Eds: This past November, Slava Zilber interviewed Patrick Cockburn, one of the most respected correspondents on Middle Eastern affairs. Given this week's assasination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force Commander, General Qasem Solemani, this discussion of Iran's involvement in recent protests in Iraq and of ISIS is especially pertinent.
Slava Zilber:Today, I am talking to the journalist and author Patrick Cockburn. First, I would like to ask you how you have become a journalist and how you have come to focus on "analysis of Iraq, Syria and wars in the Middle East"?
Patrick Cockburn: I was born in Ireland, but I did my university degree at Oxford. And then I went to Queen's University Belfast to do my PhD. That was in the 1970s when there was lots of fighting in Belfast and Northern Ireland. So I started doing journalism there. I then moved to Lebanon in 1975 at the beginning of the Civil War. And I've been involved in the Middle East really ever since although I have also been Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times. I covered Lebanon War for the FT in the early 1980s. I switched to The Independent in the 1990s at the beginning of the Gulf War. But my main focus has been on the Middle East.
Why the Middle East? Because it has become the arena in which not just regional powers, but the great powers of the world fight out their differences. That's one of the reasons it's so difficult to end these wars in Syria and Yemen and Iraq: It's not just people within the country or within the region, it's the whole world that becomes involved in these conflicts.
Slava Zilber:You and your brother Andrew Cockburn have co-written the book Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein. And you have written two books focusing on Iraq: The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq as well as Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.
I would like to ask you about your article How Tehran-backed forces are taking over in Iraq: 'The Iranians always have a plan.' What form does this takeover have? To what extent is it being used to justify sanctions and other measures against Iran?
There was Iranian involvement and I think probably a mistake by the Iranians: that they thought this was the beginning of a velvet revolution, a protest that was going to destroy the status quo.
Patrick Cockburn: I think that what happened in Iraq recently is a little complicated. I was in Baghdad when the protests started on October 1st. I did not expect them to start. I don't think anybody did in Baghdad at that time. There was quite a small demonstration. The security forces started firing at it. Ten people were killed. Later, a lot more people were killed. I think that there was Iranian involvement and I think probably a mistake by the Iranians: that they thought this was the beginning of a velvet revolution, a protest that was going to destroy the status quo. They suspected that this was the result of a conspiracy by the US. I don't think it was. I think it was much more a general protest against, above all, lack of jobs in Iraq—although it is a big oil producer —corruption in government and lack of services, particularly electricity and fresh water. So I think that the Iranians and the factions within Iraq that are sympathetic toward Iran may have misinterpreted what was happening.
The first night, I think, ten people were killed. Then, the following day, I was in Tahrir Square where you could see protesters and riot police are milling around. But then the government again overreacted. They had a curfew for the whole of Baghdad which is seven million people. They cut the internet. And this didn't really stop the protests. In fact, it meant that they started happening all over Baghdad because this was in the nature of a collective punishment.
The problem in Iraq is that I can see why all these people are protesting. There is a high level of corruption. And money just disappears. I mean there are other countries in the world that are corrupt, but a road gets built, a bridge gets built, a hospital gets built even if somebody is making money out of it. But in Iraq—the money goes and there is no hospital and no road and no bridge. So people have every reason to protest.
But what will be the outcome of this? I think the problem is it is very easy to see what the protesters are against, but it is not at all easy to see what they would replace it with. The whole political structure is fairly corrupt, but I don't think that there is any replacement at the moment. So it is difficult to see how the protests will achieve anything at the end of the day.
The Iranians. Well, the Iranians have done well this year. They've confronted America. Trump did not start a war despite the attack on the Saudi oil facilities and the UAE tankers if the Iranians were involved. So they are in a fairly strong position. But I think they overreacted to what happened in Iraq and probably are overreacting to what is happening in Iran itself.
Slava Zilber:So there is substance to the claim that Iran is involved. It's not just something the US government would say to justify sanctions and other pressure against Iran.
