Last month more than 90 people, including 32 children under the age of 10, were killed in a village in the district of Houla in Syria. The immediate response of the major media was to accuse pro-Assad forces, either the army or militias, of the crime. The NY Times reporting was typical:
The New York Times
May 27, 2012 Sunday
Late Edition – Final
Many Children Among Victims In Syria Attack
BYLINE: By NEIL MacFARQUHAR and HWAIDA SAAD; An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.
The White House said the attack was ”a vile testament to an illegitimate regime that responds to peaceful political protest with unspeakable and inhuman brutality.”
Gory images posted online — particularly the scene of rows of dead children smeared with blood — prompted an emotional outpouring of antigovernment demonstrations across Syria and calls for sectarian revenge.
Activists said that much of the slaughter had been carried out by pro-government thugs, or ”shabiha,” from the area. Houla is a Sunni Muslim town, while three villages around it are mostly Alawite, the religion of President Bashar al-Assad and whose adherents are the core of his security forces. A fourth village is Shiite Muslim.
A man in a black knitted mask who appeared on one YouTube video, for example, said it was time ”to prepare for vengeance against this awful sectarian regime.”
The rebel Free Syrian Army, the loose federation of armed militias across the country, issued a statement saying it was no longer committed to the United Nations truce because the plan was merely buying time for the government to kill civilians and destroy cities and villages.
”We won’t allow truce after truce, which prolongs the crisis for years,” the statement said.
The Syrian government blamed ”terrorists,” its catchall phrase for the opposition, for killing the civilians.
There are two things to be noted here. One is the reliance on accounts from activists opposed to Assad. The other is the NY Times reference: “An employee of The New York Times contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria.“ Since the foreign press is largely excluded from Syria, or tightly controlled by the state, the assumption is that the aforementioned reporter is in Syria, but was not even reporting from Houla.
Two of the most respected foreign reporters on the ground in Syria were Anthony Shadid of the NY Times and Marie Colvin of the London Times. Both have died–Shadid of untreated asthma and Colvin from gunfire during a battle in Homs.
Because the Syrian state is hostile to foreign media and vice versa, and because foreign reporters are excluded or tightly managed, the foreign press has relied heavily on the anti-Assad opposition. Media coverage has occasionally gone beyond mere bias and taken the form of the somewhat hackneyed phrase: “The first casualty of war is truth”.
One of the first to catch the foreign media in the act was blogger Clay Claiborne, who is no friend of the Baathist state. Claiborne took note of the fact that a photo used by the BBC to show those slaughtered in Houla was actually taken in Iraq in 2003. Although it was up for only 90 minutes, one of the pro-Assad websites claimed asked: “In the face of such damning manipulation, why then would so many people still believe the mainstream media’s version of reality in countries like Syria?” Those are the words of Alex Jones, a 9/11 Truther and anti-immigration diehard.
Claiborne posed the following questions about the bogus photo:
My question is: What is going on here? Clearly the BBC made a blunder by publishing the picture as it did. They claimed it was an unverified photo from an activist and I don’t think anyone is seriously claiming that they used di Lauro’s photo on purpose. It was on his website. They would have had to know it would be exposed as a fake in short order. They would have been setting themselves up for a fall.
No, I think the BBC was setup by someone else. Most certainly the “Activist” that sent the photo to the BBC. That entity almost certainly knew the photo was fake, probably got it from the di Lauro website, and should have known it would be exposed as a fake in short order. Therefore their purpose was certainly not to expose the crimes of the Assad regime against the Syria people but instead to obscure then. All of these outlets harping on the fake photo are also using it to imply that the massacre was fake.
The BBC photo was just the initial salvo in a full-scale defense of the Baathist state, supposedly an innocent victim of imperialist machinations. On June 9th an article appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung by Rainer Hermann that has been picked up by all the pro-Assad websites and that likely got its first airing on Moon Over Alabama, an erstwhile propagandist for Muammar Qaddafi. The Moon translated and posted what it considered the most relevant passage in Hermann’s article:
Syrian opposition members who are from that region were during the last days able to reconstruct the most likely sequence of events based on accounts from authentic witnesses. Their result contradicts the pretenses from the rebels who had accused regime allied Shabiha they alleged were acting under the protection of the Syrian army. As opposition members who reject the use of lethal force were recently killed or at least threatened, the opposition members [talking to me] asked that their names be withheld.
