The recent advances of the Jihadists in the Middle East and North Africa, accompanied by a huge amount of violence and atrocities, has shocked people around the globe. Large numbers of media reports have been produced to explain the phenomenon and now a handful number of books are available to shed a deeper light on what is happening in Syria and Iraq. Arguably, The Rise of Islamic State by Independent newspaper journalist Patrick Cockburn is one of the best-produced.
The solid argument that the book contains is that ISIS cannot be understood separate from the conflict that is currently taking place at both regional level in the Middle East and global level. Saudi Arabia, from Cockburn’s point of view, remains the ideological and financial source for ISIS and other Jihadist groups who fight in Syria, such as Jabhat al-Nousra and Ahrar al-Sham. The author believes that any policy for deterring the Jihadists in Syria and Iraq that doesn’t address the critical role of Saudi Arabia and some other Persian Gulf states and, most importantly, Turkey ,which uses its long borders with Syria for the safe passage of the Jihadists to Syria, is a defused policy. Similarly, the US-led coalition and their air strikes, so far, appear to be inefficient in preventing ISIS from expanding in Iraq and Syria or to “destroy” it, as President Barak Obama claimed they would in 2014.
At the same time, the critical role of the former Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maleki, is well explained. The Maleki policies which intentionally weakened the Sunni participation in the government had its effect on the welcoming of ISIS by sections of the Sunni minority of Iraq, although this was not the main factor that contributed in ISIS victories. The main reason that the author emphasises is the chaos in Syria that reflected negatively on Iraq and abolished the semi-stability that was achieved by the imperialist powers and their local go-fors from 2006 onward.
The question of how the second largest city of Iraq, Mosul, fell into the hands of ISIS in only four days fighting is well addressed by Cockburn. He sees the widespread corruption in Iraq as the main reason for the collapse of the army in Mosul. The number of Iraqi soldiers on paper in Mosul was over 60,000. However, due to corrupt management, only one third of the soldiers were present in their positions when they were surprised by some 1600 Iraqi soldiers alongside some other Sunni tribes and former Ba’thi personnel who became de facto allies of ISIS. Moreover, it seems that people who want to have a high ranking position in the Iraqi military as a job have to pay for it. Therefore, the high-rank officers who joined the army are deemed to be “investors” rather than soldiers who came to fight when they had to. With the relaying of such information from a journalist with first-hand experiences in Iraq, the gloomy picture of the collapse of the army in Mosul becomes clearer.
The negative impact of the massive air strikes which miss their ISIS targets and hit civilians is also considerable. Such incidents, as Cockburn argues, feed into ISIS propaganda and its strength. The selective way of reporting what was really happening in Libya and Syria from the beginning is also part for the problem. According to the author, it was clear from the early stages of the uprisings in both Libya and Syria that the Jihadists were taking the upper hand. Choosing to not report these facts was a mistake that later was hard to undo.
Further reading: The origins, economics and politics of Islamic State