Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Robert Fisk

Isis propaganda comes across the radio waves

his is the third installment in Robert Fisk’s series from Syria

For 60 miles across the vast desert of eastern Syria, far beyond the trashed Roman ruins of Palmyra, the army of Syria is moving through the hot grey sands towards the besieged garrison city of Deir ez-Zour.

For 60 miles, tanks and heavy artillery – and brand new Russian Army multiple missile launchers – line the narrow, melting highway through the oilfields, pale tents flourishing in the dry wadis of distant hills which belonged to Isis only a month ago, gun batteries thumping amid the sand dunes.

We’ve been through this before, of course: Syrian army advances that turned sour in northern Syria, the long siege of eastern Aleppo, Isis retreats that transformed themselves into new and savage suicide attacks out of the desert and into Palmyra.

But the Russian army foot patrols in the wrecked modern city of Palmyra – I even saw Russian Army Chechen troops in the city, a vital Muslim component to Moscow’s military alliance with Damascus – suggest that this time the Syrian army has its enemies on the run.

So enormous is the landscape – harsh, lined with green desert grass and baked sand hills – and so intense is the 47-degree heat, that images do greater credit to this desert war than dry essays on the strategy of an army that plans to free 10,000 of its soldiers still holding out further east, surrounded by Isis for three years in the ancient city of Deir ez-Zour, along with 400,000 civilians in two pockets of land in the valley of the Euphrates.

Sixty miles beyond Palmyra I travelled eastwards, the only western journalist to reach this far front line in a convoy of Syrian vehicles until we stopped just five miles short of the crossroad town of al-Sukhnah.

“Sukhnah” means heat. It is the right name. Isis is still there. The desert mirages turn empty sand beds into waterless rivers, but the Syrian encampments and the 122- and 130mm guns are real enough. So are the tanks heading east: some loaded with infantry, thrashing up the tarmac, truckloads of green-painted ammunition boxes crammed on top, soldiers clinging to the tailboards.

The wreckage of war – a bombed-out Isis truck, a shattered army lorry, carbonised buses pushed off the road – is everywhere. A bearded Syrian officer – many of them have grown these big bushy Isis-style beards over the past two years, perhaps to mock their enemies – shouts that the gun line have been ordered to fire, and then the desert shakes ever so slightly and long lines of sand streak in front of the artillery.

They look like those big wheeled guns on the old silent Somme newsreels and they are almost as quiet in the desert. The fine dust absorbs the thumping detonations.

When we stop at a military post beside the highway, a sergeant emerges holding two tiny drones, just shot down at a height of 350 feet by a soldier with a Kalashnikov, the machine stinking of burned plastic. A beady camera glass hangs from one wire, the little rotors still rotating at the touch of a finger.

Isis, through the heat haze, is watching us through these sinister little lenses. Someone with a fully working brain in al-Suknah, ready to retreat no doubt, is looking for targets.

Only when we pass the batteries of Russian army BM-30 SMERTCH “Whirlwind” multiple rocket launchers, their Russian crews beside them, magenta and blue camouflage amid the sand, does a Syrian officer ask us not to take pictures. No problem with Syria’s weapons.

We can shoot photographs of as many guns as we like, as many mortar batteries, although they appear dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape.

There’s an operational battle map in General Mohamed Khadour’s air-conditioned headquarters. It shows a black patch for al-Sukhnah, and just to the left a grim series of blood-red circles. These are the gun lines. And Khadour, the senior army commander for this huge area of desert and remote cities – tall, head shaped like a bullet, thinning hair, face darkened by the sun; a 58-year-old graduate of the Aleppo military college with an infantry training degree – coldly reads off a set of coordinates to open fire.

Beside him on a sofa leans a heavy black six-chamber 46mm rocket gun that his men captured up north in Hassakeh – “RPG-6, GLV-HEF [stock number] 4348” for those who can trace its foreign manufacturers – and the general looks contemptuously at it.

“However many weapons they got from the West, Isis is finished,” he says. “They are like a banana that has fallen out of its skin. Only the skin is left.”

I’m not so sure about this. There’s a small truck park in Palmyra filled with the big black iron suicide trucks that Isis manufactured in its caliphate, identical to the massive killer cars captured by the Iraqi army in distant Mosul, far to to the east. General Khadour reports that in one month his soldiers have faced seven suicide trucks and 20 individual Isis suicide fighters, all of whom had blown themselves to pieces.

And I ask the same old question I put to everyone who fights Isis: who are they really? And I get the same reply from the general. “Animals,” he says. “But even animals are not evil.”

Curiously, the brain inside the Isis “animal” does not interest these soldiers. They regard the al-Nusrah / al-Qaeda fighters as far better trained – and with far more sophisticated Western weapons and anti-aircraft missiles – than Isis.

For Nusrah, still fighting on in Idlib province, they have a curiosity rather than respect. But for Isis, they have contempt. (Hezbollah of Lebanon just kicked out Al Nusra from our mountain chains eastern borders)

There is a creepy story which two officers tell me, which might – given the nature of the Isis mind – have some pathetic truth. Several suicide bombers, they say, were found with women’s underclothes in their pockets – for the virgins they would meet in paradise.

Some generals only speculate on dates – a sound precaution in the Syrian war – but General Khadour does not hesitate to tell me that he will reach and “liberate” Deir ez-Zour by the end of August, just 30 days away. Why not? He was head of the security and military headquarters in the eastern region of Syria – including the surrounded city – until he was flown north to fight Isis and Nusrah around Hassakeh. He will, no doubt, resume his duties there when his army breaks the siege.

“I and General Mohamed Sbeh here,” he says – Sbeh, Khadour’s subordinate officer, sits, rotund and narrow-eyed, listening like a fox to his left – “told the people of Deir ez-Zour we would come back for them, and we shall. That is what I am doing. We have got a third of the way. We have just 130 kilometres to reach Deir ez-Zour.”

An Isis radio station went on the air a few days ago and many of the soldiers heard it. “They said they were still winning and our soldiers in the desert heard it,” General Khadour said. “Isis said: ‘We have captured a major in the army and destroyed a tank of the regime and killed a lot of ‘pigs’ [soldiers].’ We all laughed. It was a lie. We have no one captured; we have not lost a tank. We are winning.”

But the Syrians are of course taking casualties. On a small hill captured only 24 hours earlier, General Sbeh told me he had two soldiers “martyred”, one of them an officer, and others wounded. But he said that Isis was now retreating to Mayadeen, along with some of their families.

These Syrian officers are dismissive of American power – their army has certainly advanced in the desert faster than the US-supported and largely Kurdish “Syrian Democratic Forces” east of the Euphrates when they approached Raqqa – and dismissively list the American airbases on Syrian soil.

“We know their bases are outside Hasakeh, and at Al-Ermeilan, Al-Shedadeh and Ein al-Arab [Kobani] and other places – but these are temporary,” Khadour says. “They cannot stay there.”

The general says he will never retire – like many soldiers, I suspect he likes fighting too much – and he says he will never give up till the end of his life. We first met in Aleppo five years ago when he was defending the middle-class Saef al-Dawla district. “We did not know whom we were fighting then,” he says.

“They had no tactics and we had much to learn. Then they would start getting sophisticated equipment from the West and we had to adopt our tactics. Now we are fighting in the desert.”

