A version of this article first appeared on The New Arab. It has since been updated with three case studies of Fisk’s journalistic malpractices.
The Syrian war has been deadly for healthcare services. Physicians for Human Rights (P4HR) has recorded 382 attacks on medical facilities of which 344 were carried out by the regime and Russia; they were also responsible for 703 of the 757 medical personnel killed in the war. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned their targeting of hospitals “as a strategy of war”.
In its report to the UN Human Rights Council last September, the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Syria wrote that the “pattern of attacks [by pro-regime forces], and in particular the repeated bombardments, strongly suggests that there has been deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities during this reporting period”.
The report adds: “Perhaps nowhere has the government assault on medical care been felt more strongly than in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo city and governorate, where at least 20 hospitals and clinics have reportedly been destroyed since January. By October 7, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had recorded “at least 23 attacks on eastern Aleppo’s eight remaining hospitals since the siege began in July”.
In this context when one of Britain’s more celebrated war correspondents—a person known for his acerbic diatribes against docile western journalists—enters Aleppo and sees a destroyed ambulance righteous fury is sure to erupt. And Fisk doesn’t disappoint. There is the familiar bombast of superlatives. Things are “ghostly”, “ghastly”, “frightening”, and “horribly relevant”.
But it is the object of Fisk’s fury that is a surprise. Fisk is not angry at an ambulance being bombed. Indeed, he heavily implies that the bombing was merited. Fisk devotes much of the article to implicating the Scottish charity that donated the ambulance. In his curious legal brief against medical aid, Fisk’s allies are not facts but suggestion, insinuation and innuendo. His method is insidious and part of a pattern. It merits closer scrutiny.
For the past four years Fisk has reported from Syria embedded with the regime. The regime herds him to the places it wants him to see and the people it wants him to interrogate—and Fisk appears to yield to the controlling arms of his handlers with the somnambulant innocence of a debutante. On more than a few occasions he has echoed the regime line without demur.
Take Daraya. After a horrific regime massacre, Fisk arrived at the site “in the company of armed Syrian forces” riding an “armoured vehicle” and after interviewing a few frightened survivors, wrote that contrary to “the popular version that has gone round the world”, the massacre was the outcome of a “failed prisoner swap”; the men who committed the crime “were armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops”.
In Daraya, however, no one was aware of this “prisoner swap”. And even his own interviewees didn’t support his conclusions. Most gave evasive answers. And the only interviewee he cites as supporting his theory casts further doubt on it: “Although he had not seen the dead in the graveyard,” writes Fisk, “he believed that most were related to the government army”.
The record was quickly set straight by the American journalist Janine di Giovanni who sneaked into Daraya disguised as a local and interviewed survivors without the intimidating presence of regime forces. (The Free Syrian Army had left two weeks earlier.) Di Giovanni revealed in precise detail how the offensive began, what weapons were used, and how the slaughter was carried out. Human Rights Watch corroborated her report.
Fisk was undeterred. A few months later he visited “one of Syria’s most feared military prisons”. But even though two of the four prisoners he interviewed “gave unmistakable hints of brutal treatment”, even though their testimonies sounded like “stories that the Syrian authorities obviously wanted us to hear”, Fisk tried to convince readers that they were telling the truth because they “were clearly anxious to talk to us”, because the prison guards left at his insistence, and because Fisk “refused later requests by the Syrian authorities for access to our tapes”.
That all the prisoners confessed to being motivated by religious extremism or sectarian hatred, that one pronounced himself “happy to be arrested” by the Mukhabarat, and that one admitted to receiving “very good treatment” from his interrogators did nothing to raise Fisk’s suspicions. Indeed, Fisk’s usual cynicisms is absent when these doomed men—likely awaiting the grim fate suffered by at least 11,000 others—tell him that the FSA are just “thieves, killers and rapists” and condemn “the Emir of Qatar for stirring revolution in Syria”.
Then came the 2013 Sarin attack. Fisk immediately cast doubt on the regime’s responsibility and, in an act of characteristic bravado, declared that “If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime…the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida.” In other words—words that are not unfamiliar to Fisk since he has mocked them often—“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Later Fisk reported a Russian claim that the rockets used in the attack had in fact been sold to Gaddafi, so Assad couldn’t have used them. To reinforce his claim, Fisk quoted a witness who was with “the army’s 4th Division” on the day; he tells Fisk there was no chemical attack. That his informant is “a former Special Forces officer” in the regime army is for Fisk no cause for scepticism since he is “considered a reliable source”. By whom? Fisk doesn’t say.
