Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Cockburn, OR Books (2016)
Patrick Cockburn’s Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East is a 14-year chronicle of the civil wars and sectarian violence that followed Western intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen and gave rise to the caliphate established by the Islamic State group in parts of Syria and Iraq.
An Irish journalist who reports principally for the British newspaper The Independent, Cockburn has assembled entries in a diary he kept while covering regional conflicts from the years 2001 to 2015. The diary entries are contemporary with the events they describe. However, Cockburn also provides an introduction to each section to bring readers up to date, along with an afterword in which he summarizes his conclusions.
The result is a sweeping survey of the chaos, war crimes, atrocities, political shifts and incalculable human suffering brought about by the various civil wars plaguing the region. The sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq has also swept up the Kurds and Yazidis in both Iraq and Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, while leaving Libya in a state of anarchy. Cockburn also documents the role played by regional actors in the conflicts, including the Persian Gulf states, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
US central to regional chaos
Cockburn’s diary entries are remarkably prescient at times, so much so that one begins to wonder if they weren’t updated after the fact. But this is an astute and experienced reporter in the region who brings a skeptical ear to every claim made by a government official and who has first-hand experience on the ground as a front-line reporter. Although often lacking in historical background, the book partly makes up for this deficiency with a thorough knowledge of the current military and political strengths and weaknesses of the various forces in conflict.
More descriptive than analytical, the book carries the weight of considerable authority and insight. Thankfully, it avoids the Orientalism that plagues the accounts of so many Western journalists who attempt to locate the problem in the Arab or Afghan mind or culture or in the religion of Islam. When Cockburn interviews those on all sides of ethnic and sectarian divides, it’s their humanity that comes across more vividly than anything else, though their experiences are often grounded in whether they are Alawite, Christian, Houthi, Kurd, Pashtun, Shia, Sunni, Tajik or Yazidi.
Iraq, Cockburn notes, is at the “heart of this book,” because the US invasion and occupation destroyed “Iraq as a unified country” and “opened up a period in which Iraq’s three great communities – Shia, Sunni and Kurds – are in a permanent state of confrontation, a situation that has had a deeply destabilizing impact on all of Iraq’s neighbors.” Cockburn believes that at least three countries – Iraq, Syria and Yemen – will never “come together as unitary states again.”
Cockburn examines again and again the role played by the US government, pointing out that both the US and Israel “openly exulted” at the Syrian rebellion against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. They, along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, hoped the rebellion would lead to the defeat or isolation of predominantly Shia Iran, a Syrian ally, and the Shia-led Hizballah in Lebanon that played a major role in ousting Israel from South Lebanon and fought Israeli land forces to a standstill in 2006. Iran and Hizballah in turn, Cockburn argues, see the defeat of al-Assad’s regime as an existential threat that puts Iran’s capital, Tehran, in peril.
Cockburn largely fails to bring much light to the origins of the Syrian uprising in yet another example of reporting that lacks historical background. In a July 2011 entry, he points to the bravery of those who peacefully protested against al-Assad “despite so many being shot down.”
He portrays the civil war as a second Nakba – the original being the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias in 1948 – for the nearly 500,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria. The location of their refugee camps places them directly in the line of fire from either rebel or government forces, he points out, while also noting that the armed opposition maintains a presence in some of the Palestinian camps. The result is that thousands of these Palestinians have been displaced yet again.
Cockburn’s book is also notable for its extensive section on the Islamic State group, including interviews with defectors and others who fled their extremism. The reasons most often given for the defections include rapes, summary executions, the enslavement of Yazidi women and the death sentences meted out to religious minorities. Cockburn argues that many adherents are drawn to the Islamic State group because of the corruption or sectarianism of the governments they lived under previously or simply because they believe they have no choice if they wish to survive.
“Wreck and ruin”
For hundreds of years Western colonialism pursued a strategy of “divide and conquer” to maintain colonial rule, deliberately setting religious and ethnic groups against each other and in some cases even inventing ethnic or racial categories. Today, Western imperialism appears to be pursuing a strategy of “wreck and ruin,” apparently having concluded that if it can no longer install puppet regimes to do its bidding, at least it can fragment and weaken any nation that hews to an independent foreign policy or aligns with a rival hegemonic bloc.
Following its invasion of Iraq, the US government believed it could install a puppet regime in Baghdad. Initial meetings for a provisional government were held as if an Iraqi presence was not even necessary.
That arrogance proved catastrophic for US planners. Cockburn offers a telling anecdote: as the last American ground forces prepared to leave Iraq in June 2009, a US general attempted to attend a meeting of top-ranking Iraqi government and military officials. He was asked to leave.
It may very well happen in the future that the people of the region will make clear the US must not only leave, but must never involve itself in the first place due to the harrowing outcomes its interventions create. In a recent article for TomDispatch, Cockburn concludes that even though the US “remains a superpower,” it is “no longer as powerful as it once was.”
As a result of Western intervention, the entire Middle East now faces “the possibility of an endless cycle of indecisive wars and an era of instability.”
Rod Such is a former editor for World Book and Encarta encyclopedias. He lives in Portland, Oregon, and is active with the Occupation-Free Portland campaign.