Emma Alberici : Prime Minister Tony Abbott has confirmed tonight that Australian special forces are moving into Iraq to help in the fight against ISIS. It comes on the back of a US decision to send a further 1,500 troops to support the air campaign already under way. But how effective is that campaign and is it having any impact across the border in Syria, where ISIS was born?
Robert Fisk, The Independent’s longstanding Middle East correspondent has been traversing northern Syria, talking to Syrian troops on front line and flying over ISIS-controlled territory to try and answer that question. He’s just returned to Beirut and spoke to me from there just a short time ago.
Robert Fisk, welcome back to Lateline.
Emma Alberici : Now Syria is not a conventional war zone of course. Journalists have become prized possessions of ISIS. Tell us about your recent trip. How did you get in, where did you go and what did you see?
Robert Fisk : I saw rather more than I probably wanted to see of front lines in Syria. I went to Damascus with a visa. I travelled in Government-controlled areas, which of course is a large part of Syria. But I went to the front lines with, for example, the 43rd Special Forces Parachute Regiment in Qamishli, which is way up in the north-eastern part of Syria, between – wedged between Turkey and the Iraqi frontier. I went into their front line trenches. I saw the weapons that are being fired at them, many of them American, of course. I learned rather grimly, actually, that when I was last in the front line, north of Latakia, I interviewed a general and met about 70 of his soldiers. And four months later – that I didn’t discover this until this trip – ISIS drove an armoured vehicle packed with explosives right into their camp and blew it up and the general was killed along with almost every soldier I met on my previous trip there. In fact, his deputy commander survived and said to me, “You remember what he said in his last interview to you? He said, ‘I’m either going to live to see a victory or I shall lose my life.'” And he said, “He kept his promise.” And I thought, “My God, he did, didn’t he?” When I went to Qamishli, it’s a very interesting situation there, because part of the Qamishli area and to the east right up to the Iraqi frontier is effectively operated and run by a sort of Kurdish Government with Syrian permission. It’s a kind of pro-Occilan, PKK-type communist group. They’ve quite a lot of fighters, although I have to say that one of them travelling with me fell asleep for about 100 miles of the journey. But they’ve got oilfields. They’re pumping oil for themselves – 30,000 barrels a day – and therefore are managing to keep that bit of Syria effectively in Government hands, though the Government doesn’t operate there. In Qamishli itself, it’s Government-controlled. When I landed, I actually flew in the flight deck of an aircraft. So I saw all the deserts beneath me, Deir ez-Zor, right across towards Raqqa, which is a no-fly zone for the Syrians. So I saw all the deserts beneath me with the oilfields, which are now being run by ISIS. When I landed at Qamishli, there were a huge number of anti-aircraft weapons and heavy artillery right on the – next to the runway, with boxes and boxes – more boxes of ammunition than I’ve ever seen since the Iran-Iraq of 1980-’88. I was then taken special forces troops to their front line positions again. They’ve actually taken back in the last two months about 20 kilometres of land, most of it wheat fields, from ISIS. And what’s particularly interesting is that the Syrian Army there have actually adopted the same methods, military methods as ISIS. You’ve seen these photographs of these ISIS fighters in black driving in open-top Toyotas with heavy machine guns – that’s exactly what the Syrian troops are doing, although they of course are in military uniform, and they too are driving around. And when they see ISIS coming to attack them, they go for them in exactly the same tactic. In that part of Syria, certainly, the Syrian Army has clearly moved forward. Now in another area of desert, they’ve retaken a gas field. I was not able to go there. I simply ran out of my time. I had to come back to Beirut. But there, the Syrian 18th Armoured Division have recaptured most of the gas field and surrounded ISIS. So there are some Syrian military gains. In the far-north-west of the country, Latakia, where that suicide attack was staged, they don’t appear to have moved forward at all. I think there’s too many ISIS people coming up to the front.
Emma Alberici : So how much of Syria do Assad forces now control and how much of the country has fallen to ISIS?
Robert Fisk : I suppose in terms of square miles, Assad’s forces probably control – and we’re saying Syrian forces rather Assad forces, because, you know, it’s interesting: the Army doesn’t talk about Bashar al-Assad. It says, “We’re the Syrian Army.” It doesn’t talk about the regime. It can’t talk about the regime critically of course. But it’s interesting to see that their concentration is on the country, not on the President, as it would’ve been years ago. The Assad Syrian forces probably hold about 42, 43 per cent, but you know, it’s notional. Everything is fluid out there on the desert. One of the problems you have – for example, at one point I drove up to Homs, then to Tartus and Latakia – a long journey, 180 miles, 200 miles by road. And there are sections of that road – it’s effectively held by the Syrian Government; there are troops on it. But as one major told me, he said, “The only land the Syrian Army controls is the land that the soldiers’ feet are on.” In other words, you can go three quarters of a mile down the road, go round a corner and you don’t know whose checkpoint is going to be there. And we know at night that rebels cross that road. And there was about 40 kilometres of highway where my driver – my Syrian friend who is my driver in that particular case, he and I were watching the road like hawks to see what was coming up, what checkpoint was coming up round the corner, but we didn’t see any rebel checkpoints. And indeed, if we had’ve done, I don’t think I’d be chatting to you – well I might be chatting on a videotape in a very grim place, but I wouldn’t be talking to you today on this camera.
