Al-Qaeda,  Journalism,  Syria

At Fisk

Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes

When The Independent went entirely online in late March, its readers (or what were left of them) received solemn undertakings that it would keep its high standards of reporting and analysis, even if it was no longer in print. An op-ed by none other than Robert Fisk written on 10th May gives us some idea of how impressive these standards are.

Fisk gives his readers a breathless account of how with the rise of IS in Syria, propagandists are at work to whitewash the reputation of the Al-Nusra Front, the al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, so as to clear the way for it being backed by the US and other Western governments as a proxy. The main … sorry … the sole source for this ‘theory’ is explained by our intrepid reporter – and Apache passenger – as follows:

Just a week ago, an essay appeared in Foreign Policy magazine, the bi-weekly co-founded by the late Samuel Huntington (of Clash of Civilisations infamy) and now owned by the Graham Holdings Company (which formerly owned the Washington Post). The author Charles Lister’s thesis, if such it can be called, is that al-Qaeda is trying to take total control of the Nusra and overshadow Isis through an unprecedented debate within its ranks to “integrate into the ‘mainstream opposition’”. The “mainstream opposition” presumably refers to the fictional 70,000-strong legions beloved of Dave Cameron and, presumably, the future US President Hillary Clinton …

Among [Lister’s] various academic duties, he’s a senior consultant for the “Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Initiative”. The “shaikh” in question is not a Middle East potentate but Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre in Qatar and fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy, formerly the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy (the “Saban” being Haim Saban, the American-Israeli film and television mogul who donated $13m to the centre and has given substantial funds to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign) …

Lister, according to his various CVs, was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre and has helped negotiate a process of “engagement with the leaderships of over 100 Syrian armed opposition groups”. Which is an awful lot of rebels – far more than the 70,000 conjured up by Dave Cameron.

So what’s going on down in Doha? The Brookings Doha Centre belongs to the Brookings Institute and its co-chair is Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber bin Thani al-Thani, a member of the Qatari ruling family and former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Is the real debate, therefore – far from being thrashed out in Idlib province – really going on down in Qatar, whose present leadership has gone a long way to clean up Nusra’s reputation and to present it as the real moderate “opposition” which deserves all that CIA help?

Charles Lister studies Middle Eastern affairs at the Brookings Institution, recognised internationally as a reputable and bipartisan think-tank on international affairs and strategic studies. Lister himself has recently published a book on his research on the Syrian jihad, and he is interviewed on his findings here.

Right now he also happens to be exceedingly pissed off at Fisk and The Independent, and for good reason.

Here it would be handy to refer back to the original piece in Foreign Policy that St Robert presents as evidence of a snow-job on Al-Nusra concocted for Hillary and Dave. The problem is that it’s anything but. Lister’s article points out that Al-Nusra is building up a support base in Syria, mainly because it is avoiding the barbaric tactics of terror applied by IS elsewhere, and is following what insurgency theorists would call a ‘hearts and minds’ policy of building coalitions, providing aid to civilians, allying with other rebel groups, and presenting its rule as being more humane than that of Assad or IS (no difficult feat that). But Lister nonetheless stresses that in the long-term Al-Nusra is emerging as a threat to the region and the West, and that its supposedly enlightened approach is nothing more than a cover for an incremental power grab. Its tactics are enlightened and pragmatic, but its ideology most certainly is not.

To substantiate that point, Lister cites examples of repeated arguments to this effect in his Twitter feed. And indeed he also states that his arguments on the insidious nature of Al-Nusra and its growth in Syria were referred to in … wait for it … The Independent itself.

So the question for Robert Fisk – if indeed he would care to answer it – is how he managed to read a piece by Lister which was a warning of the Al-Nusra threat and misrepresent it as proof of a sinister plot to sanitise the group’s image for public consumption, and to facilitate covert aid by the US and British governments to it.

And the question for The Independent is whether it considers itself to be a reputable source of news and informed commentary, or whether it considers itself to be racing The Canary to the bottom of the mine shaft.