The coalition is not what it appears to be – Vice President Biden was right, says Patrick Cockburn the author of The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising
SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.
Fierce fighting is going on in the northern Syrian town of Kobani, bordering Turkey and Iraq. The U.S. is now dropping arms ammunition and supplies to the PKK that is deemed a terrorist organization by the American ally Turkey. The Turkish army has until now prevented reinforcements from reaching the town during this month-long seige of Kobani.
Our guest today, Patrick Cockburn, is joining us from Canterbury, England. He is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. He’s also a correspondent for The Independent of London, mainly on Middle East issues.
Thank you so much for joining us, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: Thank you.
PERIES: Patrick, you wrote in your article in The Independent this week that the U.S. resupply effort marks a radical change in American policy towards direct cooperation with Kurdish fighters on the ground, who Turkey has denounced as terrorists. Why this shift in policy, both on the part of the Americans and perhaps the Turkish?
COCKBURN: I think the main reason is that the Islamic State, ISIS, appeared to be on the verge of capturing Kobani, this Syrian-Kurdish town just south of the Turkish border. And this would be one more victory for the Islamic State. And I think that the White House probably thought that this was too humiliating. Remember that President Obama had said he was going to degrade and destroy the Islamic State in September. And it would look very bad if they simply won another victory. They already defeated the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, the Syrian rebels. And if they now defeated the Syrian Kurds as well, the whole bombing campaign against them would look a failure. So I think that’s the main reason why they switched policy and started supporting them on the ground with dropping them weapons and by other means.
PERIES: And what are the Turkish saying about this?
COCKBURN: Well, they’re in a great muddle. Turkey has this rather strange policy. It’s meant to be an ally of the U.S., along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, in opposing the Islamic State. But Turkey has a rather different agenda, that it has a big Kurdish minority, about 15 million, and it isn’t pleased by the idea of supporting the Kurds in Syria just across the border. In fact, it appeared that it would have preferred–if it had to choose the Islamic State and the Kurds ruling that area, it would prefer the Islamic State. Of course, this is very difficult for the United States, because there’s your main ally, a very important ally, who is basically supporting the people who you’re bombing, who you’re opposing.
PERIES: So, in one of our previous interviews with you, it looked like Kobani was about to fall to the Islamic State. But they’ve held on. Since then, the U.S. has decided, of course, to provide arms to the PKK, with Secretary of State John Kerry actually saying it would be irresponsible and morally very difficult not to arm the Kurds. Aside from the sudden pretense of morality, what do you think has led to this shift from about to fall to now actually the Kurds holding up?
COCKBURN: Well, the Kurds there belong–are well-organized. They fight very hard. I mean, they’ve been fighting heroically. I think at the beginning of the month, right up to the middle of the month, there was an assumption that they’d eventually go down, they’d eventually be defeated, because the Turks had sealed them off. There were–Turks weren’t allowing arms through or ammunition or food or reinforcements.
But as I said, I think the U.S. simply couldn’t afford to let the Islamic State win another victory. And the length of time that the Kurds held out made it pretty clear that they were effective fighters, maybe the only effective fighters in Syria against the Islamic State. The Islamic State has beaten all its other opponents pretty fast. I mean, it’s a pretty nasty organization, but it’s a very fanatical one, and militarily it’s a pretty effective one. So the Kurds are the only people who’ve actually fought for so long against it without being defeated. So I think that that played a role as well.
You know, initially there were some airstrikes, but you had John Kerry saying, well, Kobani isn’t the center of our effort. If it falls or not, they’re basically treating it as something they could live with. Eventually, I think, they decided they couldn’t. And they also get very fed up and impatient with the Turks for sealing off Kobani, not allowing reinforcements through, and basically creating a situation in which the Islamic State was likely to win. So I think they just told the Turks last weekend that they were going to drop supplies regardless of what Turkey did. And they asked the Turks to let Iraqi Kurds come through Turkey to reinforce Kobani.
PERIES: That’s a interesting new development as well.
COCKBURN: Yeah. I mean, this is significant. You know, this is a very messy situation. Turkey doesn’t like the Syrian Kurds because they’re very close to the Turkish Kurds. It has better relations with the Kurds in Iraq. So it decided it was easier for them to say that they could send 200 fighters.
