Raging with the Machine: Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Syria

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer who spent 16 years in the regime’s prisons. In this exclusive for PULSE, Saleh, who has been described as the “conscience of Syria“, discusses the distorted lens through which most people are viewing the conflict.

In the West, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are considered critical journalists. They occupy dissident positions in the English-speaking press. Among Syrians, however, they are viewed very differently.

The problem with their writings on Syria is that it is deeply centered on the West. The purported focus of their analysis – Syria, its people and the current conflict – serves only as backdrop to their commentary where ordinary Syrians are often invisible. For Fisk and Hersh the struggle in Syria is about ancient sects engaged in primordial battle. What really matters for them are the geopolitics of the conflict, specifically where the US fits into this picture.

On the topic of chemical weapons, Fisk and Hersh, completely ignore the antecedents of last summer’s attack on Ghouta .

A reader who relies exclusively on Fisk/Hersh for their understanding of Syria would never know that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons several times before the August 21, 2013 massacre in Ghouta. I was there at the time. I saw victims of sarin gas on two occasions in Eastern Ghouta and I met doctors treating them. The victims were from Jobar, which was hit with chemical weapons in April 2013 and from Harasta, which was hit in May 2013.

It is shocking that investigative journalists such as Fisk and Hersh know nothing about these attacks. They write as if Ghouta was the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Their credibility and objectivity is compromised by these omissions.

For these renowned commentators, the entire Middle East is reducible to geopolitical intrigue. There are no people; there is only the White House, the CIA, the British Government, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the Emir of Qatar, the Iranian regime and of course Bashar Assad and the jihadis.

In Fisk’s myriad articles, one rarely reads about ordinary Syrians (the observation also applies to the late Patrick Seale).

Robert Fisk was once a scourge of American reporters embedding with US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he saw no irony in himself embedding with Syria regime forces as they entered Daraya in August 2012.

More than 500 people were killed in a massacre at that time (245 according to Fisk). Who killed them? The rebels, determined Fisk based solely on interviews with regime detainees. Why should local fighters kill hundreds from their own community? Robert Fisk does not provide an answer. Had he spoken to a single citizen without his minders present, he would have learned that they had no doubts about the regime’s responsibility. Indeed, it was an American journalist, Janine di Giovanni, who established that fact shortly thereafter by visiting Daraya on her own.

At the same time when this was happening Human Rights Watch documented ten attacks on bread queues around Aleppo. Fisk did not mention a single one.

During this time Fisk visited a security center in Damascus where he was welcomed by a security official. He was given access to four jihadi fighters, two Syrians and two foreigners. Fisk made a point of mentioning that the prisoners were allowed family visits. As someone who spent 16 years in Assad’s jails and who has firsthand knowledge of these factories of death, I find this claim highly improbable. Fisk’s credulity is risible; he is assisting a shameful attempt to beautify the ugly polices of the House of Assad.

Why has Robert Fisk never attempted to contact people of Eastern Ghouta to ask them what happened there last August? It would have been easy for a person as well-connected as he to convince his friends in the regime, such as Assad’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban, to facilitate his entrance to the besieged town. He could have met ordinary people for a change without the intimidating presence of regime minders and found out for himself who used the chemical weapons that killed 1466 people, including more than 400 children.

Ignoring local sources of information on the conflict in Syria seems to be a standard practice among many in the West, especially among left wing and liberal commentators. This speaks volumes about their ideological bias. Their dogmatic self-assurance with its veneer of professionalism is not substantively different than the obscurantist self-righteousness of the jihadis.

The Hersh/Fisk narrative unfolds in a historical vacuum: it tells you nothing about the history and character of the regime. You will not learn that the regime has used collective punishment as a policy since the very beginning of the Syrian revolt. That it has used fighter jets, barrel bombs and scud missiles against civilians to cow them; that it has invited foreigners from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and other countries to assist in the slaughter.

Nor will you learn about a flourishing death industry in the very places to which Fisk is a welcome visitor. Three months ago he penned an article about Assad’s systematic killing of the detainees in his dungeons, but Fisk reported on this topic in a way that gives us a biopsy of his professional conscience.

Fisk prefaces his report on the regime’s atrocities by warning readers about the horrors that may soon exist “if the insurrection against Bashar al-Assad succeeds.” For most, the significant fact about the photos was the industrial scale killings inside Assad’s jails that they evidenced. But Fisk appeared more obsessed with the timing of the photos, as they appeared a day before the Geneva 2 Conference. Fisk may have been reminded of Nazi Germany by the horrific fate of the 11,000 prisoners, but he still found occasion to expatiate at length about Qatar, whose “royal family viscerally hates Bashar al-Assad”, for funding the investigation. For Fisk, the atrocities were a mere detail in a larger conspiracy whose real victim was Assad’s regime.

