Bob Fisk’s fact-free polemics on Syria

Robert Fisk — or to mirror the style of his latest missive, let’s just call him Bob — is convinced there aren’t 70,000 “moderate” opposition fighters in Syria, contrary to the recent assertion of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron.

Bob doesn’t present a conflicting data set — a different analysis of the makeup of the opposition. Instead, his position rests on two pieces of reasoning.

Firstly, Bob asserts, if such a force did exist, “it would already have captured Damascus and hurled Bashar al-Assad from power.”

Assad is still in power. It therefore follows that the 70,000 fighters don’t exist. Impeccable reasoning, some might say.

Secondly, “Who’s ever heard before of a ‘moderate’ with a Kalashnikov?” This he presents as a rhetorical question on the basis that “moderates” would be “folk who don’t carry weapons at all.”

Bob declines to label all those opposition fighters who by virtue of carrying weapons, can’t as far as he is concerned be called moderates, but the obvious antonym would be extremists. Since his father, Bill, gun in hand, fought in the trenches in World War One, would that have made him an extremist too?

I guess not, because the terms “moderate” or “extremist” apparently only apply to people fighting without close direction from their own government. A government, however little political legitimacy it possesses, can apparently deploy “ground troops” — a “regular force” that meets Bob’s approval. Approval of what, I’m not sure. Men in government-issued uniforms?

There are few problems with the logic here — problems that I hope many readers would see as glaring.

Firstly, as even the most casual observers should have long been aware, throughout this war the Assad regime has maintained uncontested rule throughout Syrian airspace.

The U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS, once it expanded inside Syria, did so without objections from the Syrian government and thus there have been no clashes between what are ostensibly rival air forces. Likewise, Russian jets now support Assad’s forces and their allies on the ground.

The fact that not a single component of the opposition possesses an air force and neither do any possess surface-to-air missiles in any significant numbers, is precisely what has allowed the Assad regime to conduct its air operations using one of the crudest methods of warfare: dropping barrel bombs from helicopters.

These assaults, along with bombs dropped by air force jets, along with its use of the bulk of heavy weapons on the ground, are the reason Assad has not been driven out of Damascus.

Secondly, if the defining characteristic of an extremist is that he carries a Kalashnikov, wouldn’t that also make Assad’s own troops extremists since they too carry the same Russian weapons?

As a veteran war reporter, Robert Fisk enjoys an international reputation built on a career of fearless journalism — such as his account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. But these days, unfortunately, his interest in reporting seems to have waned as he coasts along, buoyed by the authority which derives from his earlier work.

Still, when it comes to this question about the numerical strength of the so-called moderate opposition in Syria, it’s predictable and understandable that Fisk would choose to frame this as a debate between a seasoned Middle East journalist and a British prime minister.

We all know perfectly well that Cameron is, as the English would say, batting on a sticky wicket. Who can fail to have suspicions that this PM might be drawing his information from yet another “dodgy dossier”?

Fortunately, there’s no reason to reduce this issue to a question about who you want to believe: Cameron or Fisk?

Unlike early in 2003, when the war in Iraq had yet to be launched and its alleged necessity was based on the sketchiest intelligence, the situation in Syria can be analyzed without relying solely on deductive reasoning, wild speculation, and dubious sources.

There are well-informed, independent analysts who have neither a political ax to grind, nor a journalistic image to sustain, nor cozy relations with senior government officials to maintain, and far from dismissing Cameron’s claim, they say it’s accurate and flesh out their position in detail.

Charles Lister acknowledges that at the core of this debate is the question of how “moderate” is defined. He identifies 105-110 factions who in combination amount to 75,000 fighters who are “explicitly nationalist in terms of their strategic vision; they are local in terms of their membership; and they seek to return to Syria’s historical status as a harmonious multi-sectarian nation in which all ethnicities, sects and genders enjoy an equal status before the law and state.”

Lister argues:

Had the West more definitively intervened in Syria early on, we would undoubtedly have more moderate, more cohesive and more natural ally-material opposition to work with. Unfortunately, things took a different path. Our subsequent obsession with the extremists and refusal to tackle Syria’s complexity has clouded our vision. A ‘moderate’ opposition in culturally attuned terms does exist in Syria, we need only open our eyes to it. Only these groups – and certainly not Assad – will ensure the real extremists such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda eventually lose their grip on power in Syria.

