West Asia

‘The end of the oil state era in West Asia is approaching fast’: Patrick Cockburn

Print edition : January 15, 2021

Patrick Cockburn. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Islamic State militants parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014. The ISIS was born out of the chaos in the region, says Cockburn. Photo: REUTERS

Saddam Hussein during his trial in Baghdad in 2006. “Opponents of Saddam Hussein believed that he had created religious divisions and these would disappear when he was overthrown. But they got much deeper and more lethal.” Photo: Chris Hondros/AP

King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud of Saudi Arabia with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left) and U.S. President Donald Trump during the inauguration of the Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology, in Riyadh in May 2017. Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman produced few successes, aside from cultivating Trump and his entourage. Photo: BANDAR AL-JALOUD/AFP

Interview with Patrick Cockburn, journalist and author.

Patrick Cockburn is one of the most acclaimed journalists and a leading Middle East [West Asia, hereafter] reporter. He was the first journalist to spot the emergence of the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). As a reporter, he has covered some of the major events in West Asia since the Islamic Revolution of 1979: the Iran–Iraq war, the Gulf war, U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, U.S. invasion in Iraq, the Lebanon–Israel war, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the emergence of the ISIS, the Libyan crisis, the U.S.–Iran crisis, civil wars throughout West Asia, and other regional sectarian and ethnic conflicts.

Cockburn believes that “most of the world’s media reflect the views of their governments because they are state-controlled directly or indirectly”. His reports and articles are among the most sought-after commentaries on the events happening in West Asia. Through detailed ground reporting from one of the most vulnerable conflict zones in the world for the past 40 years, Cockburn has uncovered the political, economic, social and cultural interests of various players involved in the region and the tragic destiny of millions of common people who are directly victimised in the unending conflicts.

According to him, some of the major issues the world faces today are directly linked to the Western intervention in West Asia. He observes that “America’s War on Terror that followed 9/11 has displaced 37 million people—this is the true cause of Europe’s refugee crisis.” He concludes that “the War on Terror created the world’s most powerful terror group, ISIS.” As someone who has closely observed West Asia for decades, Cockburn forecast the emergence of the ISIS before the world came to know about it. He has written a number of articles on the ISIS and its operations in both Iraq and Syria. In his career of four decades, he has documented, with prescience and precision, how the world order is shaped by the events in West Asia. He says that “Great powers in the world fight out their differences in the Middle East [West Asia].”

For his contribution to journalism, Cockburn has received widespread recognition, including the Martha Gellhorn Prize 2005, the James Cameron Prize 2006, the Orwell Prize 2009, the Peace Through Media Award at the 2010 International Media Awards, the Foreign Commentator of the Year 2013, the Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year 2014, and the Foreign Reporter of the Year 2014.

He has authored several books, including War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of Isis, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran; The Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East; Chaos and Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East; The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising; Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq; The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq; and Getting Russia Wrong: The End of Kremlinology.

Beginning his journalism career in 1979, Cockburn worked with Financial Times until 1990 and has been with The Independent for the past 30 years. He is a regular contributor to the London Review of Books and CounterPunch.

In this interview, the first with any Indian media, Cockburn speaks on issues such as the regime change in the U.S. and the possibilities of that country’s policy change towards West Asia, the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which was given up by Donald Trump, the chances of the ISIS’ revival, the decline of oil states, the impact of the War on Terror in West Asia, the Palestinian cause and the recognition by United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain of Israel, the role of proxy groups in West Asia, the history of colonial intervention in the region, changes in the political landscape and Western withdrawal from the region, the Western media’s coverage of West Asia and the challenges of war-conflict reporting.

Excerpts from the interview:

With Joe Biden in the White House, do you foresee any policy changes by the United States on West Asia?

