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Author & Journalist Patrick Cockburn says defeating ISIS requires an end to the civil war in Syria

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Days after President Obama ordered airstrikes for the first time in Syria against ISIS, the CIA now says there are twenty to thirty thousand ISIS fighters. That’s almost three times larger than previous intelligence reports.

Now, in order to combat ISIS, the Saudi Arabian government will host a training program for so-called moderate Syrian rebels. This comes after Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council agreed to participate in America’s military campaign against ISIS.

Now joining us to discuss all this from England is Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is the author of the book The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. He has written three books about Iraq and has been a correspondent for The Independent of London, mainly in the Middle East, since 1990.

Thanks for joining us, Patrick.


DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, you’ve done a lot reporting on the ground in Syria. And these so-called moderate Syrian rebels that President Obama keeps on referring to, I need to get a sense of who they are. Who are they actually?

COCKBURN: Well, they aren’t is the answer to that. They scarcely exist on the ground. That’s one of the extraordinary things about the plan that was announced this week to combat ISIS, the Islamic State, is that in Syria the main opponent of the Islamic State is to be the Syrian armed moderates. But nobody can find them on the map. The main military force in Syria is the Syrian army, the Syrian government. The main opposition force is ISIS. Then there are a series of other jihadi groups. Like, there’s one called Jabhat al-Nusra. It’s pretty powerful. It’s also the Syrian affiliate of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. So the jihadis dominate that. So it’s kind of saying that everything will depend on these moderates who are to be vetted and trained in Saudi Arabia, and then these poor guys are going to fight not only ISIS, the most ferocious guerrilla group in the world, but the Syrian army. So this is really not a policy. It’s kind of make-believe.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad that you mentioned Saudi Arabia, because they’ve long been considered this major source of funding, as well as this sort of ideological support, for jihadi terrorist groups like ISIS. And in the past, as revealed by WikiLeaks, officials as prominent as Hillary Clinton have also called the Saudi kingdom a major source for terrorism. So why would the U.S. continue to agree to host this training program there?

COCKBURN: It’s pretty extraordinary, the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. And what’s happened with ISIS is very much what happened to al-Qaeda before 9/11, that there was a tolerant attitude toward Saudi Arabia. Al-Qaeda was originally very much a Saudi outfit. Its leader, bin Laden, was Saudi. Fifteen out of 19 hijackers were Saudi. The money came from Saudi Arabia. Then, after 9/11, continued Saudi support for jihadi organizations was tolerated by the U.S. And I think this is one of the reasons that ISIS was able to grow as a sort of super al-Qaeda, far bigger, even more violent, and very effective.

DESVARIEUX: So I want to get your response to this super al-Qaeda that you mentioned, ISIS, because now the CIA is saying that they’re even bigger than they originally estimated. They’re saying that there might be two to three times as many ISIS fighters across Syria and Iraq than they had previously estimated. But it seems sort of the timing of these figures coming out now might be a little suspicious to some folks. What do you think is behind this increase?

COCKBURN: Well, I think it’s pretty simple. I mean, I’d say they’re stronger, actually, about thirty to fifty thousand, that a few thousand of them took Mosul. But I was talking to an Iraqi security official in their national security agency last time I was in Baghdad, a few weeks ago, and he was saying that their studies showed that when a jihadi organization like ISIS took over an area, let’s say, with 100 men, that very soon they would have 500 or 1,000. So they’ve been occupying an area with maybe a population of five or six million. It’s very big. It’s bigger than Michigan. And so they’ve been recruiting. They’ve been training. And they have the money to pay these people. So, sure, I think that the CIA–I’m amazed they thought that there were so few until recently. I don’t know what they based that on. But the number has certainly increased enormously.

DESVARIEUX: You mentioned that they’re paying these fighters. But is there any other draw, do you see, for a lot of these Sunnis to join up?

