Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His new book is The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.
Iraqi journalist working with The Guardian. Over the summer, he embedded with militias around Baghdad and wrote the article, "On the frontline with the Shia fighters taking the war to ISIS." He was awarded the Orwell Prize for Journalism this year for his coverage of the war in Syria.
Two months after the United States began airstrikes in Iraq that then expanded to Syria, the Islamic State remains in control of most of the territory it has seized — and now threatens to capture the Syrian town of Kobani, just six miles from the Turkish border. If Kobani were to fall to the Islamic State, the group would be in control of more than half of Syria’s border with Turkey. "If Kobani does fall, this will be a symptom of a massive military failure," says Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. "And it’s not just in Syria that this is happening, [but] in Iraq as well."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Two months after the United States began airstrikes in Iraq, that then expanded to Syria, the Islamic State remains in control of most of the territory it’s seized, and is now threatening to capture the Syrian town of Kobani, just six miles from the Turkish border. NATO’s new secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, is in the Turkish capital of Ankara today to join U.S. envoys coordinating the response to ISIS. In a press conference, he denied rumors that NATO is discussing a no-fly zone in Syria.
SECRETARY GENERAL JENS STOLTENBERG: I have, of course, heard and seen that there has been calls for a no-fly zone or a—and a safe zone. It was also discussed in the meetings I had this morning with the foreign minister. I believe there is no simple and straightforward ways out of the problems we are seeing in Syria and around Kobani these days. It has not been on the table of any NATO discussions yet, and it’s not an issue which is discussed in NATO.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: If Kobani were to fall to the Islamic State, the group would be in control of more than half of Syria’s border with Turkey. Turkey is under intense pressure to do more to help the Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State in Kobani. On Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said airstrikes alone are not likely to stop the militants’ advance.
REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY: I don’t know that we’re going to characterize the fall of Kobani one way or the other. I think we all understand that that’s a possibility, that Kobani could be taken. We recognize that. We’re doing everything we can, from the air, to try to halt the momentum of ISIL against that town, but that air power is not going to be, alone, enough to save that city.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Meanwhile, President Obama met with senior military officials at the Pentagon Wednesday to discuss the military mission to defeat Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Our strikes continue, alongside our partners. It remains a difficult mission. As I’ve indicated from the start, this is not something that is going to be solved overnight. The good news is, is that there is a broad-based consensus, not just in the region, but among nations of the world, that ISIL is a threat to world peace, security and order, that their barbaric behavior has to be dealt with, and we’re confident that we will be able to continue to make progress in partnership with the Iraqi government.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad is an Iraqi journalist working with The Guardian who embedded with Shia militias fighting the Sunnis, the ISIS. And in London, we’re joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. His new book is called The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising.
Patrick, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about the significance of Kobani, a place, at least in the United States, most people probably have never heard of until this week?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, what’s happening there is immensely significant in a number of respects. I mean, first of all, despite what President Obama was saying, that if ISIS, if the Islamic State, take Kobani, this will be a victory for them, and this will be their response to Obama saying he was going to degrade and destroy ISIS. I think that what’s coming out of Washington, saying somehow it doesn’t matter and they’re going to attack the infrastructure and the control headquarters of ISIS, is really a diversion. ISIS is a guerrilla organization. It doesn’t have many Pentagons scattered over Iraq and Syria from which it controls its operations. So I think that if it does fall, this will be a symptom of a pretty massive military failure.
And it’s not just in Syria this is happening, that in Iraq, as well—it’s very little reported because it’s so dangerous to go there—that much of Anbar province, this enormous province, about a quarter of Iraq, much of the province that wasn’t under ISIS control has fallen since an offensive began on the 2nd of October. So they’re very close to, in fact, beginning to get into West Baghdad. So this is really a massive setback that seems to be happening to President Obama’s policy for dealing with the Islamic State.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Cockburn, could you explain why? Because many commentators have pointed out that given that the strikes have been taking place, U.S. airstrikes, it’s unclear how it is that ISIS is continuing to advance.
PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it’s a pretty proficient organization. It combines extreme religious fanaticism with military expertise. And it’s an organization that exalts martyrdom, so it can take quite a lot of casualties. Another reason is that despite what President Obama was saying about this great big coalition of 44 countries, that the U.S. has held at arm’s length the people who are actually fighting ISIS, such as the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian army and other groups in Iraq and Syria. And their alliance is with those who are not fighting ISIS and say they don’t intend to, such as Turkey. So, I think that this lack of direct liaison with the people who are fighting on the ground probably makes it much easier for ISIS to withstand these air attacks and for these air attacks to have any accuracy.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who is a Guardian journalist who was embedded with Shia militias that were fighting ISIS in Baghdad this past summer. Can you talk about that experience? We’re trying to reach him by Democracy Now! video stream, and his image has just frozen. So let me go to Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggested that preventing the fall of the Syrian town of Kobani to Islamic State fighters was not a strategic U.S. objective. He said the idea of a buffer zone should be thoroughly examined.
SECRETARY OF STATE JOHN KERRY: As horrific as it is to watch in real time what’s happening in Kobani, it’s also important to remember you have to step back and understand the strategic objective and where we have begun over the course of the last weeks. We’re literally just coming out of the U.N. meeting at which we announced the coalition, literally have just been deploying the first efforts to liberate, as you know, a few weeks ago, Sinjar Mountain, the siege on Amerli, the Haditha Dam, the Mosul Dam, and we were very successful in those efforts.
AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, can you respond to what John Kerry said?
PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes. I think he’s either avoiding the issue or doesn’t quite understand what’s happening on the ground. I mean, the places he mentions, ISIS didn’t really fight hard for. One of the impulses behind ISIS, which makes it attractive to so many Sunni and young men in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere, is that it’s a winner, that it captured Mosul with 1,300 men, the second-largest city in Iraq, on the 10th of June, when there were 20,000 Iraqi troops and police in it. Now it seems about to win another victory. And I suspect that that’s one of the reasons why the Islamic State has been so intent on capturing Kobani, is that they wanted to have a very visible victory to show that the airstrikes were really not holding them back. And the important point to get across here is that despite all the rhetoric from Washington, from European capitals, from various regional associates of the U.S., the Islamic State—the caliphate, so called—is not contracting, it’s still expanding. And this, by any count, is a great failure.
AMY GOODMAN: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, if you could explain your experience this summer embedding with Shia forces fighting ISIS in Baghdad?
GHAITH ABDUL-AHAD: Hi. I mean, as Patrick was saying, the problem is in who are the allies of the Americans in fighting ISIS. I, you know, spent some time with the Shia militias north of Baghdad in Diyala. And they were very effective. They have managed to actually stop the advance of ISIS to Baghdad from the north and northeast. But what’s the price for that? You know, all those militiamen are the product of civil war in Syria. They are so radicalized. They’re so militant. They are, you know, keen on sectarian cleansing of the areas north of Baghdad, the mixed Sunni-Shia areas north of Baghdad. They are different from all the Shia militias I’ve worked with before in Iraq. Those are guys who—you know, they don’t differentiate between what is ISIS and what’s an average Sunni. So, your partner in this war against ISIS is basically a sectarian militia that is keen on ethnic cleansing. You know, they talk openly of killing the males, military-age people, who can threaten or can work as an incubator for an ISIS presence in the area. So that is the problem at the moment, is if you want to fight ISIS, you have to join hands with Shia militias of Iraq. These are no different from your average civilian militia.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, then come back to this discussion. Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad embedded with a Shia militia this summer fighting ISIS. We’re also joined by Patrick Cockburn in London, whose new book is called The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.