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April 26, 2014

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

April 25, 2014 § 5 Comments

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.


Iraq votes 2014: Kurdistan must stop ‘crying wolf’ about secession – until after elections

niqash | Hoshang Ose | Brussels | 24.04.2014
The idea of a nation of their own is something many Kurdish people would like.

Syrian Kurdish commentator Hoshang Ose discusses possible options for Iraq’s Kurds after the upcoming elections. Should they support the next Prime Minister of Iraq? Or should they stop crying wolf about secession and finally strike out for independence? 

Iraq’s political scene is more complex and fragmented than ever. Not only have long standing Shiite Muslim alliances been fraying, Sunni Muslim alliances are also being renegotiated. Election campaigns characterized by confusion, chaos and partisan conflicts reveal this.

Although there are internal problems in places like Kirkuk, the political position of Iraq’s Kurdish people – mostly based in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan – seems more stable. A part of this stability stems from the fact that Iraq’s Kurds seem to have washed their hands of the current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki’s regime in Baghdad has accused Iraq’s Kurds of bad behaviour because they have signed contracts with foreign firms to extract oil and also to export oil independently from the rest of Iraq. As a result, al-Maliki has publicly accused local Kurds of stealing Iraqi oil. In return, Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, has described the recent financial impasse between the two sides as possibly even worse than Halabja – he was referring to the infamous 1988 gas attack on Iraq’s Kurds by former leader Saddam Hussein that killed thousands.

Barzani says that all parties are currently waiting for the results of a US-led negotiation to end the financial impasse. But Barzani told Al Hayat, a leading pan-Arab newspaper, that if the intercession doesn’t work out the Iraqi Kurdish may have no other choice but to strike out for even more independence.

“If our efforts with Baghdad do not bear results, then Kurdistan will be forced to rely on its own revenue, and in that case everything will change,” he told Al Hayat.

Barzani made similar comments to the Arabic-language Sky News channel recently; during an interview he talked about how Iraq’s federal system had failed and how it was important to look at other options for Iraq’s future. He suggested that some sort of confederation between Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq might be one suitable one.

However such talk of secession is nothing new – Barzani has said these things before. And up until now, they don’t seem to have had much impact on al-Maliki’s regime. In fact, in that interview with Sky News Arabia, Barzani said that al-Maliki was able to maintain his position because he was supported by a deal between the US, Iran, the Iraqi Kurdish and Iraq proper. However recent reports would appear to indicate that Tehran is not as happy with al-Maliki anymore and that they may well be seeking alternative candidates.

The question is: Will the Iraqi Kurdish repeat their alliance with al-Maliki anyway? At one stage they were considered the king makers in Iraqi politics because, although they didn’t win any kind of majority, they held the balance of power between two fairly evenly matched political sides, the Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim coalitions.

But over the past eight years Iraqi Kurdish politicians have had plenty of experience of al-Maliki and his government’s broken promises – so it would be hard for them to trust him again. This is why any further talk of secession must wait until after the upcoming general elections, due to be held on April 30. At this stage the Iraqi Kurdish will be able to see in which direction Iraq is heading and to make further decisions based on those new insights.

After the elections, Iraq’s Kurdish politicians are most likely to have two choices.

The first option will be to cooperate with the next Prime Minister of Iraq – especially if it is not al-Maliki. This means the Iraqi Kurdish will return to square one and continue to hear promises and pledges from the new administration. Some of those will certainly be broken, as they have been over the past few years.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s other option will be to truly declare their independence. They certainly need to stop “crying wolf”, so to speak, about leaving Iraq. They may even be willing to give up the disputed area of nearby Kirkuk in order to achieve this.

The Kurdish people are one the largest ethnic groups in the world without an actual homeland and Kurdish living in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey share a language, culture and ethnicity. Many Kurds already call the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan “southern Kurdistan” – and where the majority of Kurds live in Turkey, Iran and Syria are known as northern, eastern and western Kurdistan respectively. For many of them, the idea of a nation of their own, a greater Kurdistan, is something to strive for – and is also one of the biggest conflicts between militant Kurdish fighters who believe in that dream and the governments of the various countries in which they live, such as, for example, Turkey.

However over the past few years the countries that formerly opposed any kind of Kurdish independence are not as focussed on this issue anymore. The Syrian government is too worried about its internal affairs and the Iranians are more concerned about Syria and Iraq’s Shiite Muslim politics. Turkey’s attitude towards the Kurdish people has changed and it’s become a significant economic partner to Iraqi Kurdistan; Ankara is trying to negotiate a settlement with its own Kurdish population.

All of which means that regional conditions seem favourable for the semi-autonomous, northern region to be able to achieve independence.


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