Embedded Fisk

In this piece, first published at Open Democracy, Yassin al-Haj Saleh and Rime Allaf, two of Syria’s brightest intellectuals, discuss Robert Fisk’s moral and professional collapse.

The international media has not always been kind to Syria’s revolutionary people. For months on end, many of the latter turned themselves into instant citizen-journalists to document their uprising and the violent repression of the Syrian regime, loading clips and photos taken from their mobile-phones to various social networks; still, the established media, insinuating that only it could really be trusted, covered these events with an ever-present disclaimer that these images could not be independently verified. Since the Damascus regime was refusing to allow more than a trickle of foreign media personnel into the country, chaperoned by the infamous minders, what the Syrians themselves were reporting was deemed unreliable.

Nevertheless, an increasing number of brave journalists dared to sneak into Syria at great personal risk, reporting the same events which activists had attempted to spread to the world. For the most part, experienced journalists were perfectly capable of distinguishing between straight propaganda from a regime fighting for its survival and real information from a variety of other sources. Overwhelmingly, ensuing reports about Syria gave a voice to “the other side” or at least quoted opposing points of view, if only for balance. In some cases, journalists found no room to cater for the regime’s claims, especially when reporting from civilian areas under relentless attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

It was from the wretched Homs district of Baba Amr, under siege and shelling for an entire month, that the late Marie Colvin, amongst others, testified on the eve of her death under the regime’s shells about the “sickening situation” and the “merciless disregard for the civilians who simply cannot escape.” Like her, most of those who managed to get into Syria have testified about the regime’s repression of a popular uprising, even after the latter evolved to include an armed rebellion.

The Daraya massacre

Robert Fisk, a seasoned war correspondent who has covered the region for decades, surprisingly broke a mould, gradually allowing himself to become a part, and not simply a witness, of the Syrian regime’s propaganda campaign.

On 30 October 2011, Fisk – who works for the Independent newspaper, and whose reports are widely republished – was a guest of Syrian state television for an extended interview during which his legendary directness seemed subdued, as he meekly advised his host that he feared the Syrian authorities were running out of time to turn the situation around. In an article entirely dedicated to Bouthaina Shaban, one of Assad’s advisors, he quoted some of her extraordinary tales without adding one of his trademark comments: thus, he didn’t challenge the claim that a Christian baker in Homs was accused (supposedly by the extremists the regime says are leading the uprising) of mixing whisky in the bread.

Over the last few months, Fisk’s pieces on Syria have consisted more of commentary than of reporting, with a growing emphasis on the conspiracy scenario as he reminds readers that the governments criticising the Assad regime were themselves hardly examples of freedom or democracy. This is indeed true in many cases, but is not directly relevant to the Syrian people’s uprising, which moreover he increasingly reports in the sectarian terminology he had previously criticised when covering the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

But even copious editorialising of this nature could not have heralded Fisk’s shocking decision to embed with the Syrian regime’s armed forces, when he had previously stated (on 22 January 2003) that “war reporters should not cosy up to the military”. In Syria, Fisk embedded first in Aleppo with the commander of operations in the embattled city, and then in Damascus and its suburbs under attack by the regime. In particular, his piece on Daraya’s gruesome massacre has shocked many Syrians.

In his article of 29 August 2012, Fisk relates that an alleged exchange of prisoners was being negotiated between the regime and rebels in Daraya; when talks failed, he explains, regime forces had no choice but to storm the town, an attack during which several hundred inhabitants were killed. In Fisk’s account, however, there is no room for even the possibility that they were killed by security forces; on the contrary, his narration consistently points to “rebel” snipers. Fisk even reveals that a mortar-round landed on a large military base in Damascus from which he set out, “possibly fired from Daraya itself” (from the rebels, the reader may assume); and that the rebels supposedly attacked the armoured vehicle in which Fisk had “cosied up” with officers of the elite Assad army while driving through Daraya. Likewise, he ascribes to rebels the stormed homes, broken utensils, burned carpets and confiscated computer parts, speculating that these were “to use as working parts for bombs, perhaps?”

All the firing he describes is never attributed to the regime’s armed forces which stormed the town, but to the Free Syrian Army which he implies is the only violent party; nor does the Free Syrian Army seem to have a cause or a logical reason, from its perspective at least, to carry out such violent actions.

