TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Earlier this year, veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk spent time travelling behind Government lines in Syria, assessing the strength of the Syrian Army, which has already lost 45,000 men trying to defend the regime and control its key towns and cities. He also gained some unique insights into the Islamist enemies they face and their military capability, both ISIS and the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra.
Robert Fisk is The Independent newspaper’s Middle East correspondent based in Beirut and he joined us from there just a short time ago.
Bob Fisk, thanks for being there in the middle of a dust storm.
ROBERT FISK, THE INDEPENDENT: Well, yes, my maid is washing out my apartment at the moment ’cause I slept through it, but you can probably see some of the buildings are vanishing behind me and that’s why I’m on the telephone to you.
TONY JONES: Let me ask you the obvious question: is there any evidence that a US-led bombing campaign, which Australia has just joined against ISIS, will be – will have any effect?
ROBERT FISK: Well I suppose I can only hope that your Prime Minister can find Syria on a map because the Americans have clearly not had any effect and they’re doing most of the bombing. I think this is political. Basically, the ISIS are winning. They’re winning against the Syrian Army, they’re winning in so far as they fight the Nusra-al-Qaeda franchise. They’ve got their territory. In fact their latest broadsheet that they put out – and I get it as a journalist – is telling me about how good their hygiene is in Mosul where they’ve got rubbish collectors, which they haven’t got in Beirut at the moment. So I think probably ISIS are not very worried about bombing. I don’t think you can win a bombing war against a guerrilla army. The Americans should’ve learned that in Vietnam. Mr Abbott possibly is a bit too young for that.
TONY JONES: Now, you’ve been upbraiding journalists for being blinded by the mesmerising brutality of ISIS and failing to investigate who’s actually behind them. Who are the main culprits in national terms, which nations?
ROBERT FISK: Well when I suggested that a lot of Saudi Arabians might be interested in funding them, my paper got a letter from the Saudi Government’s solicitor saying that was untrue, so I’ll start by telling you it couldn’t be Saudi Arabia. However, I’d have to say that the Gulf nations are generally held, whether it be the nations themselves or whether it actually be citizens acting independently within those nations, the wealthy Gulf nations, particularly those who aspire to the Wahhabi-Salafist Sunni Muslim creed, appear to be funding them, along with of course the money that ISIS is itself making from oil and also from antiquities. The sale of antiquities shoots up every time they blow up a temple in Palmyra.
TONY JONES: You’ve also mentioned Turkey and in a recent article you talked about a convoy of weapons being taken across the Syrian border by Turkish intelligence agents. Is that a sign of Turkish complicity? Is it a real story?
ROBERT FISK: Well it’s got to be. It’s a real story. They were stopped by the police and there is videotape of this contretemps between the security forces of Turkey, the two security forces of Turkey arguing about these weapons being taken across. You’ve also got to remember that until very recently, there were Turkish troops guarding an Ottoman shrine inside ISIS territory and those troops were allowed to leave without any kind of problem from ISIS. Presumably there was a deal done. When I was in the northern Syrian city – a northern Syrian city – I’ll keep it anonymous to save the lives of the people in it – I was told by Syrian oil workers there that when they talk to their colleagues in the ISIS zone, their colleagues say that they’re being assisted by Turkish oil engineers. So there seems to be an awful lot of evidence that Turkey is in some way talking directly, if not actually helping, ISIS.
TONY JONES: Now Robert, to put it bluntly, do you think the United States will eventually come to the conclusion that we hate ISIS more than we hate Assad and find a way to keep him in power as the main force fighting ISIS?
ROBERT FISK: They should’ve come to that conclusion about two, three years ago. I think they’ve already realised that. I don’t think there’s much doubt and my sources here in Beirut, and I’m talking about sources who know about Iran and Syria, and I go to Syria anyway regularly – everybody I talk to says that the Americans have long ago come to the decision that better Assad than ISIS. And that while the Americans will not of course bomb Assad, they’re certainly not going to stop him staying on. What angers the Syrian Army at the moment – and I was on their front lines about nine weeks ago – is that when columns of ISIS forces arrive in their thousands across the desert, clearly visible on American satellite pictures, the Americans don’t bomb ISIS then. They let them attack the Syrian Army and beat them of course. That’s how Palmyra fell, the Roman city whose temples are now being blown up by ISIS. But I think that the Americans realise that a secular man, brutal though he is and torturing though his secret services are, is probably preferable to ISIS, who at least – you know, who cut your throat on screen as opposed to in private. Pretty grim people, ISIS, and it is a cult of course and it’s a very dangerous one.
TONY JONES: The Syrian Army of course have lost 45,000 troops, so their enemies are pretty formidable and among the Islamists it’s not just ISIS, but Nusra as well. You’ve listed the priorities if you wanted to keep the regime in place: the Syrian Army, new guns, new tanks and holding Aleppo, the city of Aleppo.
ROBERT FISK: Yes. That’s what the Syrian Army tells me too: they want new weapons and I’m told they’re getting them. Now whether that’s true or not, I don’t know ’cause I didn’t see any new weapons. The last time I flew out of Aleppo on a military aircraft, it was an Antonov 26, which I think was made about 1958. It doesn’t suggest that Mr Putin is being terribly generous, does it, towards the Syrians. But I think they are getting new battle tanks and they need them. One of the points that was being made to me by a Syrian military official is: he said, “We have missiles that can fire at vehicles, suicide bombers, 100 metres away, but when we fire them, we have to die with them because 100 metres away, you’ll die in the suicide explosion.” So, they’re actually coming – the Syrian Army have got a situation where their weapons are so meagre that they can’t actually defend themselves without dying in the process. Think about that if you’re a soldier.
TONY JONES: Robert, we’ve only got 30 seconds left, but the city of Aleppo, obviously the main strategy of the Syrian regime now is to hang on to the second biggest city. Will they do it?
ROBERT FISK: Ah, they’ll do everything they can do it and they’ve got their best general there, the one they trust most. The problem of course is that if they lose Aleppo, ISIS will claim it’s the new capital of Syria and that the Government of Assad does not want.
TONY JONES: Robert Fisk, we thank you for your patience in the middle of a dust storm and for doing the interview over your mobile. Thank you very much indeed.
ROBERT FISK: Sandstorm! Sandstorm! You probably call them dust storms in Australia.