Patrick Cockburn, the Irish foreign correspondent for The Independent, has an eclectic following. He is admired by Noam Chomsky and Rand Paul; and last December, when he won the British equivalent of a Pulitzer for his coverage of Syria and Iraq, the judges declared his journalism in a “league of its own” and wondered “whether the Government should [consider] pensioning off the whole of MI6 and [hire] Patrick Cockburn instead.”Cockburn is conscious of his exalted position. He frequently admonishes his colleagues against the distortions born of “political bias and simple error.” In his recent book, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution, he declares, “there is no alternative to first-hand reporting”. He adds: “Journalists rarely fully admit to themselves or others the degree to which they rely on secondary and self-interested sources.”
Journalists rarely admit such things—even those as self-aware as Cockburn is. Consider this gripping, first-hand account of the slaughter of religious minorities by the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra that appears on page 89 of his book. “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.
But there is a problem. The atrocity may or may not have and it seems unlikely that Cockburn witnessed it.
Before Cockburn published the first edition of his book in August 2014 and promoted himself to the status of witness, he had devoted only two articles to Adra; neither mentions him witnessing a massacre. Indeed, according to the first—published in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent —Cockburn arrived in Adra after the alleged incident and was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”
The story about a massacre in Adra, allegedly carried out by Islamist rebels, was briefly reported on before disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have no record of it. The Russian broadcaster RT covered it, but used fake pictures, which it subsequently had to withdraw.
I first reported on Cockburn’s discrepancy in an article for The National and in a review of his book for In These Times. Cockburn corresponded with the latter’s editor last March. In an email sent on March 20, the editor offered him a chance to clarify if he had witnessed a different incident in early 2014 that also met the description given by Abu Ali? Cockburn never replied. (He also did not reply to requests for comment for this article.)
Cockburn’s apparent need to embellish might make sense if one looks at the main argument of his book. For him, Bashar al-Assad is at war with jihadi terrorism; the West has erred in supporting his opponents; and to support the opposition is to support ISIS.
To support this contention, Cockburn in his book quotes “an intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country neighboring Syria” who tells him: “ISIS members ‘say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments.’”
It is understandable why Cockburn would grant an intelligence officer anonymity, but what reason might there be for extending anonymity to the officer’s country? Could it be that the “country neighboring Syria” is Iraq, or Iran—both key Assad allies?
For over a year, Syria’s nationalist rebels have been at war with ISIS, which expanded mainly by seizing territory that they had earlier liberated from the regime. ISIS has led a war of attrition against the anti-Assad rebellion, assassinating its leaders, harassing its fighters, and disappearing civil society activists. Starting on New Year’s Day 2014, a rebel coalition led by the Free Syria Army (FSA), the Islamic Front (IF), Ahrar al-Sham (AS)—and even Jabhat al-Nusra—united to drive IS out of Idlib, Deir Ezzor, and parts of Aleppo and Damascus.
But far from applauding the rebels for confronting ISIS, Cockburn lumps them in with the moderates, noting at the time that “the bitterly divided rebels are fighting their own civil war in which 700 people have died in recent days.” That the fighters are divided along ISIS/anti-ISIS lines, and that ISIS captured and executed 100 of the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham rebels during its retreat, gets barely a mention. “The internecine warfare in the highly fragmented rebel movement”, he writes, “will further discredit them at home and abroad.”
By contrast, Cockburn takes a generous view of the regime’s belated and brief confrontation with ISIS. He has pronounced Assad’s army its “main military opponent”, deserving of western support. But facts tell a different story. According to a Carter Center study, the regime has spared ISIS in 90 percent of its attacks; and an IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) study finds that in 2014, the regime targeted ISIS in only 6 percent of its attacks (ISIS in turn directed its fire on the regime in only 13 percent its operations).
For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists.
This isn’t Cockburn’s only apparent omission. During the battle for Kobani, Cockburn briefly elevated the Kurds to the status of “the main military opponents” of ISIS, a position he usually reserves for the Assad regime. When the siege of the town was finally broken on January 26, the main Kurdish resistance force, the YPG, issued a statement thanking “brigades of the Free Syrian Army who fought shoulder to shoulder with our forces.” But Cockburn, who has dismissed the existence of nationalist rebels such as the FSA as “pure fantasy,” he ignored the Kurds’ own nod to their allies.
In his January 28 column, Cockburn credited U.S. airstrikes with helping the Kurds defend Kobani but made no mention of the FSA. Instead, he reported that, according to General James Mattis, “the time for supporting ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels had passed”. He added: “The Syrian armed opposition is increasingly under the control of ISIS and its rival, the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra” and that overthrowing Assad would only “benefit ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.”
On February 8, Cockburn again dismissed Syria’s nationalist opposition (“these barely exist outside a few pockets”). This time he used a statement by Joe Biden as evidence that jihadists, backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were dominating the anti-Assad opposition. (Biden did not exclude the presence of a non-jihadist opposition, but Cockburn did.) Cockburn then criticized the U.S. for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS.” The Kurds were already out of the picture.
Meanwhile the Kurds and the FSA continued their advance on Kobani and by February 19, according to the BBC, they had taken 240 of the surrounding villagesand were advancing on the strategic town of Tal Abyad.
On February 24, Cockburn made a glancing reference to the YPG advance without any mention of the FSA. The next day, he gave fuller coverage but framed the story as the first evidence of “military cooperation between the Syrian Kurds and the U.S. … continuing in offensive operations.” He used the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the same source as the BBC, but, unlike the BBC, made no mention of the FSA fighting alongside the Kurds.
The omission is telling.
On March 19, when Cockburn concluded a five-part series for The Independent on life under ISIS, he complained that “the U.S. and its allies are not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” (As a matter of fact, against the wishes of its regional Sunni allies, the U.S. has been providing air support to Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias,whose sectarian oppression was one cause of Sunni disillusionment and the rise of ISIS.)
Yet even as he presents the Syrian Army as a nemesis of ISIS, Cockburn hasn’t reported on a single instance where, since at least the start of the year, the regime has successfully confronted ISIS. More bizarrely, to emphasize “the importance of ground-air co-operation” in the fight against ISIS, he cites the example of Kobani, where Assad’s forces had no presence and where American air support helped the YPG—and the FSA—repel an ISIS offensive.
Perhaps Cockburn is loath to support the opposition because it now has a large Islamist component (a troubling development, no doubt). But Cockburn appears remarkably unconcerned about extreme Islamism when he is calling for airstrikes in support of the Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq.
For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists. He is an enthusiast for the war on terror—Bashar al-Assad’s war on terror. He criticizes the U.S. for excluding from its anti-ISIS coalition “almost all those actually fighting ISIS, including Iran, the Syrian army, the Syrian Kurds and the Shia militias in Iraq.” “The enemy of our enemy”, he insists, “must be our friend”—and those who reject this formula are “glib” and “shallow”.
Not being glib or shallow, Cockburn apparently cedes little to reality. On January 7, he used the Charlie Hebdo attacks as an occasion to admonish the West to end its war against Assad, a potential ally in the confrontation with Islamic extremism. On the same day, a 17-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was leaked which confirmed that the regime had used chemical weapons in Idlib and Hama.
On February 8, when Cockburn reprised his criticism of the West for “trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose army is the main military opponent of ISIS,” the regime launched a particularly savage series of bombings in Douma,killing up to 250 civilians.
On March 19, Cockburn criticized “the U.S. and its allies” for “not giving air support to the Shia militias and the Syrian army, which are the two largest ground forces opposing ISIS.” The Violations Documentation Centre (VDC) confirmed 17 deaths under regime torture on the same day. Two days earlier, Amnesty International had published a report on the regime’s latest chemical attack in Idlib, which killed an entire family and affected up to 100 people.
On April 12, when Cockburn made his latest case for befriending Assad, theregime killed 102 people using barrel bombs and fuel air explosives. Targets included an elementary school where rescuers found two female teachers still seated, their heads severed by the blast.
This is not Cockburn being unlucky with his timing. In Syria, over the past three years, regime atrocities have been a daily occurrence. A call for befriending Assad will have unfortunate juxtapositions on any day. The thing that is rare, however, is for Cockburn to acknowledge an atrocity that is committed by the regime rather than by its opponents.
For that reason, April 14 was notable. For the first time in over a year, citing Human Rights Watch, Cockburn reported on a regime war crime (another chemical attack). The last time Cockburn had mentioned a regime atrocity was on March 20, 2014, when he spoke about the August 2013 chemical attack in the context of describing the naiveté of Syrian civil activists. Close to 70,000 people were killed in between, the overwhelmingly majority by the regime.
According to the VDC and the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime is responsible for close to 95 percent of all verified civilian deaths. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, special investigator for the UN Human Rights Council, has concluded that before the August 2013 chemical massacre, the Assad regime had already perpetrated at least eight major massacres (the rebels, too, were responsible for at least one massacre).
This equation remains unchanged. Pineheiro noted last September that despite ISIS’s extreme violence, the Assad regime “remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily.” Physicians for Human Rights estimate that of the 610 medical workers killed in Syria since the beginning of the uprising, the regime was responsible for 97 percent of the deaths, 139 of whom died by torture or execution.
For a journalist to acknowledge all this, and still pronounce the regime a lesser evil deserving of friendship and military support can’t be easy. Cockburn seems to deal with it by turning a blind eye to the regime’s ongoing slaughter of civilians. He is helped in this by the obtrusive barbarism of ISIS, which uses spectacle in the place of scale to force media attention. ISIS has been a godsend for the regime; it has helped divert attention from its crimes—and regime-friendly journalists have obliged in the deflection.