He goes on: “As one Western NGO put it yesterday: ‘if Assad really wanted to use sarin gas, why for God’s sake, did he wait for two years and then when the UN was actually on the ground to investigate?’” There is no record of any NGO saying this; nor does the language sound like an NGO’s. The style however has an uncanny resemblance to Fisk’s.
Perhaps the lowest point in Fisk’s career occurred when after the suspicious death of Dr. Abbas Khan, a British volunteer, in regime custody, Fisk absolved Assad and cast him as the victim of a conspiracy. “Was someone trying to destroy the Syrian president’s steadily improving if still frozen relations with Britain and the US?” he asked. He Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel as the answers before distancing himself from his own “surely preposterous” suggestion.
Since then Fisk has claimed that the FSA “is a myth”, it “doesn’t exist”, but has written several paeans to the regime army who are patriots “fighting for their country”. He has shared his “well-informed guess”—which also happened to be the Russian government’s stated position (though contradicted by reality)—that Russia was sending troops to Syria to fight ISIS. He even excoriated David Cameron and Barack Obama for failing to applaud the Syrian army after the re-capture of Palmyra (never mind that the Syrian regime had ceded Palmyra to ISIS on the advice of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani so it could concentrate its forces on Aleppo). Fisk added: “Aren’t we supposed to be destroying Isis? Forget it. That’s Putin’s job. And Assad’s.”
Fisk’s crimes against truth are too numerous to recount. But a certain pattern reveals itself. Fisk often begins his articles with a disclaimer that is meant to suggest that he is conscious of the conflict of interests; but he proceeds as if the disclaimer were nothing more than a device for plausible deniability. He sometimes plants a story in the form of a question before piling on with decontextualized facts to create the impression of coherence. On occasions he even uses an explicit denial to make an implicit allegation.
Back to the ambulance. Fisk is in Aleppo embedded with Syrian soldiers, but he begins his article with a (by now familiar) disclaimer: “The Syrian military had not touched it. No one told us it was there.” He sees no reason to doubt when his handlers describe one bombed building as “a Nusrah explosives factory, destroyed with a massive bomb”. The bomb also destroyed the ambulance, but Fisk wastes no time ruing its destruction. Instead he plants his allegation in the form of question (so that it absolves him of the need for evidence). “Was [the ambulance] used by the people of eastern Aleppo and the surrounding countryside and then later seized by Nusrah for its own use?”
Fisk wants you to take it for granted that Nusrah was using the ambulance. Then comes the denial heavy with suggestion. “There was no sign that it had been carrying weapons”, he writes. This is about as innocent as someone telling an ascetic: “I have no reason to believe you are a paedophile”. (Call it the B3 ruse.) But for good measure, Fisk adds: “and Nusrah, after all, has its own wounded”—just in case you missed who Fisk wants you to think was using the ambulance.
Bullets and bombs it seems aren’t the only things doctors in Syria have to fear; they also have to endure the poisoned pens of regime friendly journalists.
But let me be clear—clear as Fisk is—that there is no reason to believe that Fisk has been suborned. Fisk is a British journalist—and British journalists don’t get bribed. To quote Humbert Wolfe:
You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
But, seeing what
the man will do
no occasion to.
Since I wrote this article, Fisk has published several more that deploy the aforementioned propaganda tropes. I have picked three randomly as case studies in Fisk’s methods.
On November 1, shortly after I wrote this article, Robert Fisk published a new story about a family that had accepted the regime’s amnesty to escape besieged Aleppo. The story is a veritable checklist of Fisk’s dubious methods.
Fisk begins with the usual flourish of superlatives and the promise of a revelation. His interviewees tell “a frightful story which is often at odds with the East Aleppo narrative of heroic ‘rebel’ defenders and civilians fearful of a regime massacre.” Fisk once again isn’t detained by the most pressing question: why would civilians who have just escaped the regime’s intense bombardment into the regime’s watchful protection put themselves at risk by speaking about regime massacres? The regime massacres are well documented by the UN, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Medicins Sans Frontieres, and Physicians for Human Rights. But in Fisk’s telling they become nothing more than “the East Aleppo narrative”.
