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Faking it for Assad

Syria’s chlorine chemical attack struck the Damascus suburb of Douma on 7 April, 2018 [Twitter]
Syria’s chemical attack struck the Damascus suburb of Douma on 7 April, 2018 [Twitter]

Dozens of conflicting columns about the chemical weapons attack on Douma have been churned out by a whole range of individuals, from untrained bloggers and Assad apologists to highly respected journalists who are admired universally for their independence and critical views. Their on-the-ground, I-was-there, observations have been penned to try and convince us of the truth as viewed through the eyes of each writer. The trouble is, those who lend unconditional support to Assad will willingly swallow any old tosh and then regurgitate it, while anyone who writes a different narrative is called a peddler of fake news.

I too have reported on the ground from Assad-controlled Syria and have also enjoyed the five star facilities offered to all journalists. This includes minders, translators and drivers who chauffeured us conveniently from A to B. The regime was so helpful back in 2010 that government media facilitators had people already lined up for us to interview, even those whom we "accidentally" bumped into on the street. You get the picture.

Of course, that was long before there was even a whiff of war breaking out in Syria. The point is, the Assad regime controlled everything tightly in peace time, so the facilitation of media access must be even more rigorously controlled and restrictive during hostilities.

The pro-Assad lobby has already seized upon Robert Fisk's exclusive about his "search for truth" in the rubble of Douma. In particular, they are emphasising his interview with a doctor who expresses doubts over the chemical attack and says that it was more likely a case of oxygen starvation caused by heavy shelling on a night of high winds which stirred up a dust storm. Fisk "found" the English-speaking Dr Assim Rahaibani after he shook off his government minders when he walked through the rubble strewn alleys of Douma.

While I have nothing but admiration for Fisk — a man who inspired me as a cub reporter with his harrowing eyewitness despatches from the Middle East; in particular his reports after the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982 — not even the great investigative journalist that he is could reach a definitive conclusion. During his day trip to Douma he noted that it had been cleared of rebels and White Helmet volunteers who had all chosen to be escorted out of town to Idlib, which is possibly fated to become the site of the rebels' last stand.

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Common sense, therefore, dictates that anyone left lurking in the rubble of Douma would either be from the regime itself or at least pro-Assad. The doctor who Fisk bumped into did, rather tellingly, refer to the fighters of Jaish Al-Islam as "terrorists". It's not a word he would have used to describe the rebels had he been anti-Assad, and if he was against the regime it would have been very unwise for him to hang around in Douma in any case.

A man, member of Syrian civil defense organization, White Helmets lets a white pigeon to fly for people who lost his life in chemical attack that in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on 22 August, 2017 [Amer Almohibany/Anadolu Agency]

A man, member of Syrian civil defense organization, White Helmets lets a white pigeon to fly for people who lost thier life in chemical attack that in the Eastern Ghouta region of Damascus, Syria on 22 August, 2017 [Amer Almohibany/Anadolu Agency]

Yet despite all of this, the pro-Assad lobby began spinning like a tarantula on speed when Fisk pronounced that he could find no evidence of a gas attack. Keep it in mind, though, that he also said he could find no evidence of anything at all, really. Meanwhile, elements of the Russian media still want us all to believe that the drama put out by the White Helmets was exactly that; a drama, a play, a fake news set-up using a troupe of actors.

It is interesting to note that a cardiologist who tweeted that a White Helmets' photograph was fake because chest pads had been applied incorrectly to the gas attack child victims enjoyed 12,000 re-tweets. Yet a few days later, the same cardiologist rather bravely admitted to making a mistake and that the electronic pads had been placed correctly. His correction, though, only prompted 22 re-tweets, which rather goes to prove that the pro-Assad lobby will not allow the facts to spoil their own fake news.

However, more alarmingly, some hosts of satellite TV political programmes pushed the narrative that the gas attacks were fake and interviewed so-called experts supporting this line. Some of those presenters were once greatly respected individuals and much admired personalities. Sadly, I can only assume that they have lost the ability to cast a critical eye over such matters; Assad, in their view, can do no wrong.

Except he can. I know he can. I remember knocking on the door of the Syrian Embassy in London in 2007 asking why a distraught mother-of-four could not visit her husband in prison in Damascus. I supplied the senior diplomat who met me with all the necessary information about the man who had been swept up in America's Global War on Terror. It was a time when the US used "extraordinary rendition" to take its ghost prisoners off to countries like Syria in order to "loosen their tongues". The man was "disappeared" in 2005 from Pakistan and in 2006 he was a ghost detainee held on a US ship moored at the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia. He was then removed to Damascus by US intelligence agents.

Assad, you see, wasn't always Putin's puppet; he was once America's poodle and, like his father before him, a very obliging one at that. The Syrian diplomat in London called me a few weeks later and said that an extensive search had been made for the man about whom I had enquired but he was "not in the system". By this time I was able to supply him with details of the prisoner's number, cell and prison wing, which led to a flurry of phone calls and questions asking who had given me such information. The Syrians' one and only concern was who had leaked the information to me, not why a human being might be so badly mistreated in their "system".

