ISIS, Syria, & Journalism
IIdrees Ahmad is a lecturer in journalism at the Univerty of Stirling in Scotland and a co-editor of the Pulse website. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: the Making of a Neoconservative War.
BARSAMIAN: You took on two prominent, senior and well respected journalists—Patrick Cockburn and Seymour Hersh—for their reporting on Syria. What was it that you discovered?
AHMAD: The pattern that I had been seeing from the beginning of the conflict was that it was being framed not in relation to facts on the ground so much as in relation to the context of the history of the Iraq War, and I thought that journalism wasn’t making it clear enough, especially in the case of some major figures, that what is happening in Syria is a major repression of a popular uprising.
Obviously, the character of that uprising has changed over time, but that is one of the consequences of the way the world has treated it with complete indifference. Nothing has been done to address the kind of atrocities that are happening—no accountability for the perpetrators. And at this moment, there is no deterrent to prevent anyone from committing the kinds of atrocities that are being committed whether it’s by the regime, groups like ISIS, or even some of the more extreme elements in the opposition.
You say the image of the conflict—I even have problems with that term “conflict,” because it sounds like two equal forces—but you say that the image of the conflict is distorted. Could you elaborate on that?
I think that we are trapped by semantic conventions. For example, one of the terms often used to describe this conflict is “civil war.” Again, “civil war” suggests a kind of parity, which in this instance doesn’t exist. So we are talking about mainly a state which is armed with all the appurtenances of military power, and it’s repressing a disparate opposition whose arms are no real match for the regime. To take just the most prominent example, the regime has an air force and the opposition doesn’t, so that in itself creates a major imbalance. The regime can bomb at will. So it’s not really a conflict so much as a case of a mass repression.
Cockburn, it seems to me, reduces the argument to, you can have Assad or you can have the jihadists.
One of the things Cockburn completely ignores is the civil society movement. It’s a pretty massive network: it includes Local Coordination Committees, it includes civil defense forces. So there are a lot of different aspects to it. Militarily, yes, right now ISIS has become dominant. Among the opposition, the major force is the FSA—the Free Syrian Army. That’s mostly defectors from the army and people who are defending their neighborhoods. They have coalesced under this umbrella. So it’s not really an army, as the name suggests. But what has happened is, over time you have had a lot of these Islamist forces which have become dominant. So now one of the major coalitions is called the Islamic Front, which is a group of Islamist forces, but they are very different from a group like ISIS, because ISIS has global ambitions and ISIS flaunts any conception of human rights or anything that it sees as Western.
But these other groups are quite amenable—whether it’s pressure from outside or whether it’s agreeing to ceasefires. They have some degree of pliability in that respect. So their goals are very distinctly nationalist. They want to overthrow a regime which they have seen as being unrepresentative. One of the strategies of the regime from the beginning was to launder its image and present all of its opponents as being Islamist hardliners, so it can present its repression as a franchise of the “war on terror,” that it is fighting the same “war on terror” that the U.S. is. This is not something new. The sad part was how journalists started buying into it. And the most prominent among them has been Cockburn. The reason it becomes very questionable is that even in his reporting, if you look at evidence for his claims, he cites something very dubious. For example, in one case, as evidence that the FSA is no different than ISIS, he cites an unnamed intelligence official. Which is fine. Sometimes you can grant anonymity to intelligence officials. But he also conceals his country and just identifies him as being an officer of a country neighboring Syria. That raises several questions, because there are several countries neighboring Syria and some of them have very distinct agendas quite in line with the Assad regime’s agenda. One is Iraq. If you then go a little further, then there’s Iran as well. So we never know who this intelligence officer belongs to. I can understand giving anonymity to the man, but why to the country? That raises questions.
Also, this same opposition has been fighting ISIS for longer than the Assad regime has. In fact, in early 2014 these groups banded together to drive ISIS out of the northern and the eastern regions, so they have been fighting ISIS for far longer. And ISIS has been pretty brutal in their repression of these groups. To declare them as being one and the same with ISIS is factually wrong and it’s creating this completely misleading impression that somehow Assad is the lesser of these evils and that these groups are similarly bloodthirsty and ruthless, which is not really the case.
Talk about “the fog of war.” With the tremendous chaos and displacement in Syria—millions of refugees—how do you as a scholar find accurate information? How can you parse fact from fiction?
