The award winning writer and journalist, Robert Fisk addressed a 400-strong audience for the annual Trinity Long Room Hub Edmund Burke Lecture on the theme of ‘From the Frontline: An Eyewitness Account from the Middle East’. In a riveting talk, the Trinity alumnus and honorary doctorate recipient analysed the conflict in the Middle East −from Iraq to his more recent coverage of Syria − to a packed audience, followed by questions and answers.
Speaking on Burke’s legacy, Robert Fisk, who had just arrived from Beirut having spent a week in Syria, said that he felt he was now even more cognisant of what Edmund Burke meant when he spoke of the ‘evils of revolution’. Many of his statements and accounts could be applied to today’s conflicts in the Middle East and the many groups or ‘rebels’ emerging out of the conflict.
Fisk, who has been the Middle East correspondent for The Independent since 1989 told the audience that he believed that ISIS originated in Iraq after the US invasion there. Seeking to find out how many people were being killed at the time, Fisk visited hospitals in Baghdad but the hospitals, funded through the US Ministry of Health, would not disclose the numbers. After a year of visiting hospital morgues, he said many decapitated bodies of both men and women were turning up in larger numbers. According to Fisk, it was the first time those covering the conflict had seen women as well as men being murdered in these numbers. “Something was going badly wrong, but at the time we didn’t know what ISIS was, what the Islamic State of Iraq was – of Levant, Syria or Lebanon for that matter,” commented Fisk.
Fisk recounted to the audience how, having visiting a mosque in Fallujua in Iraq in around 2005, he retrieved videos which he took away with him and which showed the execution of Russian soldiers by Chechnans. It was then that Fisk understood that these videos were being used as ‘teaching tools’ on how to conduct such executions. That, he said, was the beginning of ISIS, contrary to the commonly accepted idea, largely purported by the US, that ISIS materialised out of the desert without meaning. The US Chief of Staff recently termed it “an apocalyptic organisation”. According to Fisk, while the US want to destroy Mosul in Iraq along with their allies, they also appear to want ISIS to go to Syria and destroy the Bashar al Assad regime.
Fisk went on to dispute that ISIS has ever been apocalyptic. An analysis which, he said, is too simplistic for this organisation which is also supposedly funded by the capture of oil wells and the sale of ancient classical artefacts. The journalist would claim that this flawed analysis lies in an overall problem of the loss of history of how these Islamic revolutionary forces came about. For example, Al-Qaeda which perpetrated the atrocities of 9/11 under Osama Bin Laden, have now been renamed ‘Nusra’, which is currently fighting in East Aleppo against the Russians and Syrian government. Fisk blamed his journalistic colleagues for “blessing the rebels of Eastern Aleppo without identifying who they are”, meanwhile Putin and Assad are depicted as Hitler type figures resonant of World War II proportions. Fisk was quick to point out he had absolutely no tolerance of either figure, but claimed that “we are losing track using language with no bearing on the situation”.
Instead of pausing to focus on the root causes of conflict, the west has decided to pursue a course of war, perpetuating problems in the region, Fisk said. He also questioned the relationship between the west and countries such as Saudi Arabia saying that we are not looking at Saudi Arabia closely enough; “it is fighting Shi'ism – it is part of a sectarian war. There is a sectarian war in the Middle East between Sunnis and Shi’ites and we are part of it; we the west are taking sides in that sectarian war.”
Commenting on the children of conflict, particularly in relation to the refugees and many children displaced as a result of the conflict in Syria, Fisk claimed that many do not know how to read and write, skills which will be necessary for those children to rebuild the country after the war. If western nations spent more on education than they did on ‘smart-bombs’, Fisk continued, Syria might have some chance of having a future.
The lecture was hosted by the Trinity Long Room Hub, the arts and humanities institute at Trinity College Dublin. The annual Edmund Burke lecture is supported by a generous endowment in honour of Padraic Fallon by his family. This was the third annual lecture in the series. Robert Fisk is both an alumnus (PhD in Political Science) and honorary doctorate recipient of Trinity College.