Let us look at what we are changing from before we look at what we are changing to. This is difficult to do because Donald Trump’s policies, assuming them to be coherent strategies, were chaotic in both conception and implementation. Trump did not start any new wars in West Asia, though he did green-light the Turkish invasion of northern Syria in 2019. He withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018, but relied on economic sanctions, not military action, to exert pressure on Iran. In the three countries where America was engaged in military action—Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—before Trump was elected President in 2016, surprisingly little has changed. Keep in mind that his foreign policy was heavily diluted with the more interventionist policies of the Pentagon and the U.S. foreign policy establishment in Washington. They successfully blocked or slowed down Trump’s attempted withdrawals from what he termed as the “endless wars” in West Asia. It is not clear, however, that they have a realistic alternative approach.

Biden will be subject to the same institutional pressures as Trump was and is unlikely to resist them. He may be less sympathetic to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, but I doubt if the relationship between the U.S. and either country will change very much. The next Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, approved the Iraq invasion of 2003, the regime change in Libya in 2011, and wanted a more aggressive policy in Syria under Barack Obama. It does not sound as if he has learned much from the failure of past U.S. actions in West Asia. This is not just a matter of personalities: the U.S. establishment is genuinely divided about the merits and demerits of foreign intervention. It is also constrained by the fact that there is no public appetite in America for more foreign wars. For all his rhetorical bombast, Trump was careful not to get Americans killed in West Asia, and it would be damaging for Biden and the Democrats if they fail to do the same.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the Iran nuclear deal, was considered to be of the successes of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. But Donald Trump gave up the deal unilaterally. How important was this deal? Will there be a possible change in it with the change in the White House?

Biden says he wants to resume negotiations, but there will be difficulties. One, security establishments in the West are against it. Two, Saudi Arabia and its allies are against it, and so, more significantly, is Israel. Three, the Iranians did not get the relief from sanctions they expected from the nuclear deal of 2015, so they have less incentive to re-engage.

A misunderstanding—perhaps an intentional one—on the side of Western states, Israelis and Saudis/Emiratis about the nature of the deal may prevent its resurrection. They claim that Iran used it as cover for political interference elsewhere in the region. But Iranian action, and its ability to project its influence abroad, is high in countries where there are powerful Shia communities such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan—and low elsewhere. Iran is never going to stop its intervention in these countries in which, in any case, the Iranians are on the winning side.

Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have recognised Israel and established diplomatic relations with it recently. What are the real reasons behind more Arab states recognising the state of Israel? What would be its effect on Israel-Palestine relations?

This weakens the Palestinians, though they were very weak already. The UAE and Bahrain (the latter is significant only as a proxy of Saudi Arabia) did not do much for the Palestinians in any case. Yet, however weak the Palestinians become, they are not going to evaporate so, as before, Israel holds all the high cards but cannot win the game.


You have covered West Asia for almost 40 years. You have said that ‘Great powers in the world fight out their differences in West Asia.’ Why do they fight out their differences in the region?

West Asia has been unstable since the end of the Ottoman Empire. It has been an arena for international confrontation ever since. Reasons for this include, one, oil; two, Israel; three, states in West Asia look weak but societies are strong and very difficult to conquer—witness Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the even more self-destructive U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Invaders and occupiers in West Asia have great difficulty turning military superiority into political dominance.

How has colonial rule been responsible for major ethno-political, social conflicts in West Asia? How do you read this history?

Foreign intervention usually exploits and exacerbates sectarian and ethnic divisions, though it seldom entirely creates them. Britain relied on the urban Sunnis to rule Iraq; the French looked to minorities such as Christians in Lebanon to rule there. More recently, foreign powers gave money, arms and political support to factions in Iraq to enhance their own influence but fuelling civil war. Opponents of Saddam Hussein genuinely believed that he had created religious divisions and these would disappear when he was overthrown. But, on the contrary, they got much deeper and more lethal. The same is true of Syria: the battle lines generally ran along sectarian and ethnic boundaries. Intervention in West Asia has traditionally ended badly for British and American leaders: three British Prime Ministers (David Lloyd George, Anthony Eden and Tony Blair) lost power or were badly damaged by the West Asian interventions they launched, as were three American presidents (Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush).

