Book Review: Explaining the Rise of ISIS

Bradley Williams Jun 30, 2015

The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolt
By Patrick Cockburn
Verso Books, 2015

There is a Syrian joke about the people from the city of Homs, which represents the middle of Syria, the overlap of urban and rural, east and west, north and south. People from Homs are considered to be simpletons, caught between Damascus, the political and diplomatic capital of Syria, and Aleppo, the industrial and agricultural center. The joke goes that a Homsi man is attending a soccer match. During the game people start whispering under their breath that the first goal is about to be scored and, voilà, the first goal. Later, people start whispering that the second goal is coming, and lo and behold: the second goal is scored. The Homsi man stands up and says, “Guys, guys — whoever here has already seen the match, please don’t ruin the ending.”

Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolt was originally published in 2014 under the title The Jihadis Return; with events in Syria and Iraq developing rapidly, Cockburn has now updated it to include the events of summer 2014, which saw the Iraqi city of Mosul fall to ISIS. There is no shortage of writers trying to plant their flag in the fertile political soil of the Syrian and Iraqi wars, and a spate of books has been published in the last year about the rise of ISIS and the threat it poses to the Middle East and possibly to the world at large. Most of these books emerge from a place of deep Islamophobia and a misunderstanding of the region and its inhabitants, and form an attempt at legitimizing foreign intervention and empire.

Patrick Cockburn, on the other hand, has long had a reputation for challenging the West’s stranglehold over the region, particularly in Iraq. Cockburn’s book seeks to fill a void in the existing literature that criticizes ISIS’s barbarism but doesn’t address the role of U.S. geopolitical maneuvering in the region and its complicity with the agendas of allies such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. When he is at his best, Cockburn deftly skewers these countries for their roles in backing ISIS and other anti-Shi’ite jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Cockburn’s book, unfortunately, reads as a collection of longform articles rather than as a cohesive and coherent body of work on the self-proclaimed Islamic State. He accomplishes the almost impossible task of tracing the rise of ISIS with modest success, focusing primarily on Iraq and Nouri al-Maliki’s role in failing to prevent and ultimately contributing to the group’s advance. Cockburn tracks ISIS’s beginnings to the rise of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in the mid-’00s, during a period marked by Maliki’s increasing grip on power and the country’s swift descent into chaos.

Cockburn also looks further back, identifying how the U.S.-led destabilization of Iraq and the dissolution of the country’s army and political structures prefigured the swell in ISIS’s ranks. The Sunni conscripts of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist army, after having been laid off permanently from their jobs as soldiers, formed a new underclass after the U.S.-led invasion. “Under Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, patronage based on party, family, or community determines who gets a job, contributing further to the political and economic marginalization of Iraq’s Sunni population that began after the fall of Saddam Hussein,” Cockburn writes. Following the dissolution of the army, its trained Sunni fighters had no means of subsistence and turned to survive on armed jihad, funded by Saudi Arabia and its regional partners.

Cockburn’s nuanced reading of Iraqi affairs wears a bit thin on Syria. He describes the Syrian uprising as a revolution that was “hijacked” by Islamist extremists, which allowed for AQI to expand to Syria. But though he (correctly) pulls Nouri al-Maliki to pieces, Cockburn’s stance against foreign intervention and Western hegemony in the region makes him hesitant to criticize Bashar al-Assad. While the dominant groups in Syria are indeed hardline takfiri Islamists who have slaughtered minorities for their faith and children for blasphemy, it is still the Assad regime that controls Syrian airspace, with an army of hundreds of thousands of troops and heavy weaponry. However stretched that army may be, it has mostly focused on fighting other militias in Syria while allowing ISIS to expand.

So, who’s already seen the match and knows the ending? In May, the Syrian city of Palmyra and the Iraqi city of Ramadi fell to ISIS control with little resistance from the Syrian and Iraqi armies and while U.S.-led coalition aircraft were nowhere in sight. Each city lies within 100 miles of the capitals of Damascus and Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Iraqi army barely resembles a fighting force and Assad would never negotiate the terms of his departure — not that there are any “better” actors on the ground to replace him even if he did. The current situation, as Cockburn notes, closely resembles the Thirty Years’ War in 17th-century Europe: each fighting faction is unwilling to make concessions necessary for peace to be brokered. Meanwhile, the goals continue to be scored, with mounting civilian deaths and no end to the game in sight.

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