Assad v ISIS? Patrick Cockburn's economy with the truth

assad cartoon iranwire mana neyestani
IranWire/Mana Neyestani via Vox

Assad over Daesh?

There is a growing consensus that the fight in Syria is between ISIS and Assad. Given a choice between these two evils, a growing number of voices say that Assad is the lesser evil and that the West should back him to defeat Daesh.

For instance, Alison Pearson in the Mirror, spoke two years ago in a Jordanian refugee camp to escapees from Assad's chemical attacks. Now, she thinks that we should cuddle up to the perpetrator of these war crimes:
Two years on I still believe Assad to be a vile, nasty bully. But now, rather than bomb him I think it’s time to bond with him. With him and every tin pot dictator like him, if they can bring back some stability to a region so insecure and chaotic it has become the perfect breeding ground for Islamic State.
Politicians too talk this talk. Conservative Julian Lewis said in parliament that
In 2013, the Government wanted to remove Assad without helping al-Qaeda or similar groups that later became Daesh. Now we apparently want to remove Daesh but without helping Assad. Those two things are incompatible. It is a choice of two evils.
Labour's Peter Hain similarly thinks we should "liaise" with Assad's military to stop ISIL:
As Syria Solidarity UK argue here, Lewis' "choice of two evils" is a false choice.

Assad has killed and continues to kill far more people than Daesh ever has or probably ever will. The overall death toll in Syria is now around a quarter of a million: over a hundred a day every day. Civilians killed by the regime are around half of this; the Violations Documentation Centre, for example, has named over 80,000 civilians killed by the state, mainly in airstrikes, since the start of the conflict. Since the start of 2015 alone, government forces have killed 8509 people, two-thirds of them civilians, compared to ISIS, which has killed 1490 in Syria, two-thirds of them civilians. Why liaise or "bond" with killers on this scale? 

Support for Assad is support for Daesh

From Archicivilians, via Not George
Assad has done more than anyone else, not to defeat Daesh but to build them up. Kings College expert Peter Neumann a year ago in the LRB laid out the detailed story of how and why Assad did this. In December, NBC's careful analysis of regime strikes catalogued in the IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center's (JTIC) database showed that the government has been largely ignoring ISIS in order to defeat other rebel groups:
JTIC's data shows that [Assad's] counterterrorism operations — more than two-thirds of which were airstrikes — skew heavily towards groups whose names aren't ISIS. Of 982 counterterrorism operations for the year up through Nov. 21, just 6 percent directly targeted ISIS.
The same NBC report also quoted other rebel groups claiming to have experienced co-ordination between ISIS and the regime against specific rebel outfits - which has been reported again and again by other sources. Last month, for instance, the Guardian reported instances of this kind of co-operation, alleged both by the US and by major rebel groups.

In short, there is no "choice of two evils": they are working together. And, crucially, there is a third choice, the right choice: a free, democratic, secular Syria. Although under-supported and out-gunned, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has started to gain ground in southern Syria in recent weeks, and in the North is advancing side by side with the YPJ/YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia, which tenaciously defends the large liberated zone of Rojava.

Patrick Cockburn's dishonesty

Who's Lying About Syria's Christian Massacre?
From The Daily Beast
One of the voices influencing this growing complacent consensus on the alleged "choice of two evils" is Patrick Cockburn. I have long been a respectful reader of Cockburn, who has been reporting from the Middle East for two decades now.

However, his reportage relating to Syria has been marred over the last two years by systematic distortion in favour of the Assad regime narrative. In March this year, Robin Yassin-Kassab, in a book review written for the Guardian but only published after its main points were removed, documented several incidents where Cockburn has been economical with the truth in relation to Syria. You should read it in full here.

Yassin-Kassab's colleague Muhammad Idrees Ahmad in May provided extremely detailed further documentation of Cockburn's outight dishonesty. (I have taken the illustration above from there.)

I won't repeat their careful allegations here, but instead turn to two recent Cockburn articles. The first is in the highly esteemed London Review of Books of 2 July and has been repeatedly recommended to me on social media. 

Cockburn in the LRB: slandering the Kurds

The article is not without its merits, including a compelling description of how the ISIS war machine works and how it recruits ordinary Sunni Muslim men. However, it distorts the truth in a number of ways. 

First, Cockburn repeatedly refers to Kurdish sectarian violence. The article opens with the spectacle of Arab and Turkmen refugees fleeing the advance of the Kurdish YPJ/YPG. In fact, numerous observers have testified to Kurdish Rojava hosting large numbers of Sunni, Turkmen, Christian and other refugees who have fled Assad, ISIS or both. Cockburn does not mention a specific instance of ethnic cleansing or eviction, but simply alludes to it happening. Cockburn's only concrete example actually refutes his claim:
as we drove away from the front, we saw a family of Arabs carrying their belongings back to their house in an otherwise deserted village. They waved with exaggerated enthusiasm at our vehicle, as if uncertain about how they would be treated by the victorious Kurds.
An enthusiastic wave is interpreted as fear; returning Arabs to Kurdish-liberated land are somehow meant to tell us Arabs are oppressed by Kurds.