And therein runs a tale. For the Syrian Army was trained – always – to fight Israel on the Golan Heights, to go to war in cooler climates, to head south. But now it is fighting its way east in arid lands that resemble those of the Iran-Iraq war – indeed, of the Second World War in Egypt and Libya – and it has become a desert army.

Khadour ponders this for some time and then looks across the destroyed modern metropolis of Palmyra. In Roman antiquity, Queen Zenobia ruled this ancient city, infuriating the empire with her arrogance and independence. No civilian has returned to Palmyra.

The general gazes across the smashed hotels and villas and shops and laughs mirthlessly. “Why did Zenobia ever come here?” he asks.

Note: Today, July 31, 2017,  the defeated Al Nusra in Lebanon by Hezbollah will be boarding buses to be transferred to Idleb

The Syrian army were standing up to Isis long before the Americans ever fired a missile

The survivors of this army, and their families will expect their sacrifice to be respected and, indeed, rewarded

I don’t like armies. They are dangerous institutions. Soldiers are Not heroes just because they fight.

And I’ve grown tired of saying that those who live by the sword sometimes die by the sword.

In an age when the Americans and the Iraqis and Isis can account for 40,000 civilian deaths in Mosul in the past twelve months, compared to 50,000 civilians slaughtered by the Mongols in 13th-century Aleppo – a human rights improvement of US aircrews, Iraqi brutality and Isis sadism over the Mongol hordes by a mere 10,000 souls – death sometimes seems to have lost its meaning.

(Current civilian deaths are committed by cowards, from long range rifles and drones and tanks. As for the number advanced of 50,000 civilians slaughtered by the Mongols in 13th-century Aleppo it is overrated and symbolic: it meant “we will exterminate any city that resists us”. There were never such a huge number in cities and impossible to kill that many with the sword)

Unless you know the victims or their families.

I have a friend whose mother was murdered in the Damascus suburb of Harasta near the start of the Syrian war, another whose brother-in-law was kidnapped east of the city and never seen again.

I met a little girl whose mother and small brother were shot down by al-Nusrah killers in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, and a Lebanese who believes his nephew was hanged in a Syrian jail.

And then, this month, in the eastern Syrian desert, near the dust-swept shack village of al-Arak, a Syrian soldier I’d come to know was killed by Isis.

He was a soldier in the army of the Syrian regime. He was a general in an army constantly accused of war crimes by the same nation – the United States – whose air strikes contributed so generously to the obscene massacre in Mosul.

But General Fouad Khadour was a professional soldier and he was defending the oil fields of eastern Syria – the crown jewels of Syria’s economy, which was why Isis tried to occupy them all and why they killed Khadour – and the war in the desert is not a dirty war like so many of the conflicts perpetrated in Syria.

When I met him west of Palmyra, Isis had just conquered the ancient Roman city and publicly chopped or blown off the heads of the civilians and soldiers and civil servants who did not manage to flee.

Just a year before, the general’s son, also a soldier, had been shot dead in battle in Homs.

Fouad Khadour merely nodded when I mentioned this. He wanted to talk about the war in the hot, brown mountains south of Palmyra, where he was teaching his soldiers to fight back against the Isis suicide attackers, to defend their isolated positions around the oil pumping and electricity transmission station where he was based, and to save the T4 pipelines on the road to Homs.

The Americans, who proclaimed Isis to be an “apocalyptic” force, sneered that the Syrian army did not fight Isis. But Khadour and his men were standing up to Isis before the Americans ever fired a missile, and learning the only lesson that soldiers can understand when confronted by a horrific enemy: not to be afraid.

Khadour admitted his losses but recounted with quiet horror how, in an attack on a cave complex in the mountains, his soldiers found that Isis had left women’s clothes behind them when they retreated.

I don’t understand, I said. “Nor did I,” the general replied. “Then we realised they probably belonged to the Yazidi women sex slaves whom Daesh [Isis] had abducted in Iraq.”

Then the Syrians, supported by massive Russian air attacks on Isis, poured back into Palmyra and recaptured the city and I met General Khadour again in the concrete hut which he had turned into his headquarters between a 13th-century Mamluke castle and a mountain chain.

He had led his soldiers into Palmyra under constant mortar attack. Many of them had died stepping on the mines which Isis had so artfully laid beneath apparently well-trodden dirt roads. Khadour was himself wounded by mine splinters although he made more fuss about the fierce scorpion bites which he now endured each night in his concrete hut.

He was also outraged at the media. “We had a television crew come to Palmyra after the battle,” he said, “and the journalist asked us to restage the fighting – so that the reporter could pretend to have been present at the time!” And he shook his head mournfully.

They were not a Western television crew, he added. He said the war would go on, that there was far more fighting to be done in the desert. We took a photograph of him sitting in his fatigues in the desert heat beside a torn camouflage screen. He looked amused, tired perhaps, a man who had learnt a lot about the desert. He had almost exactly a year to live.

Isis returned to Palmyra and were driven out once more and then, months later, the great battle began to push Isis towards the Euphrates.

I wanted to talk to Khadour again. He was now fighting east of Palmyra in the hills around al-Arak. A friend called him at his home above Lattakia – yes, he was an Alawite although most of his men were Sunni Muslims – where he was briefly on leave, to say I wanted to see him. He now had just two days to live.

Fouad Khadour’s superior officer bore the same family name – he was General Mohamed Khadour, who is commander of the entire eastern military region – though they were not related. He took me out to the hills where Khadour was killed.

These are his words: “I and my colleague were talking to Fouad on the phone where he was under attack near the Ramamin [oil] field and we went off to see him to talk about the operation. We saw him on a hill organising his troops at al-Arak. He walked towards the road where we stopped and Isis were firing mortars at us which landed near us. They knew who they were shooting at. We gave our plans to Fouad. I said we should temporarily evacuate this area. When we got back to our vehicle, Fouad came to say goodbye. But just after we drove away, a tank shell exploded beside him. We heard that he was hit in the hand. I tried to call him on his phone and he tried to talk but could not speak.

He was on the line because I could see his name on the phone screen. They got him to hospital and he kept saying “it’s just my hand” and he was quite clear-headed. But then they discovered a piece of shrapnel had entered his body and punctured his lung. And then he declined and his breathing started to falter and after an hour he was dead. He was a hero and a very brave man.”

The regime’s enemies would deny this – as they curse all of Assad’s army – but it is a fact that General Fouad Khadour died fighting the same murderous cult that Russia, America and France and countless Western countries have named as their greatest enemy.

That so many of Isis’s weapons turn out to have originated in the West – both the living General Khadour and the dead General Khadour spoke of this to me – provides a cruel irony to this story.

The tank which fired at Fouad Khadour might have been Syrian armour captured early in the war – or an American Abrams seized by Isis in Mosul in 2014 and driven into Syria as many other US tanks were.

A car bomb explodes in Beirut:

And Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my apartment…

Shannon Gormley,

a journalist currently based in Beirut, posted this Sept. 23, 2013 “Why I spent several minutes hiding on the floor of my Beirut apartment….”

When the explosions shattered the June night, my first thought was that maybe I shouldn’t have come to Beirut.

My second thought was that my boyfriend needed to move away from the bedroom window.

Now. I screamed at him to get down, and he dropped to the ground like a brick.

Before I ever hid under a duvet cover in a Lebanese apartment building, I lived in Vancouver for several years during and after my MA, followed by a brief sojourn in Toronto. I studied democratic education and wanted to work in Afghanistan.

