The Islamic State, Assad, and the Contradictions Faced by the US in Syria
Investigative journalist Patrick Cockburn says the U.S. will need to work with Syria and Iran to defeat ISIS, thereby reversing its policy towards Assad
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
President Barack Obama has authorized the military to conduct surveillance flights over Syria. With U.S. airstrikes already happening in Iraq against extremist group The Islamic State, these surveillance flights are being seen as a possible prelude to attacks on the Islamic State in Syria. But where the twist comes in is that the Islamic State in Syria is fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad. That has been the very same objective of the U.S. for the past two years. So now that ISIS seems to be the most imminent threat, will the U.S. coordinate with Assad to bring ISIS down? And what role has the U.S. played in creating the rise of this fanatic group to begin with?
Now joining us to help answer some of these questions is our guest, Patrick Cockburn. Patrick is an investigative journalist who has been a Middle East correspondent since 1979 for the Financial Times and presently works for The Independent. He also has a new book out called The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. And he joins us now from Ireland.
Thanks for being with us, Patrick.
PATRICK COCKBURN, JOURNALIST, THE INDEPENDENT: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, there are so many contradictions in this story. Let’s try to work out some of these contradictions. First explain the U.S.’s objectives in Syria. And how did it come to be that they are now fighting the very same forces that they once supported?
COCKBURN: Yes. It’s something of a diplomatic disaster. The U.S. supported the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad to weaken and replace him over the last three years. But over the last year and a half, the main opposition has been jihadis, al-Qaeda type organizations, and over the last six months it’s been the Islamic State, ISIS, which the U.S. is fighting in or were helping the Iraqi government and the Kurdish government fight in Iraq. So in one country they’re supporting the government against ISIS, in Iraq, and in Syria they’re doing exactly the opposite, they’re opposing the government, which is fighting ISIS. And I don’t think this contradiction can go on very long. I think soon they’ll have to decide whose side they’re on.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah, and that’s a good question, because there are consequences depending on which side they choose, because if they look to topple Assad, that benefits ISIS. If they look to attack ISIS, that helps Assad. So it seems like quite a mess. What would you suggest they do?
COCKBURN: Well, there’s no doubt in my mind that the great threat to both these countries is ISIS, which is a very horrible, in many ways fascist organization, very sectarian, kills anybody who doesn’t believe in their particular rigorous brand of Islam. They killed last week a single tribe that opposed them. They killed 700 members. Another 1,500 have disappeared. So these are big-scale massacres. So I think they should oppose ISIS. But they need to do it effectively, which means that they have a parallel policy with the Syrian government, which they’ve been trying to overthrow. I don’t think they’re going to have a U-turn in that policy, because it would be to humiliating. But covertly I think that they’re shifting their ground. They need to prevent Assad’s government falling to ISIS.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And the drumbeats of war are really getting louder here in the United States, Patrick. I’m going to pull up an example of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. He was recently asked at a press conference about whether ISIL posed a 9/11 threat. Here’s his response.
CHUCK HAGEL, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: ISIL is as sophisticated and well funded as any group that we have seen. They’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well funded. Oh, this is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything. And the only way you do that is you take a cold, steely hard look at it and get ready.
DESVARIEUX: “Get ready” you just heard Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel say. So what should we be potentially getting ready for, Patrick? What is the U.S.’s real interest in getting potentially back into Iraq and now Syria? You said something about covert operations. But is it possible that we could even see boots on the ground there?
COCKBURN: You know, this means so many different things. You know, at one point it meant a few years ago in Iraq that there were 150,000 American soldiers in Iraq. That was awful lot of boots. I don’t think we’re going to see that again or anything like that. I don’t think we’ll see that in Syria. But will there be American airstrikes in Iraq [incompr.] on a more extensive basis? I think there will. Will the same things happen in Syria? It’s really quite likely, because it’s absurd to combat ISIS in Iraq but not on Syria, because ISIS can then get back over the border. It’s effectively abolished the frontier.
And this is a pretty big place now that they rule. ISIS rules an area which is bigger than Britain, bigger than the state of Michigan. It has a population of 6 or 7 million people. So this isn’t something that can be easily contained, and it’s very difficult to eliminate.
DESVARIEUX: And, Patrick, at the end of the day, what’s this all about? I mean, whose interest is it, really, to defeat ISIS?
COCKBURN: Well, I think that this is a rather extraordinary organization. It combines extreme religious fanaticism with military efficiency. It’s won a lot of victories during the summer, and pretty extraordinary ones. There are 350,000 soldiers in the Iraqi army, or there used to be, and they were attacked by two or three thousand members of ISIS in Mosul, and they disintegrated. This caught everybody by surprise. I mean, everybody, including myself, knew the Iraqi army was pretty bad, very corrupt, but I don’t think we expected it just to disintegrate in a single day’s fighting.
In Syria they’re also getting stronger and stronger. It doesn’t get reported much because it’s so dangerous, as we saw with poor James Foley, for any journalists to go there. But they’ve been advancing westwards. They’ve won three or four victories, overrun Syrian army bases in the last few weeks, without anybody paying much attention.
So this is an expanding organization which could quite soon rule territory right from the Iranian border to the Mediterranean.
DESVARIEUX: So is it fair to say, I mean, Iran has a vested interest too to defeat ISIS?
COCKBURN: It certainly does. I mean, in Iraq, there’s a rather extraordinary combination of people who previously were confronting each other and certainly didn’t like each other, like the U.S. and Iran, various factions in Kurdistan, various politicians in Baghdad, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. All these people have been brought together by a single factor, which is fear, fear of ISIS. It’s a very frightening organization. And all these countries, I think, are now rather frightened by what they see.
DESVARIEUX: So, Patrick, in your book you speak of what could be done to end all of this. You write, quote,
“Given that the insurgency is not dominated by ISIS, JN, and all other al-Qaeda type groups, it is unlikely that even Washington, London, or Riyadh now want to see Assad fall. But allowing Assad to win would be seen as a defeat for the West and their Arab and Turkish allies.”
So what are your predictions here? How do you see this all being resolved?
COCKBURN: I think it’s difficult to predict, because it depends on some very important decisions in Washington and elsewhere about where they stand. They are responsible for quite a lot of what has happened. In Iraq we had al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had become a force after the U.S. invasion of 2003. This had been reduced in strength by the U.S. and the Iraqi government about seven or eight years ago. But as Iraq was becoming more peaceful, uprisings started in Syria in 2011, which were backed by the U.S. and its allies. And that led to war in Syria, to the civil war in Iraq starting again. And it was in this crucible that ISIS moved from being a quite small, marginal organization to being an extremely powerful one. It was really the result of miscalculations about the long-term outcome of the war in Syria that led to ISIS’s present victories and the creation of their caliphate.
DESVARIEUX: The Independent quoted Prime Minister David Cameron as saying that cooperation with Iran will be necessary to deal with ISIS. Do you agree?
COCKBURN: Yes. I mean, it’s a strange situation, because the Iranians are very frightened by what’s happening, because ISIS used to be an organization they were fighting is Syria and Damascus, a long way away. Now ISIS is taking towns that are 20 miles from the Iranian border. So they want to defeat it. So they have a parallel policy with the U.S.
But it’s difficult, certainly, for the U.S. to then have a U-turn and say, the Iranians that we used to demonize, that we said were our great enemy in the Middle East, now suddenly they’re our pals, they’re our friends. Similarly with Damascus. So I think it’s difficult for them to make a U-turn, though it’s necessary for them to do so and do so pretty quickly, without being humiliated. And so a lot of what they do they may try to do covertly.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. Patrick Cockburn joining us from Ireland.
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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