$16.95, 172 pgs
On June 10, 2014 the collection of psychopaths known variously as ISIS, ISIL, DAESH and now as Islamic State, captured Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, in only four days of fighting, which is when the western half of the globe looked around and thought, “What the hell?” By the end of June IS declared a caliphate comprising an area larger than Britain that is, in the words of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (aka Head Honcho Psychopath Number 1), “a state where the Arab and non-Arab, the white man and black man, the easterner and westerner are all brothers…Syria is not for the Syrians, and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The Earth is Allah’s” (xi). Mr. Kumbaya left out of that statement that Earth is apparently not for Shia, Sufis, Sunni-who-are-not-Sunni-enough, “apostates,” “polytheists” (by this he means Christians, among others), women, girls, journalists, aid workers, or anyone-else-we-don’t-like-today. One hundred five days later the United States began bombing Syria. For most of us these developments seemed to happen overnight. Wrong. The Rise of Islamic State by Patrick Cockburn will tell you why.
Western support for the overthrow of Assad didn’t unseat him but it did destabilize Iraq (4). The Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was riven with corruption from top to bottom (77). The Iraqi army took off their uniforms and abandoned their posts and equipment because they buy their positions so they will have a job and because their generals board helicopters and flee to safety (15). Turkey is guilty of the willful failure to control their 516-mile border with Iraq and Syria (37). The Gulf monarchies have created a monster that they are now afraid poses an existential threat to them (7).
The adage about politics making for strange bedfellows is proved by the current coalition trying to destroy (degrade? who knows exactly?) IS. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, UAE, Iraq and Iran (this is by no means a complete list) are all playing in the same sandbox, as per usual, but this time they have a common goal. Of course, they all still have lots of other goals, too. Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech at Harvard on October 2, 2014 in which he told his audience that Saudi Arabia, Turkey and UAE:
were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of Jihadis coming from other parts of the world. (xix)
The Rise of Islamic State is a straight-forward recitation of facts with fairly little analysis. I expected more from a journalist of Cockburn’s stature who has been reporting from the area for more than ten years. The narrative is sometimes difficult to follow as it jumps backward and then forward and then backward again in time; I felt it could have been organized so that it flows better. There are lots and lots of facts and figures; I would have appreciated more anecdotes from individuals living in the region. I got the impression the book was rushed into print to capitalize on current events. It is mostly basic information that any of us could’ve gleaned on our own if we bothered to read news from the rest of the globe instead of watching the vapid talking heads of CNN or Fox. There are long form articles published by American periodicals that are still doing a fine job – see The New Yorker and The Atlantic. The Rise of Islamic State is a great primer for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention.
I did learn a few things from this book that I didn’t know. Cockburn pins the blame for the surge of fundamentalist Sunni terror organizations squarely on Saudi Arabia, the home of Wahhabism, and Pakistan, the enablers of the Taliban – both of which happen to be the closest allies of the United States in the region. The late Richard C. Holbrooke, US special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country” (5). There are signs that Saudi Arabia is trying to pull back from the brink but the damage is done (97).
The “War on Terror” is an abject failure because, among other factors, the countries responsible for the 9/11 attacks in this country were never held responsible (58). Islamic State now holds far greater territory than the al-Qaeda of Osama bin Laden ever thought about and they are more violent. It’s time to think outside the box. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the Sykes-Picot Agreement.