May 8, 2013
Just back from two weeks in Syria reporting around the capital Damascus, Fisk discusses what he calls the “theater of chemical weapons,” the latest in Syria’s civil war — a battle he says the Syrian government is winning — as well as his reaction to what he calls President Obama’s “pitiful” backing of the recent Israeli missile strikes. What you have got to realize is that this is a propaganda war just as much as it is a savage war, killing many thousands of human beings.”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AARON MATÉ: We begin today’s show looking at Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin following this weekend’s Israeli air strikes on Syrian military facilities. Syria calls the strikes “an act of war” that’s, quote, “opened the door to all possibilities.” Earlier today, the Turkish government described the Israeli attacks as “unacceptable,” calling them, quote, a “golden opportunity” for President Bashar al-Assad to cover up massacres of his opponents.
AMY GOODMAN: The United States is moving closer toward directly intervening in Syria. On Monday, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey introduced a bill to allow U.S.-provided arms, military training and supplies to be sent to some Syrian rebel groups. The bill comes amidst conflicting reports that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.
Meanwhile, the civilian death toll in Syria continues to rise. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nearly 200 people died each day in April. Half the nearly 6,000 people killed last month were civilians; nearly 1,700 were rebel fighters; just over a thousand were members of the Syrian army.
For more on Syria, we turn to Robert Fisk, longtime Middle East correspondent for The Independent newspaper in London. He was just in Syria for two weeks. He is author of a number of books, including The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.
Robert, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about your time in Syria? You were embedded with Syrian soldiers?
ROBERT FISK: No, I was not embedded with Syrian soldiers. I’ve never been embedded with American soldiers or British soldiers or Iraqi soldiers or any other. What actually happened was I got a visa to go to Damascus, from the Syrian government, of course. I have a colleague who goes regularly into northern Syria and reports from rebel areas. I spent quite a lot of time talking to old friends in Syria, talking to the military, whom I have always been able to talk to. And while I was talking to them, I said, “Look, I would like to go up to the front lines in northwestern Syria.” That is to say within a mile of the—just a mile and a half of the Turkish border. To my amazement, they said, “Yeah, fine. Get on a plane. Go to Latakia. We’ll meet you there. You can go and see our soldiers and talk to them.” And this is what I did. The only restriction they had on me is they didn’t want me to take photographs of their faces. I could take pictures of them from behind. I could take pictures of the front line. I could climb on their tanks and take pictures, which I did. And I had—I got a pretty graphic and rather grim idea of what the Syrian army—I’m talking about the Syrian government army—is doing at the moment.
I also learned and met the new leader of the Baathist militia, which we sometimes call the “shabiha,” accused of many war crimes, which are now being put under military control and will wear military uniforms and will be paid by the government. Now, whether this means there will be more—fewer excesses and atrocities, or whether it merely means that the government will pay them and they can carry on as they were, I am not sure. I did see a truckload of men with ski masks and heavy machine guns, and I was told these were the members of the so-called National Defense Forces. But don’t get the impression this is some kind of home guard. It’s obviously not. These people will be sent into newly, quote, “liberated,” unquote, villages. What their behavior there will be like, I don’t know.
When I visited Syrian special forces along the front lines, I was given extraordinary amounts of detail. They gave me the code numbers for the various positions they’ve got, told me where the rebels were—about 800 meters away in a forest. I met soldiers who had been wounded but were still serving. One had a bullet that went right through his neck, went through the left side, came out the right side, and a very livid scar. Several of the generals had been wounded, one of them four times. Officers in the Syrian army always say that they go and lead their men, they’re at the front, and it appears to be true.
When I started questioning them about how many armed rebels they had killed in one particular village, they said 700. And I said, “How many did you take prisoner?” And he said, “None.” And in another point, they showed me a destroyed house, that had been destroyed by tank fire, and they said that 67 rebels had been killed there. And I said, “Well, how many prisoners?” And they said, “None,” which obviously told its own story.
At one point, quite remarkably, a general produced from his pocket a video, a phone, a mobile phone with a video on it, showing heaps of corpses of bearded men whom he said were terrorists—his word for it, of course, that usual cliché which the Israelis use, as well, for their enemies—rebel opponents who were Islamists, he claimed. And there were indeed heaps of corpses. What was particularly chilling was when, on the video, which he was showing me—and this, again, remember, was a Syrian general—on two occasions a military boot fell down—came down and crushed two of the dead faces on the screen. So, a ruthless, brutal war going on.
And at the moment, in two of the Damascus suburbs in the area around Qusayr, near Homs, and certainly in the north of Syria, the army appears to be winning, at least momentarily, against the rebels, is taking ground—doing so, of course, with ruthlessness and no great human rights alongside it, I imagine. I don’t think this is an army that cares very much about its enemies, unless they’re dead.