Kyle Orton provides some more granular detail:

In southern Syria, there are more than 30,000 fighters between the Southern Front, Al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham, and Faylaq al-Rahman. And in western/northern Syria the vetted FSA-branded groups, Asala, The Levant Front, Zanki, and the other, largely Aleppine units add up to another 35,000. The other 10,000 fighters are in these smaller groups of strategic value.

In spite of the media and political focus on ISIS, both Lister and Orton see the larger threat in Syria emanating from al Qaeda. Orton writes:

Without a clear commitment to Assad’s ouster and meaningfully bolstering the moderate elements of the insurgency, Al-Qaeda is marching toward erecting a base of operations that is wholly integrated into the local terrain in Syria from which to wage its global holy war.

Commentators such as Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and others who these days sound indistinguishable from the Israelis and the neoconservatives, may well say, al Qaeda or ISIS — what’s the difference? They’re all terrorists. They’re all fed by “the octopus” of Saudi Arabia.

What is strange and disturbing about this current of opinion is that it buttresses a sentiment which separates clarity from discrimination.

Supposedly, we can have a clear view of the situation in Syria without needing to understand any of the details. Questions about the size, strength, and nature of the complex array of forces fighting in Syria can be waved away with an air no less regal than Assad’s own dismissive gestures when he claims his enemies are all “terrorists.”

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7 thoughts on “Bob Fisk’s fact-free polemics on Syria

  1. Dick Gregory

    I think it was when he claimed that the opposition must be better armed than Assad because it had anti-tank weapons rather than tanks that it became obvious that Bob was unconnected with reality. This article is another step into utter crankhood.

  2. Paul Woodward Post author

    As one of Assad’s embedded reporters, Fisk makes little effort to disguise his sympathy with the regime. He quotes deputy foreign minister, Dr Faisal Mekdad — “the most important thing is for Syria to survive” — and treats this as an unalloyed expression of patriotism. By the end of this June report, he says the regime cannot survive without “the Syrian army. New guns. New tanks. Aleppo” — and he sounds less like an impartial observer than a self-appointed emissary sending out an appeal to Vladamir Putin.

  3. Graham

    Lister’s analysis paints a confusing picture of numerous competing and to some extent conflicting groups that make up the total. I can accept his assertion that they have some common ground but how practical is it to coordinate so many varied groups and why have they not done so already? Any thoughts anyone?

  4. Paul Woodward Post author

    Good questions, Graham. One observation I would make is that the Western obsession with categorizing the vast array of armed groups in Syria and in particular the differentiation between “moderates” and jihadists is that it is liable to overstate the ideological motives of each individual fighter. Outside ISIS, the broad consensus is that the Assad regime is the principle enemy. Decisions about which group to join and which to avoid are going to be shaped mostly by what’s happening locally. Throughout the war, alliances seem to have mostly been temporary and mostly pragmatic.

    With so many competing groups and competing external powers, it may well be impossible to find a grand resolution to this conflict. Ceasefires, peace, and reconstruction may only be possible if sought incrementally and through a patchwork of efforts — a messy war followed by a messy peace.

  5. Jim Dobbin

    “There are well-informed, independent analysts who have neither a political ax to grind, nor a journalistic image to sustain, nor cozy relations with senior government officials to maintain, and far from dismissing Cameron’s claim, they say it’s accurate and flesh out their position in detail.

    Charles Lister acknowledges…”

    Am I mistaking in my understanding that Charles Lister works for the Brookings Doha Institute? Isn’t that institute funded by the Qatari government? Doesn’t the Qatari regime want to see the overthrow of the Syrian government to the degree that it funds and arms radical jihadists in Syria and has close ties with al-Nusra?

    Please don’t think I’m being anything but genuine in my questioning as I mean no maliciousness towards anyone. That said it’s very clear that Lister, who supports the Syrian opposition, can really not be presented as “independent” with “no political axe to grind” and who doesn’t have “cozy relations with senior government officials to maintain” given his debt of service to the Qatari government.

