The Jihadis Return & Syria Burning

The Jihadis Return

Patrick Cockburn

OR Books 2014 ISBN 978-1-939293-59-6 paperback, ISBN 978-1-939293-60-2 e-book. pp 144 Pb $15/£9, E-bk $10/£6.

Syria Burning

Charles Glass

OR Books 2015 ISBN 978-1-939293-88-6 paperback, ISBN 978-1-939293-89-3 e-book. pp 142 Pb $16/£11, E-bk $10/£7.


Most Western Christians may not know much about the Christian communities in the Middle East, but they are now aware that their existence is threatened by the victories won by Sunni Muslim jihadis in Iraq and Syria, and by the civil war in Syria. Most people in the West may not know much in detail about who the jihadis are and how it is that they have had such rapid success, but they are aware that the caliphate they have established in large tracts of Iraq and Syria poses a threat, not only to Western interests but also to Muslims who do not share the outlook of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – the ‘so-called Islamic State’, as politicians wish it to be called.

The authors of these two books are experts in their fields. Both have spent much time in the region over many years and have reported on developments there. Cockburn writes regularly for The Independent, and warmly commends Glass’s book. They tell their respective stories from a close personal acquaintance with the countries, and in brief compass provide a clear and informative overall view of the situation in Iraq and Syria at the time of writing and of how it has come about. ISIS is the offspring of al-Qa’ida, the jihadi organisation most familiar in the West since the turn of the century. Support for the jihadis appeared to weaken after the early success of the Western invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and the so-called Arab Spring appeared at first to be the dawn of new democratic and secular era in North Africa and the Middle East. But the jihadis made a swift and vigorous return, to the dismay of the West, not least of the United States and Great Britain. The revolt against President Assad’s government in Syria in 2011 gave them the opportunity to extend their activity still further, in the process destabilising the already precarious situation in Iraq. Both writers are clear that Western miscalculations and misjudgements have made a significant contribution to the rise of ISIS. Western interventions  in the Middle East, such as the Iraq war of 2003, and politicians’ calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, are only the most recent of American and British involvement in the region. Glass reminds us that in 1949 the CIA’s man in Damascus, acting in the interests of American oil companies, paid the Syrian army chief of staff to arrange a coup that overthrew the parliamentary system. So began a series of military coups that ended with Hafez al- Assad’s in 1970. The deliberate dismantling of the Iraqi state after the Gulf War, and American support for a partisan Shia government, prepared the way for the virtual break-up of Iraq. A situation was created in which ISIS could establish itself. Western support for the Syrian rebels and the assumption that Assad would fall have helped to create another situation from which ISIS has profited.

Fuelling the rise of the jihadis is Wahabism, the fundamentalist form of Islam that originated in Arabia in the eighteenth century. Espoused by the Saudis, it became the dominant version of Islam in Saudi Arabia. Not least among the ironies of the present situation is that Wahabism is propagated and financed by such staunch allies of the West as Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. While they support the jihadis, America and its Western allies are desperately trying to defeat them. Both books are highly critical of Western, American-led policies in the Middle East, which have helped to create the present disastrous situation. It remains to be seen how the very recent American nuclear agreement with Shi’ite Iran and the consequent restoration of diplomatic relations will affect the situation.

Patrick Cockburn’s conclusion, that “the Middle East is entering a long period of ferment in which counterrevolution may prove as difficult to consolidate as revolution itself”, is unlikely to need radical revision.

The reviewer is Canon Hugh Wybrew, a former Dean of St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem. Now actively retired in Oxford, his interests include EasternOrthodox Christianity. He is a Director of JMECA.