To the uninitiated, Fisk’s article might convey the impression that those 11,000 were all that were killed by Assad’s regime and the 20,000 killed in Hama in 1982 were all that that were killed by his father’s. The actual number of victims is eleven times as many for Assad and twice as many for his father. Moreover, these figures ignore the tens of thousands arrested, tortured, and jailed, and the millions who have been humiliated by this regime

By methodically ignoring the Syrian people and by focusing on Al Qaeda, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh have done us all a huge disservice. The perspective on Syria portrayed by these writers is exactly the view of Syria that Bashaar Assad wants the rest of the world to see.

–  Yassin al-Haj Saleh (born in Raqqa in 1961) is one of Syria’s most prominent political dissidents. In 1980, when he was studying medicine in Aleppo, he was imprisoned for his membership in a pro-democracy group and remained behind bars until 1996. He writes on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria, and regularly contributes to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, the Egyptian leftist magazine Al-Bosla, and the Syrian online periodical The Republic. Among Saleh’s books (all in Arabic) are Syria in the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box (2009), Walking on One Foot (2011), a collection of 52 essays written between 2006 and 2010, Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons (2012), The Myths of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique (2012), and Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014). In 2012 he was granted the Prince Claus Award as “a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution”. He was not able to collect the award, as he was living in hiding in the underground in Damascus.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

34 thoughts on “Raging with the Machine: Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Syria”

  1. ” ..A reader who relies exclusively on Fisk/Hersh for their understanding of Syria would never know that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons several times before the August 21, 2013 massacre in Ghouta ..”

    This article is more of the same .. postulations and no evidence. Pure subjective conjecture and with respect we’ve had enough of that from our lying manipulative corporate owned media.

    You don’t add any more to the mix and you, like all the rebel sympathisers fail to answer the two most important questions.

    Who benefits?

    You can regurgitate the same old emotional diatribe but the cold fact is it is nonsensical to think Assad deliberately complied with the wishes of his enemies. ie that he wilfully perpetrated a gas attack so as to justify a western assault on Syria.

    “..that it has invited foreigners from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and other countries to assist in the slaughter. ..”

    This is nonsensical. The rebels got into bed with an armed insurgence but you do not even mention this? 7 Policemen were killed in the first week by so called ‘unarmed protesters’. You do not mention that the Saudi Arabian ambassador was expelled for fronting the transport of arms into Syria prior to 15 March 2011.

    I do not know where you are residing but you clearly are detached from reality. Whatever you think of was a revolution for democracy is over. The war is with islamic extremists who are fighting for a sharia state NOT a secular Syria. And even if Assad was to step down or in the very unlikely event, be defeated, you think they will just walk away for Syria to create a new democracy?

    You are in fantasy land and so are your recollections.

    1. It’s very obvious from the way your trying discredit the writer without providing any alternative information…Bashar Alassad is a war criminal who is responsible for rape, turture and death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians!! What do you say to that? The Syrian revolution began peaceful, people were chanting in the streets with flours in their hands and Assad responded to those innocent civilians including ( women and children) that with bulets, detention, rape, and turture!!! By the way this is documented by the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnisty International and other human rights orginazations, unless to you those are all liars, and Assad is the truthful one?!! The solders started defecting from the army because they didn’t want to be involved in killing their people…and that is how the Free Syrian Army was formed, Assad used collective punishment against civilian populated areas, where he used all types of weapons (against civilians!!!) Assad supported and continuo to support Alqaida…him and the Iranian regime are responsible for the deaths of thousands of American solders…through training, funding and sending Mujahideen via the Syrian and Iranian borders!!! That is based on American and western intelegence, Again unless you think the whole west is lying and Assad is the honest one!!!!! Assad is a war criminal, and whoever is trying to cover up these atrocities is as responsible as Assad is for the lives of the innocent people!!!!

      1. “..Bashar Alassad is a war criminal who is responsible for rape, turture and death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians!! What do you say to that? ..”

        ..deaths of hundreds of thousands …

        More nonsense.

        An inconvenient truth is going to sting you … http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2014/04/01/syria-civil-war-total-fatalities/

        Facts are hard to swallow when they don’t conform to your narrative. Assad was not culpable for ghouta and deep down you know it. And as for this ludicrous chlorine fairytale I have not seen one scintilla of evidence that does not crash and burn under scrutiny.

        Its no wonder these irrational perception are being shunned by the majority of the world.

  2. An excellent summary of Robert Fisk’s deeply rooted ideological biases. He has turned his column into little more than a platform to shill for the Assad regime. Neither Fisk nor Cockburn have ever gone anywhere in Syria without a mukhabarat nanny along for the ride.