Obviously, when focusing on Syria, you try to get information from as many different angles as possible and where you often have contending information, see where the points of intersection are. That’s where you can realize, okay, some facts which everybody can agree on. Obviously, people can give different interpretations to these facts, but at least some things start becoming clearer. The Local Coordination Committee (LCC) was one of the major sources for a long time. The Syrian Civil Defense Force is a source which at least counts how many barrel bombs have been dropped. But also what has happened is that photographic evidence is coming out a lot now because of cellphones.
To give you an example, when the whole chemical attack happened, the UN had taken some pictures in the aftermath of the attack—not immediately, because the regime didn’t let the UN in for at least five days. But when they went in, they found the rockets found their coordinates, and then pictures were taken and all of that. Based on that, people were able to analyze what their possible trajectories were, which direction they might have come from.
That chemical attack took place in August 2013. That was Obama’s “red line.” That “red line” quickly became blurred. But proponents and supporters of the president would say, ”Well, he emerged from that in a very strong position because the Assad dictatorship got rid of the chemical weapons.”
We have to look first at the context of the “red line.” Obama gave that statement in 2012. When he was asked, “At what point would you act,” he had said that “if there are a lot of chemical attacks and a lot of movement of chemical weapons, that is going to be a red line, and that’s when the U.S. might intervene.” You have to look at how that might have been received in Syria. Essentially, Obama is giving a green light. What happened with the “red line” is that the regime realized that if he’s not willing to act with all of this, he might not even act with chemical weapons. They were sort of testing Obama. What they realized was that he made a lot of noise and then he backed down.
Yes, there was that relinquishing of the chemical weapons, but that wasn’t quite the victory which it was made out to be, because just a few months later the regime started using chemical weapons again. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which monitors the use of chemical weapons for the UN, just in April 2014, recorded 15 instances of chemical weapons usage. And since then the regime has been using chlorine bombs all the time. They also use fuel-air explosives which are sort of a crude form of napalm. So the regime has continued to use these.
That was sort of a victory in that the regime made this symbolic gesture of relinquishing its weapons, but in reality nothing changed. Also, its significance was inflated, because Obama needed something as a victory at that time so that he won’t have this embarrassing kind of a retreat. That victory was given to him. Meanwhile, the regime actually escalated. Just to give you a point of comparison, August 2013 was more than two years into the conflict. By that time roughly 60,000 people had been killed. In the year after that, more than 120,000 people were killed. So the regime actually escalated.
The uprising against the Assad regime begins in March 2011, following revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. It began as a nonviolent, peaceful movement against the regime. It was a mass movement. And the very first instances of it were some teenage students who had sprayed graffiti in solidarity with the uprisings that were happening elsewhere. The regime had them arrested and they were tortured. That’s why the first protest happened in Daraa. After that, the regime’s response to that was the same as in the past. They realized that if they intimidate the people, they might back down. So they started shooting at the people. So within the first 2 months, close to 1,000 people were killed. This is a time when nobody is fighting back. But after that many deaths, it was inevitable that they would. The regime kept shooting at people until somebody started responding, and then it started using that as justification that, well, we are facing a terrorist threat and all that.
People, obviously, rose up. They started creating these neighborhood defense committees. But one of the consequences was that the jihadis started moving in, because they realized there is an opening here. People are being repressed and nobody is coming to their aid. That’s why the internationalist jihadis started stepping in.
You also put Seymour Hersh under the microscope. What did you find about Hersh’s reporting in a London Review of Books piece that you found problematic?
Hersh was somebody whom I had always admired. I am a teacher of journalism and I teach him in my class. I used to always teach how he gathered his sources, how we went and found them. He got the story usually from the horse’s mouth. That used to be his specialty. This time what happened was that he wrote this big, front-page story in which he made the claim that the chemical attack that happened in Damascus was by the rebels, who did it themselves. In fact, in a follow-up story he made an astonishing claim. He said that the Turkish president was directly implicated in it, that he had somehow provided the sarin, and these rebels had carried out that attack.
The problem with that were several. First of all, was that the physical facts didn’t really support Hersh’s claim. And then, obviously, there was a question of the logic. But also, finally, the claim about his sources, because he concealed his sources. I was able to sort of dig out who they were. Because this claim wasn’t new; it had been circulating on the Internet for quite some time. Initially it had appeared on a Canadian conspiracy site called global research.ca, by Yossef Bodansky. This was the most embarrassing thing, that had been plagiarized by a group of former intelligence officials in the U.S. They published an open letter to Obama in which they plagiarized a whole passage from that Bodansky article.