Instead, I worked in Vancouver and a good friend from my undergraduate days took a development job in Kabul. We both pretended that I’d made the better life choice.

I would brag about Vancouver’s ocean spray, he would complain about Kabul’s high concentration of airborne fecal matter particles.

Photo of a soldier standing near a pizza advertisement.

The view from my apartment in Beirut earlier this summer

“Is Vancouver still glorious?” he’d ask wryly. “Why doesn’t the rest of the world just move there?”

A joke, but also a good question.

Vancouver has everything: sea, rainforest, mountains, organic granola. Still, my friend would never have lived there for the same reason that I’d eventually move away: it’s too far from where the things that matter happen.

After Vancouver, my first move was to Toronto, a city that at least pretends to be the centre of the universe. There, I reported on how to make digital photos look like they’re from the 1970s and on whether gift cards are awesome, or really awesome.

Canada has problems of its own, but the world probably won’t need to understand the core of them in 25 years.

That will not be true of the problems in the Middle East. To whom is that a compliment or an insult? Who knows.

Either way, with that thought in mind—and two suitcases full of long dresses that would soon look pitifully prudish in Beirut’s parade of designer minis—I finally boarded a plane to Lebanon.

When I arrived, the flames of Syria’s civil war were licking at the border; refugees were setting the country’s tolerance levels ablaze, rockets were being fired into Beirut’s suburbs in protest of Hezbollah’s support for Assad. For my family and friends, that was reason for me to turn around; for me, it was reason to stay.

Robert Fisk, the indomitable journalist who brought Lebanon to the world during the nation’s civil war, said that being a journalist is like peering into a smoking volcano without choking on ash or being swept away by lava.

Being an aid worker like my friend means that you have to crawl right in the crater: he’d been brought to Afghanistan, he said, to put out fires. “I’m endeavoring not to get terribly burned myself,” he’d added.

I’m not the type to play with fire, however. I’ve been called many things, but reckless isn’t one of them; neither is badass or tough. I wear floral-print cardigans, not combat boots. I weep with abandon at Tim Hortons commercials.

I’m afraid of spiders, heights, hot sauce that’s labeled three chili peppers or more, failure, men with aggression issues and—yes, YTV—the dark. Star Trek is the closest thing to violent television that I’ve ever liked, and even then, I prefer the holodeck episodes and any time that Data plays with his cat.

More to the point, I’ve made peace with my inner coward. I don’t want to be a reckless badass; I want to be alive. And yet, I’m living here. Not in spite of the fact that “something could happen,” but because it may.

For if you are one of the many of us—I suspect there are many of us—while friends and family hope that nothing will happen, and while the better, not-psychotic part of you hopes that nothing will happen, a secret but insistent part of you—a part that also doesn’t want anything to happen—very badly hopes that you’re around to bear witness to it if it does happen.

That part of you is exactly why you are where you are, if where you are is a conflict zone and why you are who you are, if who you are is a journalist.

Not because you like danger.

Not because you like thrills.

Not because you have something to prove. But because you have something important to understand and—once it’s understood well enough that you have graduated from extremely ignorant to moderately ignorant—something to tell.

Two years after my friend had moved to Afghanistan, I was still in Vancouver. I told him that raising chickens in your backyard was becoming all the rage.

“People raise chickens in their backyards here too,” he said. “Because of crushing poverty.” (My brother-in law is such a bother that he is raising 100 fowl in my backyard against my will, though I never saw him eating an egg or slaughtering a fowl for his family or mine).

But my friend’s greatest scorn was wisely reserved for many westerners in conflict zones. After two years of living in a war—or, more accurately, as he frequently reminded me in response my frightened emails, much like those my friends now send me, a compound—he was entitled to deride 24-year-old development workers who take selfies in front of tanks, who, he said, were in the Middle East “for the experience.”

I remember that warning often. If you’re a writer, you go everywhere for the experience. The trick is to look for the experiences that matter, and to share them in a way that honours their significance.

Usually, the only thing experienced in Lebanon is life. The greatest dangers that most expats face are Beiruti drivers’ collective aversion to traffic lights and Beiruti bartenders’ alarmingly generous shots of gin.

But once in a while, you catch a whiff of smoke. Sometimes, it doesn’t signal fire, but burning embers that can alight in a moment. When I visited Tripoli in July, gunshots were fired across the street. An aid worker politely ignored my mad dash for the door. “Don’t worry, it’s a bunch of middle school kids. They’re just celebrating the end of exams.”

Other times, the fire seems more serious. My boyfriend and I were travelling through Europe while the world talked about invading Syria, and Lebanon was talking about what that meant. The conversation was over by the time we returned to Beirut. Here, we ran into a talented journalist friend, also from Canada, who told us that it had been scary for a while. That things almost happened before they didn’t.

“We left at the wrong time,” I said.

She nodded, but paused before replying. “Or the right time.” We all shrugged.

In the moment of fear, every human being wants to feel safe. But for some, before the moment strikes and after it passes, the feelings are more complicated. Because if you’re not afraid, then you’re probably not standing on top of an active volcano. You’re just on a mountain, and you may as well be in Vancouver.

Maybe that’s why my boyfriend and I peeled ourselves off the hardwood floor while the sky exploded above our heads like a bag of burnt popcorn; why we remembered that we hadn’t come to Beirut to hide under the bed; and why our massive relief was tempered by more than just embarrassment when we finally caught sight of the threat: fireworks.


I’m already tired of the ‘lessons’ of Chilcot. What can we learn from a report that ignores Iraqis?

A midget report on a midget man.

The Iraqis were not allowed to give evidence

If Blair and Bush were sincere about the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, they would have invaded North Korea

Robert Fisk@indyvoices. Thursday 7 July 2016

So where are the Titans now? I’ve often asked that question but today, I realise, Blair wanted to be a Titan. Up there with the Churchills and the Roosevelts and Titos and – dare I suggest – the Stalins.

Men who made the earth move. Maybe that’s why Chilcot’s achievement was not to prove that Blair was a war criminal but that he was a midget.

Just take that cringing quotation to Bush on 28 July 2002. “I will be with you, whatever.” Sure, we understand the political importance of this tosh. Blair was trying to sound Titan-like. but proved in legal terms that what he meant was: I will be with you – whatever the British people think.

But it’s got deeper roots than that. I have a hunch this was the Blair version of the infinitely more powerful words of Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s personal representative to wartime Britain, who – exhausted, but asked to speak to an audience in Glasgow – looked down the room at Churchill and tried to express his love for the great man’s stand against Hitler and Roosevelt’s support for Britain as she stood alone against Nazi Germany.

Hopkins quoted the Bible. Churchill wept as he spoke. “Whither thou goest,” Hopkins said, “I will go… Even unto the end.”

And the best our little Tony could say was: “I will be with you, whatever.” It’s the “whatever” bit that gives the game away, of course; a kind of tossed-out line, the midget’s version of “even unto the end”, an “aw-shucks come-hell-or-high-water, you can rely on me”.

And this, remember, was not a spokesman for the US president telling the British prime minister that he could depend on America. Wee Tony tweaked the whole sorry quotation to turn himself into Roosevelt, and Bush into Churchill.

So earnest was he in the imitative role he had constructed for himself that Blair could not see, when he used these words, that they undermined any moral foundation the future invasion of Iraq might have had in British eyes.

