Fisking Douma Robert Fisk
With Syria and Russia claiming that East Ghouta is under “full control”, we can understand why Robert Fisk would saunter in with his sleeves rolled up to do some investigative reporting for the Independent. Meanwhile, Syria says that it is “too dangerous” for OPCW to do their own investigations even if it is safe enough for Fisk or any other malleable journalist. Could Syria be buying time to cover up evidence? Who would suspect them of that unless they were for “regime change” and funded by the Rothschild Bank, I guess.
Fisk’s article is really the sort of thing that could occupy an entire semester in a journalism class as an example of what not to do. Fisk is essentially Judith Miller but in a kind of reverse-kryptonite version. Instead of being embedded with the American invasion like Miller was, Fisk is escorted around by Syrian troops. Instead of functioning as a propagandist for George W. Bush, Fisk serves another master in Damascus. Is there anything that Miller and Fisk share in common? Certainly. It is the Islamophobia that allowed both to justify their support of war crimes in the name of stopping al-Qaeda.
In an article titled “The search for truth in the rubble of Douma – and one doctor’s doubts over the chemical attack”, Fisk relies on the word of a physician named Assim Rahaibani who refers to the rebels in Douma as “terrorists”, Fisk adding that this is “the regime’s word for their enemies.” Would a journalism class question the use of relying solely on someone like this? Even Fisk has to admit, “Am I hearing this right? Which version of events are we to believe?” This of course is a rhetorical question because he never had any intention of getting any other version except one that would serve Bashar al-Assad. In seven years of reporting on Syria, there has never been an attempt to get outside his pro-regime comfort zone.
Dr. Rahaibani assures Fisk that no chemical attack took place. Instead, because of a conventional bombing attack, “huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived.” (Generally, dust clouds float upwards but let’s not trouble ourselves over this rather minor defect in an article filled with Goebbels-like fabrications.) This led to an onrush of people to his hospital suffering hypoxia or oxygen loss. Then after a White Helmet member on the scene shouted “Gas!”, a panic began and people started throwing water over each other. Nothing more to see here. Move along, folks.
Not every doctor agrees with Rahaibani. In today’s Guardian, Martin Chulov describes what they were up against:
The head of the largest medical relief agency in Syria claims that medics who responded to the suspected gas attack in Douma have been subjected to “extreme intimidation” by Syrian officials who seized biological samples, forced them to abandon patients and demanded their silence.
Dr Ghanem Tayara, the director of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM) said doctors responsible for treating patients in the hours after the 7 April attack have been told that their families will be at risk if they offer public testimonies about what took place.
A number of doctors who spoke to the Guardian this week say the intimidation from the regime has increased in the past five days, a timeframe that coincides with the arrival in Damascus of a team from the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which aims to determine whether chemical weapons were used. All the medics insisted on anonymity, citing the fear for their lives and those of their families.
“There has been a very heavy security presence on the ground ever since the attack and they have been targeting doctors and medics in a very straightforward way,” said Dr Tayara, a Birmingham-based physician, now in Turkey where he is supervising the departure from Syria of some of the Douma medics. “Any medic who tried to leave Douma was searched so vigorously, especially for samples. At one medical point, seven casualties were taken away. The Russian military police were heavily involved. They were directing things.”
Fisk has the temerity to explain the absence of OPCW investigators as if it were simply a matter of bureaucratic delay, like getting your license renewed at the Motor Vehicles Bureau:
At the same time, inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are currently blocked from coming here to the site of the alleged gas attack themselves, ostensibly because they lacked the correct UN permits.
Russia claims that security concerns have led the UN to delay giving permission to the OPCW investigators but if you spend 5 minutes looking into this question, you will discover that this is a lie. Yesterday, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said: “The United Nations has provided the necessary clearances for the OPCW team to go about its work in Douma. We have not denied the team any request for it to go to Douma.”
Continuing in Milleresque fashion, Fisk writes:
There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups.
How did he find these “many people”? Strolling down the street or through dating services provided by the Syrian secret police? Fisk is sure to add that he “walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook.” Odd that this being the case, he could not find a soul that opposed Assad. If you had no knowledge of East Ghouta, you would probably take Fisk at his word. But if you understood that the religiously observant and poverty-stricken agricultural belt around Damascus was the first to rise up, you’d have to be skeptical. Fisk says that “a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab.” Well, I am surprised that he is surprised since the city’s make-up was well known to genuine reporters like Aron Lund, whose integrity is beyond reproach:
Many inhabitants of the Ghouta and the bulging suburbs of eastern Damascus were new arrivals, escaping from drought-stricken parts of Syria to compete over low-paying, menial jobs. They bristled at the glittering wealth, the class divides and the corruption of the capital. Others were part of the Ghouta’s original population, but among them, too, anti-regime sentiment grew alongside the social crisis of the early 2000s. In conservative Sunni towns like Douma, known for its piety as “the city of minarets,” the Sunni-fundamentalist teachings of Salafism were gaining ground. The Salafists excoriated the secularism of the ruling Baath Party and its rapacious corruption as two sides of the same coin.
