A legendary Middle East journalist has offered up blunt truths about the often war-torn region.
Robert Fisk, who writes for the U.K.–based Independent newspaper, says the public should be wary when the media use clichés like security, moderates, extremists, war on terror, and peace process.
“They actually confuse people,” Fisk told the Georgia Straight by phone from Montreal. “There isn’t a peace process. It doesn’t work. It’s a failure. And occupation means what it says—it means that foreign soldiers are in your streets.”
Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East is sponsoring a cross-country series of lectures by Fisk, including an appearance on Saturday (February 2) at St. Andrew’s–Wesley Church in Vancouver. (It's also sponsored by Building Bridges Vancouver.)
Fisk said that a primary issue in the region is advancing justice and human dignity, but that that has not traditionally been part of the media discourse. He noted that leaders who are disliked by western governments are usually called “dictators”, but that the term is not generally applied to authoritarian allies, such as deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak or Tunisian ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He included the government of Algeria in this camp, noting that it tortures civilians as well as Islamists.
Now the West, including Canada, is supporting the Malian army, which he claimed is engaging in revenge killings in newly liberated towns.
“We know, of course, in the north there are many reports of some executions and amputations by the Islamists,” Fisk stated. “But already we’ve started allying ourselves to some very, very dodgy allies. One of my questions is ‘What is the so-called war on terror?’ ”
He pointed to the war in Syria as another example of a situation where things aren’t as they seem. He declared that this conflict is really about containing Iran, a Shiite Muslim and non-Arab country.
Fisk suggested that Sunni Arab nations—including Saudi Arabia, other Persian Gulf countries, Jordan, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt—regard Iran as a dangerous opponent. Meanwhile, he added, the West is convinced that Iran wants to manufacture nuclear weapons, even though there is, in his opinion, no convincing evidence of this.
Iran’s two major allies in the Arab world are the Lebanon-based Hezbollah and the Alawite-controlled government of Syria, led by Bashar al-Assad. The Alawites are a Shiite minority who comprise 10 percent of Syria’s population.
He claimed that Israel tried without success to demolish Hezbollah, which is also Shiite, when it attacked Lebanon in 2006. And now many in the region are ganging up on Syria.
“I believe that much of the support given to the rebels to overthrow Bashar al-Assad is an attempt to destroy Iran’s only Arab ally,” he said.
Many in the West believe that Syria is also supported by the Shiite-controlled government of Iraq, but Fisk said it’s not quite that simple.
“The fears of the Gulf States—which are Sunni—that the Iranians will just control the Baghdad government have not really been fulfilled,” he maintained. “Iraqis are not Iranians. They are Arabs. And they don’t want to be ruled from Tehran. Even the great Shiite teaching houses in Najaf, Karbala, Kufa, for example, inside Iraq do not necessarily have perfect relations with the large Shiite scholars housed in, for example, Qom in Iran.”
Fisk predicted that the death toll will mount in Syria because Assad is not going to flee like Moammar Gadhafi did in Libya. The veteran reporter also stated that the Syrian army’s morale remains high, despite the continuing carnage.
In September, Fisk spent time with Syrian soldiers on the front lines and observed how they remained united. “It wasn’t an Alawite army,” he said. “I was with an explosives officer who was Christian, an intelligence officer who was Druze. There were Sunni and Alawite generals together.”
He claimed that Assad is highlighting the deaths of soldiers to win support for his government. In addition, Fisk said, people in the West often misunderstand Russia’s interest in Syria, which lies to the southwest of Moscow, below Chechnya.
“For the Kremlin, what’s happening in Syria is a repeat version of what has happened in Chechnya and, to some extent, what did happen in Bosnia,” he stated.
Fisk noted that former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar, used to worry about the Bosnian civil war because that country’s sectarian makeup was very similar to Syria’s. “His fear was there would be another Bosnia in Syria—and indeed there is, now.”
Fisk, who’s based in Beirut, said that Israeli government officials don’t want an Islamist government in Damascus. “All along, they have felt that the Assad family could eventually make peace, so they will be quite happy if Assad, in some form, survives,” he stated. “Only once, just once, in the past two years have the Israelis condemned the atrocities in Syria.”
He also suggested that American influence in the region has declined sharply because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Obama administration’s failure to persuade Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt a never-ending land grab in the West Bank.
“I don’t think there’s room for what the awful Tony Blair calls a ‘viable Palestinian state’,” Fisk said. “It can’t exist.”