But I’m already tired of the “lessons” of the Chilcot report.

We must learn from what we did wrong, we mustn’t do it again – Cameron repeated the same doggerel, although he might apply it to his own knavish Brexit tricks – and we really must get it right before we blunder into more wars that cost hundreds of British lives, millions of dollars and tens of thousands of other chaps who got in the way but don’t feature as human beings in the Chilcot report.

That’s the real problem, I fear, with the flagellation of Lord Blair.

Yes, he sure was a nasty piece of work, lying to us Brits and then lying to us again after Chilcot was published, and then waffling on about faith and “the right thing to do” when we all know that smiting vast numbers of innocent people – and even bringing about the smiting of a vaster number of the very same Muslims, Christians and Yazidis up to this very day – was a very bad thing to do.

For these victims – anonymous and almost irrelevant in the Chilcot report – we cannot say “even unto the end”, because they are dying unto the present day.

The real “end” for these victims cometh not even yet.

But here’s an underlying dishonesty about Chilcot’s reflection on Blair’s dishonesty.

The evidence of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) was not strong enough, but it was – according to Lord Blair – still worth getting rid of Saddam.

But surely if he was really sincere about the dangers of WMDs, he and Bush would have invaded a nation which undeniably did possess and boasted about them: North Korea, Israel, Pakistan…

Now there’s a crazed dictatorship, butchering its own people, threatening the world – in 2003, just as today – yet not once has anyone, let alone Blair, suggested we should invade North Korea even unto the end and all the way up to the Yalu river.

And we know why.

Because North Korea really does have WMDs.

Lord Blair and Bush would never have dared consider a military adventure against the beloved Kim Jong-un. For the same reason, Blair would never have advocated the invasion of a Muslim nation which is packed with Islamist extremists who knife, shoot and burn to death their infidel enemies and who also possess nuclear weapons, WMDs writ large and boasted about and tested: Pakistan.

I’m leaving out here a peace-loving Middle East nation which possesses even more nuclear weapons than Pakistan and North Korea combined (Israel), but mercifully treats all those it occupies with immense respect, never steals their land and always treats those others with whom it comes into contact during colonisation projects with total respect for their human rights. (Total ironic comment)

Yet why not mention, for that matter, the Iranians? Blair has an odd habit of targeting enemies which are also hated by the aforesaid peace-loving nation – and would presumably like to assault before they actually are able to possess nuclear weapons and therefore immediately become un-invadeable.

Poor old Saddam, he told the truth – that he didn’t have WMDs – and thus doomed both himself and the poor old Iraqis to mass death.

And that’s the point, isn’t it?

The Arabs of Iraq – and now Syria – endure human disaster on an unprecedented scale because of the Blair-Bush lies, yet all Chilcot can produce with his 7 years of literary endeavour and volumes to break the strength of any library shelf is a puny little domestic report on British politics and the self-righteousness of the midget who got it all wrong.

We weep for our British military martyrs, for such is how the Arabs refer to their wartime dead, yet scarcely a single suffering Arab was to be heard in the aftermath of Chilcot.

The Iraqis were not allowed to give evidence; the dead Muslims and Christians of Iraq had no-one to plead for the integrity of their lives. Had their case been made, Chilcot’s report would have gone on to the crack of doom.

It would have been longer than the Holy Bible, the Holy Koran, the entire corpus of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Shakespeare and Dante – though the latter’s circles of hell would certainly have caught the measure of the suffering of Iraq and Syria.

No. It was, in reality, a midget report on a midget man.

That’s why, if we brought in the real human beings called Iraqis, their evidence would have indeed been worth a Nuremburg trial.

And yet, in the end, weren’t the ranks of obsequious, strutting, lying and defeated Nazis on the bench at Nuremburg also midgets? Even unto the end. Whatever.

Robert Fisk: The immortality of a great, if flawed, historian

August 13, 2011 (Note the date)

Note: A couple of days ago, Amine Maaluf gave an interview to an insignificant Israeli channel i24. I still couldn’t get hold of a transcript in English, French or Arabic in order to write about it. However, there was an uproar in Lebanon over this interview: The gist of it is that Amine is wooing the Zionist lobbies and Israel with an eye for the purpose of snatching a Nobel for literature. More often than not, Nobel awards for Peace or Literature are highly politicized.

How many of the Nato admirals fighting the beast of Tripoli realise the origin of their title?

“Admiral” comes from the French amiral, which comes from the Arabic amir al-bahr which means “Master of the Sea”.

Our own “First Sea Lord” captures the original rather well. Then there’s the Spanish hero El Cid which comes from the Arabic el-sayed (“the Lord”). We eat lemon sorbet which comes from the Arabic charbat. We lie down on a mattress which originates with the Arabic matrah. And so on.

Amin Maalouf is promising an extensive study of etymology when, as a new member of the “Immortals” – he has just been elected to the Académie Française in Paris – he puts his Arab-European culture to good use at its Thursday meetings.

If the French have banned the burka, they might as well know that matraque (truncheon) comes from the Arabic matraq. Maalouf is better known in France than Britain, although many will have admired his wonderful novels, among them The Rock of Tanios, a grim, painfully accurate account of sectarian life in Lebanon’s Chouf mountains and colonial interference in the Levant.

However, I believe his finest work is The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, a non-fiction account of the first “war of civilisation” drawn mostly from Arab rather than European documents. It revealed how the starving knights of Christendom ate their dead Muslim victims near the Syrian city of Homs. Even Assad’s lads haven’t quite resorted to this.

Now Maalouf returns with more non-fiction, Disordered World, Setting a Course for the 21st Century, and I fear for his reputation.

The New York Times puffed him as “the clear, calm, cogent and persuasive voice from the Arab world that the West has been waiting for”.

Well, not quite. Maalouf, a Maronite Christian who has spent the past 30 years in self-imposed exile in Paris, admits that “I am not a specialist on the Muslim world, still less an Islamic scholar”.

Perhaps for this reason, his view of the Middle East-Western world is dizzying yet deeply flawed. When he says that “the end of the balance of terror has created a world obsessed with terror”, I can only agree. Yet when he tells us that “rich or poor, arrogant or downtrodden, occupiers or occupied, they are – we are – all aboard the same fragile raft and we are all going down together”, I can only say that this is nonsense.

The Palestinians who are occupied by the Israelis and the Israelis who are occupying the West Bank are not in the “same fragile raft”.

One lot have won (for now). The other lot have lost.

The real question – in the case of Palestine – is whether the Israelis will stop stealing Palestinian land that does not belong to them, upon which they are building colonies for Israelis, and Israelis only, against all international law.

It is worth reflecting – as Maalouf does not – that back in 1983, he was part of a Lebanese delegation which visited Israel for Amin Gemayel, when the Lebanese president was going along with America’s hopeless desire for an Israeli-Lebanese peace agreement. Maalouf inspected the damage caused by Palestinian Katyusha rockets to the Jewish town of Kiryat Shmona.

I can see why he has buried himself in the idea of “both sides losing“, but there is a moral, ethical side to this which seems to be missing from Maalouf’s writing. In 1982, the Israelis in Lebanon had inflicted infinitely more suffering (17,500 dead, mostly Lebanese civilians) than the Palestinians had caused in Israel.

(And Israel continued to occupy South Lebanon till 2000, with hundreds more casualties, when they had to withdraw without any negotiations or conditions)

(There is a difference between the right of “Know your existential enemy” and cooperating with the enemy at any level)

When it comes to democracies, Maalouf tells us that he doesn’t “know many which function better” than America’s. Really?

And when he asks himself whether “in the course of the past few decades have the Americans and Israelis not borne a more specific responsibility” for the world’s decline, the answer “probably” is not good enough.

But he is a friendly soul. I met him many years ago, just after the publication of The Rock of Tanios, at a Maronite monastery high in the fog-covered early summer hills of the Metn, where monks offered the most devastating arak with breakfast.

A slightly chubby, humorous man, Maalouf looked like what he was and is: a great author.

As a political animal, however, he sometimes sounds like a boring prelate.

“My profound [sic] conviction,” he tells us, “is that too much weight is placed on the influence of religion on people, and too little on the influence of people on religion.” This may impress “Immortals” but not, I suspect, us ordinary folk. But let’s not be too hard on the great man.

“No serious observer,” he writes, “who has combed through the accounts of meetings at which the decision to go to war [in Iraq in 2003] was taken has reported the slightest evidence to suggest the real motive was to install democracy in Iraq.”

Instead, the US created a system of political representation based on religious or ethnic origin. “That the great US democracy brought the Iraqi people this poisoned gift of sacrosanct communitarianism is a shame and an indignity.”

And then the Maalouf “coup”. He is astonished to find “the leader of the Western democracies wondering at the dawn of the 21st century if it might not be a good idea after all to support the emergence of democratic regimes in Egypt, Arabia, Pakistan… But this fine idea was soon forgotten… the country of Abraham Lincoln reached the conclusion that all this was much too risky… free elections would bring the most radical elements to power… Democracy would have to wait.”

Let’s hope the other “Immortals” listen to that.

Note: I read all of Maaluf works, except the latest one Sitting on the banks of the River Seine, and wrote extensive reviews on them. When it comes to offering opinions, like in Disordered World and  Setting a Course for the 21st Century, Maaluf blackens half the book with lame excuses on the ground that he is Not an expert on the subject matter.

No!  Rich and poor are Not in the same boat. The thousands of migrants fleeing war-torn countries and drowning in seas are Not in the same leisure boats of the rich and powerful.

David Cameron silent on the recapture of Palmyra? (March 31, 2016)

The biggest military defeat that ISIS has suffered in more than two years. The recapture of Palmyra, the Roman city of the Empress Zenobia.

And we are silent. Yes, folks, the bad guys won, didn’t they? Otherwise, we would all be celebrating, wouldn’t we?

Less than a week after the lost souls of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ destroyed the lives of more than 30 innocent human beings in Brussels, we should – should we not? – have been clapping our hands at the most crushing military reverse in the history of Isis.

But no. As the black masters of execution fled Palmyra this weekend, Messers Obama and Cameron were as silent as the grave to which Isis have dispatched so many of their victims.

He who lowered our national flag in honour of the head-chopping king of Arabia (I’m talking about Dave, of course) said not a word.

Najat Rizk shared a link.
Robert Fisk: Why is David Cameron silent on the recapture of Palmyra?
The biggest military defeat that isis has suffered in more than two years.
As my long-dead colleague on the Sunday Express, John Gordon, used to say, makes you sit up a bit, doesn’t it? Here are the Syrian army, backed, of course, by Vladimir Putin’s Russkies, chucking the clowns of Isis out of town, and we daren’t utter a single word to say well done.
When Palmyra fell last year, we predicted the fall of Bashar al-Assad. We ignored, were silent on, the Syrian army’s big question: why, if the Americans hated Isis so much, didn’t they bomb the suicide convoys that broke through the Syrian army’s front lines? Why didn’t they attack Isis?
“If the Americans wanted to destroy Isis, why didn’t they bomb them when they saw them?” a Syrian army general asked me, after his soldiers’ defeat
His son had been killed defending Homs. His men had been captured and head-chopped in the Roman ruins.
The Syrian official in charge of the Roman ruins , 70 years old (of which we cared so much, remember?) was himself beheaded. Isis even put his spectacles back on top of his decapitated head, for fun. And we were silent then.

Putin noticed this, and talked about it, and accurately predicted the retaking of Palmyra. His aircraft attacked Isis – as US planes did not – in advance of the Syrian army’s conquest.

I could not help but smile when I read that the US command claimed two air strikes against Isis around Palmyra in the days leading up to its recapture by the regime. That really did tell you all you needed to know about the American “war on terror”. They wanted to destroy Isis, but not that much.

So in the end, it was the Syrian army and its Hezbollah chums from Lebanon and the Iranians and the Russians who drove the Isis murderers out of Palmyra, and who may – heavens preserve us from such a success – even storm the Isis Syrian ‘capital’ of Raqqa.

 I have written many times that the Syrian army will decide the future of Syria. If they grab back Raqqa – and Deir el-Zour, where the Nusrah front destroyed the church of the Armenian genocide and threw the bones of the long-dead 1915 Christian victims into the streets – I promise you we will be silent again.

Aren’t we supposed to be destroying Isis? Forget it. That’s Putin’s job. And Assad’s.

Pray for peace, folks. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? And Geneva. Where is that, exactly?

Saudi Arabia turns on Lebanon for its unfaithfulness and lack of gratitude after decades of largesse

After pouring billions into rebuilding the country following successive Israeli invasions and air raids, the Saudis find that they cannot prevent the Shia from expressing their fury at Riyadh

If you drive from Sunni Muslim Sidon to Shia Muslim southern Lebanon, you can travel from Saudi Arabia to Iran in 10 minutes.

Sidon – like Lebanon’s other great Sunni majority city, Tripoli – has always basked in the favour of the Saudi monarchy. (How that? What Sidon got for example from the Saudi kingdom?)

The south, with its mass of Hezbollah fighters – armed and paid for by Tehran, its “martyr” photographs plastered across the walls of every village – has long been a lung through which Saudi Arabia’s Iranian enemies breathe. (you mean the allies of Israel and the enemies of Israel?)

But now Saudi Arabia, blundering into the civil war in Yemen and threatening to send its overpaid but poorly trained soldiers into Syria, has turned with a vengeance on Lebanon for its unfaithfulness and lack of gratitude after decades of Saudi largesse.

(What kinds of largess, again? The people never got a dime, if any money were lavished)

After repeatedly promising to spend £3.2bn on new French weapons for the well-trained but hopelessly under-armed Lebanese army, Saudi Arabia has suddenly declined to fund the project – which was eagerly supported by the US and, for greedier reasons, by Paris.

Along with other Gulf states, Riyadh has told its citizens not to visit Lebanon or – if they are already there – to leave. Saudi Airlines is supposedly going to halt all flights to Beirut. Lebanon, according to the Saudis, is a centre of “terror”.

What prompted all this spite was a ferocious attack on the House of Saud by Hezbollah’s chairman, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, whose battalions are fighting and dying alongside the regular Syrian army in Syria and killing the Islamist Al Qaeda rebels and those of ISIS who share a Sunni Wahabi salafist faith with the Saudis.

After pouring billions into Lebanon for decades – rebuilding the country after successive Israeli invasions and air raids – the Saudis find that they cannot prevent the Shia, whose government representatives include Hezbollah party members (just 2 ), from expressing their fury at Riyadh, especially after the Kingdom chopped the head off the popular and learned Saudi Shia cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.