AARON MATÉ: Robert, what’s your assessment of these charges of chemical weapons attacks? Do you think that the Syrian government or the rebels are using them?
ROBERT FISK: Well, I wrote an article  in The Independent the other day talking about the theater of chemical weapons. And frankly, after the disgraceful lies which we were told about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the invasion by your then-president, Mr. Bush, and our beloved prime minister, Mr. Blair, I tend to take a deeply cynical view of chemical weapons use in any country. We know Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds. We tend to forget that the components of those chemical weapons came from New Jersey.
But look, I had a talk with a Syrian army intelligence officer over coffee in Damascus, and I put it very frankly: “Look, you’ve got chemical weapons. You’ve always had chemical weapons, from the Russians. Do you use them?” And he said, “Why on earth would we want to?” He said, “We’ve got MiGs, with firepower infinitely more destructive than chemical weapons. Why would we want to use chemical weapons when we have MiGs with bombs?” which did seem to be a fairly, you know, straightforward argument. I have to say that on none of the soldiers which I saw, either in the area of Daraya, one of the suburbs of Damascus where there’s fierce fighting around the site of Zeinab Mosque in Damascus, or on the northern frontier opposite Turkey, were any of the soldiers carrying gas masks, which, if they were in the habit of using poison gas, they would have done.
Now, we keep having this silly phrase. You know, first of all, the Americans were worried that Assad’s chemical weapons would fall into the wrong hands, meaning the al-Nusra rebel groups, which are Islamists. Presumably, the right hands at that stage were supposed to be Assad’s own armories. Then the next one was that Assad had used chemical weapons. And this sort of bubbled on for a while, and there were inquiries by Médecins Sans Frontières and a not-very-good inquiry by the ICRC. And then we had this extraordinary theater where Israel suddenly said there was some proof, or possibly proof, that [Syria] might have, could have used, might have used, would be able to use, had used chemical weapons. They then started talking about sarin gas. Then your beloved Secretary of State John Kerry turned up in Damascus, returned to the United States, and said that Assad had used chemical weapons. And Obama then said, well, he might have, could have, might in the future, it would be a game changer—a lovely cliché. I mean, at least he admits it’s a game in the Middle East. But at the end of the day, he said, “We’ve got to have some proof.” So we still don’t have proof. Then, of course, we’ve had Carla Del Ponte for the United Nations saying there appears to be evidence or might be evidence that the rebels had used chemical weapons, but there didn’t appear to be any evidence that the government had. Well, blow me down.
There are three young children in a hospital in Tripoli in northern Lebanon who do have deep burns but apparently do not have actual wounds caused by missile parts or bullets. And it’s been suggested that they were the victims of a chemical weapon attack by the Syrian government—possibly, but they also conceivably, according to one doctor I spoke to in Beirut, could have been suffering from the use of phosphorus shells. Now, phosphorus shells should not be used against civilians, only against the military. But it’s quite possible the Syrians do have such munitions. But, of course, that’s not an argument that the Americans would want to take up, since the U.S. used the same munitions on civilians as well as militants in the town of Fallujah during the battles for Iraq seven years ago, eight years ago.
So, don’t ask me if they’ve used chemical weapons. It’s conceivable. There really isn’t any proof. The Israelis don’t appear to have any proof. The Americans don’t appear to have any kind of finite proof. And I don’t think the U.N. has any finite proof that the rebels have used it. What you have got to realize is that this is a propaganda war just as much as it is a savage war killing many thousands of human beings.
AMY GOODMAN: This is—
ROBERT FISK: And the propaganda war is very much pointing the finger, of course, at Iran, which may be why the Syrian war is being fought.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Fisk, this is retired Army Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State General Colin Powell. Wilkerson is raising questions about the reports of chemical weapons attacks in Syria. He appeared on Current TV.
LAWRENCE WILKERSON: We don’t know what the chain of custody is. This could have been an Israeli false flag operation. It could have been an opposition in Syria—and one wonders what part of the opposition—false flag operation. Or it could have been an actual use by Bashar al-Assad. But we certainly don’t know with the evidence we’ve been given. And what I’m hearing from the intelligence community is that that evidence is really flaky. So, there’s no way I would say my red line had been crossed and start something serious in terms of U.S. intervention based on this very flimsy evidence.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s [Lawrence] Wilkerson, the former chief of staff of then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. But I wanted, Robert Fisk, to get your response to the latest news of the Israeli attack in Syria. When President Obama was in Costa Rica, he spoke briefly about this weekend’s Israeli air strikes. He said Israel has the right to stop weapon shipments to Hezbollah.