blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Robert Fisk in Ottawa

Robert Fisk (Speakerpedia image)
On Friday September 25th we went to St. Matthew's in the Glebe to hear Robert Fisk speaking as a guest of the Ottawa branch of Canadians for Peace and Justice in the Middle East. What he said is worth recording, so no apologies for the length of this blogpost.

Mr. Fisk has won numerous international awards for his writing. This seemingly fearless Englishman has been a reporter for 40 years, half of that time for The Independent. Face to face, he has confronted the likes of Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollah Khomeini with his questions. In Fisk's opinion, there should be not a single western soldier in the Middle East. Doctors, teachers and engineers, yes. Fighters, no.

He does not mince his words. "What is going on in your country?" he began. "Canada used to be a country that wanted to help those who suffered." Not any more. He mentioned the blue berets of Canada's brigades, no longer prominent within the UN peacekeeping forces. Fisk still believes in the United Nations and sees Germany's Angela Merkel as the only statesman ("statesperson") among them.  In response to the present refugee crisis, "your Prime Minister did not stand beside her." He finds it sad that the Canadian press (he read out extracts from the National Post and Calgary Herald) constantly paints middle eastern refugees as suspect.

However, "retired soldiers are coming forward to save the honour of your country," high profile people like Gen. Hillier and Lt-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, who have not lost the idea of Canada helping those who suffer. They came up with immediate ideas for helping refugees from the war zones. Fisk, who tells us, "these people are not going back"–– Syrian refugees don't have a country to go back to –– asks why they aren't being given "Nansen passports" according to a system created with the Armenians in mind, that were used effectively for years. But he says that western decision makers have lost the ability to plan ahead.

He comes across as a knowledgeable and intelligent historian, admitting that, in spite of his decades of research, even he cannot really grasp today's situation in the Middle East. When he spoke recently to a gathering of CEOs in Banff, he started like this, he said, quoting from a recent article he had written for The Independent:
The Saudis are bombing Yemen because they fear the Shia Houthis are working for the Iranians. The Saudis are also bombing Isis in Iraq and the Isis in Syria. So are the United Arab Emirates. The Syrian government is bombing its enemies in Syria and the Iraqi government is also bombing its enemies in Iraq. America, France, Britain, Denmark, Holland, Australia and – believe it or not – Canada are bombing Isis in Syria and Isis in Iraq, partly on behalf of the Iraqi government (for which read Shia militias) but absolutely not on behalf of the Syrian government.
The Jordanians and Saudis and Bahrainis are also bombing Isis in Syria and Iraq because they don’t like them, but the Jordanians are bombing Isis even more than the Saudis after their pilot-prisoner was burned to death in a cage. The Egyptians are bombing parts of Libya because a group of Christian Egyptians had their heads chopped off by what might – notionally – be the same so-called Islamic State, as Isis refers to itself. The Iranians have acknowledged bombing Isis in Iraq – of which the Americans (but not the Iraqi government) take a rather dim view. And of course the Israelis have several times bombed Syrian government forces in Syria but not Isis.
"I hope I make myself obscure." he added.

He recalled the empire of ancient Rome. When the Romans captured a country they made all of its citizens equal, citizens of Rome. President Bush, he says, could have given the Iraqis American passports when his forces captured them. Fisk's voice cracked with emotion as he continued, "This would have shown them that we loved them!" But the USA was interested in other things.

Map of the Sykes-Picot divisions, 1916
He blames today's violence and disorder in the Middle East on the way it was divided up a century ago in the Sykes-Picot Agreement by the British and the French, an arrangement that is still bitterly begrudged by people "who get up in their hovels every morning and walk out into the sewage" around them. "Look back at what we have given the Arabs!" he exclaimed. He finds it ironic that the bravest British soldiers who fought in those days were given medals with the words "The Great War For Civilisation" inscribed upon them. What did Arabs receive during that war? No freedom, no independence, no dignity. The Kurds are still stateless. Lately, during the recent "Arab spring" (Fisk calls it the Awakening) they have begun to demand freedom and dignity. It's significant that they do not ask for democracy, because that's a word they associate with the condescending western world.

We should ask what lies behind the Arabs' cry for dignity and freedom. The millions of refugees from Syria and Iraq are "brave, courageous people, who will not accept our rules and our frontiers any more." He spoke of the Sykes-Picot frontier (the border between Iraq and Syria) as being no more than a line of sand, now being pushed aside by Isis' bulldozers.

Robert Fisk's home is in Lebanon. One in three people now living in Lebanon is Syrian, he says. Half of the Syrian soldiers he has interviewed since 2011 are now dead. Recently he has been hearing people say, "There is no more Syria." He spoke chillingly of the clouds of white flies that rise from the corpses around Aleppo, the "chosen capital" of Isis, that he referred to as "a cult, an army of lost souls." Being a journalist he has been obliged to watch their videos, that the rest of us cannot bear to see, over and over again, and is struck by the lack of emotion in their making and their technical perfection. A video recording of an execution by burning was filmed from seven different camera angles. A mass execution by drowning was even filmed underwater. Isis members do not shout in perverted celebration when they do these things; they seem to have no ideology.
Last year I went to Yabroud after the Syrian government army had managed to retake it. I went to the church — the oldest Christian church in Syria. Around the church someone had specifically drilled out all the eyes of the Saints in the Orthodox mosaics, including St. George and the dragon. They even drilled out the eyes of the dragon! In one corner there were piles and piles of ripped up oil paintings. Beautiful, gold paintings. But they didn’t use a knife to cut them. They brought a machine — the paintings were mathematically, precisely cut by a machine. 
This coldness is the unique danger of Isis. Isis is just a weapon being manipulated, Fisk says ... but in whose hands?

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