(Not accurate: Nasr Allah lambasted the Saudi Kingdom 2 days after the launching of pre-emptive war in Yemen. And never desisted and promised to keep challenging the wrongdoing and brutalities of the Saudi Kingdom))

Why, the Saudis say, did Lebanon not even join in the chorus of condemnation against Iran when Saudi diplomats were assaulted in Tehran? (Lebanon condemned the burning of the Saudi embassy in Tehran in many occasions)

The Saudis will probably regret this assault.

Pulling Lebanon’s financial magic carpet away opens the country up to other “friends”, not least Iran which, according to the latest Beirut reports, would be happy to fund the Lebanese army to the tune of £7bn – providing, of course, the newly purchased weapons come from Tehran, and not from Paris.

The Americans and the British, desperate to prop up the secular Lebanese army with enough weapons to protect the country from Isis – which briefly took over the north-eastern Lebanese town of Ersal and still holds nine Lebanese soldiers captive – are pleading with the Saudis to keep their original £3.2bn promise.

But this latest crisis since the last greatest crisis in the drama of Lebanon – which currently has no president and no proper functioning parliament and not even a rubbish collection – is not without its own unique comedy.

Saudis will find no problem in abandoning Saudi Airlines’s lacklustre hospitality en route to Beirut in favour of the infinitely more luxurious aircraft of Emirates Airlines.

And warnings of “terror” are not going to stop Saudis desperate for the fleshpots of the Levant from travelling to Beirut once the temperatures boil up in the streets of Riyadh and Jeddah.

The nightclubs and high-class sex workers of Lebanon will not fall victim to the aggressive politics of the Kingdom’s young and newly powerful princes. And then there is the case of “Prince Captagon”, the Saudi royal family member still in a Lebanese prison for allegedly trying to smuggle tons of drugs on to his private jet at Beirut airport last year.

The moment he was arrested, the Saudi ambassador to Lebanon called up the Lebanese foreign minister and haughtily announced that his immediate release was a “political” imperative. (Mind you that traders in drugs are punished by death, except the royal family members)

The Sunni Lebanese Future Movement’s leader and former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, is a Saudi citizen – as was his assassinated ex-prime minister father Rafiq – and is now quite taken aback by the wilful actions of a nation to which he has always given as much allegiance as he has to Lebanon.

The Future Movement, it seems, did not try hard enough to ameliorate Lebanon’s official criticism of Saudi Arabia in the Arab League and should have prevented Hezbollah from destabilising Yemen and Bahrain – even though there is no physical proof that either Hezbollah or Iran have actually been involved in the Yemeni war or the Shia revolt against the Bahraini autarchy, where a Sunni king rules over a Shia majority.

Needless to say, the Sunnis of Tripoli are issuing proclamations of their undying gratitude to the Saudi royal family for the ceaseless flow of dollars which has smothered them in years gone by. (Is Fisk being ironic in his superlatives of largess?)

Sheikh Mohammed Yazbek, the head of Hezbollah’s Shariah Council, insisted that it was the Saudis who should apologise to Lebanon which “has always been on the side of the Arab nation”.

The country, he said – and this was a prim way of alluding to the Saudis’ abiding interest in the sleazier side of Lebanon’s entertainment industry – was “not a farm for the al-Saud family and others”. But the Hezbollah have their own sniffy way of reacting to insults.

“Spontaneous” Shia protest demonstrations  were held in the southern suburbs of Beirut when a local television station lampooned the unassailable Sayyed Nasrallah. A cartoon had depicted the Hezbollah leader proclaiming his total and absolute denial of all Iranian influence – until a hand marked “Iran” appeared from the left-hand side of the screen, at which point the cartoon Nasrallah slobbered all over it.

The truth is that the Saudis are publicly praised and secretly reviled across the Muslim Middle East because they are very rich and most of their fellow Arabs, comparatively, are very poor. (Not accurate: it is Not the money, but the way the Saudi Kingdom consider all others as slaves to their orders and policies)

Generous the Saudis have been – propping up their favourite political causes, constantly repairing Lebanon, building hideous new mosques in Bosnia and spending in the casinos of Europe – but open-minded they are Not.

No wonder some in Beirut are asking whether, crushed by the collapse of oil prices, the cost of its Yemeni adventure and facing a lake of poverty among its own people, (even before the collapse of oil prices), Saudi Arabia isn’t simply running out of money.

In which case, a newly desanctioned Iran would be happy to take the monarchy’s place as the financial saviour of Lebanon – as well as play the new policeman of the Middle East, courtesy of the US.

Strange, isn’t it, that the name “Israel” hasn’t once popped up in this saga?

Shatila (Chatila) Camp survivors recollect the massacre: Of Sharon’s Beirut genocide in 1982

Alex  Rowell & Luna  Safwan posted this January 13, 2014 on Now

Sharon death only partial solace for Shatila survivors

NOW speaks with Palestinian survivors of the infamous 1982 massacre

SHATILA, Lebanon: On Monday afternoon, the recently-deceased former Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, was being laid to final rest in the Negev desert, where he was eulogized by national and international dignitaries as a “great leader” whose “memory will forever be kept in the nation’s heart.”

But in the mud-caked, bare-brick labyrinth of narrow alleyways in Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, some streets scarcely wide enough for one adult to pass, Sharon’s name was remembered by the Palestinian residents for something other than greatness.

A weapon of the massacre

“I was 12 years old at the time. I remember standing right here,” said one resident who gave his name only as Fadi, pointing to the rusted metal doorway of his apartment on one of the camp’s numberless streets. “It was nighttime, and there were lights flying high up in the air. And I was wondering, who’s making these lights? And why?”

It was September, 1982.

The answer to Fadi’s question is that the lights were flares, fired by Israeli troops who had occupied the city weeks earlier following a bloody ground and air assault campaign masterminded by then-Defense Minister Sharon.

The flares provided illumination for Lebanese militiamen, allied with Israel at the time, who entered the camp and committed perhaps the most infamous massacre of the 15-year civil war, in which over a thousand civilian men, women, and children were killed with the knowledge of the Israeli forces encircling the camp.

Many of the victims were raped and hacked with blades. An official Israeli inquiry later found Sharon “indirectly responsible” for the massacre and recommended that he be removed from his post. To his critics, he would forever be known as the “Butcher of Beirut” thenceforth.

On top of the wardrobe in his bedroom, 83-year-old Hajj Abu Ahmad al-Salhani still keeps a remarkable memento of the slaughter that nearly claimed his life. “This is one of the actual weapons they used on us,” he tells NOW, holding up an old workman’s tool with a hammer’s head on one end and an axe on the other.

Salhani becomes visibly agitated when recounting the events, fidgeting nervously with an intense stare in his grey eyes.

“I was in a taxi when it started,” he tells NOW. “When I got home, we started hearing people talk about a massacre happening. Later, I found out the taxi I was in was stopped at a checkpoint, and we never heard anything about the others in it again. The taxi driver’s name was Ahmad Hishme.”

“My sister lost her husband in that massacre. I was one of the lucky ones,” he adds, his eyes moistening.

67-year-old Hajj Abu Imad al-Masri had an equally near miss with the Lebanese militiamen.

“That night I saw women and children running, screaming about a massacre. Sharon’s forces were set and ready on the Kuwait embassy, along with the Saad Haddad militia [the ‘South Lebanon Army’]. They came in from al-Rihab Street with axes, and managed even to get to al-Gaza Hospital, where they slaughtered a lot of people.”

