Monday, May 21, 2007

Blaming Syria .. Fisk and Others

Up to seventy people have been killed so far in Lebanon’s most violent internal battle since the end of the civil war. On one side are the Wahhabi militants of Fateh al-Islam, Palestinians, Lebanese, Saudis and others, based in Tripoli’s Palestinian camp of Nahr el-Bared. On the other is the Lebanese army, with the support of most Lebanese and Palestinians.

Very sadly, very ominously, Wahhabi nihilists are expanding their reach. In recent weeks there have been al-Qa’ida linked bomb attacks in Morocco and Algeria, and hundreds of arrests in Saudi Arabia when a plot to attack infrastructure was allegedly uncovered. In Iraq, Wahhabi car bombings and beheadings continue, with Sunnis now as likely to be the victims as Shia. In Afghanistan and Pakistan al-Qa’ida increases its power. The nihilists are sometimes confused with genuine resistance against occupation (in Afghanistan and Iraq) or against dictatorship (in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia), but in fact their presence confuses and weakens resistance.

There are many reasons for the growing al-Qa’ida phenomenon, some of which I have discussed previously. They include past and present American, Saudi and Pakistani promotion of Wahhabi groups to trouble the Soviet Union, revolutionary Iran and Arab nationalism, and the collapse of traditional patterns of social belonging and religious observance in large parts of the Muslim world, and the poverty of education in many Muslim countries, and the brutalisation caused by both dictatorship and occupation. Then ample funding from private donors in the Gulf as well as Wahhabism’s long term supporters (see above) married to nihilistic ruthlessness can make a small group of fighters extremely effective. In Nahr el-Bared there are an estimated couple of hundred fighters, but it will be almost impossible for the Lebanese army to arrest or kill them without a politically impossible and bloody invasion of the camp.

What is not in doubt is that the nihilist phenomenon is widespread, complex and dangerous. As usual, however, some people are resorting to simplistic, propagandist explanations. In the case of the Nahr el-Bared battle, Lebanese government officials and large sections of the media are blaming the Syrian regime, without providing any proof. It’s true that Fatah al-Islam’s parent organisation was Syrian sponsored, a creation of the divisions among the Lebanese-based Palestinians following the expulsion of PLO forces by Israel in 1982, but Fateh al-Islam broke away from the parent organisation a long time ago. There is far more evidence that Fateh al-Islam is being helped by Syria’s enemies. Seymour Hersh’s recent investigation, published in the New Yorker, suggested that Saad al-Hariri, among others in the wealthy Lebanese Sunni establishment, is helping to channel American funds to Wahhabi groups to counter the influence of Shia Hizbullah.

Robert Fisk in the Independent writes “it is difficult not to feel Syria’s hand these days.” His evidence for Syrian involvement in Nahr el-Bared? The Syrian border is “scarcely ten miles away.” Which brings me to my problems with Fisk. There is no question that he has been the best-connected, best-informed and bravest of British Middle East correspondents, and that he has often been fearless in calling a spade a spade when it comes to Israeli crimes. Most Western journalists in the region can’t even speak Arabic, so we should be grateful for Fisk. He’s been better than the rest, but latterly, still not good enough. During last summer’s onslaught on Lebanon he kept reminding his readers that Hizbullah’s border incursion and hostage-taking had ‘provoked’ the Israeli attack, without mentioning the more than 10, 000 border violations by Israel in the previous six years, or the Lebanese hostages. He didn’t change his tune even when Olmert announced that Israel had prepared the attack months in advance, months before the supposed provocation.

Fisk once wrote very convincingly of how Western journalists may become biased in the Middle East, before politics and money come into play, for simple cultural reasons. Anglo-Saxons, he said, will naturally feel more at home with Israeli friends who eat the same kind of food, watch the same kind of TV shows, and so on, than with Palestinians in their mosques and camps. French journalists will naturally sympathise with Lebanese Maronites, who speak French, listen to French music, and worship in Catholic churches. And now it seems that something similar has happened to Fisk, who was so personally moved when his friend Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated. (There is a good case to be made for Syrian guilt in the Hariri assassination, but there are other arguments too, and Fisk has not aired them.) Fisk has become uncritically supportive of the Lebanese Sunni and Druze establishment and its perspectives. In the stand-off between the government and opposition, it is clear where he stands. Stooping low, he tells us again and again how “intelligent” war-criminal Waleed Junblatt is, and, worse, how “glorious” Junblatt’s wife.