Emma Alberici : Let me pick you up on what you just spoke of, and that is the way the Syrian Army refers to Assad. What does that say about the future of the President?
Robert Fisk : I’ve had a lot of conversations over the past two years with Syrian soldiers and I’ve been given access to front line positions, I met generals. And very often they tell me – they ask me what I think. They want – they’re not going to tell me what they think, although they’ll give you hints. And I tell them the truth. I say, “Look, the Syrian Army is not the corrupt army it was when it was in Lebanon. It’s clearly fighting and knows how to fight.” I say to them, “The real problem is that this is not a democracy in the Western sense. And on top of that, the problem is the brutality of the Mukhabarat, the security agencies.” And sometimes they will sort of just nod. They understand very well what I’m saying. There are no security service agents in the rooms when I talk to these soldiers. They’re not there. There are military intelligence officers of course. And I get the impression that, you see, the Army has got to fight because if it doesn’t, Syria as a regime will be wiped out and so will the Army. Look what happened to the Syrian soldiers who were captured in Raqqa. 200 of them were taken away and beheaded. So, Syrian soldiers fight for their lives of course as well as for their country. One or two say, “We fight for our President, Bashir al-Assad,” but it’s a propaganda line that I think has sort of washed away now. The Syrian Army wants – it is a very important institution in Syria and I suspect it’s more important than Assad. And I think the reason for that is that Assad knows that without the Army, he’s finished and the Army know that. And that’s why in Assad’s last big speech in a theatre in Damascus – I wasn’t there; I was here in Beirut at the time – when he appeared and gave his speech, he constantly talked about the martyr lieutenants, the martyr generals, the martyr soldiers of Syria. And the screen behind him was filled with pictures of hundreds and hundreds of dead soldiers. So, there’s a kind of change there. You’ve got to realise that it’s – you’ve got to – there’s a kind of change there and you’ve got to realise that the Army is probably the most important institution rather than the Ba’ath Party.
Emma Alberici : While you were there, did you get any sense of how effective the US-led coalition air strikes have been in degrading ISIS?
Robert Fisk : I asked constantly about this. Some of the soldiers on the front line told me that at night they hear explosions far away to the east, which means probably on the Iraqi border. There’s certainly – the pilot of the aircraft, Captain Zaha (phonetic spelling), who took me up in an ATR Franco-Italian jet – passenger jet, to Qamishli, he said that on 26th October, he saw a C-130 American Hercules flying over Hasakah at 21,000 feet. This of course is either for surveillance or maybe refuelling. Captain Mohammed, who was on the other side – he was the first office of co-pilot – told me that several days before 24th October, he saw several NATO jets flying at high speed, apparently coming down from the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and then turning right, i.e. west, to go into the direction of Kobane, or Ain al-Arab, the besieged Kurdish town, which – of which you’ve seen the pictures of explosions from air attacks on television. When I – the one point that was made to me by a Syrian intelligence officer on the front lines south of Qamishli was that the Americans clearly are striking at ISIS, but they’re not striking in a way that helps the Syrian Army. The Syrians have actually made a formal offer to the United States to give them intelligence information on ISIS and the Americans have not responded to that. And it’s clear in the Syrian Army’s eyes that the Americans are not trying to help them, even though in effect, as we know, they’re hitting the Syrian regime’s enemies, just as last year they were threatening to hit the regime.
Emma Alberici : Indeed. And since this civil war broke out some four years ago, the Americans have variously expressed interest in supporting the Free Syrian Army. Who are they and how powerful are they? And what sort of help, if any, have the Americans provided them?
Robert Fisk : The Free Syrian Army I think drinks a lot of coffee in Istanbul. I have never come across – except in the first months of the fighting, I’ve never come across even prisoners from the Free Syrian Army. I have to say, by the way, that the Syrian Army is taking no prisoners now. It’s quite clear that if you’re caught, you’re executed – if you’re not shot dead in a battle. And that’s exactly what ISIS do to the Syrian Army. You know, the FSA, in the eyes of the Syrians, doesn’t really exist. They’ve got al-Qaeda, Nusrah, various other Islamist groups, and now of course ISIS – or Daash, as the acronym goes in Arabic. But I don’t think they care very much about the Free Syrian Army. One officer told me that some have been accepted back into the Syrian Army, so they could go home. Others had been allowed to go home and they were not permitted to serve in the Syrian Army anymore. I think that the Free Syrian Army is a complete myth and I don’t believe it really exists and nor do the Syrians, because they see, “If we do come across them, we don’t mind ’cause they always run away. It’s the ISIS people who don’t. They fight to the death.”