    On his next trip to Syria, Fisk should be asking himself why not a single town or neighborhood that has been captured by the Assad regime’s militias, has seen any significant return of the populace to those areas. Indeed, when the Assad militias march into a town, the number of refugees increases. A case in point is my own hometown of Talkalakh, which has seen 90% of its populace become refugees.

    Dan Kaszeta and Elliot Higgin’s research into the barbaric chemical weapons attacks on Ghouta relied on conclusions reached via the study of ballistics, warheads, and chemical analysis. Their findings have been peer reviewed and have stood up to scrutiny. This is what is known as the scientific method. Seymour Hersh’s claims are backed by nothing more than a single unverifiable, unaccountable source. This is what is known as “God told me so”.

  3. Seems Elliot Higgins (‘Brown Moses’) doesn’t have the sort of peer approval claimed above, at least universally; see http://www.mintpressnews.com/the-failed-pretext-for-war-seymour-hersh-eliot-higgins-mit-professors-on-sarin-gas-attack/188597/ where his views are demolished by weapons scientists.

    For a different look at the Gouta videos, see http://www.logophere.com/Ghouta%20Massacre/Contents.htm

    Personally, I wouldn’t claim any certainty about these attacks with so much contradictory information flying about.

    1. You are seriously quoting Mint Press? Are you for real.

      On the contrary, Postol and Lloyd have destroyed their credibility by attaching themselves to a silly conspiracy theory. Their professional jealousy, their embarassment at being upstaged by a blogger, has led them to misrepresent BM’s findings and conflate it with those of the White House (which are entirely different).

      But its the internet. There will always be some dunce willing to reinforce his prejudices with appeals to authority.

      1. Your comment defies belief. Do you know what you are saying? Professional jealousy? …of a blogger who uses YouTube and wikimapia?

        I’ll leave it at that. Nothing more needs to be said. I hope that avatar is not your real face. People you know might see your post.

        1. As opposed to 99% of pro-Assad commentators; living in the “imperial West” and almost always posting under pseudonyms. I’m reminded of the whole “barrel baloney” controversy, where so called Russian “experts” ridiculed Eliot Higgins’ assertion that the regime was dropping barrel bombs on civilian areas. The same anonymous pro-Assad commentators insisted loudly that there was “no proof, why would Assad do such a thing, Assad is belooooooved by his people etc etc etc”.

          Today, there is no doubt whatsoever that the Asadstanian air force,which lost every air battle against Israel, is indeed indiscriminately dropping horrendous barrel bombs on civilian populations. Where are the anonymous pro-Assad commentators to talk about barrel bombs now? They have moved on to muddy the waters about Assad’s blatant use of sarin against civilians, asserting that the rebels gassed themselves as some sort of PR stunt. A morally reprehensible and abhorrent notion to promote. No surprise so many of the proponents of such a notion feel the necessity to tweet and post anonymously, that Who Ghouta blog being a case in point.

      1. This isn’t the mintpress story your quote refers to, but in any case I’d advise anyone interested in the truth to sidestep trite ad hominem non-arguments like these, read the various articles, and google around the topic.

        They’ll find that Postol has enormous peer respect, for example, such that the NYT immediately published on the basis of his critique of the UN report. Check out the Guardian’s ‘comment is free’ piece by Higgins and a co-author scientist, and then follow some of the links in the comments, that point to the Turkish incident where rebels were arrested in possession of two kg of sarin…

        My point isn’t that the rebels certainly perpetrated the attack. My point is that there is no conclusive data out there. The Assad regime is undoubtedly horrendous, but considering the ridiculous escapades of the last decade in Iraq, which have left that country in a state of complete devastation on the basis of a false and heavily propagandised pretext, I find the plea for intervention in Syria based on this morass of unclarity to be misguided at best.

  4. 11,000 men proven murdered in detention just from 2011 to August 2013 and just in 3 Damascus ‘Security Centers’ with 47 other centers not having photos of the dead leaked to the U.N. investigators.

    The number of men cowardly murdered after starvation and torture behind bars is probably 150,000., by extrapolating from the 3 centers, and including the 8 or 9 months of murder since the hero photographer’s last day before escaping Syria.
    150,000 could be a lowball number.

    GENOCIDE time as Assad has likely butchered over 250,000 people, nearly all via War Crimes. Not including actual battlefield casualties of actual armed combatants.

  5. Dear Mr. al-Haj Saleh,

    Thank you very much for this enlightening article. You have very perceptively laid out some of the most fundamental methodical biases of leftist/liberal Western journalists with regard to the Middle East. For them there exists no such thing as the “people” of the Middle East and what they want; it is only the “global conspiracy” that matters to these guys. Unfortunately, they have a considerable following, as a result of which many people get distracted by their “selective” reports. As an Iranian activist in exile, I have had pretty much the same concern myself. It is good that people like you are speaking out against this foul trend. I wish you good luck.

