Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 13, 2015

Patrick Cockburn’s alarming support for American air power

Filed under: journalism,Syria — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Patrick Cockburn

Like most people on the left I relied heavily on Robert Fisk, Robert Parry, Seymour Hersh and Patrick Cockburn’s journalism during George W. Bush’s war in Iraq but became critical as they began covering the war in Syria.

To a large extant, their reporting suffered from a kind of mechanical application of Bush’s war to Syria as if every threat brandished by the Obama White House was on a par with what took place in 2003. This was especially true when Obama warned that a “red line” was being crossed in August 2013 when a sarin gas attack cost the lives of hundreds of people living in East Ghouta. Among such journalists, this became equivalent to Colin Powell or Dick Cheney’s apocalyptic warnings about WMD’s. Most of these journalists gave credence to the idea that the sarin gas was used by the Syrian rebels as a way of drawing the USA into the war in order to accomplish “regime change” even as talks were in progress at that very moment between Iran and the White House to move toward the rapprochement now in full blossom.

This is not to speak of the problems of drawing analogies between Iraq and Syria when the very purpose of Bush’s intervention was to destroy Sunni hegemony and install a sectarian Shiite regime that would obviously have close ties with Iran. As many analysts have correctly pointed out, the top ranks of ISIS are filled with former military commanders in Saddam Hussein’s army, men whose secular nationalist ideology did not get in the way of a partnership with Salafist zealots such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

At its best, the position put forward by some of these journalists amounted to opposition to American intervention even if it stopped short of endorsing Bashar al-Assad. I include Patrick Cockburn in this category—at least up until yesterday when he wrote an article that made the case for American air power against “Al Qaeda” in terms that are disturbingly evocative of Christopher Hitchens.

There were already signs that Cockburn had relaxed his normally high standards in order to promote stepped up American intervention in the region in his recently published Verso book “The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the new Sunni Revolution”. In the chapter on Syria, he states on page 84 that the opposition had become “dominated by ISIS”.

Now, one might expect him to at least acknowledge what had been widely reported elsewhere, namely that a de facto non-aggression pact existed between the Baathists and ISIS but none was forthcoming. A senior ISIS operative told the Guardian on June 28, 2014 that the Syrian air force is not “going to bomb our key sites. Their main enemy is the so-called moderates”, the sort of thing that Cockburn overlooked in his efforts to make an amalgam between ISIS and everybody else opposed to the Baathist dictatorship.

One might have hoped that Patrick Cockburn would be far more direct in his support for American intervention instead of adopting circumlocutions that could conceivably be used in a hedging strategy along the lines of “I didn’t actually call for American bombing” but nevertheless that’s the only conclusion you can draw from “In the Middle East, our enemy’s enemy must be our friend”.

In calling attention to “America’s failure to develop an effective policy for destroying al-Qaeda in the years since 9/11”, he bemoans its advances in Yemen and in the Idlib province in Syria where apparently the al-Nusra Front had led 4,000 fighters in seizing the capital city. Unnamed Saudi sources supposedly revealed that Saudi Arabia and Turkey had been behind al-Nusra and other “extreme jihadis” in seizing Idlib.

It might be useful if Cockburn could show even the most glancing familiarity with what is taking in place in Idlib today, which bears little resemblance to the ghoulish “emirate” created by ISIS in Mosul or Raqqa. In an interview with Abu al-Yazid Taftenaz, one of these “extreme jihadis”, Syria Direct discovered that they had plans far removed from Cockburn’s dark forebodings. Speaking of the Christian minority, Taftenaz stated that “if they want to live among us that’s their right. We can’t impose the jizya (non-Muslim tax) on them. Subsequently, the Christian will live like any other civilian in Idlib city.” When asked about their ties to ISIS, he said, “They won’t have any luck in Idlib. Their presence is far away from the city, keeping in mind that they have some areas of control in the eastern Idlib countryside. The areas of Idlib, God willing, will not witness any IS presence.”

I certainly have no power over Patrick Cockburn and what he decides to report or not report but if you are going to reduce everything happening in Syria to a battle between Bashar al-Assad and “extreme jihadis”, you are seriously compromising your journalistic standards.

The article frets over ISIS and the al-Nusra front taking control of Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that is supposedly going to turn into a living hell now at the hands of such “extreme jihadis”. In the past, the two groups opposed each other but now there are “worrying signs of cooperation”, the consequences of which would include beheading Palestinians for smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, adultery and the like. With such an awful future in store, who would not support the Syrian army stepping in like the US Marines did to save Haitians from the Ton-Ton Macoute?

