By Ken Klippenstein, an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein. Originally published at Alternet.
Patrick Cockburn is a journalist for the Independent who has covered the Middle East for decades and is credited with forecasting the Islamic State’s ascendance in 2014. Seymour Hersh has called him “the best western journalist at work in Iraq today.” Cockburn is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Orwell Prize for Journalism, the Martha Gellhorn Prize and many others.
AlterNet interviewed Cockburn, who at the time was based in Erbil, Iraq, about 80 kilometers from Mosul, the location of the major coalition offensive against the Islamic State. We discussed topics ranging from Donald Trump to the efficacy and civilian toll of the Mosul offensive. The interview has been lightly edited for readability.
Ken Klippenstein: When Trump called for a Muslim ban, did ISIS use that for propaganda purposes?
Patrick Cockburn: There probably were references to it because, though it’s a bit degraded now, Islamic State has a pretty wide-ranging propaganda program; [they] certainly would’ve used that. Anything which smacks of communal punishment of Muslims in the U.S. or France enables them to mobilize their constituency more easily.
KK: Mobilize their constituency militarily or recruitment-wise?
KK: What do you hope that the Trump administration does (and does not) do with respect to ISIS?
PC: They could—though Hillary Clinton seemed more likely to do this, actually—they could say we are equally committed to getting rid of Assad. As soon as you do that, that’s good news for Islamic State. It’d be a bad idea if they did that.
Above all, what’s the relationship to Iran? That’s one thing Trump is very committed to, was denouncing the Iran deal. Now, does that fall apart? Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies would be very pleased if it did fall apart. If that falls apart then that further destabilizes the region and gives an incentive to the Iranians to maybe increase their intervention [in Iraq] and Syria. It has all sorts of repercussions.
That’s probably the most menacing thing, is whether the deal Obama did with the Iranians is dropped by Trump, which would probably delight the Israelis, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies. That’s the most destabilizing thing that could happen and is perhaps the most likely thing that could happen.
KK: What effect would killing the Iran deal have on the war against ISIS?
PC: There has always been this funny mixture particularly in Iraq, of public rivalry and private cooperation between the Iranian army and the U.S. because for a long time they had the same enemies—initially in Saddam Hussein and then al-Qaeda in Iraq. You had a Shia government [in Iraq] supported by the U.S. after 2005 but it was also supported by Iran. They wanted to increase their influence and limit that of America but they had the same friends and the same enemies. The degree of cooperation would depend somewhat on this nuclear deal and has increased because of this nuclear deal.
Also the current government of Iran that is committed to this deal could fall apart. It’s all very negative if that goes.
KK: If Trump tears up the agreement, will there be a government more like Ahmadinejad’s in Iran?
PC: That’s one thing that could happen…a tougher U.S. line on Iran provokes the whole Shia coalition against the U.S., makes them look more towards war than diplomacy.
KK: Do you think Trump was serious when he called for a Russia détente?
PC: He might be. It’s not so stupid. To some degree, that’s what we already have had: negotiations and an attempted ceasefire with the Russians. You can justify that by saying that if there is going to be any peace agreement in Syria, it has to be negotiated by the biggest players which are the U.S. and Russia. They may not be enough to do it, they may not be able to control allies or proxies or something. [But] that’s sort of feasible.
It’s also true that policies such as Hillary Clinton’s—or just the people around her who were talking about fighting Islamic State and fighting, getting rid of Assad—were never feasible. There isn’t a moderate opposition faction that could’ve fought both. It barely exists. The problem about this is, what Trump has said, these are not defined policies. We don’t know who the guys who are meant to implement them are. So it’s pretty incoherent.
KK: Do you think these attempts to arm the rebels will continue to happen?
PC: Yeah, it’s evident that within the U.S. government, different parts of the government have different policies; you know, the CIA arming various rebel factions, the Pentagon tried this. But the idea of arming factions that were supposedly moderate not only hasn’t worked but it’s been disastrous, it’s been a joke. Whatever the state of the Syrian political opposition, the armed opposition is dominated by Islamists and has been a long time. So that might continue but I don’t think it’ll make much difference. When it comes to troops, soldiers, on the ground cooperating with the U.S., of course, the Pentagon did find people but it was the Kurds and various proxies supported by the Kurds.
KK: Has Trump’s victory helped jihadis in Syria in Iraq?
PC: Potentially it could, but I don’t think it works that way at the moment because they tend to think of Americans, Europeans, not just non-Muslims but non-believers in that sort of Wahhabi variant of Islam that they believe in. So to them all the world’s an enemy, whether it’s a Shia Muslim who’s worthy of immediate death or Yazidis, who many are enslaved. One of the things about the siege of Mosul, down the road from where I am, is that there are different armies—all of whom are enemies of the Islamic state and all hate each other—besieging the place at the moment.
Now potentially, [if] Muslims start getting kicked out, if some people get killed and so forth, yeah that would play to their advantage. Any sort of communal punishment of Muslims anywhere is something that they can take advantage of in their propaganda. The degree to which that’s successful and helps them of course depends on the degree of the communal punishment to which Muslims are subject.
KK: Do you think the numbers we’re seeing are vastly understated with respect to civilian casualties arising from the coalition airstrikes on ISIS territory?
PC: They’re probably understated; whether they’re vastly understated I don’t know. Areas I’ve been to between here and Mosul, most of the villages were uninhabited ever since ISIS took them over in 2014. There weren’t many people living there, so they could bomb these ISIS positions without killing many civilians.