    Best regards,
    Reza Parchizadeh

  6. It is remarkable how much this article has resonated online. All day yesterday and today my Twitter timeline has been filled with tweets and retweets of this piece. Fisk and Seymour fool no-one, the only ones who take their writings seriously are those with pre-existing, deeply flawed and biased world views and who have already made up their minds to shill for the Assad regime, regardless of the magnitude of its atrocities.

  7. Here’s the thing. The Assad regime must have tons of victims. Why don’t Fisk et al interview them? They’re around. They’re spread out in different countries, but surely our journalists can show some concern. They don’t.
    How did we in the US come to the conclusion that Bush & the CIA rendition and tortured? Because of so many documents, testimony, interviews with people who had no relationship to each other and no knowledge of America all said the same things that resonated as truth to Americans. The only people who denied that were ones who had reason to be in denial. Same with Assad-niks, perhaps.

  8. “LA CRISE SYRIENNE EST SIMPLE” (François Burgat)

    Interrogé sur les raisons qui l’ont poussé à produire le film “Retour à Homs”, Orwa Nyrabia, le producteur du film récompensé à Sundance a eu cette réponse lumineuse : “je veux que, contrairement à ce que disent trop souvent les médias, tout le monde sache et que personne n’oublie que la crise syrienne est simple : c’est la révolte d’un peuple contre un dictateur”.


    Asked about the reasons that led him to produce the film “Back to Homs,” Urwa Nyrabia, the producer of the winning film at Sundance this light response was: “I want that, contrary to what the media says too often everyone knows and no one forget that the Syrian crisis is simple: it is the revolt of the people against a dictator. “

  9. The sad fact that this genocide industry still is hard at work at its maximum capacity now and no one in the so called free world is interested in it.

  10. The sad fact is that this genocide industry still is hard at work at its maximum capacity now and no one in the so called free world is interested in it.

  11. claiming fisk is pro-Assad based on a couple of articles written (in a context of blanket western ‘bomb assad’ coverage in 2012) now he’s a bit old and perhaps past it is ridiculous! Have you not read his account of the Hama massacre? Very few people have gone to the lengths he has to document to odious acts carried out by the Assad’s in Syria. To claim Fisk is ‘pro-regime’ is laughableI agree with your general comment on western journalism, but Mr Saleh you are guilty of trashing a journalist to further your reputation here.

    1. Sorry Mr. Richard, but I think you are the one who is laking empathy for the genocide which continues to take place in Syria! And only concerned about defending a journalist that is clearly being one sided…moreover, the fact that you mentioned the genocide in Hama, which happened in 1982, is in it’s self, showing us that he, as a journalist, failed to cover the genocide still happening now!!!

      1. i appreciate your emotion on such a topic, but i am very upset that you would consider that i lack empathy for the tragedy in syria. defending fisk isnt my only concern, it just happens to be the subject of this comment thread. The mainstream opinion in the UK is also very anti-assad, and sympathy is great for the syriann people, as evidenced by the UK’s donations to red cross/red crescent syria appeal matching those of france and germany combined. People don’t want to intervene after the nightmare of iraq (and im sure you don’t want the west to either). It is the policy experts and academics based in the region from the UK who are more likely to have an opinion you would consider ‘pro-regime.’

        1. I understand the fear of intervention after Iraq, and I like it. But it must be said that this is an entirely different situation. There was no popular revolution in Iraq in 2003. No Syrian is asking for an invasion and occupation, as happened in Iraq. And there is massive imperialist intervention in Syria at present – from Russia and Iran.
          Most Syrians have asked for some state – any state – to provide the Free Army with weapons so they can defend against the genocide and ethnic cleansing themselves. Sadly, their calls have been ignored in the West (and the Syrian people slandered in the most orientalist way, especially by the supposed ‘left’). As a result, foreign and domestic jihadist formations – who have their own weapons sources – have vastly increased their prominence on the battlefield.

    2. Whatever Fisk’s reporting may have been in the 1980s, since 2011 he has gone out of his way to shill for Assad the son; his article regarding the release of the photos of the tens of thousands of torture victims being a case in point. So Qatar paid for a report that was released a few days before Geneva? Big bo ho. If a tabloid bought and published pictures of a politician caught red handed in taking bribes a few days before an election, that politician’s career would be over regardless of the original source of the photos.

    3. there was no blanket ‘bomb assad’ coverage in the west in 2012, even after assad’s slaughter of 1500 people in five hours and obama’s so-called chemical weapons ‘red line’. most of the media, like most politicians, were opposed. Fisk at the time wrote ‘a strike on assad is a strike for al-qaida’, which, as usual, ignored and flatly contradicted the reality on the ground. the al-qaida groups in syria were 100% opposed to american strikes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: