Crosspost: Muhammad Idrees Khan
An esteemed war journalist wrote about Syrian jihadis slaughtering Christians—but did it ever actually occur?
Editor’s Note: After publication of this article, Patrick Cockburn responded to The Daily Beast to clarify an apparent discrepancy in his accounts of an alleged massacre in Adra. The author of this piece chose to respond to Cockburn’s rebuttal. That exchange is posted below after the end of the original text. We have also updated the dek of this article to reflect Cockburn’s clarifications.
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 happened, 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.) [[CORRECTION: Cockburn’s agent contacted the author on May 21, noting that Cockburn was in Syria but that he would respond when he returned. That response has been inserted at the end of 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.)
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,” 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, the regime 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 after 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.
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (@im_pulse) is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling (Scotland) and a co-editor of PULSE. He is the author of The Road to Iraq: the Making of a Neoconservative War.
Response from Patrick Cockburn:
To the editor of the Daily Beast
From Patrick Cockburn, Erbil, Northern Iraq
In an issue of the Daily Beast published on 27 May you carry an article by Muhammad Idrees Ahmad with the title ‘Who’s Lying About Syria’s Christian Massacre’. In his piece Mr Ahmad says that there are doubts about whether or not the Adra massacre actually took place. He writes that ‘the atrocity may or may not have [happened]’ from which it follows that, if it did not, I would be guilty of fabricating evidence of the killings. He then goes on to claim that I say I was present at the scene of the alleged massacre at the time it occurred.
What makes Mr Ahmad’s accusations so strange and so easy to rebut is that the massacre at Adra, a town north of Damascus, on December 11, 2013 is one of the better reported of many terrible atrocities conducted by all sides in Syria and Iraq since 2011. He says that “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.”
In fact, anybody turning to such an obvious source as Wikipedia and putting in the words “Adra massacre” will find a well-sourced article citing reports from the AP and Reuters news agencies on December 12, 2014 describing the massacre by Islamic militants and quoting local eyewitness on events. Albert Aji, an AP reporter in Damascus, quotes an opposition figure in touch with people in the area, as saying: “Some people are being shot and others are being beheaded. They include Christians, Alawites, Druse and Shiites.” The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had documented the names of at least 19 of the dead and feared that many more had been killed. Even the US State Department condemned the massacre.
Given this ample reporting it is difficult to see why Mr Ahmad describes the massacre as ‘alleged’ and the whole story as ‘disappearing in a swirl of contradictory claims.’ A reason for his reticence may be that to admit that the details and timing of what happened in Adra on December 11, 2013 would destroy his charge that I claim to have been in Adra on this date. This is because the sentence from my book ‘The Rise of Islamic State: Isis and the New Sunni Revolution’ that Mr Ahmad cites as evidence for this begins: “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed…” In other words, if I am saying I am in Adra in 2014 I am obviously not pretending to be there in December 2013. But it is the rest of the sentence that Mr Ahmad focuses on which says “I witnessed [al-Nusra] forces storm a housing complex.” This is a fairly obvious error which should be in the past and not present tense and read ‘where [al-Nusra] forces had stormed a housing complex.’ By ignoring the first part of the sentence – and expressing a strange ignorance as to when the Adra massacre occurred – Mr Ahmad pretends to believe that I say I saw the massacre while it was going on. In reality, what I saw in the part of Adra not captured by jihadis is fully reported in The Independent newspaper on January 28, 2014, a report whose truthfulness Mr Ahmad now says is in doubt.
In the rest of his lengthy attack on my journalism in Iraq and Syria since the 2011, Mr Ahmad continually confuses explanation with justification.This is a common fate for journalists in the Middle East who try to report objectively. To give a brief example, the fact that I believe the collapse of the Syrian army would create a vacuum that would be filled by Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qa’ida affiliate, does not mean that I am a supporter of the Syrian government but is simply a statement of unfortunate fact.
One final point: Mr Ahmad accuses me of not replying ‘to requests for comment on this article’. I was in Kurdish-controlled north east Syria last week which has no Wifi or mobile phone signals except very close to the border with Turkey. No article was sent to me, though I did see a request for information on some specific questions to which I asked my literary agent to respond to, explaining where I was and saying I would respond when I left Syria. Assuming that Mr Ahmad got my response, it is not true to say I did not reply.
The author’s response to Patrick Cockburn’s reply is below:
Patrick Cockburn says that an error made it seem like he was claiming that he was personally present at the alleged December 11, 2013 massacre in Adra. This is a welcome admission. I hope he will get his publishers (OR and Verso) to correct this. But on March 16, when Mr. Cockburn wrote to my editors at In These Times in response to my review of his book (in which I had noted the same discrepancy) he demanded an entirely different correction. He wrote:
In his piece he alleges that I untruthfully claim to have been present on the day of a massacre of civilians in the town of Adra north of Damascus on 11 December 2013. To provide evidence for this serious charge Mr Ahmad has edited a sentence from the book in a manner that radically changes its sense. He has presumably done so because, if he had given the quote in full, it would have immediately shown his charge to be false. I had written: “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed JAN [Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qa’ida] 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.” Mr Ahmad has cut out the first part of the sentence saying I was in Adra in early 2014 because this contradicts his allegation that I had pretended to be there on 11 December 2013 at time of the massacre.
Mr. Cockburn did not take issue with the part of the sentence that I had quoted (about his witnessing an attack); indeed, he repeated it. He only said that by omitting “in early 2014”, I had misrepresented him. At my request, on March 20, my editor Micah Utrecht emailed Cockburn via Verso to ask if Mr. Cockburn was saying that he had witnessed a separate incident in early 2014 (since he confirmed that he hadn’t witnessed the December 2013 masacre). Mr. Cockburn didn’t reply. On May 21, I again sent Mr. Cockburn an email asking him to clarify if he had witnessed a separate incident in Adra in early 2014. A day later I heard from Mr. Cockburn’s literary agent who said he was away in northern Syria for two weeks. I am glad that the record on that is now clear.
Regarding the alleged massacre, as Mr. Cockburn correctly notes, I didn’t rule out that it might have happened. I do reference the Reuters report that Mr. Cockburn accuses me of overlooking. But as I point out, the claims were contradictory and they were never confirmed by any credible independent organisation—like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or ICRC (The Syrian Observatory itself gave conflicting reports: it told Reuters 15 civilians were killed by Islamists, but on its website it reported 12 deaths at the hand of regime forces).
Finally, Mr. Cockburn claims that I confuse his explanations for justifications. I would point out that Mr. Cockburn’s explanations have a noticeable bent: he rarely reports on the regime’s crimes (which constitute the majority), he amplifies those committed by the opposition, and he conveniently concludes that the regime is a lesser evil. Worse, even as Assad rampages uninterrupted, Mr. Cockburn has called on the west to provide him support and air cover. Mr. Cockburn isn’t just explaining; he is also advocating. And his explanations justify his advocacy.
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