You see the Syrian regime has always enjoyed a reputation for torture, and since the outbreak of the ongoing war that reputation has been bolstered. You may recall the leaked dossier of horrific photographs and a report which emerged to support this view in 2015.

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Rather embarrassingly for her, amateur blogger and pro-Assad activist Vanessa Beeley sent an email to a friend in which she admitted that she knew that the regime tortured people, but added that she would never admit it publicly. The evidence is recounted by Britain's satirical Private Eye magazine under the headline "Beeley-Mouthed". Beeley makes frequent appearances on Russian and Iranian TV channels but this exposé destroyed her credibility as a serious news analyst by exposing her as a stooge of the Assad regime.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) hugs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (R) in Sochi, Russia on 21 November 2017 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

I recently interviewed a number of Syrian women who had all been prisoners of the Assad regime and they told me, in graphic detail, about the industrial scale rape and abuse that they had suffered at the hands of Syria's military intelligence agents. Having interviewed numerous victims of torture for my recent book on the subject, it was relatively easy for me to know that they were telling the truth.

For the past eight days I have been recounting the experiences of the Syrian rape victims on The Survivor Tour for the Salaam Foundation in South Africa to try and raise money for rape counselling centres. I've seen grown men from Johannesburg to Durban crying at the plight of these women as I've told of their experiences that they shared with me and MEMO last month. Their powerful testimony is difficult to absorb, and even Assad apologists have no stomach to challenge me over their harrowing stories. I am now mentally and emotionally drained, and so the arguments for and against the events on Douma on 7 April are beginning to pale into relative insignificance.

Don't get me wrong. I am still mourning the appalling loss of life but, like my journalistic role model Robert Fisk, I really do not know what happened or who threw what at who. However, I do know one thing for sure: Assad is a monster and has been since the day he took control of Syria on his father's death; he has continued with his deadly legacy of crushing those who get in his way.

During the seven year war — which he could have stopped before it even started, as I reported for MEMO here in 2014 — Assad has thrown barrel bombs on schools and hospitals; allowed the rape, brutalisation and torture of tens of thousands of men, women and children in his military intelligence prisons; and is strongly suspected of using chemical weapons against his own people. He has also used starvation as a weapon; in some siege areas people have been forced to eat domestic animals like cats and dogs or face starving to death. Religious scholars have issued fatwas to allow the victims of Assad's brutality to eat things that are normally haram — forbidden — to Muslims.

Quite why elements of the political Left support this brute is beyond me. I was born in a coal mining village in the North East of England and my working class roots are in my DNA. I recognise people from the same class wherever I travel in the world, and when I see them suffering I feel their pain. However, the veteran, intellectual, white, privileged members of the Left in the British anti-war movement, for some strange reason, see no problem in aligning themselves with Assad and his wealthy supporters from among Syria's largely secular and upper class elite.

Syrian children try to get warmer with a heating stove in a basement shelter in Eastern Ghouta of Damascus, Syria on February 27, 2018. [Anas Aldamashqi /Anadolu Agency]

Those who are really suffering, trapped inside Syria with many gathering in Idlib right now, are the working classes; they struggle to identify with the rebels just as they can't identify with those living in the upscale suburbs of Assad's Damascus. They have neither the means nor the contacts to escape to Europe and the refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

Another great journalist I know and admire is Mehdi Hasan. It was my privilege to share a journalism award for excellence with him in 2009 before he went off to work for Al Jazeera. "The truth is that Bashar Al-Assad is not an anti-imperialist of any kind," he wrote recently, "nor is he a secular bulwark against jihadism; he is a mass murderer, plain and simple. In fact, the Syrian dictator long ago booked his place in the blood-stained pantheon of modern mass murderers, alongside the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Henry Kissinger, and George W. Bush. I can think of few human beings alive today who have more blood on their hands than he has."

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Addressing those on the Left, Hasan continued: "So, why defend him? Why indulge in conspiracy theories on his behalf? Why minimise his crimes and abuses? And isn't it more than a little hypocritical of you to constantly call out the violence of the West or the Gulf States or the rebels, while ignoring or downplaying the violence of Assad?"

As a working class person with socialist leanings and someone who supports much of the work of Britain's anti-war movement, I wish I could answer his question, but I can't. What I do know, though, is that there are around 7,000 women in Assad's prisons right now being held with neither charge nor trial. What, I wonder, do his apologists have to say about that? Their silence is deafening, and one is left to wonder if they and their opinions have been bought and paid for. Faking it for Assad is unacceptable, no matter where your political loyalties lie. Right-wing or Left, when the evidence of cruelty and injustice is there for all to see, the end most certainly does not justify the means.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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