COCKBURN: Sure there are. I mean, and this is very important. You know, a lot of the Sunni community isn’t very sold on ISIS, which is very brutal and very bigoted and very dangerous. But they’re even more frightened of the government in Baghdad, of the Shia militias. They’re frightened of the Assad government in Damascus. And if they have to choose between the two, they’ll probably choose ISIS, because it comes from their own community. So this isn’t a sort of small terrorist group that’s sort of floating on top of the Sunni Arab community in Iraq and Syria and can be blown away–it has deep support. Also, in these areas you’ve got vast numbers of young, unemployed, hopeless young men, Sunni young men, and this offers them an opportunity. It offers them some money–not a lot, maybe $400 a month. And they join a victorious army. This army has been winning. A lot of people like to join the winning side.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. I also want to get your reaction, Patrick, to this news coming out of Turkey. They said that they will not allow the U.S. to use its airbases for military operations against ISIS. What role has Turkey played in recent years?

COCKBURN: The role of Turkey’s very significant in what’s happened in Syria, and a pretty maligned one. There’s–the border between Turkey and Syria is about 560 mile long. All the jihadis, the foreign fighters, have been pouring into Syria and Iraq–all the suicide bombers that have been blowing up markets–and civilians in Baghdad and elsewhere have come across the Turkish border. They have tightened up a bit over the last ten months, but you can still get across. So it used to take you about $10 to get guided across. Now it costs you about $25. So it’s still possible. The U.S. will put a lot of pressure on it to close the border, and it’ll probably–you know, it’ll get a lot more difficult. But I doubt if they can close it now.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And this story really is going to be developing over some time. And I think it would be good sort of advice if you can kind of shed some light. What should people be tracking? What are you tracking? What should people be paying attention to as the story develops?

COCKBURN: Well, [incompr.] to cut through all this kind of rhetoric we’ve heard from the administration, how they’re going to drive back ISIS and destroy it. But, I mean, what they’ve put forward is a kind of rather messy plan to contain it, maybe using U.S. airstrikes.

And those can be quite effective. You know, if ISIS fighters are on the road, if they’re heading for Baghdad, if they’re heading for Erbil, which is the Iraqi Kurdish capital, or even Aleppo–they’re about 30 miles from Aleppo. It’s the biggest city in Syria. So U.S. airstrikes are kind of effective against columns of moving vehicles on the roads.

But anything else, it’s less effective. You know, this is a guerrilla army. It doesn’t necessarily move on the roads. It may move by other means. It doesn’t have headquarters. There’s been talk of striking at headquarters and eliminating their supplies. But they don’t have headquarters. So, as the U.S. found in Vietnam, as the Russians found in Afghanistan, it’s kind of difficult to use air power effectively against a guerrilla army when you don’t know where the guerrillas are.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. So, for you, Patrick, what do you see as a solution?

COCKBURN: I think the most important thing to do is to try and bring the war in Syria to an end by a ceasefire or some other means. What’s destabilized Iraq was the uprising in Syria. Iraq was pretty bad. The prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was extremely corrupt, [incompr.] but it was beginning to stabilize in 2011. What destabilized it was the war in Syria, the uprising of the Sunni Arabs there that affected the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq. And I remember Iraqi politicians saying to me over the last couple of years, if this war goes on in Syria, that’s it for us. It’s going to destabilize Iraq. It’s going to restart the Civil War here. And they were dead right.

But I said, well, what’s the reception in Washington or London or wherever abroad when you mention this? And they said, we’re just not being taken seriously. So I think it has been pretty culpable, what’s happened in Washington.

What you need to do is bring the war to an end by some sort of negotiation between Assad and the opposition which is non-jihadi. This will probably not be a complete ceasefire, but maybe people–what you have you hold in each area. They just stop shooting and hold the areas they already have. Maybe then you can have some sort of coalition against ISIS and the jihadis. But in the middle of a war, this just can’t be done.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Patrick Cockburn, joining us from England.

Thank you so much for being with us.

COCKBURN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Patrick Cockburn is a correspondent for the Independent London. He is the author of The Age of Jihad.