Daraya’s Local Coordination Committee (LCC), commenting on this article, points out that Fisk met with neither opposition nor activists while there (nor, for that matter, at any other time). And after days of our liaising with Daraya friends, activists and inhabitants, it is clear that nobody has even heard of this prisoner-exchange story which Fisk attributes to people there.

Furthermore, what could the relation be between this alleged failed prisoner exchange and the massacre? And why would fighters in the opposition kill inhabitants of a town that is one of the centres of the Syrian revolution because of this supposed exchange? Fisk presents no explanation for that, limiting himself to showing that the Free Syrian Army fighters were responsible for this failure, in contrast to the regime’s forces which (according to the testimony of the officer in charge with whom Fisk was embedded) went out of their way to free hostages before storming the town. Claims that the Daraya victims were relatives of government employees – including a postman killed simply because he was such an employee – are equally quoted without sourcing.

This account closely resembles the regime’s tale about the Houla massacre in May 2012, whereby the victims of Houla were also said to be regime supporters killed because they were relatives of a member of parliament. It is known today that this is pure invention, and that the massacre – as confirmed by the United Nations human-rights inquiry – was carried out by the regime’s armed forces and shabbiha (armed gangs). Is it possible that this embedded journalist’s source about the new massacre is the same “temple of truth” who had revealed facts of the governmental enquiry committee on the Houla massacre?

As in Houla, the story that the massacre victims were somehow related to regime or government members is false. Furthermore, Fisk manages to say nothing about the five-day long shelling of Daraya, as is the regime’s norm before storming a town; nor does he even give the correct number of fully documented victims (which is nearly double the 245 he quotes).

It seems incredible that Fisk cannot imagine that Daraya’s inhabitants could be too afraid of the regime’s forces, infamous since decades for their exceptional criminal capacity, to tell him who actually killed those victims. Indeed, Daraya LCC’s trusted sources from the field-hospital confirmed that a regime sniper killed the parents of Hamdi Koreitem, named by Fisk, and that they also shot Khaled Yehia Zukari’s wife and daughter.

The prison visit

As if being embedded on the day of the Daraya massacre wasn’t enough, Fisk had no objection to being taken to a jail (more likely one of the regime’s intelligence centers) where he was presented with four detained “jihadists” – two Syrians, a Frenchman of Algerian origin, and a Turk – accused of various terrorism charges, including a bombing in March 2012. While they all sat in the bureau of the officer in charge, the prisoners proceeded to tell Fisk the kind of stories the regime had been spreading for months. At a certain point, Fisk asked the officer to leave, which after mild prompting he did, just like that. Alone with their interviewer, who was allowed to offer them chicken and chips, the terrorists answered his questions, shared their stories, and informed Fisk that they had only been subject to bad treatment (but not torture) on the first day of their imprisonment; one had even received family visitors. A situation which few other prisoners in Syria, let alone Islamists or terrorists, can dream of.

As each of the men explained his specific case to Fisk, it may be wondered if he marvelled at the incredible good fortune of meeting jihadists who fitted the exact profile the Syrian regime has painted of those sowing havoc in the country. Indeed, the terrorists explained they had turned to jihad because of indoctrination in Turkey or Afghanistan, because of Al-Jazeera’s incitement, because of some sectarian sheikh’s hate-mongering, and (last but not least) because the Emir of Qatar was stirring revolution in Syria.

It is notable that Fisk neglects to mention how the visit came about, who organised it for him, or even why he thinks he was the chosen one for this largesse from a regime known to ban, jail and kill journalists (sixty-two killed so far while covering the Syrian revolution, including citizen-journalists). Nor does he give much thought to the possibility that he was brought to these detainees (if they really were detainees and not acting on the intelligence service’s orders) because they would say precisely what suited the regime. But everything repeated by Fisk toes the regime’s propaganda line: Syrian revolutionaries are terrorists, foreign fighters are among them, many are thieves, rapists and murderers, all have been influenced by the conspirators. It is understandable that the regime would want to say this, but it is not understandable why Fisk would say it, or why he wouldn’t be suspicious of being taken for a ride.

One of the co-authors of this article [Yassin] spent many years in jail in Syria on charges much less serious than those of these terrorists, but no foreign or local journalist visited me or hundreds of my acquaintances and friends who have been detained for decades. From my personal experience of intelligence in jails, I assume that the director of the jail Fisk visited felt that the journalist was “one of us”, and would be impressed at the regime’s capacity to gain such support. What is also strange is that Fisk, whose requests seem to be heard in Damascus, did not ask to visit his peers, such as journalist and human-rights activist Mazen Darwish, who was allowed no visits from his young wife or any of his relatives after nearly seven months of detention; or his colleague Hussein Ghreir, who left behind him a young wife and two children; or Yehia Shurbaji, who could inform him about the realities of his home town of Daraya.

