The story of the Ambulance in Aleppo and Robert Fisk

(This was originally submitted to The Independent as a Letter to the Editor.)

I am writing to respond to Robert Fisk’s latest pro-Assad-regime disinformation article, which is not only slandering the Syrian opposition, as usual, but this time also trying to smear, discredit and thus hinder the work of British, mostly Muslim, charities who send humanitarian and medical aid into Syria.

Photo credit: Nelofer Pazira

Effectively what Fisk appears to be trying to do is a) to justify regime attacks on hospitals and medics in opposition areas, and b) to disrupt donated supplies of medical aid, which goes mainly into opposition areas where it is most needed, while Assad prioritises bombing the hospitals these supplies go to.

Targeting medical facilities is the most efficient terror strategy to force civilians who still oppose his regime and demand freedom to flee from their homes into increasingly long-term refugee camps, which are still mainly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, or else face extermination, as the leaflets air dropped on Aleppo made grimly clear. Both forced displacement and extermination are elements of the crime of genocide.

Even if that ambulance or any medical equipment sent by British charities or volunteer groups had been used to treat JFS fighters (which Fisk presents no evidence for) among many other people, the vast majority of whom would certainly have been non-combatants, medical care is exempt from taking sides in any conflict. This is a basic principle of international humanitarian law: Medics are allowed to and obliged to treat anyone and everyone, combatant or non-combatant, without regard to sides in a conflict, and should be actively protected by all sides to the conflict. It’s absolutely appropriate that emergency medics wouldn’t ask who someone is or who they’re associated with or what their politics are before giving medical care to absolutely anyone. Human dignity comes first before all politics.

None of the charities that have sent humanitarian and medical aid into Syria can take the risk of responding to Fisk’s attempted smear or associating with any political statement, let alone one such as mine here which is explicitly sympathetic to the Syrian revolution, so while I support them, they should not be assumed to agree with anything I say here.

No-one involved in sending humanitarian aid into Syria is naive about the ground realities. Indeed their sources as to what is actually happening are in reality far stronger than Fisk’s, because rather than going on embedded tours with Assad forces and having everything translated and explained by regime minders. Our views of the reality of life in besieged and bombed opposition areas and the complexity of the conflict, in which indeed no side has a perfect record of respect for human rights and the humanitarian imperative, are based on often intense daily interactions with local people on the ground.

Why was Fisk allowed to publish this in The Independent without explicitly disclosing that his observations and comments came from yet another embedded tour with Assad forces? Was his trip or any part of his expenses paid for by the regime? At least he should be obligated to declare his conflict of interest, if it supposed to be public-interest journalism.

Yassin al Haj Saleh, the most widely respected Syrian political philosopher of the Syrian revolution still alive, after Omar Aziz died under torture in 2013 (, who spent 16 years in the regime’s prisons, summarises the essence of the problem with Fisk’s so-called journalism:

“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 they are 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. […] 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.”

More of Yassin’s essays and articles: )

The most important truth claim in Fisk’s article: “the people of eastern Aleppo, since Nusrah…” is presented in the most subliminal way possible in writing, with no evidence adduced and not even an acknowledgement that this is a strongly contested claim, and the story of the ambulance is treated as merely illustrative to rhetorically establish this claim. If he has evidence for his (i.e. the regime’s) claim that all the Syrian opposition are Nusrah or ideological affiliates (incidentally, it’s called Jabhat Fateh al’Sham now), let him present this evidence for once.

(Who are the Syrian opposition? Here’s the best summary: Syrian Opposition Factions, by Ryan O’Farrell and badly_xeroxed, 10 August.)

No amount of rhetorical tactics or rambling appeals to general truisms can ever amount to relevant evidence. The regime and Russia have prioritised killing off and forcing into exile the reasonable, moderate, passionately democratic majority of the Syrian opposition first of all, in order to make their story in fact relatively more true that “there are no good guys in Syria anymore”, because they killed or forced most of them out. The propaganda side of their war effort lately has focussed mainly on smearing and attacking the White Helmets, Syrian volunteer rescuers who find and dig out people under bombed and collapsed buildings, because their existence confounds the regime and Russia’s narrative, which are indistinguishable from each other and from Fisk’s version of events.

Comparisons to other conflicts are risky because then people tend to assume they can elide over the details and ‘know what it’s really about’ by fitting it into a previous narrative. But this specific point —why Assad and Putin have prioritised killing off or forcing into exile the moderate and democratic majority of the Syrian opposition, is actually like Putin’s tactic in Chechnya of killing off the moderates first. That way, he could present the conflict as his regime vs. ‘the terrorists’, so no political confrontation with the Chechen opposition or negotiation with them could be reasonably expected of him.

The fact that probably most of the Syrian opposition are Sunni Muslims who are overtly publicly religious does not mean at all that they are anti-democratic or extremist. The Syrian civil opposition activists are also predominantly young and more often liberal or secular. Many of them have died under torture still demanding freedom and equality for all Syrians, including freedom of and from religion. Islam teaches universal and intrinsic human dignity (Q.17:70) and freedom (e.g. Q.2:256), so faithful commitment to other people’s freedom to be or not be religious, as their conscience guides them, should not be surprising.