I think it’s probably more important from the point of view of the defenders of Kobani to get arms and ammunition, particularly antitank weapons. But I think they were getting very low on ammunition as well. In the U.S. has been dropping these by parachute from C-130 transport aircraft. And I think that has made a difference.
Also, the U.S. airstrikes all over Iraq and Syria hadn’t been very effective previously because the Islamic State fighters had dispersed. They weren’t in their headquarters. They were very difficult to find. So out of the first sort of 969 air missions to Iraq and Syria in the first two months of the air campaign, only about 90 attacked targets. The rest had to come home because they couldn’t find anybody to attack. Now suddenly, at Kobani, when the Islamic State has to concentrate its forces to attack the Kurds, the aircraft have got good targets and the Kurds are in direct contact with the Americans, I mean, by radio. So in a funny way, America has got what wants in this case, which is a reliable partner on the ground. But it isn’t the partner they chose to begin with.
PERIES: Right. But at the same time, one could interpret the situation as Americans allowing the Kurds to draw the ISIS out into Kobani and where there could be better targets and let the Kurds and the ISIS fight it out and destroy each other, and there would be nothing wrong with that, because this would help the fight against the IS, as well as satisfy Turkey in terms of the Kurds.
COCKBURN: I don’t think it’ll work that way. I mean, the Islamic State may have suffered some heavy casualties, but then it’s recruited lot of people. So maybe it’s lost 1 percent of its forces–and probably that’s an exaggeration.
As for the Syrian Kurds, this whole issue, I mean, of Kobani has become, you know, like the sort of Alamo for them. It’s become a great symbol. You know, there are Kurds all over the area [incompr.] 30 million Kurds [incompr.] I mean, distributed in different countries [incompr.] Iraq, Iran, and Syria. So they’ve all been enthused by what’s happening there. So I don’t think that the Islamic State and the Kurds are going to wipe each other out. On the contrary, I think that each is going to develop further out of this battle.
PERIES: Right. So another interesting twist in all of this is that actually something you wrote in your book The Jihadis Return, you describe how the Saudis have provided significant financing, weaponry, and ideological support to the Islamic State. And your recent reporting on this issue furthers that connection. This is strange because Saudis have joined the coalition and the fight against ISIS. So what’s really going on there?
COCKBURN: Yeah, I don’t think that coalition is exactly what it looks like. You know, Joe Biden, the U.S. vice president, said in the beginning of October–he later apologized for it, but I think what he said was true, that what had happened in Syria was that the real problem for U.S. was America’s allies, not its enemies. And it’s allies, people like Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Qatar and United Arab Emirates, had been so intent on getting rid of President Assad, the Syrian leader, that they poured money and weapons into the area that increased the sort of sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia, all in order to get rid of Assad. But the real beneficiaries had been people like the jihadis, which would include the Islamic State.
PERIES: And to what extent do you think all of this is strengthening the Kurdish power across the region?
COCKBURN: I think it does in a couple of ways. You know, this sort of siege is something that all the Kurds have been following intently in whatever country they’re living in; whether it’s in the Middle East, whether it’s in San Diego or anywhere else, they’ve been following this every detail every day. This is a great sort of battle for them. So it has great sort of symbolic value. And that in a way increases their unity and sense of solidarity. It also shows that they can fight, that nobody else has defeated the Islamic State. The Iraqi army had 350,000 men. You know, they all ran away. So it increases their strength. The Turks are not happy about this, but it’s not clear that the Turks can do anything about it.
PERIES: Right. And in terms of the Iraqi Kurdish coming over to fight now, you know, more consolidate power across the region, is this having causing problems with Baghdad?
COCKBURN: Not that I’m aware of. I mean, there are tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds the whole time, but they’ve been brought together to a degree by the attack of the Islamic State which defeated both of them. It defeated the Iraqi army in June, although the Iraqi army was meant to have 60,000 men in Mosul and the Islamic State only had a bit over 1,000, it was the Iraqi army that broke and ran. Then the Kurds said, oh, well, it wouldn’t have happened to us. But in August it did happen to them. They also get defeated. So it has brought them together, to a degree, that they have a common enemy.
PERIES: Right. Patrick, I thank you so much for joining us today.
COCKBURN: Thank you.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.