Now we’re getting to—the fighting is in East Mosul and that’s full of people. This is an important question that’s going to come up now in the next few weeks. The Iraqi army isn’t making that much progress over the last week in those areas, so what’ll they do? One option is much more bombing and disregard the civilian casualties. If that happens then the number of civilian casualties will soar vastly from what it is now.
KK: Could Trump pursue that option?
PC: Potentially, yeah, they could up the bombing, particularly in places like Mosul. But it’s too early to say.
KK: There have been reports in the Russian media that the U.S. has let ISIS forces escape Mosul for Syria to cause problems for the Syrian government. Is there any truth to that or is it just Russian propaganda?
PC: I think it’s propaganda. It may be that we would quite like to do that but I don’t think it’s happening because it looks as if the Islamic State is very determined to hold Mosul, which was always likely because capturing Mosul was its big victory that sort of put Islamic State on the map. It’s one big population center, still controlled, 1.5 to 2 million people there.
If it’s going to fight anywhere, Mosul is probably a good place to fight because there’s a big civilian population, it’s filled with small streets and houses that it can carry out street fighting and it’s more difficult for an air coalition to bomb it flat like they did in Ramadi. It’s also quite difficult to get out of the city these days because the siege is quite complete at the moment.
People are telling me units of snipers and so forth are being sent from Raqqa to Mosul.
KK: When Trump apparently calls for carpet-bombing, does that have an effect on [ISIS] morale?
PC: No, I don’t think so. Guys here have been bombed so often…they’re not going to be frightened by this. The place is being very heavily bombed. These armies have massive firepower, it’s up to 15,000 airstrikes or something like that in Iraq and Syria. There may not be carpet bombing here, but the place has been very heavily bombed.
KK: What is Turkey’s involvement in the Mosul offensive?
PC: They’ve been rhetorically saying that they have an interest in Mosul, that they will intervene if the Shia militias take over. President Erdogan was saying that Mosul was part of the Ottoman empire, he goes into sort of neo-Ottoman rhetoric and nobody quite knows how seriously to take it. They do have about 700 soldiers in one place, they sort of trained up a local militia that used to work for a former governor; when I met these guys they didn’t seem that serious, like a form of policemen, they’re not combat soldiers.
Turkey is sort of implying it might get across the border [into Iraq], which is pretty close—it sent a unit of tanks down there from Ankara the other day. I don’t think they’d do it because I think the Iraqi government are against it, the Kurds are against it, the US are against it, it doesn’t seem to me that likely. They certainly sort of involved in it, they want to be a player but they’re still a sort of marginal player.
KK: Who’s to say ISIS won’t just flee to the countryside and wait it out and come back later, in another form?
PC: I’m sure they’d like to do that. I think they’ve been divided. There’s evidence their commanders were divided as to whether they should have a last stand or a big stand in Mosul or should they revert to being guerillas.
I think if the Islamic State goes down, that is an important change, one shouldn’t underrate that. One of the things that gave them ideological prominence in the world and gave them the capacity to launch attacks in France and Belgium and so forth was the fact that they had a state. Foreign leaders kept saying it’s not a state…but it had its own army, administration, taxes, everything else. So it is very like a state.
Also actually declaring a Caliphate gave them a much higher profile.
It’s not so easy to convert back into a guerilla organization…I don’t think they have the kind of guerilla networks to sustain themselves that they had in the past.
KK: Many Americans think our weapons are so advanced and accurate that civilian casualties from airstrikes are minimal. What’s your response to that view?
PC: There’s a misconception about that we may have a really good way of targeting a building or something but at the end of the day it all depends on intelligence of where Islamic State is—this may be good or bad. The actual weapon might be very accurate but we don’t really know who’s going to be at the receiving end.
There’s a long history here, going back to the first Gulf War (1991) U.S. bombing, where they were hitting buildings very accurately. I remember, in 1991 in Baghdad, they hit a shelter, which they thought was full of high-ups in the Ba’ath party—in fact it was full of 600 women and children who all got killed.
KK: Could civilian casualties in Mosul hamper hopes for a political solution?
PC: We’re pretty far from a political solution anyway, and these guys are pretty angry. Would it make that worse? Well, probably it would, but we’re a long way from any power sharing with the Sunni Arabs (these are the people in Mosul city). The armies outside are Iraqi army which is mainly Shia Muslims.
I was going through an Iraqi army checkpoint a couple of days ago. They wanted me to have tea and biscuits, they were giving tea and biscuits to everybody. The reason is, they were celebrating a Shia religious festival which involves feeding people. This was an army checkpoint but they were making no point to conceal that they were all Shia and they were conducting a religious ceremony. So you have a high degree of sectarianism already within the army.
This is what people want to know about: what happens after the fall of Mosul. First of all we have to know how much of Mosul is left by the time that happens. You might have power-sharing between the Shia and the Kurds but the Sunni are kind of the defeated in this war so far. You have lots of Sunni refugees all over the place. Other than ISIS they don’t have much leadership. So it may not be power sharing after this conflict; you may just have winners and losers.
KK: The US government describes its military presence in Iraq as merely advisory. Is that a fair characterization or is it more than that?
PC: It’s more than that. There are 12 US generals in Iraq. First of all, the main firepower of the Kurds and the Iraqi army is the U.S.-led air coalition. Secondly, logistics. I doubt that this offensive would be taking place if Washington hadn’t wanted it.
KK: Have U.S. forces been directly engaged in combat?
PC: They probably have…there have been a few U.S. casualties but not many, which indicates they’re not really engaged in combat.