Robert Fisk: Conspiracy of silence in the Arab world

Where are the sheikhs when the Iraqi dead are fished out of the Tigris?

Saturday 10 February 2007 01:00 GMT

Could Rifaat al-Assad's day in court be growing closer? Yes, Rifaat - or Uncle Rifaat to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria - the man whose brother Hafez hurled him from Damascus after he tried to use his special forces troops to stage a coup. They were the same special forces who crushed the Islamist rebellion in Hama in February 1982, slaughtering up to - well, a few thousand, according to the regime, at least 10,000 according to Fisk (who was there) and up 20,000 if you believe The New York Times (which I generally don't).

Either way, I've always regarded it as a war crime, along with the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Chatila camps in Beirut by Israel's Lebanese militia allies a few months later. Ariel Sharon, who was held personally responsible by Israel's own court of enquiry, is an unindicted war criminal. So is Rifaat.

That's why the faintest breeze blew through my fax machine this week when I received a letter sent to the UN Secretary General by Anas al-Abdeh, head of the London-based Movement for Justice and Development in Syria. Abdeh left his Syrian town of Zabadani before the Hama massacres - he works now as an IT consultant for a multinational - so he's hardly able to breathe the air of Sister Syria. But then again nor can Rifaat, who languishes - complete with bodyguards - in that nice EU island of refuge called Marbella. And refuge he probably needs. Because Abdeh is asking the UN to institute an enquiry into the Hama bloodbath in the same way that it is powering along with its tribunal into the murder almost two years ago of Lebanese ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Ouch. In the letter Abdeh describes how "warplanes and tanks levelled whole districts of the city (of Hama) ... the evidence clearly suggests that government forces made no distinction between armed insurgents and unarmed civilians ... the assault on the city represents a clear act of war crimes and murder on a mass scale". The letter has now been passed to the UN's legal head, Nicolas Michel, who is also involved in the Hariri murder case. The sacred name of Rifaat has not been mentioned in the letter but it specifically demands that "those who are responsible should be held accountable and charged...".

Now, of course, there are a few discrepancies in the facts. The Syrians did not use poison gas in Hama, as Abdeh claims. They certainly did level whole areas of the city - they are still level today, although a hotel has been built over one devastated district - and when Rifaat's thugs combed through the ruins later, they executed any civilians who couldn't account for their presence.

But of course, the Hama uprising was also a Sunni Muslim insurrection and the insurgents had murdered entire families of Baath party officials, sometimes by chopping off their heads. In underground tunnels, Muslim girls had exploded themselves among Syrian troops - they were among the Middle East's first suicide bombers although we didn't appreciate that then. And the Americans were not at all unhappy that this Islamist insurgency had been crushed by Uncle Rifaat. Readers will not need any allusion to modern and equally terrible events involving Sunni insurgents to the east of Syria. And since the Americans are getting pretty efficient at killing civilians along with gunmen, I have a dark suspicion that there won't be any great enthusiasm in Washington for a prosecution over Hama.

But still... What strikes me is not so much the force of Abdeh's letter but that it was written at all. When the Hama massacre occurred, neighbouring Arab states were silent. Although the Sunni prelates of the city called for a religious war, their fellow clerics in Damascus - and, indeed, in Beirut - were silent. Just as the imams and scholars of Islam were silent when the Algerians began to slaughter each other in a welter of head-chopping and security force executions in the 1990s.

Just as they are silent now over the mutual killings in Iraq. Sure, the mass killings of Iraq would not have occurred if we hadn't invaded the country. And I do suspect a few "hidden hands" behind the civil conflict in a nation which never before broke apart. In Algeria, the French spent a lot of time in the early 1960s persuading - quite successfully - their FLN and ALN enemies to murder each other. But where are the sheikhs of Al-Azhar and the great Arabian kingdoms when the Iraqi dead are fished out of the Tigris and cut down in their thousands in Baghdad, Kerbala, Baquba? They, too, are silent.

Not a word of criticism. Not a hint of concern. Not a scintilla (an Enoch Powell word, this) of sympathy. An Israeli bombardment of Lebanon? Even an Israeli invasion? That's a war crime - and the Arabs are right, the Israelis do commit war crimes. I saw the evidence of quite a few last summer. But when does Arab blood become less sacred? Why, when it is shed by Arabs. It's not just a failure of self-criticism in the Arab world. In a landscape ruled by monsters whom we in the West have long supported, criticism of any kind is a dodgy undertaking. But can there not be one small sermon of reprobation for what Iraqi Muslims are doing to Iraqi Muslims?

Of course, but the real problem the Arabs now face is that their lands have been overrun and effectively occupied by Western armies. I worked out a few weeks ago that, per head of population - and the world was smaller in the 12th century - there are now about 22 times more Western soldiers in Muslim lands than there were at the time of the Crusades. How do you strike back at these legions and drive them out? Brutally and most terribly, the Iraqis have shown how. I used to say the future of the Bush administration will be decided in Iraq, not in Washington. And this now appears to be true.

So what should we do? Allow the Rifaats of this world to go on enjoying Marbella? And the killers of Hariri go free? And the Arabs remain silent in the face of the shameful atrocities which their brother Muslims have also committed? I'll take a bet that Rifaat will be safe from the UN lads. In Iraq right now, he'd be on "our" side, wouldn't he, battling the Islamic insurgency as he did in Hama? And that, I fear, is the problem. We are all Rifaats now.

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