One of the people making this claim was a fellow named Larry Johnson. Larry Johnson has been one of the sources that Seymour Hersh has spoken to quite often. This claim makes it into Hersh’s article, and the details are the same ones which we had seen before. In fact, he makes some really astonishing claims, which were factually wrong, about the rockets and also about the sarin that was used. So I wrote a rather extensive piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books dismantling his claims. The thing that was disappointing for me was what he didn’t do. A lot of his claims would have been readily contradicted by the available information. There was open-source information available at the time which contradicted his claimsd pointed out to him that some of the claims that you are making are unsupportable, and here is contradictory evidence. The sad part is that Hersh pretended he never saw that information, and he went on with the story because it was a good, sensational story. And it did get a lot of attention.
And also the claim made that this was just kitchen sarin, something you could make in your kitchen, which was again something that no chemical weapons expert would ever say. They just laugh at it, because it’s a really absurd claim. Sarin is a pretty toxic substance.
Syria has become a battleground for various countries, and it’s always presented that Iran is a major actor as is Saudi Arabia. Then it’s reduced to Shi’a Iran versus Sunni Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. What role are these outside powers playing inside of Syria?
Now, it is a big battleground. All kinds of forces are contending inside Syria. On the one hand, there is more overt support which came from Iran in the shape of both Hezbollah and the IRGC. Hezbollah was initially very reluctant, by the way, to get involved in Syria. Initially Hassan Nasrallah resisted getting involved because they knew that that was going to cost them in goodwill, which it did eventually. Iran also has an IRGC presence inside, which is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. They train the Syrian force and they’ve also organized, because the military suffered a lot of defections, something called the National Defense Forces. Formerly, members of that were called the Shabiha, but now they have been organized into a more disciplined force. So Iran has a direct involvement in that regard.
But the Saudis didn’t get directly involved until 2012. In December 2012 they arranged some shipments of weapons to the rebels. But the thing about that is the Saudis have another concern. It’s too close to home, and they are afraid of any potential blowback, because they already had that in the case of Afghanistan. So they would never give any kind of game-changing weapons. In Syria, for example, if the rebels had anti-aircraft weapons, that would have changed the dynamic, but nobody has been giving them that. The consequence of that has been that people just give them enough to keep Assad’s regime busy but not enough that they could outright win the conflict.
That might have changed more recently, because the Turks and the Saudis have come to a kind of detente. They had had different positions, particularly because of Egypt. Turkey was very much behind Morsi, and the Saudis did everything to undermine Morsi. Because of that, they had this conflict. And Qatar for the same reason as well because they had this conflict with Saudi Arabia over the same thing. But recently they realized that the U.S. wasn’t getting involved; they had to do something themselves. So Turkey and Saudi Arabia together got the various disparate opposition forces inside Syria to coalesce, and they have been now scoring a lot of victories. So in the north all of Idlib has been captured by these forces, and also in the south they are making advances. Then you have this interesting dynamic happening that when ISIS attacks the opposition, the regime at that time also comes and starts bombing the opposition. So it almost, effectively, acts as kind of an air force for ISIS, not that they have created it. There are a lot of conspiracy theories about whether the regime created ISIS or the CIA created ISIS or whoever else created ISIS. ISIS has its own roots, its own dynamic. But the fact is that the regime has objectively, in that sense, given its support, that when ISIS is fighting against the opposition, it comes and starts bombing the opposition. In that respect the regime has assisted ISIS. That has been the dynamic.
The big proxy war is still ongoing. Iran feels that if somehow it loses Syria, it’s going to lose its strategic position inside, not only vis-à-vis the Gulf States, but also versus Israel it’s going to be weakened, because that’s how it supplied its weapons to Hezbollah. Hezbollah was its main kind of cat’s paw. So here Iran is afraid of that kind of diminution of its power. That’s why it’s important to maintain some kind of a presence in Syria, or at least a friendly government in Syria.
Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party and its leader is Hassan Nasrallah. It also has a military wing. And you mentioned Mohamed Morsi, elected president of Egypt from the Muslim Brotherhood, overthrown in a coup d’etat in July 2013. He remains in jail to this day. Talk about the roots of ISIS. What is its attraction?
The key factor is the Iraq War. Had there not been a war, ISIS would not exist today. A little while back there was this theory which went around that ISIS’s roots are somehow in Wahhabism. Yes, Wahhabism is one of the contributing tributaries, you can say. There are many such roots. But that’s not a determining factor. There is no reason that Wahhabism should have necessarily led to ISIS. The reason that led to ISIS is mainly the Iraq War. The Iraq War did several things.