A Palestinian who fled Yarmouk some time ago had a different take on the incursion of ISIS. Writing for Foreign Policy, Qusai Zakarya saw a connection with the Baathists that had been obvious in other places as was noted above.

The Islamic State tried to recruit in Yarmouk, but local residents did not take the bait. That is why the Islamic State used areas where it was already established to conquer Yarmouk by force. Assad’s siege of civilians helped the Islamic State even in Yarmouk because — after two and a half years of starvation and bombardment — the local battalions in the camp were too weak to push the group out.

But that is not the whole story. Local residents of Yarmouk were surprised to see a raid of hundreds of Islamic State fighters from southern Damascus successfully enter their area. When al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda were controlled by the Free Syrian Army, there were many attempts to break the siege on the camp with similar raids. Each one was a disaster; Assad’s forces have the area tightly monitored and controlled. Simply put, there is no way the attack by the Islamic State could have happened unless Assad wanted it to.

Then there is another question: How did the Islamic State get such large quantities of resources into besieged areas? The Free Syrian Army in besieged Yarmouk had only handmade light weapons, while the Islamic State in besieged al-Hajar al-Aswad had advanced missiles and high-tech rifles. Believe me, infants would not be starving in my hometown if regime sieges could be evaded through tunnels or bribes. Those resources got in because the regime allowed them to enter.

After several more paragraphs of gloomy warnings about the threat of al-Qaeda type movements (whatever that means) spreading to Britain, France and Germany like metastasizing tumors, we arrive at the article’s conclusion which has the takeaway point on the need for a united front with the Syrian army:

In Syria, similarly, “the enemy of our enemy” and the strongest military force is the Syrian army, though it shows signs of weakening after four years of war. But if we have decided that US air power is not to be used against Isis or Jabhat al-Nusra when they are fighting the Syrian army because we want to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad, then this is a decision that benefits Isis, Jabhat al-Nusra and extreme jihadis. In Iraq the situation is less dire because, although there is a pretence of not cooperating with the Shia militias, in practice the US had been launching air strikes on the same Isis positions these militia are attacking on the ground. The reality is that it is only by supporting “the enemy of my enemy” that the expansion of al-Qaeda and its lookalikes can be beaten back and the movement defeated.

To start with, it is a bit alarming to see him refer to “we have decided that US air power is not to be used”. This is the “we” of Sunday morning TV talk shows, NPR broadcasts, the NY Times op-ed page et al. For me, “we” means the working class, the poor, the colonized, the disenfranchised and especially those who have suffered from Syrian military scorched earth tactics for the past 4 years.

Furthermore, if you read this paragraph carefully, especially in light of earlier references to Idlib, you must conclude that Cockburn would have cheered American jets stepping in to protect the Christian minority in Idlib that apparently didn’t need any protecting.

Finally and most distressingly, we are told that the situation in Iraq is “less dire” because the A-10 Warthogs had bombed ISIS positions in collaboration with the Shiite militias. Is this what we have come to? What exactly is the difference between this and what the USA was doing in Iraq a decade ago?

If the war against “extreme jihadis” requires American imperialism to join forces with groups capable of the behavior described below, then those who defend such a policy must have surely lost their principles if not their minds. This is from a report from Human Rights Watch on the Shiite militias’ attack on Amerli. Although I have had problems with their coverage of Venezuela and Cuba, this strikes me as quite plausible, especially since they got testimony from Peshmerga officers who had fought alongside them against ISIS:

On the basis of field visits, interviews with more than 30 witnesses, and analysis of photographs and satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch found that an area that included 35 villages and towns showed extensive destruction caused by fire, explosives and heavy earth moving equipment. The evidence showed that most of the damage occurred between early September and mid-November 2014. Using satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch identified over 3,800 destroyed buildings in 30 towns and villages, including 2,600 buildings likely destroyed by fire and a further 1,200 buildings likely demolished with heavy machinery and the uncontrolled detonation of high explosives. This destruction was distinct from damages resulting from air strikes and heavy artillery and mortar fire prior to ISIS’s retreat from Amerli, which Human Rights Watch separately identified using the satellite imagery. Human Rights Watch’s field research together with the satellite imagery analysis indicates that militias engaged in deliberate and wanton destruction of civilian property after the retreat of ISIS and the end of fighting in the area.

Twenty-four witnesses, including Peshmerga officers and local tribal sheikhs, told Human Rights Watch they saw militias looting towns and villages around Amerli after the offensive against ISIS ended and immediately preceding militia destruction of homes in the town. They said they saw militiamen taking items of value—such as refrigerators, televisions, clothing and even electrical wiring—out of homes before setting the houses on fire.