Patrick Cockburn: I do think that there is Iranian involvement. It's not just Iran. Remember that Iraq is majority Shia just like Iran, that there are very strong links between what happens in Iraq and what happens in Iran. Were the Iranians are involved in this? Yes.
Will this be used to justify sanctions? Well, maybe. But I don't think that sanctions will have anything but a negative effect. And it makes the protesters look as though they are involved in a conspiracy against the government. So I am sure they will be used to justify sanctions, but I don't think that makes much difference.
Slava Zilber:Could you please comment on the material published by The Intercept and The New York Times on November 18th, 'The Iran Cables'?
Patrick Cockburn: Right. Yes, I saw them. Frankly, I was pretty disappointed by them. There was an announcement by The Intercept and The New York Times that these showed that Iran was influential or trying to take over Iraq. But actually what they showed was that Iran wanted to fight ISIS, wanted to avoid a sectarian war there, wanted to avoid Kurdish independence. These were things that were mostly known and not very sinister and were the policy of the Iraqi government anyway. So I though it was pretty disappointing. Then, there is stuff that is meant to be more exciting saying, you know, when the Americans were departing, guys who worked as informers for the CIA started working for the Iranians. Well, you kind of expect that. Informers always do this. So I thought it was surprisingly tame. I have not read all the documents there, but there is nothing explosive or even that interesting so far as I could see.
Slava Zilber:In the article, you speak about how "paramilitary groups [...] abducted and threatened journalists, doctors and anybody else backing the demonstrations." How does it affect your work?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, I was staying in a hotel close to Tahrir Square which was the centre of the demonstations. This was rather by accident. And it affects my—a curfew was declared so it was difficult to move around. I did move around, but I had to break the curfew. It was a 24-hour curfew. Friends came and picked me up in a car. Some people were just using bicycles to move around. The streets were very empty. But that made it difficult to work. Then the internet was cut. That made it even more difficult to work. On top of that, people were certainly shooting at the demonstrations. I think it was difficult to see where the fire was coming from. So it was quite dangerous to operate there.
Slava Zilber:And from what you have seen, what has the media coverage of these protests been like?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, it has been fairly slight. There hasn't been much of it. Compare the coverage of the protests in Iraq where maybe 300-400 people have been killed with the coverage of the protests in Hong Kong which have been going on for longer and, I think, last I heard there were only two people killed. The coverage I have seen of Hong Kong speaks about police brutality and the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, but it rather amazes me that more people haven't been killed there.
Now, why is that? Iraqis will often tell you that nobody much cares if Iraqis are killed. They are used to people reading about or seeing on television that Iraqis are being killed. So it's no longer news. It is also quite difficult to cover the news there because Baghdad used to be full of foreign correspondents, but there aren't many left. So for all those reasons, it has been very undercovered.
Slava Zilber:Patrick, I would like to ask you about your article The killing of Isis leader Baghdadi does not solve all problems for the west. You state: "With Baghdadi at its head, Isis was never going to rise again, but with him out of the way it may stand a better chance of doing so in Syria and Iraq." You wrote two books about ISIS: The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising and The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution. You have visited the former territority of the so-called Islamic State. What is your assessment of the situation and of the future of this entity?
Patrick Cockburn:ISIS, the Islamic State, at one point controlled a vast territory stretching from far to the west of the Euphrates River almost to the Mediterranean and to the east of the Tigris River almost to the Iranian border. It had about ten million people living in it. ISIS controlled big cities like Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. And today they don't control anything. They have lost their territory. So that's a big change because what made ISIS different from other Jihadi Islamic groups was that they controlled territory. They set up a sort of independent state. And that made them different from al-Qaeda and people like that. That state is gone. But they still have guerrilla forces in Iraq and Syria. The question is: Can they rise again?