I put it down to exhaustion, and perhaps to fame. The poor man has seen more than his share of blood, from the Iran-Iraq war to Sabra and Shatila. He’s been shot at on numerous occasions and beaten up by Afghan refugees from Anglo-American bombing. He’s written at least one excellent book (“Pity the Nation” on the Lebanese war – I haven’t read his latest) and it is time for him to have a dignified rest. But not to rest on his laurels. Too much of his newspaper journalism now looks like a blog: his moral and emotional responses to events are as important as the events themselves. He uses the phrase “of course” in nearly every paragraph. He goes on about his old dad and his mother Peggy. He consistently refers to Blair as “Lord Blair of Kut al-Amara” – which is vaguely funny, but suited to satire rather than reportage. I have become tired of reading articles which I know will give me Fisk’s opinion rather than fresh information, which will degenerate into ‘why, o why?’ and ‘if they’d only asked me.’

Back to Syria. There are plenty of good reasons to condemn the Syrian dictatorship, such as its staggering capacity for corruption and its abuses of human rights. The recent imprisonment of intellectuals like Anwar Bunni and Michel Kilo simply for expressing their opinions will have horrified all true friends of the country. For all I know (because I’m no expert on intelligence matters) Syrian officials may be playing a stupid and dirty game in Nahr el-Bared. But there is no evidence for it, not yet, and there are better explanations. People who illogically blame Syria for absolutely everything that goes wrong in the region, providing no proof whatsoever, lose their credibility. In Iraq’s al-Anbar, the Sunni resistance has now realised that its first enemy is al-Qa’ida style Wahhabism. It would be nice if the so-called Sunni leadership in Lebanon could do the same, in this case at least, and stop playing anti-Syrian politics.


Golaniya said...

Thank you for the nice post, I attended Fisk's lecture he made in AUB two weeks ago, I have to agree with you, he is very, maybe the harshest, critical of the western media, but his very criticism on the west, is western. He did not support HezbAlla's right to resist, for example. I mean he's a bombastic critical "not critique" of the western media. My observation from his lecture.

sasa said...

You say what a lot of people are thinking. He is without rival among English-speaking journalists in the Arab world. But many are concerned about his Hariri-mania. It seems to be colouring everything he writes about Lebanon.

And his writing is not subtle, every piece starts with "Just 500 meters from my flat in Beirut".

qunfuz said...

To be fair to Fisk, today (23/0/2007) he writes: "It is too simple to claim that this is Syria's work. Syria may have an interest is watching this destabilisation, even - through its security networks - assisting these groups with logistics. But other organisations might have found common interest; the Iraqi insurgents, for example, even the Taliban, perhaps equally small groups in the Palestinian occupied territories. That's how these things work in the Middle East, where there is no such thing as responsibility - only a commonality of interests. Perhaps the Americans might have learnt something about this if they had not two years ago insulted the Syrians for allowing fighters into Iraq - at which point, the Syrians halted all military and intelligence co-operation with the US."

I should add today that, however repulsive Fateh al-Islam is, the priority now must be to establish a stable ceasefire, to extract the al-Qa'ida types by negotiation with other Palestinian forces in the camp, and to bring supplies and medical care to the civilians in the camp. If all the reports of people trapped under collapsed buildings are true, a disaster is happening. A humanitarian disaster, and also potentially a political and military disaster. Palestinians in Lebanon who have nothing to do with Fateh al-Islam will be enraged by a massacre of Palestinian civilians.
Thanks Golaniya and Sasa for your comments. I've had a look at your excellent blogs, and I advise everyone else to do so as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm beginning to agree with you about Robert Fisk, sadly. Meanwhile,
Patrick Seale's comments on the implausibility of Syrian involvement seem relevant:
Al Qaida rears its head in Lebanon
By Patrick Seale, Special to Gulf News
25 May 2005

The bitter fighting in north Lebanon between the Lebanese army and Fatah Al Islam, a radical Sunni Muslim group, has added a new and dangerous dimension to the Lebanese crisis.

It poses a serious threat to the already fragile pro-Western government of Fouad Siniora, besieged internally by Hezbollah, the Shiite resistance movement, and other pro-Syrian groups.
This outbreak of violence, the worst in Lebanon since the 1975-1990 civil war, is yet another consequence of the world's - and specifically America's - failure to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict and resolve its tragic corollary, the Palestine refugee problem.

In Lebanon alone, 12 anarchic camps are home to some 400,000 refugees, most scratching a living well below the poverty line. They are a permanent source of instability. Misery and despair are the crucial ingredients of violence and terrorism.

Two or three hundred well-armed fighters of Fatah Al Islam are still holed up in the Nahr Al Bared camp near Tripoli. The Lebanese Army cannot go in to flush them out because of the virtual extra-territorial status Palestinian camps in Lebanon have enjoyed since the late 1960s.

Some refugees have managed to flee the besieged camp, but many of its 30,000 inhabitants remain behind in great distress.

The Siniora government has received pledges of support, military, financial and political, from many quarters, including the United States, France, the Arab League and from mainstream Palestinian movements such as Fatah and Hamas, who fear that the actions of Fatah Al Islam will damage their cause.

The crisis has turned the spotlight on General Michel Suleiman, the Christian commander of the Lebanese Army, whose new-found prominence may not be entirely welcome to Lebanon's civilian leaders, whether pro- or anti-government.

Fatah Al Islam is far from being an ordinary armed Palestinian faction. Indeed, it seems hardly to be Palestinian at all.

Whereas a minority of its members may be Palestinian, the others - judging from those who have been killed, wounded or captured - come from half a dozen Arab and Asian countries, some of them jihadi veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Its parent body - or at least its inspiration - seems to be Al Qaida.

Fatah Al Islam is a fundamentalist offshoot of Fatah Al Intifada, a Palestinian faction which Syria backed over the years to contain and fight the influence of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement among Lebanon's refugee population.

But, in the last year or two, Fatah Al Intifada was routed by Fatah Al Islam, a dissident group within it, which seized control, if not of the whole camp, then at least of part of it.

Various nationalities

This development appears to have attracted jihadis of various nationalities, eager to exploit the relative freedom from government interference the camp enjoys, and determined to carry their struggle into Lebanon and Syria, ever closer to their prime enemy, Israel, itself.

Syria's opponents have been quick to claim that Damascus is using Fatah Al Islam to destabilise the Siniora government in order to prevent the creation of an international tribunal to bring to justice the killers of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Proof, however, is lacking. Interrogation of captured members of Fatah Al Islam might yield some evidence of a Syrian connection but, for the moment at least, the evidence seems to point in quite another direction.

The leader of Fatah Al Islam, a certain Shakir Al Absi, spent the years 2002-2005 in a Syrian jail. He is the sort of Sunni fundamentalist the Syrian regime has been fighting ever since the late 1970s.

Men of his sort detest and anathematise the Baathist-led government in Damascus for ideological and sectarian reasons. It seems implausible that they would agree to be manipulated by Syria's intelligence services.

It certainly does not look as if Syria could have created Fatah Al Islam, because this fundamentalist Sunni movement would, from its base near Tripoli in north Lebanon, pose a potential threat to Syrian security.

Some expert observers of the complicated Lebanese scene point to the fact that Lebanon's Sunni population has always felt the lack of an armed force of its own.

The Shiites had Hezbollah, based in the southern suburbs of Beirut, while Christian hardliners had, and maybe still have, their own armed base in the eastern quarters of the city.

Some analysts believe that a group like Fatah Al Islam was initially tolerated, and perhaps even funded, by Lebanese Sunnis who may have seen in it the embryo of the militia they needed. They certainly longed to be able to demonstrate that they could stand up to the Shiites and to Syria.

When, however, Fatah Al Islam degenerated into a criminal gang engaged in robbing banks and other acts of violence, and when it was penetrated by foreign jihadis, the Sunni element in Siniora's coalition could no longer tolerate it or be seen to be associated with it. The Army was, therefore, unleashed against it.


There is, however, a limit to the support Sunni moderates can give the Army in its battle against Fatah Al Islam without running the risk of rousing the anger of the Sunni "street" and of militant Palestinians in the many refugee camps, who are disturbed at the sight of their brothers being bombarded by the Army.

The Siniora government has, therefore, a dangerous and narrow path to tread.
Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on Middle East affairs.

Anonymous said...

Fisk is right and it is you who cannot see the truth....