Dead doctors and a poisoned pen in Aleppo

Dead doctors and a poisoned pen in Aleppo
Comment: Syrian regime bombs rain down on Aleppo's hospitals, but renowned journalist, Robert Fisk refuses to tell the full story, writes Idrees Ahmad
8 min read
03 Nov, 2016
A wounded Syrian man is wheeled into a hospital in Aleppo [AFP]

The Syrian war has been deadly for healthcare services.

Physicians for Human Rights has recorded 382 attacks on medical facilities, of which 344 were carried out by the regime and Russia; they were also responsible for the deaths of 703 of the 757 medical personnel killed in the war so far.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned their targeting of hospitals "as a strategy of war".

In its report to the UN Human Rights Council last September, the Independent Commission of Inquiry into Syria wrote that the "pattern of attacks [by pro-regime forces], and in particular the repeated bombardments, strongly suggests that there has been deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities during this reporting period".

The report adds: "Perhaps nowhere has the government assault on medical care been felt more strongly than in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo city and governorate, where at least 20 hospitals and clinics have reportedly been destroyed since January."

By October 7, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) had recorded "at least 23 attacks on eastern Aleppo's eight remaining hospitals since the siege began in July".

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 adjectives. Things are "ghostly", "ghastly", "frightening" and "horribly relevant".

But it is the object of Fisk's fury that takes one by surprise.

Fisk is not angry at an ambulance being bombed. Indeed, he heavily implies that the bombing wasn't unmerited since the target according to him was a group formerly known as the Nusra Front, a designated terrorist group.

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.

Fisk's allies are not facts but suggestion, insinuation and innuendo

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, he alleged, "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; but 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 also 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.

Fisk's crimes against truth are too numerous to recount

Fisk was undeterred. A few months later he visited "one of Syria's most feared military prisons". But even though two of the four prisoners he interviewed "gave unmistakable hints of brutal treatment"; even though their testimonies sounded like "stories that the Syrian authorities obviously wanted us to hear", Fisk tried to convince readers that they were telling the truth.

He supports claims that they "were clearly anxious to talk to us", because the prison guards left at his insistence, and because Fisk "refused later requests by the Syrian authorities for access to our tapes".

That all the prisoners confessed to being motivated by religious extremism or sectarian hatred, that one pronounced himself  "happy to be arrested" by the Mukhabarat, and that one admitted to receiving "very good treatment" from his interrogators did nothing to raise Fisk's suspicions.

Indeed, his usual cynicism is absent when these doomed men - likely awaiting the grim fate suffered by at least 11,000 others - tell him that the FSA are just "thieves, killers and rapists" and condemn "the Emir of Qatar for stirring revolution in Syria".

Then came the 2013 Sarin attack. Fisk immediately cast doubt on the regime's responsibility and, in an act of characteristic bravado, declared that "If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime… the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa'ida".

In other words - words that are not unfamiliar to Fisk since he has mocked them often - "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."

Doctors in Syria also have to fear the poisoned pens of regime friendly journalists

Later, Fisk reported a Russian claim that the rockets used in the attack had in fact been sold to Gaddafi, so Assad couldn't have used them. To reinforce his claim, Fisk quoted a witness who was with "the army's fourth division" on the day; he tells Fisk there was no chemical attack.

That his informant is "a former Special Forces officer" in the regime army is, for Fisk, no cause for scepticism since he is "considered a reliable source". By whom? Fisk doesn't say.

He goes on: "As one Western NGO put it yesterday: 'if Assad really wanted to use sarin gas, why for God's sake, did he wait for two years and then when the UN was actually on the ground to investigate?'" There is no record of any NGO saying this; nor does the language sound like an NGO's. The style however has an uncanny resemblance to Fisk's.

Perhaps the lowest point in Fisk's reporting occurred when after the suspicious death of Dr Abbas Khan, a British volunteer, in regime custody, Fisk absolved Assad and cast him as the victim of a conspiracy.

"Was someone trying to destroy the Syrian president's steadily improving if still frozen relations with Britain and the US?" he asked. He suggested Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel as the answers before distancing himself from his own "surely preposterous" suggestion.

Since then, Fisk has claimed that the FSA "is a myth", it "doesn't exist", but has written several paeans to the regime army who are patriots "fighting for their country".

Fisk wants you to take it for granted that Nusra was using the ambulance

He has shared his "well-informed guess" - which also happened to be the Russian government's stated position (though contradicted by reality) - that Russia was sending troops to Syria exclusively to fight IS.

He even excoriated David Cameron and Barack Obama for not applauding the Syrian army after the re-capture of Palmyra (never mind that the Syrian regime had ceded Palmyra to IS on the advice of IRGC General Qassem Soleimani so it could concentrate its forces on Aleppo). Fisk added: "Aren't we supposed to be destroying Isis? Forget it. That's Putin's job. And Assad's."

Fisk's crimes against truth are too numerous to recount. But a certain pattern reveals itself. He often begins his articles with a disclaimer that is meant to suggest that he is conscious of the conflict of interests; but he proceeds as if the disclaimer were nothing more than a device for plausible deniability.

Back to the ambulance. Fisk is in Aleppo embedded with Syrian soldiers, but he begins his article with a (by now familiar) disclaimer: "The Syrian military had not touched it. No one told us it was there."

He sees no reason to doubt when his handlers describe one bombed building as "a Nusra explosives factory, destroyed with a massive bomb". The bomb also destroyed the ambulance, but Fisk wastes no time ruing its destruction.

Instead he plants his allegation in the form of question (so that it absolves him of the need for evidence). "Was [the ambulance] used by the people of eastern Aleppo and the surrounding countryside and then later seized by Nusra for its own use?"

Fisk wants you to take it for granted that Nusra was using the ambulance. Then comes the denial, heavy with suggestion. "There was no sign that it had been carrying weapons," he writes.

This is about as innocent as someone telling an ascetic: "I have no reason to believe you are a paedophile" (call it the B3 ruse). But for good measure, Fisk adds: "And Nusra, after all, has its own wounded" - just in case you missed who Fisk wants you to think was using the ambulance.

Bullets and bombs it seems aren't the only things doctors in Syria have to fear; they also have to endure the poisoned pens of regime-friendly journalists. 

But let me be plain: clear as Fisk is, there is no reason to believe he has been suborned. Fisk is a British journalist - and British journalists don't get bribed. To quote Humbert Wolfe:

You cannot hope

to bribe or twist,

thank God! the

British journalist.

But, seeing what

the man will do

unbribed, there's

no occasion to.

Dr. Idrees Ahmad is a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling. He is writing a book on the war of narratives over Syria. He co-edits

Follow him on Twitter: @im_pulse

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.