The Robert Fisk narrative by contrast is peculiar. It is a morality play with good and evil clearly delineated. Early in the article, Fisk uses his interviewees’ testimony to absolve the regime. “Neither she nor her husband mention Bachar al-Assad”, he tells us. Rebels emerge the only source of violence in the Fisk narrative. They are so extreme that Nusra may be “the least offensive, perhaps even the kinder, of the armed groups”. They are full of foreign fighters. Their mosques preach hatred. They terrorise the population, they even kill pregnant women. And it is they, not the regime, who are keeping the people caged in eastern Aleppo. The “government” on the other hand has a “reconciliation committee”, it gives safe passage, it offers apartments, and its supporters bring bread and food.
Robert Fisk mentions the family’s “dark, almost haunted eyes” but doesn’t spent too much time wondering why the family would tell him this story. Nor does he consider why it would be lethal for them to tell him any other. Perhaps conscious of the dubious circumstances, he assures us “This family are no Syrian government patsies.”
When it comes to pro-regime statements, it seems Fisk has all the guile of an ingenue. That at least would be the charitable conclusion. Because some of Fisk’s claims suggest that he isn’t entirely unaware of what he is doing.
Take Fisk’s explanation for why he can’t corroborate the story and why Western journalists are unable to report from east Aleppo. “As we journalists like to say, there can be no ‘independent confirmation’ of this family’s account – because western journalists dare enter eastern Aleppo today for fear of decapitation by its defenders.”
No mention here of the siege. No mention of the decapitation by barrel bombs. As a matter of fact many western journalists are eager to enter eastern Aleppo, but they are denied entry by the regime, which controls all access points.
Fisk, however, is not detained by such considerations.
“We were short of everything, especially food and fuel,” Khaled Kadoura tells him, “I had a shop that rented out chairs and tables for weddings. Of course, there was no business. We couldn’t find any medical aids or medicine since the beginning of the war…At the beginning of the war, one kilo of sugar cost 10 Syrian pounds, now it costs 3,000 for a kilo. Gas cylinders were 200 pounds. Now they are 150,000 pounds. Fuel shortages began five months ago. I have diabetes and there was no more medicine for me. My son was often sick. There were only Turkish medicines in the hospitals.” Samira, his wife, interjects: “When there was no bread, I managed to bake from wheat we got from the UN…But otherwise we had to starve, even during the festival of ‘Eid’.”
These are the avoidable consequences of the regime’s crippling siege which prevents food, fuel and medicine from reaching eastern Aleppo. According to the UN, over 80% of the aid is blocked or stolen by the regime. The regime’s ally Russia deliberately bombs aid convoys. In the past the regime has also blocked UN aid at the last moment and bombed the people gathered to receive it. At the beginning of the year, 4.5 million Syrians were trapped in the “hard-to-reach” areas and 10 per cent of the 400,000 under siege in 52 towns (49 of them by the regime, one by ISIS, and two by the rebels). The number has now risen to 974,080. The price of rice offers a measure of the relative severity of the different sieges: a kilogram in rebel besieged Kefraya was $1.25. In ISIS besieged Deir Ezzor, it was $5. In regime besieged Madaya it was $256.
At no point does Fisk mention any of this. Instead Fisk writes: “[Samira] says they felt free before the war”. Khaled Kadoura dutifully repeats other regime tropes. He mentions extremist preachers; he speaks of foreign fighters; he speaks of rebels using hospitals as “bases for militias and their weapons”. Kadoura also blames rebels for the shutting down schools. Schools, like hospitals, have been frequent targets of regime bombings. But Kadoura helpfully justifies it all for Fisk. “Yes, the aircraft bombed the schools, the hospitals – but all . The hospitals have some patients, but lots of rockets are on the top of hospitals where they use them to rocket the west of the city.”
To round out the fantasy, Fisk leaves us with an affecting image of multi-confessional Syria, one of the regime’s favourite propaganda tropes. “We live at the moment in a mixed area of west Aleppo”, Kadoura tells Fisk, “and there are many Christians living there and they give us bread and food. They are very kind.”
