Patrick Cockburn

Middle East Expert
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Patrick Cockburn is an award-winning writer on The Independent who specialises in analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East. In 2014 he forecast the rise of Isis before it was well known, and has written extensively about it and other players in the region. He was born in Cork in 1950, went to school there and in Scotland, took his first degree at Trinity College, Oxford and did graduate work at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queens University Belfast before shifting to journalism in 1978. He joined the Financial Times, covering the Middle East, and was later Moscow correspondent. He joined The Independent in 1990, reporting on the First Gulf War from Baghdad, and has written largely on the Middle East ever since.

Patrick Cockburn, UK 02/20/2018 0

Is Turkey Recruiting ex-ISIS Fighters?

“Most of those who are fighting in Afrin against the YPG [People’s Protection Units] are Isis, though Turkey has trained them to change their assault tactics,” said Faraj, a former Isis fighter from north-east Syria who remains in close touch with the jihadi movement.

In a phone interview with The Independent, he added: “Turkey at the beginning of its operation tried to delude people by saying that it is fighting Isis, but actually they are training Isis members and sending them to Afrin.”

An estimated 6,000 Turkish troops and 10,000 Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia crossed into Syria on 20 January, pledging to drive the YPG out of Afrin.

The attack was led by the FSA, which is a largely defunct umbrella grouping of non-Jihadi Syrian rebels once backed by the West. Now, most of its fighters taking part in Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” were, until recently, members of Isis.

Some of the FSA troops advancing into Afrin are surprisingly open about their allegiance to al-Qaeda and its offshoots. A video posted online shows three uniformed jihadis singing a song in praise of their past battles and “how we were steadfast in Grozny (Chechnya) and Dagestan (north Caucasus). And we took Tora Bora (the former headquarters of Osama bin Laden). And now Afrin is calling to us”.

Isis suffered heavy defeats last year, losing Mosul in Iraq after a siege of nine months and Raqqa in Syria after a four-month siege. The caliphate, declared by its leader Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi in 2014, was destroyed, and most of its experienced commanders and fighters were killed or dispersed.

But it has shown signs of trying to revive itself in Syria and Iraq over the last two months, assassinating local opponents and launching guerrilla attacks in out-of-the-way and poorly defended places.

Isis fighters are joining the FSA and Turkish-army invasion force because they are put under pressure by the Turkish authorities. From the point of view of Turkey, the recruitment of former Isis combatants means that it can draw on a large pool of professional and experienced soldiers. Another advantage is that they are not Turks, so if they suffer serious casualties this will do no damage to the Turkish government.

Isis and Turkey are seeking to use each other for their own purposes. Faraj, 32, an Arab from the mixed Kurdish-Arab province of Hasakah in north-east Syria, says that he does not like the YPG, but he is suspicious of Turkey and believes that it is trying manipulate Isis. “Turkey treats Isis like toilet tissues,” he says. “After use they will be thrown away.”

Turkey is evidently aware that using Isis fighters as the spearhead for the assault on Afrin, even if they relabelled as FSA, is likely to attract international criticism.

Faraj says that Turkish commanders have discouraged Isis from using their traditional tactics of extensive use of suicide bombers and car bombs at Afrin because this would make the Isis-Turkish cooperation too blatant.

He says that the FSA men are “professional in planning car-bomb attacks as they have experience before with Isis in Raqqa and Mosul”.

But he cites Turkish officers as discouraging such identifiable tactics, quoting one as telling an FSA group in training that “we leave the suicide attacks for the YPG and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party which carries on guerrilla warfare in Turkey), so that the world will be convinced that they are terrorists”.

Turkey has had an ambivalent relationship with jihadi groups since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. At first, it allowed foreign jihadi fighters and military supplies to cross into Syria, though this tolerance ebbed after the fall of Mosul in June 2014.

Nevertheless, Ankara made clear by its actions during the siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani that it would have preferred victory to go to Isis rather than the YPG.

As the YPG advanced after Kobani with the support of US air power, Turkey’s priority became to reverse the creation of a de facto Kurdish state in Syria under US military protection.

The US is in a particularly difficult position. It was the YPG who provided the ground troops who, backed by US air strikes, have defeated Isis in many battles.

Without them there would have been no victory over Isis as was claimed by President Trump in his State of the Union message. But the YPG is now facing some of the same Isis fighters in Afrin with whom it fought over the past four years. It will not look good if the US abandons its proven Kurdish allies because it does not want a confrontation with Turkey.

Such a confrontation could be just around the corner. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened at the weekend to expand the Turkish invasion to include the Arab town of Manbij, captured from Isis by the YPG in 2016 after a long siege. He said that the Americans “tell us, ‘Don’t come to Manbij.’ We will come to Manbij to handover these territories to their rightful owners.”

The fighting between Turks and Kurds and the growing confrontation between the US and Turkey are all in the interests of Isis. It does not have the strength to recover from its crushing defeats last year, but the opponents it faced then are now fighting other battles.

Eliminating the last pockets of Isis resistance is no longer their first priority. The YPG has been transferring units that were facing Isis in the far east of Syria to the west where they will face the Turks.

Turkey is not in a very strong position militarily almost three weeks after its invasion of Afrin. It can only win by bombing round the clock, and for this it will need Russian permission, which it probably will not get. If it is going to expand its attacks, it will need more combat soldiers and this will provide an opportunity for Isis to join in a new war.

The Turkish embassy in the UK has been approached for comment but had not responded by the time of publication.

Top photo: Photo by thierry ehrmann | CC BY 2.0

By Counter Punch

Patrick Cockburn, UK 02/01/2018 0

It’s Time to Call Economic Sanctions What They Are: War Crimes

These are the storm-battered remains of fragile wooden boats with unreliable engines in which North Korean fishermen go far out to sea in the middle of winter in a desperate search for fish.

Often all that survives is the shattered wooden hull of the boat cast up on the shore, but in some cases the Japanese find the bodies of fishermen who died of hunger and thirst as they drifted across the Sea of Japan. Occasionally, a few famished survivors are alive and explain that their engine failed or they ran out of fuel or they were victims of some other fatal mishap.

The number of “ghost ships” is rising with no fewer than 104 found in 2017, which is more than in any previous year, though the real figure must be higher because many boats will have sunk without trace in the 600 miles of rough sea between North Korea and Japan.

The reason so many fishermen risk and lose their lives is hunger in North Korea where fish is the cheapest form of protein. The government imposes quotas for fishermen that force them to go far out to sea. Part of their catch is then sold on to China for cash, making fish one of the biggest of North Korea’s few export items.

The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: the country is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.

The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. UN sanctions were imposed against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Supposedly, it was directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime, though it did nothing to dislodge or weaken them: on the contrary, the Baathist political elite took advantage of the scarcity of various items to enrich themselves by becoming the sole suppliers. Saddam’s odious elder son Uday made vast profits by controlling the import of cigarettes into Iraq.

The bureaucrats in charge of UN sanctions in Iraq always pretended that they prevented Saddam rebuilding his military strength. This was always a hypocritical lie: the Iraqi army did not fight for him in 1991 at the beginning of sanctions any more than it did when they ended. It was absurd to imagine that dictators like Kim Jong-un or Saddam Hussein would be influenced by the sufferings of their people.

These are very real: I used to visit Iraqi hospitals in the 1990s where the oxygen had run out and there were no tyres for the ambulances. Once, I was pursued across a field in Diyala province north of Baghdad by local farmers holding up dusty X-rays of their children because they thought I might be a visiting foreign doctor.

Saddam Hussein and his senior lieutenants were rightly executed for their crimes, but the foreign politicians and officials who were responsible for the sanctions regime that killed so many deserved to stand beside them in the dock. It is time that the imposition of economic sanctions should be seen as a war crime, since it involves the collective punishment of millions of innocent civilians who die, sicken or are reduced to living off scraps from the garbage dumps.

There is nothing very new in this. Economic sanctions are like a medieval siege but with a modern PR apparatus attached to justify what is being done. A difference is that such sieges used to be directed at starving out a single town or city while now they are aimed at squeezing whole countries into submission.

An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them.

An example of this is the draconian sanctions imposed on Syria by the US and EU which were meant to target President Bashar al-Assad and help remove him from power. They have wholly failed to do this, but a UN internal report leaked in 2016 shows all too convincingly the effect of the embargo in stopping the delivery of aid by international aid agencies. They cannot import the aid despite waivers because banks and commercial companies dare not risk being penalised for having anything to do with Syria. The report quotes a European doctor working in Syria as saying that “the indirect effect of sanctions … makes the import of the medical instruments and other medical supplies immensely difficult, near impossible.”

People should be just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing as they are by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire. But the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight.

Embargoes are dull and war is exciting. A few failed rocket strikes against Riyadh by the Houthi forces in Yemen was heavily publicised, though no Saudis were killed. Compare this to the scant coverage of the Saudi embargo on Houthi-held Yemen which has helped cause the largest man-made famine in recent history. In addition, there are over one million cholera cases suspected and 2,000 Yemenis have died from the illness according to the World Health Organisation.

PR gambits justifying sanctions are often the same regardless of circumstances. One is to claim that the economic damage caused prevents those who are targeted spending money on guns and terror. President Trump denounces the nuclear deal with Iran on the grounds that it frees up money to finance Iranian foreign ventures, though the cost of these is small and, in Iraq, Iranian activities probably make a profit.

Sanctions are just as much a collective punishment as area bombing in East Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul. They may even kill more people than the bombs and shells because they go on for years and their effect is cumulative. The death of so many North Korean fishermen in their unseaworthy wooden craft is one side effect of sanctions but not atypical of their toxic impact. As usual, they are hitting the wrong target and they are not succeeding against Kim Jong-un any more than they did against Saddam Hussein.

Top photo: Photo by John Pavelka | CC BY 2.0

By Counter Punch

Patrick Cockburn, UK 12/06/2017 0

The Smart Weapons Fallacy: Civilian Casualties From “Precision” Air Strikes in Iraq and Syria

 This is the new face of war which governments try to conceal: a limited number of combat troops on the ground call in devastating air strikes from planes, missiles and drones, be they American or Russian, to clear the way for their advance.

Governments pretend that air wars today are very different from Vietnam half a century ago when towns were notoriously “destroyed in order to save them”. These days air forces – be it the Americans in Iraq, the Russians in Syria or the Saudis in Yemen – say that this mass destruction no longer happens thanks to the greater accuracy of their weapons: using a single sniper, a room in a house can supposedly be hit without harming a family crouching in terror in the room next door.

The sale of vastly expensive high precision weapons to countries such as Saudi Arabia is even justified as a humanitarian measure aimed at reducing civilian casualties.

The PR has changed but not the reality. Despite the claims of enhanced accuracy, drone pictures of west Mosul look very much like pictures of east Aleppo, Raqqa or large parts of Damascus where every building is gutted or reduced to heaps of broken bricks interspersed with craters. The problem for journalists or human rights organisations is that it is almost impossible to verify the claims of victims or the denials of alleged perpetrators at the time.

Witnesses, when they are not dead, have often fled or are too frightened to speak; governments, regular armies and air forces will probably get away with it if they stick to a straight denial that they have done anything wrong. Even if damaging information does eventually come out, the news agenda will have moved on and public interest will be slight.

I found it frustrating during the final weeks of the siege of Mosul, which went on for nine months, to know that there was very heavy civilian loss of life as Iraqi forces backed by air strikes closed in on the Old City, but it was impossible to prove it. I was in touch by mobile phone with two different individuals trapped behind Isis lines who faced the dilemma of either staying where they were and chance being killed by the bombardment, or trying to escape to government-held territory and risk being shot by Isis snipers.

The two men took different decisions, but neither of them survived. One was shot dead by Isis as he and his mother joined a group trying to escape across the Tigris using rubber tyres because they could not swim. A second man was wounded in one air strike and killed by a second in the last weeks of the siege. Most of the two men’s extended families were also dead by the time the siege ended.

Fortunately some reporters do go on looking at what really happened in battles like Mosul long after the rest of the media has shifted its attention elsewhere. Joel Wing, in the online journal Musings on Iraq, writes that fresh information on casualties raises “the total number of dead during the operation [to capture Mosul city and surrounding area] to 21,224 and 30,996 wounded. 17,404 of the former and 24,580 of the latter occurred in Mosul. The new numbers still highlighted the fact that there are many more undocumented casualties as the wounded should be four to six times higher than the fatalities figure. Even if you subtract the 5,325 people that were executed by the Islamic State, that would still mean there should be 60,000-90,000 injured from the fighting.”

The figure looks high but is credible, taking into account the use of conventional artillery and Russian multiple rocket-launchers in the attack on west Mosul. Casualties from air attack also went up because the rules on ground troops calling in air strikes were relaxed before the attack on west Mosul began. Isis was killing civilians who tried to escape from the shrinking Isis-held enclave and more people were confined in fewer houses so if one was hit the loss of life would be high.

Even before this happened many more civilians were being killed by air strikes than the US-led air coalition was admitting. The only way to get at the truth is to look at a large sample of air strikes on the ground and see if they were reported by the coalition and, if so, how accurate that reporting was.

This has now been done for the first time by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, who visited the sites of nearly 150 air strikes in northern Iraq between April 2016 and June 2017. In a lengthy study called “The Uncounted”, published in The New York Times on 16 November, they reached devastating conclusions. They write that “we found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledge by the coalition”. They add that when it comes to civilian deaths this “may be the least transparent war in recent American history”.

The coalition denied that many of the air strikes that had killed people had ever taken place, but the reporters found that there were videos of several of them on the coalition’s YouTube channel, though these claimed to show the destruction of Isis targets. When they pointed this out, the videos were quietly withdrawn.

The picture that the coalition presented of its air offensive turns out to be a fabrication. In one sample of a residential area called Qaiyara, near Mosul city, the coalition claimed it had killed only one civilian in or near the town and the Iraqi air force said it had killed nobody. It turned out that there had been 40 air strikes on this area which had killed 43 civilians, of whom 19 were men, eight women and 16 children aged 14 or younger. In about a third of fatal strikes Isis had been in close proximity to the civilians, but in half of the cases there had been no discernible Isis presence.

Where there was evidence of Isis it was often flimsy and out of date: in one case a family of six was wiped out aside from a two-year-old child because a local informant had once seen a mortar near their house though it had been moved long before the strike.

The significance of the study is great because for the first time it can be shown what is really happening in a series of wars in the Middle East starting with Afghanistan in 2001. There is no such thing as precision air strikes.

The coalition claimed that only one in 157 of its 14,000 air strikes in Iraq since 2014 have caused a civilian death, but the evidence on the ground shows the real rate to be one in five. The comforting claim by American and British air commanders that smart weapons enable them to avoid killing civilians is simply untrue.

Top photo: Smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017. Mohamad Abazeed / AFP – Getty Images file

By Counterpunch