Patrick Cockburn, a veteran journalist experienced in the complexities of the Middle East, usually makes sense. But his latest piece, for something called The Unz Review (“A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media”) is way, way off base. Its title is: “How Saudi Arabia Helped Isis Take Over the North of Iraq,” and it’s a conspiratorial mishmash of truths, half-truths and outright misinformation—much of it derived, weirdly enough, from a speech by Sir Richard Dearlove, the former chief of Britain’s intelligence service, MI-6. In it, Cockburn suggests that Saudi Arabia, in its fanatical zeal to oppose Shiites worldwide, “has played a central role in the ISIS surge into Sunni areas of Iraq.” (ISIS, of course, is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now pretentiously calling itself a “caliphate” and changing its name to “the Islamic state,” presumably signaling that it intends to rule the entire Muslim world.)
In this case, despite The Unz Review’s belief that it brings forward information “excluded from the American mainstream media,” perhaps the reason that Cockburn’s thesis has been excluded is because it is flat wrong.
The ISIS crisis in Iraq, parallel to the ISIS crisis in Syria, is indeed an ugly and serious challenge to the Middle East status quo. But there’s far too much alarmism in response, including Eric Holder’s statement yesterday that the threat from ISIS is “more frightening than anything I think I’ve seen as attorney general.” There’s no doubt that ISIS is a bad actor, but the chance that ISIS will seize or even seriously threaten either Baghdad or Damascus is zero, and eventually the Sunni tribes, Baathists and the former Awakening movement in Iraq will crush ISIS, while President Bashar al-Assad’s forces squash it in Syria. And despite Cockburn’s view, most analysts believe that Saudi Arabia is alarmed by, and doesn’t support, ISIS.
The easiest way to resolve the Iraq-Syria civil war is through an accord between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni side in a broad, regional proxy war throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Persian Gulf and into South Asia, and Iran supports the Shiite side, neither side tolerates either Al Qaeda or ISIS. Both Riyadh and Tehran are worried about the rise of ISIS, and the common ground is there for both countries to establish a détente and try to resolve the civil war.
If Saudi Arabia were committed to an all-out conflict with the Shiites, as Cockburn and Dearlove suggest, then Saudi Arabia would have supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, since the Brotherhood was a bitter enemy of the Shia and a supporter of the revolt in Syria. Instead, the Saudis opted to work with Egypt’s military to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. And while the Saudis have close ties to Iraq’s Sunni tribal militia, and beginning in 2006 Saudi Arabia supported the Sunni Awakening, it certainly doesn’t support ISIS in either Iraq or in Syria, where the Saudis back less-radical forces battling Assad’s government. If fighting ISIS takes priority now, Saudi Arabia will have to ease off its support for the anti-Assad forces, freeing up the Syrian army to go into Syria’s north and east, where ISIS is strong. (The United States, rather than bolstering Syria’s “moderate” rebels, ought to do the same.)