Perhaps Fisk’s good relations with the regime will allow him to visit other jails, overflowing with tens of thousands of detainees, prisoners of conscience, denied their freedom for having demanded the right to free expression and choice. This would certainly be a journalistic exclusive; they are no less in need of chicken and chips than the detained jihadists, and the stories they would tell would give him a much more reliable account of the Syrian revolution.

In Syria, Robert Fisk has done what he long admonished other reporters for doing. Is it because he has fallen under the spell of the regime, has become indoctrinated or has suddenly lost his instincts? Or has he become a willing accessory to the Assad regime’s propaganda, if only for the sake of being in a league of his own?

The first casualty of war isn’t truth, it’s helpless civilians, and Robert Fisk has forsaken both.

22 thoughts on “Embedded Fisk”

  1. I’ve also noticed the general decline in writing quality going back to last winter and i wondered if Fisk was either drinking or suffering from the early stages of dementia. I was shocked that some of the crap he wrote was even published, But what alarmed me was that his reportage began to sound like unsubstantiated pontificating in favor of the regime – he began relying on hearsay from mostly pro-regime sources and parroting it without question. It’s time for Fisk to retire.

  2. Unfortunately, the author of this article, Robin Yassin-Kassab, does not provide citations to back up his assertions of fact, nor does he directly cite or quote any of the writings, etc., by Fisk that he is criticizing. He seems to be intent, in this and other writings he has posted, on creating support for direct imperialist intervention in Syria.

    I will give him slight credit here, though. At least in this article, he names the particular person he is attacking, while, in his article called ‘Blanket Thinkers’, he creates an amalgam of everybody on the left who disagrees with him and argues as if every individual or group in this amalgam of his creation is responsible for everything supposedly written, said or thought by every other such individual or group.

    Maybe the problem is that Mr. Yassin-Kassab is a novelist and not a journalist. His novelistic style of writing does not serve, however, to clarify political issues. Those of us who want to understand what is happening in Syria or, especially, the role of Western imperialism there, will have to look elsewhere.

    1. interesting comment on my novelistic versus journalistic skills, Aaron. May I suggest you improve your reading skills. This article is not by me but by the people named at the top – the Syrian intellectuals Rime Allaf and Yassin al-Haj Saleh. And in ‘Blanket Thinkers’ I actually named a couple of leftists who are not blanket thinkers, and stated that not all the left has made the same silly mistake. For the record, I oppose all ‘direct imperialist intervention’ in Syria, both the actual intervention by imperialist Russia and the imagined or potential intervention from the West.

      1. Since you are listed as the author on the right-hand side of the page, and since I had not re-read the introductory sentence immediately before writing my comment, I did mistakenly take you to be the author, rather than two people whom you characterize as ‘two of Syria’s brightest intellectuals’. Like so many other things you assert as fact, and like most of what the two Syrian authors themselves assert in this article, the reader has no way of judging the truth or falsity of this statement.

        Also, the fact that you “named a couple of leftists who are not [so-called] blanket thinkers, and stated that not all the left has made the same [allegedly] silly [alleged] mistake”, doesn’t contradict the fact that you created an amalgam of everybody on the left who disagrees with you and did not refute anything that any specific person or group said.

        BTW, Russia is imperialist, but in a small way, and is as much a counter-balance to the real imperialist menace, the U.S.-led Western bloc, as it is in itself an imperialist problem for the human species and the planet.

        1. you could always look up Yassin and Rime and judge for yourself my statement. It was an introduction and did not require footnotes. The silly arguments and conspiracy theories that I attacked in ‘blanket thinkers’ are very recognisable. You can find them rehearsed by Tariq Ali (who has since recanted, to some extent), Asa’d Abu Khalil, Joseph Massad, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Seamus Milne, George Galloway, and by the propagandists of Press TV and Russia Today amongst many others. I didn’t need to name them because their arguments and attitudes are recognisable to anyone who has followed the ‘debate’. To make it simpler, I’m talking about people who think like you. I did indeed refute many of their points. As I said, your reading skills are not great. Neither are your political or moral skills. I’m glad you think russian imperialism in the Caucuses, Afghanistan, across a swathe of central asia and in eastsrn europe has been s’small’. The syrian people being slaughtered by russian weaponry disagree with you.