“We had small underground shelters, where we were able to hide families.” Even so, they weren’t always beyond the militiamen’s reach.

“I remember the story of a guy we called ‘the survivor,’” said Masri. “He was hiding along with 25 families in an underground shelter and insisted on going out to get cigarettes. They caught him [and] he ended up telling them about the shelter. They took all the men aside, took their wallets, and then made them all face a wall. They executed all of them, except ‘the survivor,’ who took 15 bullets but didn’t die.”

For all the pain still clearly evoked by the memory of the massacre, the Shatila residents with whom NOW spoke said Sharon’s death was of little consequence to their overall plight.

“Personally, I would rather he stayed in a coma,” said Ziad Himmo, general secretary of the camp’s Popular Committee. “Or was just tossed into a field, like what happens to our people.”

Asked if he would have wanted to see Sharon face trial for war crimes, Himmo told NOW this would be missing the point.

“It’s not just about Sharon. The whole Zionist state is the problem.”

“I have no feelings about the death of Sharon,” said Salhani. “What about Saad Haddad? And Antoine Lahad [Haddad’s successor]? A lot of people should be held accountable.”

The insinuation that justice was still yet to be served was summarized by Masri.

“Israel should be held accountable, and not only Sharon, which is why his death means nothing to me. But who will hold Israel accountable? The same countries trying to help it become stronger now?”

Note 1: Sharon of Israel

Note 2: Interview by Robert Fisk

Note 3: Anniversary of a genocide

A Neglectful government in Lebanon? Responsible for a migrants’ boat sinking off Indonesia?

We have no government for the last 6 months. The new appointed Prime Minister Salam has not been able to form any government, and is yet not ready to throw the towel and nobody can force him to step down from a responsibility he is not up to it.

The Parliament has extended its tenure for another 2 years, on the lame excuse that civil wars are raging on the borders…

A Neglectful government in Lebanon? With or without government, Lebanon political system is neglectful of its citizens, and women have no full citizenship…

This is the story of how the Syrian war reached out 5,000 miles across the globe and destroyed at least 29 Lebanese lives in the Indian Ocean.

It is a story of tragic irony; the destitute Lebanese families who wanted to live in Australia and left their arid villages in the hills of the northern Akkar plateau had been warned by their relatives not to leave their homes, and they died just off the coast of Indonesia.

And it is a story of a country whose authorities take no responsibility for the deaths of their own people

Robert Fisk published in The Independent this October 7, 2013 “A tragedy off the coast of Indonesia that should shame Lebanon’s neglectful government

The migrants’ boat carrying a dozen Lebanese heading to Australia sank. And the blame must start in Beirut.

The sinking of the overcrowded refugee boat that set off from the Java district of Cianjur 10 days ago cannot match the hundreds of fatalities of the north African boat that sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa last week, where up to 350 people are thought to have died and divers were still recovering bodies from the Mediterranean yesterday.

These disasters do not match in terms of scale or loss, but some features are the same: the desperation of the passengers to find a new life, the involvement of ruthless people-smugglers, the wooden hulks in which they sought illusory safety.

What is different is the nationality of the refugees. For Lebanon – of all Middle East countries – is a place of comparative security and wealth, despite the Syrian conflict and the violence it has brought to Beirut and Tripoli.

In some south-west Asian countries, television advertisements warn would-be asylum seekers of the fate that awaits them.

Scarcely an hour passes on an Afghan TV channel without an ominous man’s voice – against a black screen – telling viewers in Dari (Farsi) and Pashtun: “Australia is not a country to reach by boat. If you attempt to go by boat, you will not be allowed onto Australian territory. You will be sent to the island of Papua New Guinea and will never be allowed to live in Australia…”

No such warning has ever been broadcast on Lebanese television. There seemed to be no need.

Unlike the anonymous victims off Lampedusa, where there were too few coffins for the dead, the Lebanese who lost their lives and drifted ashore from the Indian Ocean have known identities.

Careful investigations by the local Lebanese press have discovered their Sunni Muslim home villages: Qabaait, Khreibet and Nabaa Fnaydaq, close to the Syrian border, and the Tripoli suburb of Bab el-Tabbaneh, whose militias have been at war with pro-Syrian Alawite gunmen east of the city for two years.

The remote hamlets astride the Bared river – which dribbles into the Mediterranean from the Palestinian Nahr Bared refugee camp – have been neglected for years by the Beirut government, no more so than now, when the political feuds between pro- and anti-Syrian Lebanese parties means that no new Lebanese cabinet can be created.

There are no schools in much of the Akkar countryside, few hospitals, almost no jobs.

The young men have no money to get married. Many of them are forced to join the Lebanese army in order to survive. The “outgoing” Lebanese government – elected in a poll now hopelessly out of date – didn’t care.

Almost an entire family were lost from Qabaait. The Khodr family’s only survivor was the father, Hussain, whose wife and 9 children all perished. The remains of his wife and one daughter were brought ashore.

In Tripoli, the Gamrawy and Hraz families lost their loved ones, while Talal Rai died with his 3 children and his sister.

Ahmed Abdo, the father of Mustafa who was 24 – who is still missing – borrowed $10,000 from his friends to pay for the journey to Australia; the total cost for each family was $60,000 to be paid to an Iraqi smuggler known as “Abu Saleh”.

Many relatives had begged the families not to leave. Abdo told one local paper that “my son is one of the good young boys who sought to live in peace. The economic and security problems we have suffered through forced him to emigrate and look for peace of mind”.

To the Lebanese government, Abdo declared: “You should look after your people, and your country, and enough of your disputes.”

A photograph survives of the passengers aboard their boat, sitting on rough, wooden benches in the choppy seas off Java. The picture is spotted with raindrops, but you can clearly see the doomed Lebanese aboard. One smiles broadly, another waves at the camera, most stare at the camera.

Behind them is a bleak, grey sky and a sinister, frothing sea. They are only minutes from death. We know that in the last moments, one Lebanese used his mobile phone to call a relative in Melbourne to seek help. The relative called the Australian naval authorities, who later launched helicopters and jets in a hopeless search for a boat that had already sunk.

But when the scale of the Lebanese losses reached Beirut – only 18 Lebanese survived – their pseudo-government sprang into action. It promised that survivors would be brought home, and that all those whose bodies were found would be brought back to be buried in the barren soil of their own land.

In fact, they spent more time making pledges about the dead than they did about the living. And what does that tell you about Lebanon?

Another story: Gamal Abdel Nasser’s wife memoirs

Tahia Nasser (wife of late Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser) appears to have been a typical Egyptian housewife. She worried about her kids’ health, thought her husband worked far too hard, delighted in her daughters’ marriages. Her dictator husband, Gamal Abdel Nasser, appears in her memoirs (now published for the first time in English) as a loving, faithful, reliable, doting spouse and father.

Not a hint that he hanged his enemies when they tried to kill him – no Muslim Brother would forget that – and the word “torture” does not appear on these pages.

Reading them, I kept remembering my old Egyptian colleague at Associated Press, the late Ali Mahmoud, who was hung upside down by Nasser’s goons and dipped head-first into a vat of warm faeces to make him talk. And I asked the usual question: could this be the same Nasser?