Zarqawi—you can sort of consider him the grandfather of ISIS—had come to Afghanistan late. He participated in the post-Soviet civil war. And then he had returned to the northern, Kurdish regions of Iraq. That was one of the justifications for war that Bush had at the time used, Zarqawi’s presence. Except he wasn’t in the Saddam territories; he was living in areas outside of Saddam’s control. Zarqawi was so extreme that both bin Laden and Zawahiri were wary of him because Zarqawi was very much driven by a sectarian agenda, which is not something that Zawahiri and bin Laden shared. So they were initially very reluctant to associate with him. As soon as the Iraq War starts, Zarqawi gets his big break. He comes in, he realizes that there is a big sectarian dynamic here, which can be exploited. So he begins first by bombing the UN compound, then bombing the Jordanian embassy. This is still pre-civil war. A few years later, the key turning point came with the second assault on Fallujah. The U.S. had disbanded the old Saddam army and it had reconstituted it along sectarian lines. Along with the Marines, it also brought this Iraqi force, which was mainly Shi’a, to attack this mainly Sunni city. That created a lot of resentment inside, so that gave Zarqawi a kind of momentum. There were these resentments, and everybody in the Sunni regions then became afraid. Is this going to be a Shi’a-dominated state which is going to oppress us? Those fears were exploited by Zarqawi.
The next thing he did, one of the main triggers, was the bombing of the al-Askari mosque. When that happened, there was a backlash from the Shi’a, and Zarqawi then retaliated. He and his group, which was at that time called Al-Qaeda in Iraq, got this momentum going. Later on, in 2005, he gets killed, but he gets replaced.
Something new emerges, which is called the Islamic State of Iraq. That started as very much a sectarian movement, and it claimed to be defending the Sunnis against this new Shi’a power. But when the whole surge started, the Sunnis themselves realized that they were being drawn into a sectarian conflict, which they didn’t want any part of. They wanted some kind of representation in government. They were not looking for a sectarian war, whereas Zarqawi was drawing them into a conflict which they wanted no part of. So the Awakening Movement started. That was a clever strategy by Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He realized there was Sunni resentment against al-Qaeda, so he started supporting and arming them. And the arrangement somehow was that these people will then later be integrated in the Iraqi army. So what these guys did is that they did drive out ISI, which was what it was called back then, the Islamic State of Iraq.
Except, as soon as the U.S. started drawing down, Maliki, who was then prime minister of Iraq, started realizing that he doesn’t have to make any concessions to them. So he never reintegrated them. In fact, he started targeting a lot of these people. And then in 2010 and 2011, when protests started against him, he reacted in a sectarian manner. He wanted to consolidate sectarian power inside Iraq. This created a lot of resentment and it created the opportunity for ISIS to come back and start becoming kind of a defender of the Sunnis, to confront the overbearing Shi’a state. That’s the entry it had. Still, its power was limited. But when the Syrian conflict started, that’s when they realized, here is an opportunity. So ISIS started coming into areas where the anti-Assad rebels had liberated and then started consolidating its power. They initially would use Dawa offices as fronts. Dawa are sort of like proselytizing missionary offices. They had a strategist, who was a former Saddam intelligence officer, who had come there and made an elaborate plan to establish ISIS’s presence in these regions. Cristoph Reuter of Der Spiegel, one of the best journalists monitoring Syria, published a very extensive report, because he had found this guy’s original notes and documents. This guy made a plan that you go to these Dawa offices, you start monitoring and mapping out who are the important people here. You either intimidate them or you marry into their families. You start establishing your power that way. Because these areas had been recently liberated and the rebels were on the front lines, these areas were exposed. That’s where there was a vacuum. They started filling the vacuum, and that’s how they started getting power inside Syria.
But in 2014 they overplayed their hand, because they killed some rebel leaders. So the rebels coalesced and drove them out in January 2014. They went back to Iraq. But that’s when a string of victories kind of put them in the driver’s seat. First they recaptured Fallujah. Then later on that year they captured Mosul and a very large cache of American weapons. So when they returned after that to Syria, they came in triumph. They came with American weaponry. That’s when they started beating back the Syrian rebel groups. That’s when they established their power and established their caliphate.
After the chemical attack they had their first opening, because they realized that these Syrian rebels had been kind of discredited locally by the fact that they had always expected that somehow the West was going to back them, and they didn’t receive that backing. So ISIS could come in and say that, “No, we have to be self-sufficient. And we are the ones who are going to win this battle for you.”