I’ve met many Syrians in refugee camps in Greece, and become close friends with about a dozen, and I was deeply affected by their profound hospitality, patience and gentle courage. My commitment to solidarity with Syrian refugees and Syrians in the revolution is not because I give a damn about any of the imperialist ‘great powers’, but because of a handful of Syrian friends who I cried together with while listening to what happened to them. As Wasim said, plus my commentary: it is not a civil war and it was not originally and is not an equivalently counterbalanced proxy war, it really is still a popular revolution, secondarily with some quite unreliable material support from regional allies, which was actually most of the time suppressed by US political intervention with those regional allies.

The sectarianization of Syria and smearing a revolution, Leila al-Shami, 30 October 2016.

This is not the time or place to go further into deconstructing the smears against Islamic political theology, but I mention it because Fisk’s smear strategy against the Syrian opposition implicitly relies on the existence of those assumptions in popular discourse. Muslims should be at least as free as I am to speak publicly about how their faith is the foundation and motivation of their politics, and to be radical, without being accused or worried about being accused of being extremists or tending towards violence.

Lina Sergie Attar @AmalHanano

Here are some of the people who don’t exist or don’t matter according to Fisk and the regime’s account: early days of the revolution, in Hama, 2011. Samih Choukeir’s now famous song in memoriam of the people massacred by the regime in Daraa, 2011. early revolution, from various places.

(In the third video above, and whenever you hear Muslims saying or communally declaring ‘Allahu Akhbar’ in very different situations when they are afraid or excited, it literally means “God is greater than [all this]”. It does not normally mean anything aggressive.)

And still, every time the regime’s airstrikes pause, the people are out marching on the streets again demanding the same: “Get out Assad” and “Free Syria”, as you can see in recent peaceful mass protests in E Aleppo:

Aleppo Media Centre, 22 October 2016.

If these people are merely proxies or instigated by the US, how does Fisk or his regime handlers propose that actually happened? At least he should have proposed a plausible mechanism at first for his supposed causal explanation, even if he had no direct evidence. And now after 4 years of embedded tours with regime forces in Syria it would be reasonable to expect that he should have found some objective evidence for this claim, or if he found no evidence to support the regime’s claim about this then he should have laid it down and admitted his mistake, if he was only honestly mistaken. But to rely on this claim as an assumption in all his subsequent analysis when he has had many opportunities to check and verify it but has not done so is unacceptable. It does not deserve even to be called journalism.

I am sadly not really shocked that the Independent has degenerated to this level of publishing such blatant disinformation, which is part of a much larger systematic undermining attack on the potential for informed public discussion and genuine functional democracy in W Europe and N America, making space for populist authoritarian politics, which are more amenable to Putin’s strategic objectives. Fisk’s style of rambling up to a conclusion and then just stating it without any relevant evidence is not without a purpose, or at least an effect, in that it promotes the style of argumentation that relies on abstraction in terms of global narratives, rather than abstraction in terms of values, and only uses facts instrumentally to express a predetermined worldview, with no respect for objectivity of persons, of human rights or of the truth of what actually happened. This is a form of argumentation more befitting a pub rant than a liberal internationalist newspaper.

Among all the oppressed peoples in the Middle East, Syrians are perhaps the most vocal and articulate. Hundreds of Syrians have taken up a camera or a laptop instead of a gun and contributed to their revolution by documenting it in writing, photographs and films, trying to communicate to the rest of the world. Some of them you can discern are clearly not aligned with any fighting faction, for instance Enab Baladi, a predominantly women’s citizen journalism cooperative founded in Daraya and now operating in exile in Gazantiep, because they report the, relatively rare, war crimes by anti-Assad fighting groups as well.

Primary information sources from the Syrian revolutionary side, mostly those still in Syria or based in Gazantiep in Turkey and in frequent communication with activists and citizen journalists still in Syria:

Enab Baladi (English edition) originated in Daraya by a group of women citizen journalists, now operating from Gazantiep:

Information sources from the Syrian revolutionary side in exile in UK:

Robert Fisk and other vintage Western journalists are not ‘anti-imperialists’, they are counter-imperialists, Or in other words, unreconstructed Orientalists. Especially considering how Syrians are probably the most clearly communicative of all oppressed peoples worldwide currently, the usual tactic of ignoring them as long as possible and then actively excluding them from discussing themselves and their country, as though they were infantile natives who should hardly be trusted to speak for themselves, is particularly insulting.

If you are really The Independent, I challenge you to start publishing some independent Syrian journalists. The one I admire most currently is Yassin al Haj Saleh, but there are hundreds to choose from, some listed in the links above and I can introduce you to even more who are not yet in those lists. Some Syrian activist journalists in Gazantiep, Turkey, are offering an embedded tour with the Syrian civil society organisations both there and in Free Syria, with some of the hundreds of democratic Local Coordination Committees (, and with the Syrian National Coalition interim government now in exile in Gazantiep; it is called the Door Beyond War project Obviously, Robert Fisk will not be invited, he has slandered the Syrian opposition far too many times and is blatantly working for the regime, and anyway, no-one but the regime backed by Russia could afford his bar tab.