You have observed that ‘the Iran–Iraq war was the opening chapter of a series of conflicts centred on Iraq and the Gulf that have shaped the politics of the modern world.’ Why do you attribute the uncertainties in the recent history of West Asia to the Iran–Iraq war?

The Iran Revolution was a turning point for the region out of which came the Iran-Iraq war that in turn exacerbated Shia-Sunni hostility throughout the region. Saddam Hussein won a technical victory in the war but then overplayed his hand by invading Kuwait. Aside from Iraq, the sides confronting one another in West Asia are much the same now as they were 40 years ago. One big change is the recent emergence of Turkey as an important player, intervening militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

To what extent do proxy groups have a role in West Asia? Could you tell us about major incidents in which proxy groups played important roles in the recent past?

One has to be careful to distinguish between different ‘proxy groups’. The phrase is often used as a form of abuse to denigrate movements with strong indigenous support as mere pawns—and sometimes this is true. The Houthis in Yemen, for instance, have been fighting for years and receive little material help from Iran, but are almost always described in the Western media as ‘Iranian-backed Houthis’, implying that they are simply Iranian proxies, which they are not. In Iraq, some of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Shia paramilitaries) are under orders from Iran, but others are independent. The Kurds in Syria rely on the U.S. militarily and politically because they fear Turkey, but they are certainly not American puppets.


You have also observed that ‘the America’s War on Terror is the cause of the European refugee crisis and also that it (the War on Terror) created the world’s most powerful terror group, the ISIS.’ What is the real outcome of ‘the War on Terror’ in West Asia?

It was America’s post-9/11 wars, supposedly against ‘terrorists’, that created or increased chaos in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. These wars turned out to be endless, so populations had no choice but to flee. In Europe, the refugee exodus from Syria peaked in 2015-16 and was probably a decisive factor in the vote for Brexit in the U.K. referendum. All the anti-immigrant parties in Europe were boosted. The intervention by Britain and France in Libya (backed by the U.S.) in 2011 destroyed the Libyan state and opened the door to a flood of refugees from further south seeking to cross the Mediterranean. The Europeans in particular remain in a state of denial about the role of their own foreign policy in sparking these population movements.

One of the important developments we saw in West Asia this decade was the emergence of the world’s most powerful terror group, the ISIS, and its end. You were the first to warn about the rise of the ISIS. As a reporter from the battle ground, what prompted to give that warning? What led to the emergence of the ISIS? How did such an organisation last for years without sophisticated weapons and other funding despite nations across the globe declaring war against it?

The ISIS was born out of the chaos in the region. Before 9/11, Al Qaeda was a small organisation. Al Qaeda in Iraq, created by the U.S. invasion, was far more powerful. Defeated by 2009, it was able to resurrect itself as the ISIS after the start of the civil war in Syria. I am surprised now that more people did not understand how strong the ISIS had become by 2014, the year they captured Mosul in northern Iraq. They had already taken Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad earlier in the year, and the Iraqi Army had failed to get them out. This should have been a sign that the ISIS was stronger and the Iraqi government weaker than had been imagined. The ISIS was a monstrous organisation, but militarily it was very effective in using a mixture of snipers, suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices [IEDs] and booby traps. Its weakness militarily was that it had no answer to air power.

Do you expect the ISIS’ resurgence in West Asia? Many people view the anti-Western rhetoric of Islamist groups as the real resistance to imperialism. But scholars like Samir Amin have written about how political Islam serves imperialism. What is your experience?

There is a resurgence of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, not on the scale of [its activities in] 2012-14 but still significant. I am not convinced that clones of the ISIS in other countries are as significant as is sometimes made out to be. The ISIS lost its last territory with the fall of the Baghouz pocket in eastern Syria in March 2019. The ISIS leader and caliph, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a raid by the American Special Forces on a house in northwest Syria in October the same year. Since then events have favoured the ISIS: the U.S.-led coalition against it has fragmented and the defeat of the ISIS no longer has the priority it once had; Sunni Arabs, the community from which the ISIS springs in Iraq and Syria, remain impoverished and disaffected; the ISIS has plenty of experience in guerilla war, to which it has reverted, because holding fixed positions led to it suffering heavy losses from artillery and airstrikes. The Syrian and Iraqi governments, as well as the Kurds, all have weaknesses like corruption that the ISIS can exploit.

