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Yassin Al Haj Saleh

Raging with the Machine: Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Syria

April 25, 2014 § 5 Comments

Yassin al-Haj Saleh is a Syrian writer who spent 16 years in the regime’s prisons. In this exclusive for PULSE, Saleh, who has been described as the “conscience of Syria“, discusses the distorted lens through which most people are viewing the conflict.

In the West, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are considered critical journalists. They occupy dissident positions in the English-speaking press. Among Syrians, however, they are viewed very differently.

The problem with their writings on Syria is that it is deeply centered on the West. The purported focus of their analysis – Syria, its people and the current conflict – serves only as backdrop to their commentary where ordinary Syrians are often invisible. For Fisk and Hersh the struggle in Syria is about ancient sects engaged in primordial battle. What really matters for them are the geopolitics of the conflict, specifically where the US fits into this picture.

On the topic of chemical weapons, Fisk and Hersh, completely ignore the antecedents of last summer’s attack on Ghouta .

A reader who relies exclusively on Fisk/Hersh for their understanding of Syria would never know that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons several times before the August 21, 2013 massacre in Ghouta. I was there at the time. I saw victims of sarin gas on two occasions in Eastern Ghouta and I met doctors treating them. The victims were from Jobar, which was hit with chemical weapons in April 2013 and from Harasta, which was hit in May 2013.

It is shocking that investigative journalists such as Fisk and Hersh know nothing about these attacks. They write as if Ghouta was the first time chemical weapons were used in Syria. Their credibility and objectivity is compromised by these omissions.

For these renowned commentators, the entire Middle East is reducible to geopolitical intrigue. There are no people; there is only the White House, the CIA, the British Government, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the Emir of Qatar, the Iranian regime and of course Bashar Assad and the jihadis.

In Fisk’s myriad articles, one rarely reads about ordinary Syrians (the observation also applies to the late Patrick Seale).

Robert Fisk was once a scourge of American reporters embedding with US forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But he saw no irony in himself embedding with Syria regime forces as they entered Daraya in August 2012.

More than 500 people were killed in a massacre at that time (245 according to Fisk). Who killed them? The rebels, determined Fisk based solely on interviews with regime detainees. Why should local fighters kill hundreds from their own community? Robert Fisk does not provide an answer. Had he spoken to a single citizen without his minders present, he would have learned that they had no doubts about the regime’s responsibility. Indeed, it was an American journalist, Janine di Giovanni, who established that fact shortly thereafter by visiting Daraya on her own.

At the same time when this was happening Human Rights Watch documented ten attacks on bread queues around Aleppo. Fisk did not mention a single one.

During this time Fisk visited a security center in Damascus where he was welcomed by a security official. He was given access to four jihadi fighters, two Syrians and two foreigners. Fisk made a point of mentioning that the prisoners were allowed family visits. As someone who spent 16 years in Assad’s jails and who has firsthand knowledge of these factories of death, I find this claim highly improbable. Fisk’s credulity is risible; he is assisting a shameful attempt to beautify the ugly polices of the House of Assad.

Why has Robert Fisk never attempted to contact people of Eastern Ghouta to ask them what happened there last August? It would have been easy for a person as well-connected as he to convince his friends in the regime, such as Assad’s media adviser Buthaina Shaaban, to facilitate his entrance to the besieged town. He could have met ordinary people for a change without the intimidating presence of regime minders and found out for himself who used the chemical weapons that killed 1466 people, including more than 400 children.

Ignoring local sources of information on the conflict in Syria seems to be a standard practice among many in the West, especially among left wing and liberal commentators. This speaks volumes about their ideological bias. Their dogmatic self-assurance with its veneer of professionalism is not substantively different than the obscurantist self-righteousness of the jihadis.

The Hersh/Fisk narrative unfolds in a historical vacuum: it tells you nothing about the history and character of the regime. You will not learn that the regime has used collective punishment as a policy since the very beginning of the Syrian revolt. That it has used fighter jets, barrel bombs and scud missiles against civilians to cow them; that it has invited foreigners from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, and other countries to assist in the slaughter.

Nor will you learn about a flourishing death industry in the very places to which Fisk is a welcome visitor. Three months ago he penned an article about Assad’s systematic killing of the detainees in his dungeons, but Fisk reported on this topic in a way that gives us a biopsy of his professional conscience.

Fisk prefaces his report on the regime’s atrocities by warning readers about the horrors that may soon exist “if the insurrection against Bashar al-Assad succeeds.” For most, the significant fact about the photos was the industrial scale killings inside Assad’s jails that they evidenced. But Fisk appeared more obsessed with the timing of the photos, as they appeared a day before the Geneva 2 Conference. Fisk may have been reminded of Nazi Germany by the horrific fate of the 11,000 prisoners, but he still found occasion to expatiate at length about Qatar, whose “royal family viscerally hates Bashar al-Assad”, for funding the investigation. For Fisk, the atrocities were a mere detail in a larger conspiracy whose real victim was Assad’s regime.

To the uninitiated, Fisk’s article might convey the impression that those 11,000 were all that were killed by Assad’s regime and the 20,000 killed in Hama in 1982 were all that that were killed by his father’s. The actual number of victims is eleven times as many for Assad and twice as many for his father. Moreover, these figures ignore the tens of thousands arrested, tortured, and jailed, and the millions who have been humiliated by this regime

By methodically ignoring the Syrian people and by focusing on Al Qaeda, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh have done us all a huge disservice. The perspective on Syria portrayed by these writers is exactly the view of Syria that Bashaar Assad wants the rest of the world to see.

–  Yassin al-Haj Saleh (born in Raqqa in 1961) is one of Syria’s most prominent political dissidents. In 1980, when he was studying medicine in Aleppo, he was imprisoned for his membership in a pro-democracy group and remained behind bars until 1996. He writes on political, social and cultural subjects relating to Syria and the Arab world for several Arab newspapers and journals outside of Syria, and regularly contributes to the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, the Egyptian leftist magazine Al-Bosla, and the Syrian online periodical The Republic. Among Saleh’s books (all in Arabic) are Syria in the Shadow: Glimpses Inside the Black Box (2009), Walking on One Foot (2011), a collection of 52 essays written between 2006 and 2010, Salvation O Boys: 16 Years in Syrian Prisons (2012), The Myths of the Others: A Critique of Contemporary Islam and a Critique of the Critique (2012), and Deliverance or Destruction? Syria at a Crossroads (2014). In 2012 he was granted the Prince Claus Award as “a tribute to the Syrian people and the Syrian revolution”. He was not able to collect the award, as he was living in hiding in the underground in Damascus.

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Intellectuals, Help Syrians! (updated translation)

Introduction by OTW

Yassin

Syrian Opposition Intellectual Yassin Al Haj Saleh, who spent 16 years in the Assad dynasty regime jails as political prisoner.

A few weeks back, I posted a medical report from Yassin Al Haj Saleh, the Syrian intellectual and winner of  Prince Claus Award for 2012, in which he described the chemical weapon attack by the forces of war criminal Bashar al-Assad in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus country side. For a few months, Yassin lived there among the people of the Eastern Ghouta, and he recently summed up his experiences there to cast light on what is happening, and at the same time to issue a last call, or better yet, a plea for decency and humanity to western intellectuals and public opinion makers admonishing them to actively take the only humane and progressive act, which is to support the overthrow of the Assad criminal clan and crime partners and to force the stoppage of importing killers from the regime’s allies in Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. Yesterday, Yassin’s letter was published in the French newspaper Le Monde under the title “Intellectuels, aidez les Syriens !” after being translated from Arabic to French by the Lebanese intellectual and supporter of the Syrian Revolution, Professor Ziad Majed and his colleague Nadia Aissaoui. The letter, written on June, 28, 2013,  appeared earlier today in its Arabic  original in the Republic for Syrian Revolution Studies as well as in the Lebanese newspaper النهار . I tried to find English translation and failed, so I translated the letter from Arabic to English. I do apologize for the rough edges of the translation, and would be more than happy to replace the text with better translation if someone is kind enough to edit it.

Rabi Tawil (AKA Abu Kareem) has kindly offered to edit the translation. The version posted on (8 July, 2013) is the result of his kind and generous help.  It definitely reads much better.

 

By Yassin Al Haj Saleh

A letter from Syrian writer Yassin Al Haj Saleh to Western Intellectual and Opinion Makers.

Dear friends

About three months ago, I headed to the “liberated” Eastern Ghouta region, leaving behind the capital city of Damascus where life has become suffocating. My clandestine departure necessitated weeks of prior-arrangements in a city , which had been dismembered by hundreds of security barricades, and which Bashar al-Assad is determined to keep as the center of the rule he inherited from his father thirteen years ago.

The Eastern Ghouta region is now inhabited by nearly half of  out of the two million who lived there before the revolution. It has been transformed during the past three months from a bastion  where the armed revolution was first launched in the capital  into an area besieged from all sides. This reversal is largely due to the military and logistical support of  the regime has received from Russia and Iran and from Lebanese and Iraqi Militia that are connected to the latter state. During that time, I myself witnessed the cruel lack of weapons, ammunition and even adequate food supply on the side of the rebel fighters. Many of the fighters on the fronts barely receive two meals a day. If they weren’t mostly local residents defending their towns and their families and living off what also sustains their families, the situation would have been immeasurably worse

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Destruction of lives and livelihood are the hallmarks of the Assad clan response to the Syrian uprising., The photo was uploaded today (7, July, 2013) showing the aftermath of one of Assad’s bombing raids earlier today in the Eastern Ghouta.

The towns and villages which I visited and lived in during the past months are subjected to daily random shelling from airplanes, artillery and rocket launchers. Every day, victims, a majority of whom are civilians, succumb to the violence.  I spent a month at a civil defense authority site, and there, I saw all of those who were killed. Some of them, including children, were blown into unrecognizable pieces. Among the victims was a fetus of six months whose mother suffered a miscarriage from the the terror she suffered during the shelling near her house. Not a day went during that month without civilians getting killed. Usually it is two or three, but on one day it was 9, 28 on another, and 11 on a third. The numbers killed continue to rise and they are rarely less than half a dozen a day, again including a small fully formed fetus. It was said that he was also six month old, also miscarried by yet another terrorized mother.

In addition to civilians, many young fighters die every day to the weapons of a brutal and more powerful military force that receives  far superior support than they do.

The whole region has been without electricity for 8 months. This has caused a reliance on frequently malfunctioning generators with excessive consumption of fuel, which in itself is becoming increasingly scarce commodity due to the tight blockade. Consequently, cooling and storage of food, vitally necessary in the scorching summers of the region, must be dispensed with. Cellular and landline connections are cut-off;and in recent weeks, flour has become scarce. Two weeks have now passed during which we had barely ate any bread,getting by with crushed wheat or rice instead, or by purchasing our meals from the few restaurants that remain.

For my part, I was content with two meals a day, at least temporarily, as it helped reduce my weight by around 10 Kilos (nearly 21 pounds)

We manage communications via Satellite Internet equipment, smuggled in with great difficulty. We use the equipment to deliver news and information to other Syrians and to the world. Such communication equipment is, however, available to only a small percentage of the population. A shell landed nearby few days ago and disrupted the internet connection for some time. It could have been much worse had the shell  landed on our roof and destroyed two month worth of efforts to secure the equipment. But the ultimate tragedy happens every day to an increasing number of inhabitants. Hastily buried, their funeral processions are joined by few hasty mourners, terrorized by the prospect of another shell falling upon their heads. Such has happened more than once; and in one case, which I witnessed, the martyr was buried within less than an hour of his death without his wife and children taking a final look at him. His body was mutilated and some of his limbs were missing, prompting the elders to decide that this should not be the last sight of him to remain in his  wife’s and childrens’ memory.

We, I and a number of friends, both men and women, are still alive. In Damascus we were threatened with arrest and horrific torture which we may not survive. Here we are safe from that, but not from a shell falling on our heads at any time.

Here, we are partners with nearly a million people having lost complete control of our own destiny, and constantly at the edge of the  abyss of the worst possibilities. Each time I reach the threshold of the house returning from the outside, I feel that I have barely survived death by a shell or a  shrapnel.  And yet  death remains a probability entering randomly through the window or the door.

Today, Friday, June 28, three mortars fell between twelve noon and twelve thirty  on a place not far from where we are staying. The timing is too close to the Friday prayer time observed by faithful Muslims, to be a coincidence. I was most struck in my early days here that calls for Friday prayers in one mosque started about nine thirty in the morning, three hours earlier than the usual time, and this were followed by calls from other mosques each within a half an hour of the next. When I inquired about it, I received a surprising explanation: “The purpose is to avoid gathering large numbers of worshipers in the city’s mosques at any specific time to deprive the regime of the opportunity to kill maximum number of people as it usually desires”. The regime has done this before, in the city where I stayed, there are five destroyed mosques.

More painful is that more than two-thirds of the children here do not attend school, their parents fearing for their safety or  because of the the lack of schools nearby. The few functioning schools operate in underground cellars to avoid bombardment.  But this also prevents the children from playing and running in the open air.

All of the hospitals are also underground.

People engage in this struggle with a sense of desperation because of they realize that a terrible massacre awaits them if the regime succeeds in regaining control. Those not murdered immediately will face arrest and torture that is extreme in its brutality. Their choices are limited to death while resisting the fascist aggression of the criminal regime or death, in the ugliest of manners, at the hands of this same regime if they stop resisting.  The  souls of people shiver, as my own soul shivers from its depth at the mere thought of being ruled by the same regime once again, should the people stop their resistance.