    Obama said last year ‘there are no moderates/FSA’ indeed the US found it hard to find anymore than 60 something to train and equip earlier this year. So if someone is now trying to sell us the story that over the space of a few weeks (from last US T&E failure) someone has found 75,000 moderates somewhere then they must prove their case. Rolling out Mr Lister, with his obvious conflict of interests herein, and selling him as “independent” whilst using his numbers he pulled out of thin air to challenege Robert Fisk’s narrative is simply disingenuous to say the least. You charge Fisk with not presenting a “conflicting data set” and therefore leave the reader with the perception that he was doing no more than ranting. Had Fisk also pulled crazy figures out his behind without any substantiation you would no doubt be challenging him to back his claims up and rightfully so.

    Does that mean that Mr Lister should be ignored? Absolutely not as he brings qualities to the whole debate least of all gives us an understanding of what Qatar wants in all this. But the author should tread cautiously when trying to present an argument of someone he claims is independent who isn’t and who would be the first to admit that himself.

  6. Jim Dobbin

    If I may also address one other issue I have with the above article?

    “Secondly, if the defining characteristic of an extremist is that he carries a Kalashnikov, wouldn’t that also make Assad’s own troops extremists since they too carry the same Russian weapons.”

    This is an example of the author either misunderstanding Fisk or purposely trying to distort what he said.

    To borrow a phrase; “Most casual observers” would be aware that what Fisk was pointing to is men who take up arms against their government and rhetorically asking ‘should we call them moderates’?

    I lived in England for 15 years and before that worked as a freelance investigator in Northern Ireland for 10 years. Irish republicans took up guns against the British both in Ireland and the U.K. At no time I have ever heard or seen anyone from any government in the world refer to the republican militants as “moderates”. Not even themselves and they didn’t cut people’s heads off or opt for blowing themselves up for the cause. The British and Irish governments labelled them terrorists. Eventually for peace to prevail they had to disarm and join the government peacefully accepting the laws they once fought against. All this while in Ireland there were “moderate” opposition forces such as the SDLP who were totally against the use of violence to overthrow the state. In the Syrian context the SDLP would be termed as being “pro-Assad” whilst the paramilitaries would be deemed to be “moderates”. Logic turned on its head.

    This was of course Fisk’s point which the author misconstrued for one reason or another. When is a moderate a moderate? In any country in the world I’ve visited if you take up arms against the state you’re a terrorist. And whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, the Syrian government is, under international law, the legal government in the territory of Syria.

    I’m not sure if like Assad being my president but fortunately I don’t have to make that choice. But a guy I worked with in Belfast who is Syrian and who hates Assad openly admits he has a lot of support and more than is reported.

    I believe Fisk’s rhetorical question deserves a lot more credence than to be misinterpreted either accidentally or otherwise.


  7. Paul Woodward Post author

    When David Cameron claimed there are 70,000 moderate fighters in the Syrian opposition, he was citing the findings of an assessment made by his own government. Charles Lister does not work for the British government or any other government. He works for Brookings, and yes, they have received funding from Qatar. But does it therefore follow that Lister operates as a mouthpiece for Qatar, promoting its political agenda? No. Lister has been described as “the Syria expert whose work other Syria experts read.” The fruit of four years of research (the first half of which he conducted while working for Janes) can be found in this new book, The Syrian Jihad. Unlike Robert Fisk, who can trot out a column which will leave a good number of readers wondering whether he was sober when he wrote it, Lister, as a young analyst who has already established a strong reputation, has too much professional credibility to guard to just start plucking numbers out of thin air.

    Your comments suggest that you haven’t been following events in Syria with close attention. The failure of the U.S. to mobilize a moderate force was not the result of the non-existence of qualified fighters — it was the result of the Americans’ insistence that they abandon their fight against Assad and fight only ISIS.

    As for your analogy with Northern Ireland, frankly it’s both unfitting and incoherent. “In the Syrian context the SDLP would be termed as being ‘pro-Assad’ whilst the paramilitaries would be deemed to be ‘moderates’.” It’s unfitting because, heavy-handed as the British often were, to compare their military operations and policing with Assad’s effort to wipe out his opponents, is absurd. 30 years of conflict led to 3,500 deaths — as many as occur in Syria in one month! And saying that the nationalist SDLP would be termed ‘pro-Assad’ implies that Assad’s only opponents have been armed.

    The idea that anyone who takes up arms against the state is a terrorist, disregards any notion of political legitimacy.

    It’s profoundly saddening that there are people who enjoy the freedom of living in democracies — the freedom to express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or summary execution — who are so willing to accept dictatorial rule imposed on others on the pretext that it possesses some form of legal authority.

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