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.

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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.

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To Kill, and to Walk in the Funeral Procession

photo by Razan Ghazzawi

Updated with a postscript noting Robert Fisk’s obscene pro-regime propaganda while embedded with the regime army in Darayya, and the response of the LCCs to Fisk’s nonsense.

The Syrian regime is now perpetrating crimes against humanity at a pace to match its crimes in Hama in 1982 and at the Tel Za’atar Palestinian camp in 1976. All of Syria is a burning hell. Savage aerial bombardment (such as that causing the apocalypse here in Kafranbel, which held such beautifully creative demonstrations) and continuous massacres have raised the average daily death toll to well above two hundred, most of them in Damascus and its suburbs. The other day 440 people were murdered in twenty four hours.

The worst hit area has been the working class suburb of Darayya. I visited people in Darayya some years ago, and once bought a bedroom set for a friend’s wedding in the town. I remember it as a lively, friendly, youthful place. Last year Darayya became a cultural centre of the revolution. Ghiath Matar and others developed wonderful methods of non-violent protest there. When security forces arrived to repress demonstrations, Darayya’s residents handed the soldiers flowers and glasses of water. But Matar was murdered, and Darayya has been repeatedly raided, its young men detained and tortured, its women and children shot and bombed. Nevertheless, for some months the regime was kept out of Darayya. The town ruled itself in a civilised manner, successfully keeping a lid on crime and sectarianism.

The recent pattern is already well established (remember the massacre at Houla), but this time has played out on a larger scale. The regime bombed Darayya for days, mainly from artillery stationed on the mountains overlooking Damascus. Once any armed resistance had retreated, soldiers and shabeeha militia moved in, with knives and guns. This stage reminds one of Sabra and Shatila. It seems there was a list of suspected activists and resistance sympathisers, but the field executions included old men, women and children. About three hundred bodies have been counted so far, found in the street or in basements or in family homes.

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Robert Fisk on the Damascus Showdown

The Syrian resistance has struck a major blow. In a targeted attack, it has killed Defence Minister General Daoud Rajha and his deputy, Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat. The blast also killed Hafez Makhlouf the head of interrogation in the general security services and Hasan Turkmani, the head of the crisis committee set up to crush the revolution. Robert Fisk comments:

The Economist has a good report on the vanishing support for the regime inside Damascus.

While the capital’s inhabitants are viewed with contempt by people from Homs and Hama for not joining the revolution with gusto, many Damascenes are working behind the scenes. Businessmen fund food for displaced Syrians. Others open their doors to them, often cramming several families into a single flat. Traders have held strikes. Activists work to keep dialogue going between different sects.

Also, the courgeous Razzan Ghazzawi is liveblogging from Damascus’s Midan district. Visit her blog for the latest.

Reporting Syria

Egyptians in solidarity with Syria

The Syrian regime’s blanket ban on journalist access has some carefully selected exceptions. Robert Fisk, for instance, who seems to be compensating for the naive anti-Syrian and pro-March 14th line in his reporting of Lebanon over the last years by treating the statements of Syrian regime figures – professional liar Boutheina Shaaban is one – with great naivety. At least he didn’t apply the ‘glorious’ epithet to her which he used to describe Walid Jumblatt’s wife. Fisk’s book on Lebanon “Pity the Nation” is a classic, his account of the massacres at Sabra and Shatila remain fresh in the mind (the blood-footed flies clambering over his notebook), and for many years he was one of the very few English-language journalists with some real knowledge of the Middle East. Sadly, his knowledge doesn’t extend to a working familiarity with Arabic. In several recent articles he has informed us that that the slogan of the Ba‘ath Party – umma arabiya wahda zat risala khalida – means ‘the mother of the Arab nation.’ In fact it means ‘one Arab nation with an eternal message’. Fisk is confusing ‘um’ – mother – with ‘umma’ – nation. It’s a rather disastrous mistake. Someone ought to tell him about it.

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