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Mat Nashed

Pity the Fisk

Robert Fisk, The Independent's Middle East correspondent [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 January, 2017

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Comment: Robert Fisk's analysis of the conflict in Syria - and more recently the attack in Istanbul, lacks nuance and is morally misguided, writes Mat Nashed.
Robert Fisk has lost his moral compass. 

In his most recent column for The Independent, he cited racism for the reason there has been less global coverage of the Istanbul massacre on New Years Eve, compared to previous ones in Berlin and Paris. He's right. But his main argument was more ambiguous. 

Fisk seems to suggest that the foreign policies of Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were isolating the country. His analysis appears to assert that, for many, Turkey had become a rational target, because of its involvement in the Syrian civil war.

That line of reasoning is problematic on every level; civilians are never a rational target, regardless of who rules the country. It's also worth noting that IS-style attacks were taking place in Turkey long before their military interfered in Syria.  

This isn't the first-time Fisk's work has displayed a worrying lack of nuance. His coverage of Syria makes it clear that Fisk - a man who once fervently fought Zionist propaganda - is no longer interested in punching up to power. He's making a living by stepping on the vulnerable instead.  

Pardoning a tyrant

In August 2016, Fisk published a column that criticised the 'West' for absurdly blaming Bashar al-Assad for more than 90 percent of civilian deaths in Syria. He never mentioned that the West's claim was based on actual figures.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights and the Violations Documentation Centre - two transparent Syrian monitoring groups that publish their methodology online - have attributed most of the killing to the Syrian regime. They have also been frequently cited by international rights groups who are monitoring the conflict. 

Civilians are never a rational target regardless of who rules the country

But Fisk isn't convinced. He questions how the regime could kill so many more civilians than any other actor in the war. Barrel bombs is the first answer. Barrel bombs - often filled with shrapnel, oil and high explosives - have the capacity to kill far more people than guns or mortar fire. Only the regime uses them, and they have dropped thousands over the course of the conflict. 

The regime also targets civilians. Schools, hospitals and bakeries have been hit on a systematic scale. Activists, students, and doctors have perished for aiding civilians in opposition controlled areas. Thousands of others have 'disappeared' once taken by the regime.   

Read More: Syria's Dr Bashar al-Assad has turned medicine into warfare

Still, Fisk questions how Bashar al-Assad's forces could have killed so many people. The evidence is overwhelming; he just refuses to acknowledge it. 

A tale of two Fisks

Fisk is best known for his news coverage and subsequent account of the Lebanese civil war entitled Pity the Nation. That's where he famously wrote that terrorism no longer means terrorism. He said it's no longer a definition; it's a political contrivance.  

He came to that revelation after listening to countless testimonies of Palestinian civilians who were being bombed by Israeli war planes in Lebanon. If only Fisk was more attentive to Syrians today.

During the early stages of the Syrian conflict, Fisk elected to report from regime controlled areas - where journalists are typically forced to work under tight escort and surveillance - rather than opposition areas where civilians could speak more freely. 

Fisk fails to understand how the Syrian uprising arrived at its current juncture

It later became impossible to report from rebel strongholds after the self-declared Islamic State group entered the conflict in 2013. Fisk and his close colleague Patrick Cockburn have cited this fact to defend their coverage.

They're not wrong. But it's also true that activists - who aid and shelter civilians - can only operate in opposition territory. If arrested by the regime, they risk being executed, imprisoned, and tortured to death.

That's because the regime considers any initiative that operates outside of their control an act of terrorism - a tactic with which Fisk is very familiar, yet seems to perpetuate when commenting on this conflict. 

That doesn't excuse opposition groups who have committed a myriad of human rights abuses. Nor does it mean that Islamists haven't emerged at the forefront of the opposition. But Fisk fails to understand how the Syrian uprising arrived at its current juncture.

For him, there have only been two options in Syria; jihadists or the regime. The testimonies of other fighters, civilians and activists don't factor into his worldview. Maybe that's why he's able to overlook the regime's mass slaughter. I'm not sure. Whatever his reason, the Fisk of old ceased to exist a long time ago. 

Mat Nashed is a Lebanon-based journalist covering displacement and exile. Follow him on Twitter: @matnashed

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.

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