The challenge of analysing conflicts in the Middle East
The past year has seen the publication of many books on the Middle East. Two examples are Patrick Cockburn’s War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran and the English translation of Gilles Kepel’s 2018 volume Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West. Some readers might end up disappointed.
War in the Age of Trump
Patrick Cockburn’s War in the Age of Trump is the more contemporary of the two books, focusing on the period from 2016 to 2020. After discussing some of the key elements of the recent years of Levantine conflict in his introduction, Cockburn chronicles the turmoil that engulfed Iraq and Syria since late 2016 in ten distinct episodes. These episodes sometimes focus on Washington (discussing the foreign policy decision-making of Donald Trump) but are mostly set in Syria and Iraq.
The book presents an interesting mix of analysis and reporting, and its contents are heavily skewed towards the latter. That is all the better, because the on-the-ground reporting shows why Cockburn ranks among the top journalists writing on (and from) Iraq and Syria. His decades of experience as a correspondent in the region are evident as he seamlessly combines insights from interviewing locals with longer, more analytical discussions on anything from the system of tunnels used by ISIS to the influence of almost forty years of conflict on Iraqi civilians.
Throughout the book, Cockburn is deeply empathic, giving voice to “what Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurds felt about events as they unfolded around them”, as he says in the preface.1 In that context, one cannot help but feel that his contemporary reporting has the most value as exactly that: published just when events are unfolding. At times, War in the Age of Trump feels like a glued-together collection of newspaper clippings, interspersed with a few pages of looking back here and there.
Cockburn displays an independent and sometimes contrarian mind, being critical of all actors in the conflicts
Still, Cockburn succeeds in his stated goal of giving voice to those who may otherwise have remained unheard. He has spoken to a wide variety of witnesses of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, combining their experiences and views with his own appreciations. In these appreciations Cockburn displays an independent and sometimes contrarian mind, being critical of all actors in the conflicts, be they governments, terrorist groups or his fellow journalists.
And despite his clear empathy with the civilians he spoke with, Cockburn still has to conclude pessimistically that the “outcome of the war all over Iraq and Syria has ensured that minorities that were once spread throughout the two countries, now only feel secure if they can rule their own territory”.2
Away From Chaos
Although crude terms like ‘left’ and ‘right’ are never very helpful in describing authors’ stances on Middle Eastern issues, Cockburn’s general readership would more likely be on the left of the political spectrum, whereas Kepel’s would be found on the right.
Kepel, a French political scientist and Arabist, is a dominant voice in French public debates on the Middle East and Islam. He is also well-known for his multi-year feud with the French political scientist Oliver Roy, with Kepel believing in ‘radicalisation of Islam’ (emphasising the role of religion in Islamic terrorism) and Roy in ‘Islamisation of radicalism’ (stating that religious factors are insufficient to explain radicalism).
Away from Chaos does not contain much in terms of new information
In Away from Chaos, Kepel only mentions Roy once, holding him and other (unnamed) “principal academic champions knowing neither the Arabic language nor Arab culture” indirectly responsible for what he sees as failed French policy towards the Middle East in the early 2010s. Arguing that another, better approach is possible, Kepel uses Away from Chaos to explain and contextualise the ‘chaos’ that has characterised the Middle East over the past forty years.
In the first part, Kepel deftly chronicles the evolution of international jihad(ism) and how it influenced politics in both the Middle East and Europe. Thereafter, he focuses on the 2010s, which first witnessed the Arab Spring and then the emergence of the self-proclaimed caliphate of ISIS.
Kepel discusses the Arab Spring in states in which regimes were toppled (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya) and in those where they were not (Yemen, Syria), seeking to explain the difference in large part by the ‘Shiite-Sunni fault line’ that emerged in 1979 and has significantly hardened since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. In the last part, Kepel looks to the future of a post-ISIS Middle East, and to the influence of larger political developments (like Shia-Sunni antagonism).
Away from Chaos features some interesting socio-economics analyses, explaining the influence of the 1973 oil crisis on migrant communities in Europe and the role of decreasing remittances in the onset of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Politically, however, Away from Chaos does not contain much in terms of new information.
It contrasts poorly with most contemporary books discussing similar topics
The more factual parts of his narrative are quite elaborate, but the author repeatedly cuts corners in the more argumentative parts of his book. Kepel presents his views on hotly-debated issues, such as the extent and origin of Iranian influence in the conflict in Yemen or the role of Guantanamo Bay in jihadist recruitment, which he presents as facts rather than as a (poorly argued) opinion. References to the 2015 migration movements as a “migrant flood”3 and broad assertions that “Islamic proselytizing moreover encourages unbridled reproduction, seeing in it the promise of armies of jihadist soldiers that would swamp the world”4 seem more suitable for bar table discussions than for an academic’s magnum opus.
Compounding these issues is the lack of a solid structure between and within chapters. Particularly in the third part of the book, the narrative often gets lost in a semi-chronological hodgepodge, jumping across years and countries on a single page for little apparent reason – unless it was intended as a postmodern way of stressing the complexity of the region. Too often I wrote “rambling” in the margins, whenever passages – in and of themselves insightful – were drowned out by the deficient structure of the narrative.
Kepel’s tendency to do a lot of name-dropping does not help in this regard. One single meeting with Russian former prime minister and former director of Moscow’s Institute of Oriental Studies, Yevgeniy Primakov, is mentioned four separate times across eighty pages, although the ‘insight’ that Moscow intervened in Syria to prop up the Syrian government makes one wonder whether it merits so much attention. Other regional leaders whom Kepel spoke to, like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Foreign Minister Javid Zarif, are mentioned repeatedly without much discussion of their views, which gives the impression that name-dropping can take precedent over content.
Those looking for a “sweeping political history of four decades of Middle East conflict and its worldwide ramifications”, as the blurb advertises Away from Chaos, will probably end up disappointed. It contrasts poorly with most contemporary books discussing similar topics, of which Kim Ghattas’ fantastic Black Wave is a prime example.
No real such alternative exists, to my knowledge, to the reporting brought by Cockburn’s War in the Age of Trump. Although the presentation may feel a bit odd at times, the quality and novelty of its contents more than satisfies readers looking for unique and insightful reporting to try to make sense of the past years of the turmoil engulfing Iraq and Syria. It may not be a very optimistic story, but it is certainly worth a read.
War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran
Published by Verso Books (July 2020)
Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West
Published by Columbia University Press (May 2020)
- 1Patrick Cockburn, War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran, New York: Verso Books, 2020, p.2.
- 2Patrick Cockburn, War in the Age of Trump: The Defeat of ISIS, the Fall of the Kurds, the Conflict with Iran, New York: Verso Books, 2020, p.91.
- 3Gilles Kepel, Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West, New York: Columbia University Press, 2020, p. 190.
- 4Gilles Kepel, Away from Chaos: The Middle East and the Challenge to the West, New York: Columbia University Press, 2020, p. 139.