Emma Alberici : We hear that part of Islamic State’s strength has come from capturing oil wells. Some reports say it’s earning as much as $2 million a day in oil sales. Who are ISIS selling oil to?
Robert Fisk : Well, they’re certainly smuggling it across borders and I think much of it is going to Turkey as well as being used of course in the areas they control all the way up to Baghdad. I flew over in the plane – and I was on a plane flying at 17,000 feet altitude – and I could see the butane gas burn-offs of oilfields which are controlled by ISIS. So they clearly are using them and producing oil and I think it’s going over the Turkish border or it’s going to their own people inside Iraq, where of course they don’t have so many oil wells under their control. They’re not huge wells, but the Shadida oil well we flew over was a pretty large area. This was close to Deir ez-Zor. But you’ve got to realise that it’s not about money. They don’t need money. I don’t think al-Qaeda really needed money. Bin Laden didn’t need a lot of money. You can operate this kind of strange organisation without a huge amount of cash. The great tragedy that’s happening is the destruction of the Christian communities, as we know, in northern Iraq. And now – I learned on this last trip, I spoke to the Armenian church representative in Qamishli, Father Antranig Ayvazian, and he told me, which I think has not been known before, that the entire 173-year-old church of the Armenians in Deir ez-Zor was three weeks ago blown up. In fact he gave me a photograph by Nusrah, not by ISIS – another Islamist group. That’s the picture he gave me which was secretly taken two weeks ago. In this church were the archives of the Armenian genocide in which of course 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered and died on death marches by – where they were sent by the Turks in 1915, 99 years ago. And in the crypt of this church were many bones and skeletons and skulls of the Armenian genocide dead. And Nusrah, according to Father Ayvazian, threw the bones into the street and burned the archives. At one point they telephoned him and said, “We have your precious archives. If you’ll acknowledge that we are the legitimate government in Deir ez-Zor, we will give them back to you.” And he said, “I refuse,” and they burned all the archives. So, those precious archives of an entire people’s genocide 99 years ago have gone forever and their bones have been thrown into the streets.
Emma Alberici : And this was al-Nusrah?
Robert Fisk : This was al-Nusrah that did this, because later on, he actually received messages from al-Nusrah with Koranic quotations at the top offering him to give back other archives to him if we would co-operate with them. And he actually showed me the messages he’d got. There was even a Koranic quotation that was slightly wrong which shows that these various Islamist groups are not quite as Islamist as you think. But there’s no doubt that, as I say, the greatest tragedy is that the Christians are leaving the land of their people – Christianity being – some Americans might not agree, but it is an Eastern, not a Western religion. And in the town of Qamishli, for example, 339 Christian families have left and you can drive down the Christian area of the city and just see shuttered shops and bolted-up houses. They’ve mostly gone to Europe, the Armenians from Qamishli.
Emma Alberici: Finally, what happens if and when Islamic State is defeated? Can Bashar al-Assad regain control of the entire country, or is it more likely that Syria will be perhaps partitioned with some kind of separate Sunni state in the north?
Robert Fisk : I think that’s – I have to sort of deconstruct your question ’cause that’s not what I see on the ground. There are Kurdish areas in the north, one of which is totally controlled by Kurdish – Syrian Kurds and they want a federal state. And it was made perfectly clear to me by the Syrian military that they’re not going to get their federal state. When the war is won, that will be part of Syria as it was before, where of course Kurds were discriminated against by the Assad regime. You know, I don’t think you’re going to have the country split up into bits. That may be what some people in the West want, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. What you are going to have is the recapture of major towns and they will go back to the regime. ISIS won’t be defeated. I suspect ISIS will become another of our favourite “moderates” after a while. Almost every group we decide we’re going to degrade and defuse or defeat, they all turn out as moderates and we end up supporting them. They are, remember, Assad’s brutal enemies. But I think you’ve got to realise that much of the area that ISIS holds is desert and there’s no oil underneath most of that desert. And you can’t do much with sand. I suspect what will happen is that Syria will regain its major cities, including Raqqa, which is the ISIS capital inside Syria. Even the pilots of my aircraft wouldn’t fly over it; they were worried about missiles, of course. But what will happen is that there will continue to be a guerrilla war in desert areas and that could go on for years. But Syria, I do not think is going to fall apart, not at all.
Emma Alberici : Robert Fisk, we’re unfortunately out of time. It’s always a great pleasure to get your insights. We’ll have to speak to you again soon. Thank you.
Robert Fisk : You’re welcome.