That said the ISIS no longer has the advantage of surprise, the momentum that comes from victories, or the tolerance—and probably the covert support—of foreign countries (notably Turkey) that it had in 2014-16. The Sunni Arabs suffered hideously because of the last ISIS offensive with the part destruction of Mosul and Raqqa, their two biggest cities. Many will not want to repeat the experience. Local security forces are more effective than they were five years ago.

Was the ISIS an anti-imperial force? Not primarily, since their main enemies were Shia and other non-Sunni minorities. Objectively, the ISIS energised and legitimised foreign intervention wherever it has strength.

One of the main reasons for superpower interventions in West Asia is the presence of oil. In a recently written piece, you observed that ‘oil states are declining’. If so, what would be its political, economic and social implications in West Asia in particular and international politics at large?

Biden or no Biden, the nature of power in West Asia is changing. Oil states are no longer what they were because the price of oil is down and is likely to stay that way. This is profoundly destabilising: between 2012 and 2020, the oil revenue of Arab oil producers fell by two-thirds, from $1 trillion to $300 billion, in a single year. In other words, the ability of the rulers of a state like Saudi Arabia to project power abroad and retain power at home has significantly diminished. A country like Iraq has just half the income it needs from oil—and it has no other exports—to pay state employees and to prevent the bankruptcy of the Iraqi state. People forget what a peculiar situation we have had in West Asia over the last half century, with countries that would have had marginal or limited importance in the world—like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Libya and Iran—becoming international political players thanks to their oil wealth. They could afford to buy off domestic dissent by creating vast patronage machines that provided well-paid jobs. But there is no longer the money to do this. The end of the oil-state era is not yet entirely with us, but it is approaching fast.


‘The Independent’ recently carried an article of yours titled ‘The U.S. is losing its world superpower status due to its failure to lead on the COVID-19 crisis—and this time, it might not recover.’ What makes you conclude so? If it is so what would be its impact on the political landscape of West Asia?

Superpowers need to show basic competence in ruling themselves to maintain their power. They need this to maintain domestic unity and present themselves as an example to the world. The U.S., and to a lesser extent the U.K., failed to do this during the COVID-19 pandemic, both suffering a higher number of fatalities relative to their populations than many equivalent countries, notably in east Asia. This failure comes on top of ebbing American economic predominance, but the perception of American decline should not be carried too far. Much will depend on how far the U.S. remains internally divided post-Trump and we will see if his presidency was an aberration in American history or the sign of an imploding political system.

Would you say that the Western powers are now trying to somehow leave the scene in West Asia after years of imperialist intervention? Has the situation become unmanageable for them?

Obama and Trump both said they wanted to reduce on-the-ground commitments in West Asia, but somehow the U.S. is still there. In reality, the Americans would like to enjoy the advantages of imperial control or influence but without the perils it involves. They would prefer to operate by employing other means such as economic sanctions or local proxies. The Obama foreign policy was meant to see ‘a switch to Asia’ but this never really happened, and it was the West Asian crises that continued to dominate the agenda in the White House. In other words, the U.S. would like to withdraw from West Asia, but only on its own terms.

Secular forces and Left movements have had a significant presence in many West Asian countries. But today the political landscape has changed significantly with secular forces being replaced by Islamist forces. How would you explain this change?

I am not sure that this is quite as true as it used to be because Islamist rule in its different varieties has turned out to be as corrupt and violent as secular rule. Both have been discredited by their years in power. Secularism was always strongest among the elite in countries like Iraq, Turkey, Egypt. It never offered much to the poor. To a substantial degree the same thing that happened to the Left is now happening to Islamist forces. Elites with a supposedly socialist ideology were as kleptocratic as everybody else. The same was often true of nationalism because religious identity often remained stronger than national identity.