Tahia’s book – she died in 1992 after both Sadat and Mubarak had prevented its publication – is not exactly a rip-roaring read. But there are a few moments that bring you up short. Returning home on leave from the 1948 Arab-Israel war after sending his wife a series of letters assuring her of his good health, Nasser revealed that he had been wounded.

“I saw a fresh wound and stitching on the left side of his chest and asked him about it,” Tahia wrote. “He told me it was nothing, just a small wound. When I was unpacking his bag, I found a handkerchief, vest and shirt heavily soiled with blood.”

Nasser had been hit by an Israeli bullet which ricocheted off his vehicle’s windscreen. Before the 1952 revolution which overthrew King Farouk, Tahia found herself hiding rifles and ammunition in the family home – and for many weeks, it seems, thought nothing was amiss. Only when she was congratulated on her husband’s successful coup did she understand his role in history.

She blithely accepts the line that General Mohamed Neguib – a friend of Nasser and the first post-revolutionary president of Egypt – tried to stage his own coup against her husband. But Neguib’s own memoirs and subsequent research suggests that Colonel Nasser falsely accused his former senior officer in order to get rid of a rival.

Loyal to the end, Mrs Nasser was no tell-all widow.

Note: My niece Joanna in London commented:

“This is heartbreakingly tragic. My grandmother used to tell me stories of Lebanese who migrated to Africa after having been deceived with stories that the boat was heading to the USA, the land of freedom. Still they settled for Africa and became merchants. This was in the 1920s. So sad to hear that now in 2013, this is still happening and it’s costing people their lives.

Preaches a message of forgiveness: Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun

Robert Fisk published in The Independent this Sept.23, 2013

“I had five sons, now I have four”: Syria’s senior cleric pardons the rebels who killed his son

The Grand Mufti of Syria preaches a message of forgiveness

I met those men who assassinated my son Sania.  And they told me they didn’t even know whom they were killing.”

Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria, sits in a straight-backed chair, his immaculate white turban atop a narrow, intelligent and very troubled face.

His son Sania was a second-grade student at Aleppo University when he was shot dead getting into his car.

“I went to see the two men in the court and they said they’d just been given the number of the car’s registration plate, that they didn’t know whom they had killed until they went home and watched the news on television.”

I ask for his reaction to the men’s confession, and the Grand Mufti puts his hands over his eyes and weeps.

“He was only 21, my youngest son. It was October  10 last year. I am trying to forget that he is dead. In fact, I feel as if Sania is still living. On that day, he was to be betrothed to his future wife. She was a student of medicine, he was in the politics and economics department. ‘Sania’ in Arabic means ‘the highest point’.

The two men said that 15 in all were involved in planning my son’s death. They said they were told he was a very important man. I said to them: ‘I forgive you’.  And I asked the judge to forgive them. But he said they were guilty of 10 times as many crimes and must be judged.”

Sheikh Hassoun holds up a finger. “That same day I received an SMS message. It said: ‘We are not in need of your forgiveness.’

Then I heard on one of the news channels that the gang’s leader had said he would ‘judge the Mufti first. Then let him forgive us.’ So I sent a message: ‘I have never killed any man and I don’t intend to kill any man but I regard myself as a bridge of reconciliation. A Mufti must be a father to all. So what do you want to kill me for?’

“All the men involved were Syrians, from the countryside of Aleppo. They said they received their command from Turkey and Saudi Arabia, that they were each paid 50,000 Syrian pounds  (£350). This shows that my son’s killing was not out of doctrine or belief. The two killers were 18 or 19 only.”

So each man was paid the equivalent of £350; Sania Hassoun’s life was worth a total of just £700. “I had five sons,” the Mufti says. “Now I have four.”

Sheikh Hassoun is, you might say, government-approved – he prayed beside Bashar al-Assad in a Damascus mosque after a bomb warning – and his family, let alone he himself, was an obvious target for Syria’s rebels. But his courage and his message of reconciliation cannot be faulted. In whatever new Syria arises from the rubble, Sheikh Hussein should be there even if his President has gone.

And he speaks with remarkable frankness.

When I tell him that I fear the mukhabarat  (intelligence service in Syria) contaminates all it touches, including the institutions of government, he does not hesitate for a moment before replying.

“I suffered from the mukhabarat. I was taken from my post as a preacher from 1972 until 2000. I was taken from my position as Friday speaker in the Aleppo mosque and from lecturing on four occasions. The intelligence services all over the world are the same: they never look after the interest of the human being – they only look after their own institution. Sometimes the intelligence service can be against the president himself.”

And he asks whether it is not also true that the American intelligence services do not also spy on Americans and all of Europe, a difficult question – it must be said – to deny. “Let us put aside the Prophet Mohamed, Jesus and Moses – all the rest of the world are controlled by intelligence services.”

Unlike most Syrians, the Mufti looks forward rather than back. He prays for a Geneva 2 conference. “I am the Mufti of all Syrians – Sunni Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Druze – of all the diversity of sects we had before the war. There is no choice other than reconciliation; it is the only way back. But to offer reconciliation, we must eliminate the ‘external hand’ first.

“And if the neighbouring countries like Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon don’t try to make this same reconciliation, they will burn – the fire of crisis will flow to them, especially Turkey. For all Syrians, we are open for them to come back. The problem is those who came from outside Syria – especially from Iraq and Turkey – who came without visas over smugglers’ trails either to meet death or to overthrow the authorities here.”

A tougher Mufti emerges now. His sons’ killers, it transpires, are not the only prisoners of the regime that he has met. “I saw men after they were arrested,” he says. “Some were in tears. They said they thought they were on their way to fight in Palestine, not to fight in Syria.”

There are times – when Sheikh Hassoun speaks of an “external hand”, “elimination” and “criminal gangs” – when one hears His Master’s Voice. And on the question of sarin gas, he takes the government’s side of the story. He quotes Bashar al-Assad as saying he would never use gas against Syrians – that if he had used it, the war would not have gone on for two and a half years.

The first major use of gas came in March at Khan al-Assal in Aleppo province, near the Mufti’s residence, when at least 26 civilians suffocated to death. This is his version of what happened.

“Some of the farm labourers reported to me that all the terrorists in the area had suddenly left – the night before the attack – and had evacuated all their people. So the civilians were happy – they were civilians and many were the wives and children of soldiers – and so they went back at last to their homes. Then came the chemical missile attack. I said at that time, in March, that this event is just an experiment, that gas will be used again in other places.”

This, of course, is not a story the Americans want to hear.

Five months ago, the Mufti was invited to speak at George Mason and George Washington Universities in the United States and he travelled to Jordan for his visa. He says he was asked to go to the US embassy in Amman where he was interrogated by a woman diplomat from behind a glass screen.

“I was so insulted that I decided not to go and I left for Damascus the next morning.” A wise move. Sheikh Hassoun says that, the same day, one of his sons, who was in Amman, received a call from the embassy denying him a visa. “To be a secular Mufti,” the sheikh adds, “is dangerous.”

And it is true that the Mufti is a most secular man – he was even once an Assembly MP for Aleppo. “I am ready to go anywhere in the world to say that war is not a sacred deed,” he says. “And those who have fought under the name of Jesus, Mohamed or Moses are lying. Prophets come to give life, not death.

There is a history of building churches and mosques, but let us build human beings. Let us cease the language of killing. Had we paid all the funds of war to make peace, paradise would exist now. This is the message of my Syria.”

A dangerous man indeed.




June 2023

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