          1. You conflate (1) Tsarist Russia, (2) the USSR, and (3) Russia since the 1991 capitalist counter-revolution in talking about ‘Russian imperialism’. I would argue that intervention of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in particular was not ‘imperialist’ but was a justified, if strategically mistaken, response to U.S.-financed counter-revolution, and that the liquidation of capitalist rule in Eastern Europe after WW II was a social revolution, even if important aspects of it were limited and distorted by Stalinist bureaucratism.

            I’m not moved by your negativity regarding my ‘moral’ skills. My ‘moral’ judgments are based on the effect that actions have on the 7 billion people on the planet and on the planet’s ecology, rather than on particular groups of people in some countries whose suffering is highlighted by the international imperialist media while much more massive and ongoing suffering in the rest of the world is ignored.

            1. sadly there has been a continuation of russian imperialism through the tsarist, stalinist and post-91 periods. ask the chechens. the occupation of afghanistan was genocidal. but i’m not going to argue with you further. this is an argument which should have been put to bed decades ago, and indeed it was by anyone of intelligence.

            2. Aaron Aarons,

              Let me guess, white, middle class, living in some privileged liberal Western bubble where you can enjoy the fruits of imperialism while still condemning the imperialists, with shockingly little sense of irony. An armchair revolutionary. You’ll probably never have to actually take part in a revolutionary struggle and so you’ll never have to confront the nuances of reality, allowing you to maintain your laughably outdated worldview in which Soviet warmongering, rape, and destruction in Afghanistan was justified.

            3. Oh wait, just checked your profile. Berkeley, CA. Ha! I bet you’ve even made it down to an Occupy Oakland protest once or twice. What a joke.

  3. A nice piece of propaganda, I must say, but it fell short of the target. Criticizing Robert Fisk requires a qualified authority and an objective view on the matter.

    1. the fact that you consider the journalist fisk, someone who doesnt know the language of the countries he’s been reporting on and living in for decades, a more qualified authority than the multi-lingual intellectuals and writers rime allaf and yassin al-haj saleh (who happen to be syrians, perhaps a little more in touch with syria than the englishman fisk) reveals a remarkable lack of cultural awareness. i mean, you obviously know very little indeed of syrian cultural and political life.

  4. This is not a surprise to me. Following closely the situation in Libya, I do remember he lost it already then. Instead of harm the truth, time to leave the scene Robert!

  5. I don’t believe it takes a literary “authority” to know junk journalism for what it is, and Fisk has become a hack. I recall one piece he published in either May or June of this year that was so bad that several other journalists harshly condemned it. Among other things, Fisk referred to Al Qaeda in that piece as ” Al-Jazeera.”

  6. People tend to be pigeonholed quite easily in this debate. Over the years I’ve always found that Fisk brings a unique insight into a region whose coverage is filled with cliches. I think people are reading into his articles from Syria too closely and then just pigeonholing people into nutty leftists and naive anti-Baathistsn without wanting to appreciate its complexity. At one level, people are suffering horribly, and arguably it really shouldn’t get any more complex than that. However, the situation is not a simple good guys versus bad guys conflict, there are far more shades of grey than people admit. I’ll probably be called a pro-Baathist for that comment; I’m not. What Fisk is trying to show are human stories from a conflict that has a myriad of factions fighting for often very separate motives. He doesn’t give away his opinion, he just shows a few days in the lives of a few people, in a horrendous conflict. Nothing more, nothing less. He’s a grumpy opinionated old man whose often wrong, but personally I love a good rant from a grumpy old man.

    1. Bassam – you are being far too charitable. Fisk has done great work in previous decades, His ‘Pity the Nation’ is a great book. But he can’t be forgiven for this ’embedded’ reporting, or for being led around by the nose by Syrian regime propagandists. He’s not offering complexity, he’s misinforming. And the Darraya piece in particular was an obscene expoitation of massacre victims. He should have retired for the sake of his own reputation a long time ago.

  7. The Syrian Conflict already suffers from a dearth of accurate reportage, to say the least. Throwing Fisk’s babble into the mix does not clarify things at all especially when he has so clearly compromised himself and his journalistic integrity. I will also repeat what I said previously – his overall writing quality over the past several months has gone so far downhill that people, myself included, have begun to speculate that Fisk may have an alcohol problem.

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