You have reported wars and conflicts for the past 40 years in West Asia. The world opinion regarding these wars is mainly shaped by the Western media. But journalists like you have always provided an alternative view. Do you feel that most of the Western media are institutionally biased in their reporting?

Most of the world’s media reflect the views of their governments because they are state-controlled directly or indirectly. This has always been the case, but the degree to which free expression is feasible is obviously crucial. I have always worked for publications that allowed me to write what I wanted to, while most journalists do not. This situation has not changed as much as it should have since the Internet enabled people in much of the globe to express their opinions to a large audience. Generally speaking, governments everywhere control the news agenda most but not all of the time.

The cinematic view of journalists telling truth to power is largely fantasy since such truth-telling is likely to lead fairly immediately to the sack. Even when a journalist is not under the thumb of the powers that be, he or she may well fear accusations that they are unpatriotic or even treacherous in criticising their own side. There is also a genuine romanticism among many journalists who see uprisings and protests as pitting evil rulers against the risen people like a scene from an opera. Dictators like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi may be cruel and evil men, but they did not create all the problems of their countries—and the alternative to their rule may be something even worse. In places like Libya, this should have been obvious.


How do you foresee the changes in political dynamics and the possible change in the role of different states involved in West Asia?

States have gone up and down. The crucial change in the relative strength of states was the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, so regional powers that it had protected became vulnerable to regime change. Russia’s military intervention in Syria since 2015 has somewhat reversed this—but not entirely. Iran became much more of a regional power thanks to the elimination of its two hostile neighbours—the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq—by the U.S. post-9/11. It is under strong pressure from U.S. sanctions, but these were never likely to bring about its effective surrender. Iraq and Syria are too divided for state power to be rebuilt. Saudi Arabia’s more aggressive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman produced few successes, aside from cultivating Trump and his entourage. Does the embrace of Israel by some of the Gulf rulers enhance their power or that of Israel? Probably less than they hope. Likewise, the Palestinians are weakened, but the ‘Palestinian Question’ has not gone away, will not do so, and will always return.

What would be the outcome of the ongoing civil war and ethnic conflicts both in Syria and Iraq?

The main sectarian and ethnic communities—Sunni, Shia, Kurd—will still be there in both countries, though there are winners and losers. The Sunni Arabs lost power in Iraq in 2003 and the Shia Arabs and Kurds have been dominant ever since. The Sunnis have failed to reverse this despite two rebellions, roughly 2003-07 and 2013-17 during which they suffered severe losses. The Kurds expanded their power (taking Kirkuk), but could not cling on to their gains. Nevertheless, they remain a powerful player.

In Syria, the Alawites (a variant of Shi’ism) hold power now as they did in 2011 at the start of the Arab Spring. The majority Sunni Arabs, under jehadi leadership, have suffered a catastrophic defeat with more than five million of them refugees. The Kurds expanded their power thanks to their military alliance with the U.S., but they are under serious threat from Turkey that has invaded two Kurdish enclaves and expelled the inhabitants.

The Kurd community is one of the prominent communities in West Asia. They have been fighting for an independent state for a long time. What would be the future of the Kurds in West Asia and their political dreams?

The Kurds’ problem is that they are a powerful minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, but all these states oppose them becoming an independent nation state. They did achieve quasi-independence in Iraq and Syria thanks to central governments in Damascus and Baghdad being weakened by the ISIS and thanks to American backing. Without these two factors the Kurdish communities will be squeezed. They will remain a power in Iraq, but in Syria their position is more fragile.

What challenges do journalists face while reporting from a conflict zone? How do you look back at the four decades of your career?

I am still amazed by the regularity with which Western powers, notably the U.S., launch military and political ventures in West Asia without knowing the real risks. They do not seem to learn from their grim experience. Reporting this was always dangerous and is getting more so.

Jipson John and Jitheesh P.M. are fellows at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and contribute to various national and international publications. The writers can be reached at jipsonjohn10@gmail.com and jitheeshpm91@gmail.com.

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