(Cockburn also mentions torture of a Kurdish Sunni Islamist militant at the hands of the Kurdish Regional Government, i.e. the autonomous government of Kurdish Iraq; he doesn't inform his readers that the KRG has absolutely nothing to do with the Syrian Kurds.)

The main thrust of the article is to claim that ISIS is enormously powerful, perhaps invincible, and will be almost impossible to eradicate.

Cockburn: advocate for Assad?

The LRB article barely mentions Assad, apart from this, on a Sunni recruit to ISIS:
He is somebody with a deep hatred of the Assad regime who joined the organisation that was most able to fight against it.
This claim is of course untrue, not only because it ignores the regime's complicity in the rise of ISIS (see above) but the fact that ISIS in turn does not attack the regime. The NBC analysis cited above makes this clear:
Around 64 percent of verifiable ISIS attacks in Syria this year targeted other non-state groups, an analysis of the [JITC] database showed. Just 13 percent of the militants' attacks during the same period — the year through Nov. 21 — targeted Syrian security forces. That's a stark contrast to the Sunni extremist group's operations in Iraq, where more than half of ISIS attacks (54 percent) were aimed at security forces.
Cockburn wrote a follow-up piece in the Saturday Independent. This takes up the story precisely here, with the idea that Assad is the key alternative to ISIS. Cockburn approvingly quotes the Tory Julian Lewis' "choice of evils" nonsense. He presents a superficially "realist" argument for conditional co-operation with Assad to destroy ISIS.

Cockburn does not mention the extent to which Assad's fighting force is depleted and completely dependent on foreign fighters - including regular and irregular Iranian forces and Lebanese Shia forces (including Hezbollah), Afghan fighters from Fatimiyun Brigade and so on; as well as Syrian units now commanded by Iranian officers (mainly from the IRGC). Support for Assad against IS is de facto support for Iran and its proxies. And Iran has been a source of instability and sectarianism in the region for some time, as well as being a regime not much less murderous than IS.

Cockburn's argument is also predicated on the insistence that all Syrian rebels are essentially sectarian Salafi jihadists little better than ISIS and that Sunni sectarianism is their key driver and therefore all non-Sunnis rally to Assad. The imposition of a matrix of sectarianism ("ancient tribal rivalries") is a staple of Western orientalist simplification of the politics of the Middle East.

Cockburn's narrative systematically erases the tenacious persistence of non-jihadist rebel groups, who are gaining ground on some fronts. His narrative systematically erases the support of sizable numbers of Allawites and other minorities for rebel groups and for the Kurds (see note below). His narrative systematically erases the existence of resilient Kurdish resistance to both Assad and jihadism, as well strengthening co-operation between the Kurds and Sunni groups. His narrative is essentially dishonest.



Alternative voices
Instead of listening to Cockburn, I strongly recommend you listen to voices from the Syrian revolution itself. You can follow them on Syria UK, the Free Syria Foundationthe Syria Campaign and the Global Solidarity Campaign, for example. I have been collecting tweeters from revolutionary movements in the Middle East, including Syria, here. Among them you will find the liberated village of KafranbelRaed Al Saleh of Syrian Civil Defence; the anarchist-inspired Local Co-Ordination Committees who document regime killings on a daily basis; Raqqa SI, who document both ISIS and Assad atrocities in their city; Raed Fares from Kafranbel; Homs Liberation MovementOmar from DamascusParadoxy13 from Damascus; and the activist Karim, On the web, check out reports collated at Souria Houria, Yalla SouriyaTahrir-ICN, WW4Report and by Not George Sabra and Danny Postel

As well as voices from Syria, for actually well-informed analysis from afar, check out Michael Karadjis, Kyle Orton, Michael Weiss, Hassan Hassan, The Magpie's Nest, James Miller, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, Robin Kassab-YassinMuhammad Idrees AhmadThomas van Linge, Archicivilians and EAWorldview, as well as solidarity activists Lina Sergie AttarMalcolmiteRime Allaf, Clay Claibournethe Revolting Syrian and Maysaloon. You can find links to Kurdish sources here.

These sources represent a diversity of views, but any of them are better sources than Cockburn!

A note on minorities and the Syrian revolution
A key tenet of the "realist" pro-Assad line that Cockburn espouses is that Assad's "secular" regime was good for non-Sunni/Arab minorities, who consequently remain regime-loyal. Assad, of course, was not a friend of minorities, but a colonial-style manipulator of minorities, who fostered sectarian identities as part of a divide-and-rule strategy. Assad, like the European colonial powers, sought to freeze fluid identities into fixed communal categories in order to manage them and play them off against each other in a system of patronage.