I would like to add something about ISIS, the way that it is different from al-Qaeda and the reason ISIS has been so successful in recruiting mass numbers. Al-Qaeda was kind of a secretive organization. It was more of a vanguardist organization, that they were going to commit these spectacular acts and somehow that was going to trigger revolutions. That never happened. Because of its secretive nature, there was no real center of gravity to which people could be attracted. Everything had to be these kinds of free-lance operations which would claim the mantle of al-Qaeda.
But what has happened with ISIS is that it has created a kind of community. It has gone back to the insurgency model. The whole notion of al-Qaeda was not to focus on the near enemy, let’s focus on the main enemy, the far enemy, which is the U.S. But ISIS has said, “No, we are not like this. Let’s not speak about our weakness. Let’s speak about our strength and let’s demonstrate it.” So if you look at the propaganda, it’s very different. Al-Qaeda’s was defensive. We are defending this, we are defending that. Whereas if you look at ISIS propaganda, it’s triumphalist. And also, if you look at their videos, they are slickly produced and they are tapping into this new, young generation. Even their aesthetics. And they have a community. Whereas al-Qaeda never had a community because they were isolated in caves here and there. So this is a different model. ISIS is very assertive.
Those operations, that kind of media outreach, require money. Where are they getting their funding?
This, again, is a very different model from al-Qaeda. In this case a lot of the money comes from revenue raised by taxes. They are taxing a very large swath of territory now. Secondly, smuggling, sales of oil, because even in the east of Syria they have got hold of a lot of oil. They are very savvy in that respect, that they go and try to capture oil and gas fields. They pay their engineers a lot of money to maintain these places. They even have arrangements with the regime itself when it comes to oil sales. They were raising, at one point, the estimates were up to $3 million a day just through taxation and the sale of oil.
That’s the interesting thing about ISIS: on the one hand, you see it as some kind of a millenarian cult, but at the same time they are very worldly when it comes to management. They use extreme and spectacular violence. That is part of their ruling strategy. In fact, one of the documents that they rely on is called “The Management of Savagery.” This was all about how to use violence as a way to assert your control and intimidate people. But at the same time they have a very worldly strategy when it comes to organizing and administration, providing areas in which people have not seen any justice or any kind of proper governance—using that as a way of controlling people.
You will be surprised by how many people see that for the first time they are getting some kind of order living under ISIS rule. The Syrian regime was very unpredictable: you could be arrested for any kind of random act. With ISIS they see that as long as you behave in a certain way, you know what not to do, you will at least survive. Obviously, it’s a very harsh rule, but they are providing a kind of a civil order in places where there had never been order, or at least since the uprising started.
What about the situation of minorities under ISIS rule?
ISIS obviously has no room for minorities. It sees them as apostate, as people whom they can legitimately kill. So for minorities it’s a horrific situation to be in.
Even for other Muslims.
Even for other Muslims, because they believe in the doctrine of takfir, which is declaring anybody who is not following their particular set of beliefs as non-Muslim and hence wajib-ul-qatl, meaning legitimate to kill. They are very much operating on that doctrine. So it’s not a pretty place to be for anyone.
The minimum is to begin with empathy. First of all, learn as much as you can about what’s happening in Syria. Secondly, empathy necessitates that you have to be skeptical of your government and your media. But we need empathy for those suffering. That is one of the big things which I find missing. Syrians have become random statistics. This notion of a proxy war erases the agency of the people. What do these people want? And why do people question the fact that people who have lived under a brutal dictatorship for more than 40 years would want an end to that dictatorship? Why are people thinking that this is some kind of a Western conspiracy? That’s where I make that distinction between skepticism and cynicism. It is completely cynical to believe that anything that is happening in the Middle East must somehow have been manipulated.
Why not just speak to Syrians and see what they think about their government and do they want a more representative government? They are demanding the same right that all of us take for granted. They are looking for self-determination, and we should be supportive of their right. The same people—this is the thing that sometimes disappoints me—who over here are rightly skeptical of every little encroachment of the government are the ones who are most dismissive of the Syrians’ demand for just a reduction of the massive repression and the silence they live under. Because Syrians had no freedom of speech, they lived under total surveillance. Very different from the NSA here. We are rightly outraged about that. But somehow we assume that Syrians should be all right with all the surveillance, all the oppression, and all restrictions on their freedom of movement, of their speech. Somehow we think that we should be all right with that. We then start looking for conspiracy theories when these same people start demanding an end to those things.