies their houses as being a, a house as being an ISIS strong point, but maybe ISIS come in there. Smash in all the walls, so they can move very quickly from building to building. They come in, they set up a sniper position. They fire a shot. They're out of there 20 seconds later and five minutes later that building is hit by a bomb. The civilians who are inside, the families inside that building are killed. I know about one guy in Mosul and maybe this gives the flavor of what really happens if you're on the ground. He had a tarpaulin over part of his house as a shade. It's pretty hot in Mosul. But the US and the Iraqi Air Force had decided that any tarpaulin must be concealing an ISIS fighting position or supplies and consequently got bombed by a drone. He got hit in the leg and had dragged himself to a local clinic. They didn't have any bandages and so forth. He dragged himself home again. One of the things is that there isn't much medical services that anybody in these areas can rely on if they get injured.Aaron Maté: Going from the campaign to dislodge ISIS from Mosul and Iraq, let's go to this campaign to dislodge ISIS from their de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa. The US has just started arming the Syrian Kurds, in preparation for that assault. That was a controversial move because Turkey opposed it. What are you expecting to happen with this assault when it takes place to kick ISIS out of Raqqa?Patrick Coburn: Well I think kick is going to be the wrong word. Because ISIS, you know they're a monstrous organization. Everybody's agreed on that but they, they're a mixture of fanaticism and but fanatics with a high degree of military expertise. They've been fighting in Mosul now for six, seven months, and I doubt ... They probably got a couple of thousand guys there, very mobile. As I said, snipers moving from house to house. Suicide bombers inside vehicles, packed with explosives. Mortar teams, very mobile within the city and they'll probably do the same in Raqqa. Now Raqqa had a population of 300,000 in the [inaudible 00:05:29] and Mosul about two million, so it's a much, a bigger city, Mosul. Raqqa's on the north bank of the Euphrates. The bridges have been destroyed so these guys can't get out. It will be ... I don't know yet if they're going to make a fight for it. Seems quite likely they will, but as I said, ISIS is pretty militarily expert. These guys are not idiots. They want to stay in business. They don't want to lose all their best fighters in sieges in Iraq and Mosul. They still, they've lost a lot of territory but they still control a lot in Syria, around Deir ez-Zor. You mentioned that earlier. It's a big area in Eastern Syria. They'll withdraw a lot of their fighters down south, along the Euphrates and they'll try to stay in business. Another point to make is you know the Syrian Kurds are kind of the punching power on the ground. Some are called the Syrian Democratic Forces, there's quite a lot of Arabs, local Arab tribes have joined. Probably total around 45,000, 50,000 men. But the number of really good combat troops is pretty limited. What they do is they call in air strikes. That's how they advance. That's happened in Mosul. That's happened elsewhere in Syria. Of course that means that there's very heavy damage on the ground because the limited number of ground troops that the Syrian, opposing ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Another consequence of this is that even when ground is lost by ISIS, it's pretty difficult to occupy it. They don't have the men to do that so ISIS can begin to filter back. We've seen that in different areas where they've lost ground, but a few months later they begin to come back again.Aaron Maté: Patrick I want to ask you a bit about the dynamics right now between the US, Russia and the Syrian state right now. A few weeks ago, you had a US led coalition strike on a convoy of pro-Assad forces near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan. The US said that these forces were advancing on its allies' positions. Russia and Syria have dismissed that claim. What do you make of what happened there?Patrick Coburn: I think what's happening is there's kind of a race for Eastern Syria. You know ISIS is getting weaker. I was saying it's not going to go completely out of business, but it's definitely getting weaker so there's a race to take over Eastern Syria, which is a pretty big area. A lot of it's desert. The semi-desert, but there's also oil there. There's cotton there. There's also transport links to Iraq. The US doesn't want the Syrian government assets, forces to take that over but they've been advancing from Almyra further west. There are said to be American special forces there. There's kind of, everybody's getting in on the act. They feel this is a sort of decisive moment of the war. If the Syrian government could take over most of Eastern Syria, they'd kind of have the war won. The US and others don't want that to happen. That's why you have basically have these clashes and why you had this attack, because it was to prevent the Syrian government taking over positions there. It's probably we'll see more of the same.Aaron Maté: So the US claimed that their forces were threatened. You don't think that's credible?Patrick Coburn: Well you know, it depends what kind of threat it is. If guys are advancing a long way away, you could draw lines on a map and say if they go another hundred kilometers, they're going to be here. They're a threat. A threat is really in the eye of the beholder. It's also going to be politically convenient that they don't want Assad's forces to take over that area. That's probably the prime consideration.Aaron Maté: Another recent development I want to ask you about was the Astana agreement where Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed to set up these de-escalation zones in four areas of Syria. Can you talk about what that was and whether it's working so far? Patrick Coburn: It depends ... You know when you're on the ground in Syria, around Damascus, you hear all this about zones, de-escalation zones. There are some local agreements, ceasefire agreements. Sometimes these work. Sometimes they don't. You know it's never quite safe anywhere, but sometimes the sort of diminish action for a bit. I don't ... I think in the long-term it's pretty difficult to have these sort of zones because too many ... When one side is feeling a bit stronger it may immediately breaks in the understanding. The most hopeful thing in Syria is that there does seem to be some moves towards peace, to reducing the level of military action, but it's still, it's still pretty severe. Aaron Maté: Yeah the criticism of the Assad regime during these previous ceasefires is that because they always carve out an exception for targeting the Islamic State and al Qaeda, the Assad regime just uses that exception to then target whoever it wants.Patrick Coburn: Well you know the armed opposition in Syria is dominated by ISIS [inaudible 00:11:08] that is and al Qaeda, what used to be called al Nusra. It keeps changing its name. Another group called [inaudible 00:11:15]. But all these are jihadi, what's called jihadi sulafi organizations. They're all jihadis. There are not moderate so-called there in the armed opposition. They may be in exile. They may be civilians, but they're not in the armed opposition [inaudible 00:11:35]. In the past you'd have ceasefires, but it could exclude ISIS because they wouldn't negotiate with anybody. It might exclude al Nusra, which is the next biggest armed organization which is pretty effective and it controls a lot of territory west of Aleppo. But if these guys aren't included in the ceasefire, they don't have any incentive to keep it. Likewise the Syrian government, if they feel they're on a winner, they're not going to stop at the moment. But maybe they can be reached for some restrained by the Russians. But at the end of the day, everybody has to see the advantage in a ceasefire to keep it. The weakness of these previous ceasefires was this really wasn't so.Aaron Maté: Finally Patrick, you talked a bit about these local ceasefires. What about some grand accommodation, some agreement between the main players, namely Russia and Iran and the US. If those parties came to an agreement, could this war be put to an end?Patrick Coburn: Yeah, I think it could. You'd probably have to have the Saudis involved somehow and of course that's particularly difficult after President Trump turned up in Riyadh recently, addressed all these Sunni states and denounced Iran. There have been aggressive accusations from Washington, from the Pentagon, from Mattis, from the Defense Secretary and McMaster, the National Security Advisor, directed at Iran, saying Iran is behind all the terrorism. It's kind of peculiar because obviously ISIS and al Qaeda are Sunni organizations. The bombs we see in Baghdad and Manchester and Kabul, these are basically Islamic State or Islamic State organizations. They're not Shia organizations. It's kind of very peculiar the way they target Iran. It reminds me a bit of 2003, after 9/11. Suddenly all the blame, all the aggression was toward Saddam Hussein in Iraq. There was plenty wrong with Saddam Hussein, but one thing one was very sure he hadn't done was carry out 9/11. The links were always Saudi Arabia. I think we're seeing that again. Of course this may be one way that ISIS will get off the hook, that if there's a confrontation between the US and Iran ... This is what worries Iraqis in particular, and a lot of Syrians, that they're going to be caught up in a new confrontation between the US and Iran. Each side will fund its own proxies. ISIS maybe it changes its name or something like that. You know a lot of these fighters move between different organizations, not the leaders but the fighters and you'll have the war going on. That's probably the most dangerous element in the war at the moment is this mounting confrontation between the US and Iran or at least the Trump administration.Aaron Maté: Well Patrick on that point let me just put you one development from today. Since you make the analogy between Iraq in 2003 and Iran and the Trump administration today, this was reported by the New York Times today. Ezra Cohen Watnick, the top official on the National Security Council, has told other administration officials he wants to use American spies to help oust the Iranian government according to multiple defense and intelligence officials.Patrick Coburn: Yeah, you see that just heats up, it fuels the war. This has been tried before. They can fuel sort of dissident movements among minorities in Baluchistan. In Iran, they can back some anti-government organizations abroad that don't really have much support. They could carry out some assassinations, but of course there's an old military saying. The enemy also has a plan. You do that to the other side, they'll do it to you. That's one of the things that went wrong in 2003 in Iraq, that you had at that time the new conservatives, the neo-cons. When the US troops took Baghdad, saying Baghdad, today Tehran and Damascus tomorrow. So the guys in Tehran and Damascus who are pretty tough, thought well we're not going to wait around to be attacked. We'll make sure the US never stabilizes Iraq. That sort of thing, even if they don't do it, that will create a reaction. This all goes to fuel war and just to go back to a point I made earlier, ISIS [inaudible 00:16:11] a really horrible organization, and al Qaeda, these are the children of war. They come out of wars, so when guys like that say we're going to start heating things up with Iran, that's good news for ISIS. That's good new for al Qaeda. It means the war on terror is going to fail once again.Aaron Maté: Patrick Coburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. Patrick, thank you.Patrick Coburn: Thank you.Aaron Maté: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.