There are, of course, examples of sectarianism from the Islamist wing of the rebels. There aren't significant numbers of non-Sunni fighters against the regime (apart from the Kurds and Yazidis). And the ISIS attempted genocide against those they see as heretics has intensified these dynamics. But the picture is much more complex.

I can't do justice to that complexity here. A good (if now already out of date) starting point is Aymenn Jawad on Allawites and other minorities. Among the examples we could cite of non-alignment between the regime and minorities would be: the Syriac Union Party (SUP) and its anti-government "Sutoro" forces based in Christian areas, which is closely allied with the Kurdish PYD, as are other Syriac Christian groups; the Assyrian Democratic Organization affiliated to the opposition Syrian National Council; the prominence of Allawites such as Fadwa Soliman, Monzer Makhous and female defector General Zubaida al-Meeki in the opposition, alongside prominent Christians such as George Sabra and Michael Kilo; recent reports of Armenian and Allawite militias turning arms against the regime in Homsthe anti-regime activism of Druze youth in Suweida; the continued defection of Druze from regime forces; the universal condemnation from the Southern Front rebels of al-Nusra repression of the Druze in Idlib; and the fact that Israeli humanitarian support for rebels in the South is conditional on their good treatment of Druze.



Zhao Mafan said…
I am said to read, Bob, that you've long been a respectful reader of Patrick Cockburn. The evidence is overwhelming of a consistent anti-Israeli bias in his writing.
Franck Magennis said…
"In the long-term, if civilian protection could be established, wouldn't a free and democratic Syria be a desirable end game?"

I'm staggered that you believe this is a likely outcome. Do you have any examples of where Western military intervention has resulted in increased democracy? Is there freedom and democracy in Libya? Iraq? Afghanistan?

And where are these proto-democratic institutions within Syria ready to take over if Asad falls? I'm genuinely intrigued to hear about your blueprint here.

If the UK and the US (and you) don't have a blueprint - a post-war reconstruction plan - then we're looking at another Iraq: destroy the current state, create a power vacuum, no plan for what happens next.
bob said…
Thank you Frank for your comments. You make two good points, but I disagree. I don't argue for one second that the outcome of western intervention in Libya, Iraq or Afghanistan has been to usher in wonderful liberal democracies. All three interventions were badly executed to a greater or lesser extent and all three suffered from a lack of a post-war plan. But if your question is have they resulted in increased freedom and democracy, the answer has to be a qualified yes. While the part of Iraq under ISIS and the parts of Afghanistan under Taliban control are nightmarish, remember that's what ALL of Afghanistan endured before the Coaliton intervention. Iraq before 2003 was under a genocidally racist fascist dictatorship which had a department of the police specifically devoted to raping women dissidents. So, the parts of Iraq under control of the al-Abadi government and the parts of Afghanistan under the control of the Ghani government are incomparable freer and more democratic than they were before. The autonomous KRG-run Kurdish part of Iraq, made possible by western intervention in the 1990s and 2000s, is one of the freest and most democratic places in the whole Middke East. Libya looks less good now, but I know lots of Libyans and not one of them wants a return to the fascist dictatorship of Gaddafi.

More pertinent though, is to compare those countries to Syria, where we've not intervened. Libya was a disaster, but not compared to the bloodbath that Assad's Syria has been these past five years. A year ago, Iyad El-Baghdadi showed the contrast, since which thousands more Syrians have died:
In 2011, Syria had 3 times Libya's population. Since then, it has seen 50 times as many deaths and 500 times as many displacements as Libya. That's the effect of our non-intervention.

On your second point, see next comment.
bob said…
On Syria's proto-democratic institutions, I feel even more confident in saying you're wrong. It was been one of the most extraordinary and inspiring things about the liberated zones of Syria that (similar to Rojava, but under massively more difficult conditions) institutions of direct democracy have thrived under the bombs. Inspired by the anarchist Omar Aziz (see ), one of the first acts of the Syrian revolution was the creation of a confederal network of free "local councils" across the country - much like the "dual power" seen in Russia after the February revolution or in Republican Spain. These local councils have perisisted and organise water, healthcare, food distribution when aid gets through, and of course co-ordinates the civil defence provided by the White Helmets. This local council movement is rarely mentioned in the mainstream western media but I'll paste a few links below. So, the model of post-war reconstruction need not be like Iraq where American and international state and private actors imposed an administration from above, but more like Kurdistan where an existing from-below proto-democracy was already present on the ground.

For info see:
Al Hamra's blog: and
Mark Boothroyd:
Syria Deeply:
Alexander Starrit:
Out of date but good background:

Showeda said…
Enjoyed that and learnt alot ...Thank you

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