On November 27, as the intensity of the assault on eastern Aleppo triggered fears of a mass atrocity, Fisk published an article with the unfortunate title: “Tougher tactics would have ended Syrian war, claims the country’s top intelligence general“. Of the 2,592 words in the article, only 1,257 are Fisk’s. The rest belong to General Jamil Hassan, Bashar al Assad’s leading henchman, head of the murderous Airforce Intelligence. “His handshake is vice-like,” Fisk gushes (with a heaving bosom, no doubt), “and his eyes…fixed their gaze upon me like a lighthouse beam when I asked him if he was a cruel man. His voice combines a lion’s roar….” and so on. Fisk is swept away. The General merely wants to “continue with my work. Because Syria deserves the sacrifice”. He is a model of rectitude, at one point even volunteering himself for punishment after he discovers that some of his men are implicated in corruption. But Bashar al Assad is impressed “because he knew I was a straight and true man.”
Such n upstanding man—a man who even gives one of his employees a stipend to raise the son of an imprisoned Tajik fighter (“After six months, the boy became another person”)—deserves a fair hearing. And Fisk gives him one with minimal demurral.
Of the uprising he says: “The West conspires against Syria…First Israel, the head of the snake and all who support its policies, along with the Arab regimes, led by Saudi Arabia…The Israelis and the dirty rulers of Arab peoples are not interested in these attitudes. They need agents to execute their own agendas…because they know that the strength of Syria is in its unity…They encourage extremist ideology. The big role in this was that of the Wahabis and al-Qaeda and their black doctrines […] Unfortunately, some of our illiterate Syrian people participated or conspired with these dirty extremist Islamists and pretended that there was a revolution. Beginning in March 2011, the Qatari regime – which has good links with the Muslim Brotherhood represented by Sheikh [Yusuf] Qaradawi – was encouraging sectarianism.”
Of Assad he says: “…Syria, which has a disciplined [sic] rule and a young leader…who is very intelligent and knows the interests of his people and even the interests of the whole Arab world.”
Of Hama he says: “If the tactics used at Hama in 1982 had been used here, we would have ended this war…At the time of Hafez el-Assad’s rule…the extremists received a painful blow in the 1980s and it was almost a final blow…In this present era – today – if we did this, we would end this war now…The Chinese students staged their demonstration in Tienanmin Square [in 1989], they wanted to change China. If the Chinese government hadn’t ended this thing, where would China be now?”
Of eastern Aleppo he says: “it is quite ridiculous for the Americans to say that there is a ‘moderate’ opposition. It is a disgusting thing. I am astounded that the US and UN make all this effort [over eastern Aleppo] just for this very small district.The only dirty game played in Aleppo is played by the Americans. If they stop their supply of weapons, everything will end.”
All of this however is mere set up for Fisk’s kicker. It turns out the article has more than one hero. The other is…Robert Fisk.
“Now came a moment not to be missed,” Fisk tells us.”Would the general, I asked, give me his word that none of these prisoners, indeed not one of the men in his prisons, would be executed?”
“We will not execute them,” Hassan tells Fisk: “We will do our best. I will recommend that they not be executed. But the final decision is up to the tribunal and court.” Phew! But what if a reader is sceptical? “I doubt very much if the Syrian judiciary, however independently it claims to function, would deny a letter of recommendation from so formidable a figure as General Jamil Hassan,” Fisk assures us: “So his prisoners will be spared.” Why should we believe him? Because, says Fisk, “the general is a man of his word.”
Let us now praise famous men!
On December 1, following one of the worst massacres in eastern Aleppo, Fisk wrote an article whose title alone makes a rebuttal superfluous. “Does Aleppo prove that we westerners should keep the world’s antiquities?“, it reads.
“So do we not have a right to these treasures, if only to spare them the destruction at the hands of their own descendants in faraway wars?” Fisk asks, before replying a paragraph down: “So I’m not so sure than the “civilised” West really has the right to claim a “safe” reception area for the world’s treasures.”
Then comes the dogwhistle: “No, I don’t think the Arabs of the Levant are in any shape to build new museums right now. But even if Putin is an art lover, I don’t think Mr Trump would care much about the heritage of Aleppo”.
I rest my case.