They have some strengths: They are disciplined. They are fanatical believers in their variant of Islam. They have experience. But they also have problems: In 2014, they suddenly captured Mosul. They surprised the whole world which had never heard of them before. But if they tried to do the same thing again, it won't surprise anybody. They will be seen as a threat. Almost everybody will react against them. So it is difficult for them to do that. Secondly, ISIS come from the Sunni community and this community has suffered shattering losses over the last four years. The Old City of Mosul is largely destroyed. Raqqa has been devastated. There are millions of Sunni refugees. So I don't think that they will be enthusiastic to support ISIS again. And it does need to recruit people. It doesn't need to be that popular, but it needs a degree of acceptance by people. So I think it's still there. It can still have an influence, maybe a big influence. It will be difficult for it to reestablish a state like it had before.
It has some advantages that have emerged during the last six weeks or so: The protests in Iraq mean that the government and the security forces are focusing on them. So there is a kind of a vacuum that ISIS can fill. Similarly in Syria with the Turkish invasion and the Americans pulling out and then coming back, there is a sort of vacuum that again ISIS can move forward and fill. Again, things are moving to their advantage. But will they be able to return in their former strength? I doubt it.
Slava Zilber:But it's not over.
Patrick Cockburn: No, ISIS has always been skilled in staging spectacular atrocities to attract everybody's attention, sometimes inside Iraq. The last big bomb in Baghdad was in 2016. It killed around 300 people. Then, we have ISIS attacks outside Iraq and Syria. I remember in Sri Lanka ISIS attacked hotels and churches and again killed over 300 people and attracted the attention of the world. So I think they will do that to show they are still in business. And of course, it is not difficult to do if suicide bombers are blowing themselves up in the middle of civilian gatherings.
Slava Zilber:Turing to a discussion about drones: 'We deal with terrorists by killing terrorists." What do you think of such an approach?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, it depends. First of all, they are not only killing terrorists. They are killing an awful lot of other people. They killed an enormous number of civilians in Mosul and in Raqqa. So that's leads to reaction against them.
There are many other factors involved in ISIS. Do people have any alternative? Can they look to the Iraqi government? Can they look to the Syrian government? Particularly in Syria, it is not that people necessarily support one party against another, but they choose the side which is least dangerous for them. They may not like the Syrian government in Damascus. Maybe if you are a Kurd, the Damascus government is preferable to Turkey because the Syrian government might arrest you, but the Turks might either kill you or drive you out. So the area is full of people trying to make those choices between alternatives which they don't really like, but the only alternative that was available.
Slava Zilber:How do you manage to navigate these different groups without being accused by one or the other of siding with one of them and as a western journalist? Some of these people would probably hate you for being British or think you are American.
Patrick Cockburn: Yes, you have to be very careful. You have people there who are suspicious of journalists. Overall, it has got to be more dangerous to be a journalist in the Middle East, not just in Iraq and Syria, but in Turkey, in Egypt. These are countries that used to be quite easy to operate in as a journalist, but that's not true anymore. Of course, local journalists have a much worse time than I do. If you are a Egyptian or a Turk, you probably know it might be dangerous or risky for you to talk to a foreign journalist. So it's got more difficult to operate in all these places. In some case, there was a war like Iraq or Syria or Libya. In other places, it is because you have more authoritarian governments.
Slava Zilber:What is next for you, Patrick?
Patrick Cockburn: Well, I got back from Baghdad last month. I am in England as you know and where we have a general election on December 12th. So I am waiting around for that. Then, probably in January, I might go back to the northern Iraq, to Irbil, and see what is happening in northern Syria and the rest of Iraq. Up to October, things were getting more peaceful in both places. Since then, there has been an explosion: the protests all over Iraq, the turmoil, the confusion, the chaos in northern Syria. It is difficult to say what an effect this is going to have. Is ISIS going to take advantage of it and come back? Will the Turks invade more? What will be the counter-protests in Baghdad and elsewhere? These are still open questions. So I will be looking to the answers to those questions.