Read full report: http://features.hrw.org/features/HRW_2015_reports/Iraq_Amerli/index.html


  1. So is there a lesser evil (or an alternative) between ISIS and the Shiite militias?

    Comment by godoggo — April 13, 2015 @ 9:02 pm

  2. well said, Cockburn’s a straightforward liar too. http://qunfuz.com/2015/03/28/isis-hassanweiss-versus-cockburn/

    Comment by Robin Yassin-Kassab — April 14, 2015 @ 9:06 am

  3. godoggo, “is there a lesser evil?” In Syria, yes. Let the rebels take out Assad. Cut Assad’s purse strings to Hezb, Russia and Iranian sponsers. Introduce a No fly zone, so Assad can’t bomb kindergartens, Catholic priests,Idlib, Aleppo, Yarmouk, etc. Assad may be largely responsible for the unholy Baath/ISis alliances and its empowerment..
    And Iraq probably needs a political solution.

    Comment by mui — April 14, 2015 @ 2:56 pm

  4. “The reality is that it is only by supporting “the enemy of my enemy” that the expansion of al-Qaeda and its lookalikes can be beaten back and the movement defeated.”

    As with some who support the Syrian resistance, Cockburn is only capable of seeing the situation in strictly military and geopolitical terms. In fact, groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS flourish under the militaristic “enemy of my enemy” approach. For some reason, the urgency of a left alternative, one that addresses the real world social needs of people, is dismissed.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 15, 2015 @ 3:11 pm

  5. ISIS are a product of failed US aggression and mass war crimes, from Iraq to Libya (with some abysmal leftists cheer-leading from the sidelines – you know who you are). Libya is a nation where this year 1000 people have already died trying to get to Italy, an increase of about 9000% over previous years. So much for that humanitarian intervention!

    Cockburn is just following a well worn path – only the empire in the last analysis can change things, so even though the empire caused the problems they are the ones to resolve them! This so called logic sweeps up some ‘progressives’ now and again when their delicate sense of universal decency is stretched to the limit. Their sense of decency and universalism is an eternal Obelisk, this is why these people will always fall into pro imperialism at some point, especially when class conflict is relatively dormant (I am talking about people at the imperialist core here).

    ISIS are simply portrayed as evil, like the aliens in starship troopers, I don’t see the analysis going much beyond that from some sections of the liberal left.

    Oppose the imperialists!

    Comment by Simon Provertier — April 15, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

  6. Um, Richard, in my experience, those who support the Syrian resistance don’t see the world in strictly military or geopolitical terms. There are too many causes and effects to reduce it to such terms. Too much blame to pass around, really. If there’s been little discussion of any “left” alternative, it’s because nobody lets the rebels get from point A to point B, w/o screaming “war on terror.” Ideology doesn’t apply. Syria is a pretty diverse society. I think w/support they can figure out how to get some semblance of democracy.

    Comment by mui — April 16, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

  7. H was/is a high brow war monger advocating for Iraqi invasion/decimation in 2003. Cannot find any record of it on the net now. Vanished. Slate was cleaned it seems.

    Comment by Chant Aum — May 20, 2015 @ 4:14 pm

  8. This book was translated to Portuguese and I asked myself “why?” I took a glimpse on some reviews, watched a video, and… surprise, surprise… found this review that is showing exactly what was in the back of my head.
    Thank you.

    Comment by Ana — August 13, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

  9. Cockburn actually goes to the region unlike the marxist admirers of John McCain.

    Comment by Frank Church (@FrankChurch5) — March 31, 2017 @ 7:30 pm

  10. Yeah, he goes there embedded in the Syrian army and writes bullshit.


    Finally, there is Cockburn’s report that he witnessed al-Nusra fighters storming an apartment complex in Adra in early 2014, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.

    In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed JAN [al-Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.

    In his Independent article where this atrocity was first mentioned, you discover where his information came from in the very first paragraph:

    “They came through the main sewer at 4.30am and caught us by surprise,” says a Syrian soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali, describing the rebel capture of part of the industrial town of Adra, just north of Damascus.

    This is par for the course. Patrick Cockburn writes a book making the case that jihadists have hijacked the Syrian revolution and the key eyewitness backing this is a Syrian soldier. This reminds me of the coverage of the war in Vietnam when the NY Times routinely cited a South Vietnamese officer on how the NLF had committed one atrocity or another. As they say, the first casualty of war is the Truth. One tends to think of Judith Miller or Wolf Blitzer when these words are brought up. How sad it is to think of Patrick Cockburn in the same terms.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 31, 2017 @ 9:08 pm

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