Consider Cockburn’s cheery report on a “peace deal” in Tal Kalakh from June 2013. He writes that the town “changed sides at the week-end,” from the rebels to the regime after it “forged a peace deal,” though the “exact terms of the deal are mysterious.”
The mystery is resolved later in the article, when Cockburn reveals that the deal “appears to have been brokered by leading citizens of the town who did not want it to become a battleground again. The devastating destruction at Qusayr when it was stormed over two weeks by the Syrian army and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah gave a sense of urgency to the final negotiations.” He gets to inspect the “cache of weapons on show by the army—a few mortar bombs, rockets and explosives”; they are “not very impressive.”
In other words, a heavily outgunned town surrendered to a superior, more ruthless, regime force. All the same, Cockburn walks through the town and finds that “soldiers and civilians looked relaxed.” He mocks the “pro-rebel Al-Jazeera Arabic” for claiming that “smoke was rising from the town;” Cockburn “did not see or smell any.” He even gets to speak to “a local FSA commander” (at that point, Cockburn was still acknowledging the FSA), who tells Cockburn that he changed sides “because of general disillusionment with the uprising.”
Only later are we told: “Listening to [the FSA rebel] impassively were Syrian army officers.”
Cockburn gives no indication that he is troubled by the officers’ presence while he interviews a surrendered soldier. Far from it. The trip leads him to conclude: “The only way to bring the political temperature down is by local ceasefires and peace deals.” Syria would be at peace, in other words, if all Syrians just re-submitted to regime rule.
Cockburn is only following the precedent of his colleague Robert Fisk who, in August 2012, after a massacre of 400-500 people in Daraya, rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier to the scene, interviewed survivors—“in the company of armed Syrian forces”—and concluded that, contrary to initial reports, “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” were responsible for the massacre.
Veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, however, visited the town unaccompanied and interviewed survivors without the menacing presence of the Syrian Army. They told di Giovanni that the massacre was carried out by the regime, a conclusion corroborated by Human Rights Watch.
Tal Kalakh wasn’t the only instance of Cockburn’s creative reframing. Last month, when ISIS made a push for the Yarmouk Refugee Camp, he reported it thusly: “The takeover by ISIS of part of Yarmouk Camp in southern Damascus, a city that has been under siege by the group for two years, may mean that its commanders believe it is better to attack here than engage in a battle of attrition at Tikrit.”
From the article, readers would be hard-pressed to learn that the camp has endured a crippling siege by regime forces since July 2013. The article gives the impression that Yarmouk’s troubles began with the arrival of ISIS. Cockburn zooms out from the immediate situation in Yarmouk to speak of Damascus being under ISIS siege. (There is no mention, either, of the barrel bombs the regime has been dropping on Yarmouk). Before ISIS intervened in April 2015, in the 21 months of the regime’s siege on the camp, Cockburn mentioned Yarmouk in only two of his articles (on January 29 and January 30 last year)—the same number he devoted to the alleged massacre in Adra.
At their best, journalists exhume truth, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in My Lai. At their worst, they try to bury it, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in Eastern Ghouta. Six months after a clumsy attempt at mass-crime revisionism, Hersh blurbed Cockburn’s book. Generous praise from Hersh would once have counted as an honor; after Syria, it may be read as an indictment.
Cockburn, however, is not like Hersh or Fisk. He never embraced the conspiracy theories around the massacres in Houla, Daraya, or Eastern Ghouta. Occasionally he even mentions regime crimes. His accounts in these instances are straight and unvarnished. Adra was his only apparent Brian Williams moment.
But as one astute commentator observed following the Williams affair:
Usually…there is no reason to lie because almost any story can be given an appearance of truthfulness by judicious selection of the facts…there are an infinite number of facts and it is the judgement of the journalist that decides which are significant or insignificant…in a sense, all stories are written backwards, beginning with the writer’s “take” on what matters and only then proceeding to a search for facts that he or she judges to be important.
The commentator was Patrick Cockburn—the journalist with an immutable “take”.
Elsewhere, Cockburn has complained that “those who purvey the most destructive lies in the media will seldom be identified or punished.” Indeed, sometimes they are rewarded. Despite the stark disproportion between the realities on the ground in Syria and Cockburn’s coverage, his reputation hasn’t suffered. He wins journalism awards; audiences receive him with credulous awe; the media eagerly seeks his expertise. He is a frequent contributor to the London Review of Books (a once respectable publication that has become overly hospitable to conspiracist clickbait).
That Cockburn has received awards instead of scrutiny is an indictment of the British journalism establishment. It shows that those bestowing honours either share his prejudices or are too ignorant to notice them. It’s time for them to make amends.