Syria: Compare And Contrast

If I had to teach a journalism class this week, I think I’d elect to discuss two very different perspectives on the chemical attack on Damascus suburbs on August 21 — one written by the London Independent’s Robert Fisk and the other for a rival paper, the Telegraph, by Richard Spencer. Links are here:

Missiles Were Not Sold to Syria — Independent

Assad Ordered Me To Gas People — Telegraph

Fisk does what Fisk too often does, alas: speculate an anti-Western line based on unnamed sources. He has unnamed UN sources and an unnamed Syrian solider. He cites Russian evidence – export papers — that Bashar al-Assad couldn’t have carried out the attack because the Russian missiles used to deliver the toxic agent, Sarin, had never been sold to Syria but to Libya, among others, according to the Russians, he says. No documentary evidence is supplied or any details.

And then to conclude – he quotes an unnamed Syrian journalist who speculates the West might been involved because they wanted an excuse to attack Assad. An excuse? Many people would say there have been excuses galore supplied  by Assad himself in the past two-and-half years – “excuses” that can’t be doubted.

One question Fisk never answers because he never poses the obvious question is: why if the Russian evidence is so conclusive has Moscow not made it public?

Then we have Richard Spencer’s article. It is based not on conjecture but on an on-the-record exclusive interview with Brigadier-General Zaher al-Sakat, a former chemical weapons chief in Assad’s own army. He was the chief scientific officer in the Syrian army’s fifth division and ran chemical weapons operations in the country’s southern Deraa province.

The general, who defected earlier this year, told Spencer “he was ordered (by his superiors) three times to use chemical weapons against his own people, but could not go through with it and replaced chemical canisters with ones containing harmless bleach.”

“Gen Sakat said the regime wanted to ‘annihilate’ the opposition using any means, and said he received his first orders to use chemical weapons in October last year. On three occasions, he said he was told to use a mixture of phosgene and two other chlorine-based agents against civilian targets in Sheikh Masqeen, Herak, and Busra, all rebel-held districts.”

He insists “all such orders had to come from the top – President Assad himself – despite insistent denials by the regime that it has never used chemical weapons.” Sakat believes chemical weapons have been used 34 times, rather than the 14 occasions cited by Western international intelligence agencies.

So, we have the UN inspectors’ report on the August 21 attack that most experts argue points the finger at Assad and we have a former Assad military officer saying he had been ordered last year to use chemical weapons. Who do you believe, and if you were teaching the journalism class, wouldn’t you hope the students noticed that one was based on verifiable facts and a named credible source saying toxic agents have been used in the past by Assad and the other on pure…?




Bob Fisk Outed

Hugh Pope’s memoir on his reporting in the Middle East, Dining with al-Qaeda, is, as they say, a must-read. The former Wall Street Journal and UPI correspondent — he is now at the International Crisis Group — was rated highly by his peers. His pragmatic thinking and rejection of neat ideological ways of looking at things in the region enriched his journalism, which was trustworthy and informative, even for those like me who had stints covering the region.

But not all his former peers in the Middle East UK press corp will be delighted to read what Pope has to say about journalistic ethics — mainly Bob Fisk, the London Independent‘s longtime  Middle East correspondent. Robert was notorious as a reporter who sailed way over the other side of the wind when it came to facts, attributions and even datelines. His departure from The Times to the Independent many years ago prompted few tears and little effort from the editorial management at The Times to dissuade him from leaving. The Independent has given Fisk star billing ever since and one can only hope that its new owner will re-think his role at the paper.

In the second chapter of his memoir, Pope doesn’t pull his punches about Fisk, a journalist he had worshipped when starting out in the business. He goes into great detail about a front-page report Fisk filed in April 1991, in which he “reported” that British Royal Marines and American Special Forces had “cocked their weapons in confrontation with Turkish troops” on Turkey’s south-eastern border after the Turks had gone on a “rampage of looting”.

According to Fisk, the Turkish soldiers had taken “blankets, sheets and food” from frightened Kurdish refugees. In fact, as Pope shows with eye-witness recollections, nothing of the sort happened — all some of the Turks had done amounted to nothing more than petty pilfering. There was no near armed confrontation.

The story as filed by Fisk prompted outrage in Ankara, and the Turkish government ordered Pope out of the country — he was stringing for the Independent among others at the time. He was allowed to remain only when he agreed to stop filing for the British paper. In his memoir, Pope re-visits the episode, partly prompted by reading in a later book by Fisk further embellishments. Fisk changes his third-person report to the first-person and according to him he flew into the area in the back passenger seat of an Apache helicopter with CIA agents who were also US embassy guards!

Again an actual eye-witness, a former British army doctor, questions the whole episode and disputes the confrontation and the rampage. Oh, and another problem, the Apache doesn’t have a back passenger seat, where Fisk claims to have sat. Pope list other massive holes in Fisk’s reporting of this episode.

Why does Fish get away with it? It has been common knowledge for years among British and American reporters that Bob can just make things up or lift other’s work without attribution and embellish it.  I recall him doing it to me on a story in Kuwait about the killings of Palestinians at the hands of Kuwaitis following the liberation of the emirate. I remember also the time Fisk filed a datelined Cairo story about a riot there when he was in fact at the time in Cyprus.

Pope’s theory on this — why Bob gets away with it — is that fellow members of the press corp don’t like to dish the dirt on their colleagues. “The one time I decided to let it be known that a fellow reporter was cheating and passing off others’ work as his own, it was I who became the odd man out, an informer with a chip on my shoulder, and standing joke,” he writes. He notes also that “editors are reluctant to challenge established writers.”

In the case of Fisk, I think, there was also a genuine sadness that Bob did this, an embarrassment and one undeserving of a journalist who had done some great and brave reporting in the 1980s in Northern Ireland and in his early and dangerous years in Beirut.