Well, those Salafists will no longer trouble East Ghouta. In fact, after Assad is finished with these pockets of discontent, he will be free to reconstruct Syria as a place that has been purged of the Sunni poor with their hijabs and their AK-47s. In an article titled “Creating a New Syria: Property, Dispossession, and Regime Survival” Erwin van Veen describes the coming gentrification that would have made Robert Moses green with envy. Who knows? Maybe Jared Kushner has begun consulting with Syrian investors about mega-projects co-funded by Saudi Arabia:
An additional consequence of Law no. 10 is that it will enable large-scale demographic engineering by reallocating appropriated property to new owners. This will not necessarily be sectarian in nature as the majority of both Syrians and regime-loyalists are Sunni. Rather, it will create large loyalist urban centers to underpin the regime’s power base and limit the return of refugees, who are largely not perceived as supporters of President Assad.
In addition to remaking urban centers as areas of repopulated loyalist concentration, the strategy will probably also involve undoing the existence of impoverished Sunni-belts around Syria’s main cities from which so many rebels were recruited. Insofar as these poorer suburbs are currently depopulated due to rebel recruitment, casualties, and flight, the regime is likely to use Law No. 10 to appropriate the land (in many such areas, property rights were not well established even before the war) and to then prevent their resettlement if and when refugees return. Any Sunni populations that have not fled but are still living in such suburbs at present will also be at risk of forced displacement and dispossession commensurate with the extent of their perceived disloyalty to the regime. It is clear that the regime has no problem initiating displacement on a large scale when it suits regime interests. Dealing with the suburban belts in this fashion will remove a source of resistance against the regime once and for all.
Richard Hall, a former editor at the Independent, took to Twitter to debunk Fisk’s reporting:
Robert Fisk is allowed access to Douma before OCPW inspectors are allowed in. Doesn’t speak to any witnesses of the attack, only a doctor who didn’t see it, but says everyone “knows what happened.”
Fisk seems perplexed why victims of the attack did not hang around in Douma when the government took over the area. And doesn’t seriously deal with the fact that those who stayed behind might not be able to speak freely.
Fisk is among a handful of journalists given regular access by Syrian government. He and others are shepherded in on minded trips when it is useful for the government. Journalists who do make it in and write something that counters the government narrative are not allowed back.
Fisk notes in his piece that he was granted access to the site before chemical weapons inspectors. As were a number of other journalists who — let’s be generous here — toe the government line. That feels like an attempt to muddy the waters ahead of an independent investigation.
In his own critique of Fisk, Scott Lucas of EA Worldview provides a translation of an interview that a Swedish reporter conducted with a Douma resident. Somehow the reporter managed to make it into Douma just like Fisk but without the predisposition to absolve Assad. The Douma resident stated:
We were sitting in the basement when it happened. The [missile] hit the house at 7 pm. We ran out while the women and children ran inside. They didn’t know the house had been struck from above and was totally filled with gas.
Those who ran inside died immediately. I ran out completely dizzy….Everybody died. My wife, my brothers, my mother. Everybody died.
Women and children sat in here, and boys & men sat there. Suddenly there was a sound as if the valve of a gas tube was opened.
It’s very difficult to explain. I can’t explain. I don’t know what I should say. The situation makes me cry. Children & toddlers, around 25 children.
Fisk’s reporting has gained so much notoriety over his service to the Baathist dictatorship that it has helped to coin a term: “fisking”. (I have subsequently learned that it was the rightwing that first used the term but that does not let his reporting since 2011 off the hook.) It is not just his embedded reporting from Syria that has come under scrutiny. Brian Whitaker, a long-time editor and reporter for The Guardian, is something of an expert on Fisk. This article on his personal website Al-Bab should reveal how questionable Fisk is across the board:
Robert Fisk, the veteran Middle East correspondent, once offered this advice to would-be journalists: “If you want to be a reporter you must establish a relationship with an editor in which he will let you write – he must trust you and you must make sure you make no mistakes.”
It was good advice, though perhaps more a case of “do as I say” than “do as I do”. Even if you disagree with Fisk’s articles or find them turgid, there’s still entertainment to be had from spotting his mistakes.
On Wednesday, for instance, anyone who read beyond the first paragraph of his column in The Independent would have found him asserting that Saudi Arabia had refused to take its place among “non-voting members” of the UN Security Council. He described this as an unprecedented step – which indeed it was, though not quite in the way Fisk imagines: the Security Council doesn’t have “non-voting” members (unless they choose to abstain). Presumably he meant “non-permanent members”.
Perhaps that is excusable, since the UN is not Fisk’s speciality. But he does specialise in reporting about the Middle East, and so we find him in a column last year informing readers that Syria had a stockpile of nuclear weapons – or, to be more precise, quoting President Obama as saying that it had:
“And then Obama told us last week that ‘given the regime’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, we will continue to make it clear to Assad … that the world is watching’.”
Obama’s actual words were: “Given the regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons, we will continue … etc.”
Fisk is at his most comical when he gets on his high horse and immediately falls off. Writing with (justified) indignation about the killings in Baba Amr last year, he began:
“So it’s the ‘cleaning’ of Baba Amr now, is it? ‘Tingheef’ in Arabic. Did that anonymous Syrian government official really use that word to the AP yesterday?”
Well, no. Obviously a Syrian official wouldn’t use the word ‘tingheef’, since it doesn’t exist in Arabic.
Let me conclude with a link to an article written by Idrees Ahmad, the fearless academic who has become the subject of an investigation by the administration at the University of Stirling after Assadist Tim Hayward lodged a complaint for Idrees’s ongoing critique of Assadist propaganda. Like Whitaker, he has been following Fisk for years and has focused on his Judith Miller-style embedded reporting:
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.