As Syria’s conflict rolls on, a veteran journalist says Daesh is not yet fully defeated

Image of destroyed buildings in Syria
Ed Sykes

NATO member Turkey has long faced accusations of collaborating with extremists like Daesh (Isis/Isil). And in October 2019, it invaded northern Syria (aka Rojava), seriously hindering the region’s fight against Daesh. As the Rojava Information Center detailed on 27 January, the number of Daesh attacks since the invasion “has consistently risen” while the rate of local anti-Daesh raids has fallen. Rojavan defence forces had previously been key in defeating Daesh in Syria, losing over 11,000 fighters during the conflict.

With this situation in mind, Canary contributor Slava Zilber recently spoke to award-winning journalist Patrick Cockburn, who has written two books about Daesh and has visited its former territory. And Cockburn explained that Daesh is not yet fully defeated.

Daesh is much weaker, but “still in business”

In an article about the 2019 death of Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Cockburn wrote:

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.

And he told Zilber that, while “it will be difficult for it to reestablish a state like it had before”:

It doesn’t have 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.

He also explained that:

in Syria, with the Turkish invasion… there’s a sort of vacuum that again Isis can move forward and fill… things are moving… to their advantage. But will they be able to return in their former strength? I doubt it.

But he thinks the group is far from over, insisting:

Isis has always been skilled in staging spectacular atrocities to attract everybody’s attention. … So I think they will do that to show they’re still in business.

Western operations in the Middle East

Zilber also asked about the tactics for defeating Daesh-style terror. Regarding Western drone killings and Western-backed military operations, Cockburn said:

First of all, they’re not only killing terrorists; they’re killing an awful lot of other people. They killed an enormous number of civilians in Mosul and in Raqqa. So that 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’s 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. But maybe, if you’re 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.

Reporting has “got more difficult”

Regarding journalistic work in the Middle East, meanwhile, Cockburn spoke about how it’s getting harder and harder:

You have to be very careful. You have people there who are suspicious of journalists. Overall, it’s got 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’re an 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 cases, there was a war like Iraq, or Syria, or Libya. In other places, just because you have more authoritarian governments.

The chaos continues

Around the time of Turkey’s invasion of Rojava, Cockburn reflected on the limited support that the US had previously given to Rojavan forces for their fight against Daesh. And he wrote:

Since 2015 I have been visiting Rojava watching [its] YPG soldiers advance west and south and always wondering what would happen when Isis was defeated and the US did not need them anymore.

As The Canary previously reported, the answer was NATO ally Turkey leading an invasion in which its forces “faced accusations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes against these communities, with their attacks killing hundreds of civilians, displacing at least 300,000 people, and allowing hundreds of Daesh supporters to escape detention”. Cockburn agreed that the Turkish regime was carrying out ethnic cleansing in Rojava. And with this struggle just getting underway, he stressed that:

A new chaotic phase in the Syrian war is beginning.

And as he told Zilber, Daesh is still playing a role in this conflict. So we ignore these developments at our peril.

Featured image via BBC News/YouTube

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