Road to Mosul: The Battle for Iraq and Syria

After the screening, Paxton was joined for a panel discussion by head of news programming for VICE EU, Kevin SutcliffeToby Dodge, director of the Middle East Centre at LSE; Anthony Loyd, foreign correspondent at The Times; and Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times and The Independent.

Sutcliffe opened the discussion with an introduction to VICE News’ recent coverage of the situation in Syria and Iraq, and commented that: “We had reasonably good relations with the Peshmerga and we decided to go along to see what was happening.”

The discussion turned to the West’s apparent lack of commitment or strategy in terms of combatting IS in Iraq and Syria.

“There is an acceptance in the West that this is going to go on for a very long time; and that somehow it’s an Iraqi or Syrian problem,” Loyd said.

Dodge pointed out that the film highlighted the blurred lines of the conflict. “I thought it brought out very well the moral ambiguity of the battlefield,” he said.

Cockburn argued that the idea of Jabhat al-Nusra as an opposition to Islamic State is “self-defeating.” He explained how a Syrian Kurd told him that they are both “children of al-Qaeda,” and that to regard the situation otherwise would be “wilful self-deception.”

Loyd disagreed both with the issue of ambiguity and the idea of IS and al-Nusra being of the same breed. “Having had the misfortune to be abducted in Syria, there was a time when we thought Jabhat might have us instead of ISIS and we thought: ‘well at least its Jabhat.'”

Loyd argued that al-Nusra were “homegrown Syrians” with a “nationalist perspective.”  He commented that the most pressing question is whether ISIS are capable of “wiping out Jabhat al-Nusra.”

The issue of foreign intervention was inevitably highlighted as an alternative to achieve, or at least accelerate, this end.

Dodge argued, however, that President Obama “sees his legacy in the region centrally as the Iran nuclear deal.”

On the issue of American foreign policy, he continued: “I smiled when you said ‘strategic thinking’ in the US, because it’s probably not thinking and it’s certainly not strategic.”

Loyd concurred: “We have an American president that is avowedly and determinedly not interventionist, and there is a price for non-intervention just as there is a price for intervention.”

Paxton commented on sentiments in the region itself, saying that what the local population want the most “is for there not to be conflict in that region.”

In response to a question on what Syria might look like in six months time, Cockburn responded: “A bit like now. I don’t think Assad is going to go down because there are too many forces on the other side.”

Loyd added: “Assad’s going to be warming his toes in a Dacha outside Moscow.”

Dodge said, “I doubt that Assad will fall because he polices his own internal ruling elite as carefully as he polices the rest of the Syrian population.”

Paxton commented on his own experiences with the Peshmerga: “You need more than bravery to make a push… I don’t think they’re in any rush to make any fast movements forward into more territory that they’re not sure they can control.”

An audience member asked about the growing number of foreign fighters travelling to fight with IS in Iraq and Syria.

Loyd argued that people who are “angry” or “sad” believe they could be “given meaning… given an identity. You’re given a lot of absolution by the religious terms of it all.”

“While the end result is radical,” Loyd concluded, “overwhelmingly the root is utterly banal.”

The Road to Mosul will be released on the VICE News website in three parts on Monday 8, Wednesday 10 and Friday 12 June.