During this long stretch in the life of the Syrian revolution, which has gone through a peaceful phase lasting for more than six months, the outcome of the policies of the influential powers of the world were to let Syrians be murdered at an escalating rate, and to reassure the regime that it can do anything with complete impunity. This is reminiscent of the Western Democracies’ behavior regarding Hitler before the Second World War. The current situation is a direct consequence of the failure of those influential powers to support the Syrian rebels, whilst failing to stop the support for the regime from the powers that provide it with  weapons, money and men, even as they continue to step up their support by intervening more openly and directly. Finally, after it became known to the whole world that the Assad clan regime used chemical weapons, which I myself documented two months ago,  as did other friends on the basis of personal experience, and after the regime was assured that its use of air power and long-range missiles against cities and neighborhoods will result in  nothing but faint and timid protest; after all of this,  Western powers decided to support the Syrian rebels with weapons. However, the objective of this support is to restore balance, a balance that they helped tip in the regime’s favor  in the first place.  Restoring balance means prolonging the Syrian conflict so that both sides lose in ways that have known  precedents in the history of Western Democracies, while what is needed is support that guarantees the overthrow of the regime, or at least force its allies to back-off from supporting its openly criminal war.

Restoring balance is not just a short-sighted policy leading not only to prolonging the conflict, but it is utterly inhumane  as well. There are no two equal evils in Syria, as it is unfortunately portrayed in the Western media, and contrary to what United Nations and international organizations reports, notwithstanding that the Syrian conflict is not one between demons and angels.  There is a tyrannical fascist regime, which has murdered approximately 100,000 of its subjects, and there is a varying spectrum of those rebelling against it. The prolonging and increasing cruelty of the conflict has radicalized some of the rebel groups, whilst weakening the resilience of the Syrian society to extremism. The longer the Syrians are left to their fate, the more likely extremists gain strength and  the moderating logic and rationality among Syrians weakens. From both field and personal experience, this is what is actually happening. At the Civil Defense Authority, and whenever new martyrs fell, especially children, I am met with reproachful looks. These looks are from people  who are skeptical about the value of the calm and “rational” words I usually utter and about their utility in such circumstances.

There is only one correct approach that is in the general interest of Syria and from a humanitarian point of view, and that is to help Syrians get rid of the rule of the Assad dynasty that is acting as if it owns the country and as if Syrians are merely its serfs.  Everything will be difficult in post-Assad Syria, but ridding the country of the public criminal incites more moderate interactions within the Syrian society, and allows Syrians to stand in the face of the extremists among them. It is immeasurably worse to prolong the conflict and extend its human and material costs. Even worse is to watch Syrians being murdered with Russia’s weapons, at the hands of local thugs, as well as Lebanese and Iranian militias. Worse also is to impose a settlement that does not punish the criminals, and that doesn’t seriously address any of Syria’s problems.

I hear American and Western politicians sometimes say that there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria. But where is the political solution? And when did Bashar al-Assad , after about 28 months of the revolution, and after the murder of about 100,000 people, state that he was actually ready for serious negotiations with the opposition and to share power? When did he refrain, even for a single day, from committing murder  in the past 850 days? The truth is that there is no political solution without forcing the slaughterer to step down, now and immediately, and along with the leaders of the slaughter in his regime. While this may give rebellious Syrians something important, which is what they have demanded from the outset by peaceful means, it strengthens the position of moderates in their ranks, making it possible to isolate the extremists, leading to a fair Syrian settlement, something that is badly needed in the region, the world, and by Syrians  before anyone else.

Dear friends

We would not have called upon you if it wasn’t for the fact that the Syrian issue is one of the major and most dangerous issues of the world in recent decades. It has caused the uprooting and internal and external displacement of about a third of the population. There are hundreds of thousands of wounded and disabled, and up to quarter of a million prisoners are subjected to horrific torture, including the raping of women and children as documented in the reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and by the more reliable of Syrian organizations. The Assad forces have committed numerous massacres, some of which were documented in United Nations reports. All of this so that a ruler, who inherited power without right and without merit from a father who seized power by force and ruled the country with blood,can remain.

Today, we look to you as leaders of public opinion in your countries to pressure your governments to take a strong stand against the killer, a stand that supports the overthrowing the regime of the Assad dynasty. This is the only humanitarian and progressive thing to do. There is nothing more reactionary and fascist in today’s world than a regime that kills its own people, brings in killers from its allied countries and organizations, and incites a sectarian war, which while easy to incite, may be impossible to halt before it it leads to the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

We look forward to your support today. Tomorrow may be too late.

Yassin Al Haj Saleh
June 28, 2013
Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria

translation by OTW and Rabi Tawil (Abu Kareem)

 

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