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October 22, 2015

Robert Fisk on the Middle East

Reuel S. Amdur

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In the Arab world, history is now. That is the message delivered recently by Beirut-based journalist Robert Fisk to a large audience at St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Ottawa. The lecture was sponsored by Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East.

Fisk began by looking at Canada’s role.  He had covered the Bosnian conflict.  “Canada at that time was known as the country that helped people.”  He contrasted Angela Merkel, “the only Titan in the world today,” who is accepting 800,000 refugees, to Stephen Harper, who is not prepared to share the burden.  He proceeded to parse a statement by Jason Kenney, from an interview with the Calgary Herald

“I do not mean to suggest for a moment that all or most of the people in the camps are connected to terrorist organizations or constitute a security risk, but it is plainly evident that some do.  It would be imprudent in the extreme to pretend otherwise, as Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau appear to be doing.”  

This, as Fisk pointed out, is a bit of fear-mongering, a subtle sowing of prejudice.

One way of looking at the matter is the difference between Canada’s reception of the Hungarian refugees and the Harper government’s reaction to the Syrians.  The Hungarians were Christians.  Fisk pointed not to Canadian political leaders but to military men to upholding Canada’s honor in the current refugee crisis: Hillier and Dallaire.  Rick Hillier wants to bring in 50,000 by Christmas. 

Merkel’s attitude toward the refugees is more than simply one of charity.  She knows that the German birth rate is so low that the country could be doomed to extinction without such an influx.  She is thinking long-term, not like other leaders who react just to today’s headlines.  He gave an example of another long-term planner, Winston Churchill, who in 1941 set up a body to plan for the occupation of Germany.  A force was taught German and governmental administration.  When their forces entered Germany, they were fully ready to set up and operate local administrations, unlike the Americans. 

In the Middle East, he explained, what to us is history is to the locals just current events.  The Balfour Declaration, giving Jews a “homeland” (not a country, incidentally) in Palestine, happened yesterday.  And at the end of World War I, Arabs were promised freedom and dignity, which they were denied.  Arabs also remember that clearly as having happened yesterday.

The Western powers want to plant democracy in the area, but Arabs are suspicious of the intention, not the least because of Western shoring up of dictatorships.  They have experienced constant betrayal.  What they sought at the end of World War I and what they seek now are freedom and dignity.  Instead, a Brit named Mark Sykes and a Frenchman, François Georges-Picot, sat down and decided how to turn the detritus of the of the vanquished Ottoman Empire into a group of countries without historical continuity, dividing them up between British and French spheres of influence.  Fisk says that these countries even today do not, with the exception of Egypt, give citizens a sense of national identity.  Aside from the forces in the Syrian army, Syrians do not largely identify themselves as Syrians.

Fisk noted a placard that someone stuck in a mound of earth separating Syria and Iraq, following the area falling into the hands of the Islamic State: “End of Sykes-Picot.”  Today, the refugees “do not accept their borders, nor ours” (meaning those of European countries). 

He described the Islamic State as “an army of lost souls.”  They use cruelty as a weapon, without emotion.  Cruelty is perpetrated with the same emotion as shown by a missile—none.  Their motivation seems to be anti-Shi’ite, with their financial backing coming from Salafi-Wahabi Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. 

Russia has interests in the region, both in terms of countering American domination and in terms of maintaining their influence particularly in Syria, with their ports in Tartus and Latakia, their only ports in the region.  The United States, he contends, is playing a double game, at once maintaining its influence in Saudi Arabia while now reaching out as well to Iran.  Fisk maintains that the recent discussions between the United States and Iran in Switzerland were about more than the question of nuclear weapons.  Additionally, he maintained, the matter on the table was American endorsement of a role for Iran as the dominant power in the Middle East.

Turkey, he said, is allowing arms to flow to the Islamic State in northern Syria.  While in that part of the country himself, he had circumstantial evidence of this.  He reminded the audience that IS allowed a group of Turkish troops into territory they held, to protect a site holy to Turks.  They stayed for over a year.  Turkish engineers are, he said, working on oil installations in IS-controlled parts of Syria.  While he did not discuss the matter, it seems that the Turkish alleged alliance with the anti-IS bombing campaign is in reality an excuse for a bombing campaign aimed at the Kurds.

Fisk described the ideological disconnect between the Arab world and the West.  Muslims, he said, believe in religion.  “We have replaced that with the UN, the Red Cross, and human rights.”  His bottom line: “We should not have soldiers or weapons in the Middle East.”

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