There are six chapters apart from the preface. The first sets the scene by describing the present situation. ISIS originated as an offshoot from Al-Qaida, but unlike Al-Qaida, which Cockburn describes as an idea rather than an organisation, ISIS is already more or less a state, with territory, government, and of course an army. It does not recognise the border between Iraq and Syria and its ambition is to take over the whole Muslim world.
Chapter 2 looks at the role of Sunnism in Iraq. ISIS is Sunni and is violently hostile to the Shia, which it regards as non-Muslim. The Shia are in the majority in Iraq. The government that was set up after the fall of Sadam Husain has been corrupt, sectarian, and Shia-dominated, which has led the Sunni minority, especially in the north, to have at least a degree of sympathy for ISIS which has assisted its resurgence. Cockburn thinks that another, less well-known, reason may have been military intelligence provided by Turkey.
Chapter 3 is about how ISIS took over the Syrian uprising. Most Western opinion since 2011 held that President Assad would rapidly lose the war and have to resign, but this looks increasingly unlikely today. The Western powers would now like to enlist his help to fight against ISIS, but they have been so emphatic that he is unacceptable that they cannot now climb down openly. It seems likely that the present stalemate will continue, although local cease-fires are a possibility.
Chapter 4 is about the role of Saudi Arabia, which Cockburn finds to have had, together with Qatar, a considerable responsibility for supporting ISIS—a decision they are beginning to regret. The Saudi version of Islam is dominated by Wahhabism, and this extremist interpretation has become increasingly influential throughout much of the Muslim world. Cockburn sees this as one of the most dangerous features of the present situation.
Chapter 5 deals with war and war reporting. Wars have been fought in the last 12 years in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. Western involvement, covert or open, has made these conflicts worse, pushing the combatants towards civil war. They have also been characterised by a lot of propaganda, and Cockburn finds that the reporting has been tendentious and simplistic. The picture that Western audiences have been given implies a straightforward division into good guys and bad guys, but the truth is always more complex. News editors at home shape the kind of reports that correspondents send in; they like clear-cut separations.
Misreporting was particularly evident in the first two years of the Syrian uprising.
Predictably, such news was so biased and unreliablie that the real course of events turned out to be full of unexpected developments and nasty surprises. This is likely to continue.
Chapter 6 brings the story up to date. Cockburn was himself taken by surprise by the rapid fall of Mosul to ISIS, and so were Western governments. He sees the main reason for the complete failure of the Iraqi army to put up any fight in the deep-seated corruption that has characterised it since the fall of Sadam Husain and the disbanding of his army by the Americans. But it was not only Western governments that got it wrong; so, too, did reformists in the Middle East, in both Iraq and Libya.
Like nearly all commentators, Cockburn doesn't think there is a realistic prospect of maintaining the unity of Iraq. US involvement will be limited and anyway would be unlikely to help. In Syria the outlook is equally bleak. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are arming and training a new "moderate military opposition" to fight Assad and ISIS but this seems unlikely to achieve anything, so the prospect is of an indefinite continuation of the civil war.
This is a depressing book, which shows convincingly that all the outside meddling in Middle Eastern affairs has been misguided and incompetent and has led more or less directly to the rise of ISIS. There does not seem to be any solution in sight. Depressing though it is, it should certainly be read by anyone who wants to get an insight into what is happening in the region.
The book is made up of previously published articles, which no doubt explains a degree of repetitiousness and the lack of an index. It would be good if one could be included in the second edition which will doubtless be needed soon in view of the speed with which events are happening.
11 September 2014