The massacre of Houla happened after Friday prayers. The fighting started when Sunni rebels attacked three Syrian army checkpoints around Houla. These checkpoints were set up to protect the Alawi villages around the predominantly Sunni Houla from assaults.
One attacked checkpoint called up units from the Syrian army, which has barracks some 1500 meters away, for help and was immediately reinforced. Dozens of soldiers and rebels were killed during the fighting around Houla which is said to have lasted about 90 minutes. During these fights the three villages were closed off from the outside world.
According to the witness accounts the massacre happened during this timeframe. Killed were nearly exclusively families from the Alawi and Shia minorities in Houla which has a more than 90% Sunni population. Several dozen members of one extended family, which had in recent years converted from Sunni to Shia believe, were slaughtered. Also killed were members of the Alawi family Shomaliya and the family of a Sunni member of parliament who was [by the rebels] considered a government collaborator. Members of the Syrian government confirmed this version but pointed out that the government committed to not publicly speak of Sunnis and Alawis. President al-Assad is Alawi while the opposition is overwhelmingly from the Sunni population majority.
As was the case in the NY Times article, Hermann was reporting from Damascus and not on the spot in Houla. The only thing that struck me as a bit implausible in Hermann’s article is this: “Members of the Syrian government confirmed this version but pointed out that the government committed to not publicly speak of Sunnis and Alawis.”
I really have to wonder how he can say this when early reports, also widely circulated by pro-Assad bloggers, made it clear that no such commitment existed. Early on, in a departure from the one-sided version of the NY Times, Bloomberg News presented the government version:
Among the dead in Houla was the family of a lawmaker who refused to withdraw his name from the parliamentary vote, Haddad said. Several hundred militants carried out the killings in Houla, General Qassem Jamal Suleiman, who heads the Syrian investigation into the killings, said May 31.
Syria has found evidence that fighters from Libya and Tunisia with ties to al-Qaeda are “already among the rebels,” Haddad said, adding that some of the massacre was filmed. “The main aim is to cause failure of the Annan plan and to provoke foreign military interference.”
Apparently, General Qassem Jamal Suleiman did not get the message about not blaming anybody in public. Maybe his cell phone was off that day.
But the plot thickens, as they used to put it on radio serials when I was a little kid.
Yesterday Der Spiegel, another big-time German publication, made their own phone calls to “eyewitnesses” and their account differs from Herman’s:
Defending the Rebels
Eyewitnesses Contradict Houla Massacre Claims
By Christoph Reuter
Recent German media reports have suggested that Syrian rebels carried out the Houla massacre and then blamed President Assad’s forces. But eyewitnesses to the killings contradict those claims.
It was the afternoon of May 25, when Houla near Homs became internationally famous as a synonym for the brutality of the Syrian regime. It was the site of a massacre where 108 people died, mostly women and children.
In recent days, German media reports have suggested that rebels carried out the massacre and then blamed Assad’s troops. Reports from eyewitnesses who spoke to SPIEGEL give a different impression, however.
Aiman Hassan Abd al-Rassak, a farmer and survivor of the massacre, watched as buses containing Syrian military troops drove up the hill where the village of Fullah is located, half a kilometre to the south, shortly before 5 p.m. on that day. Some 60 to 70 uniformed men marched towards the village, accompanied by around 200 men in civilian clothes.
Al-Rassak, who had recently been arrested, found a hiding place between the bushes and fields. Just minutes later, he heard his wife and five children being killed.
Two further eyewitnesses, Umm Shaalan Abd al-Rassak and Samira Suwai, also observed the two groups of military and civilian-clad men as they gathered on the hilltop and walked into the Taldo district. The army’s grenade bombardment of Houla had stopped shortly before.
Another witness, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, Saria, described the arrival of two big white buses and at least three large cars. He also saw soldiers in uniform, intelligence officers with weapons and men wearing tracksuits and civilian clothing carrying machetes and clubs.
It was only these men who went into the houses, he reports. It is impossible to prove whether they were really shabiha militia from Fullah and neighbouring Alawi villages. That seems to be a reasonable assumption, however, seeing as they arrived by foot in the village on the hill.
Other statements by witnesses also contradict the recent reports, published in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other outlets, which blamed the opposition for the massacre. Contrary to the reports, only Sunnis live in Houla, and not any Shiite converts who are loyal to the regime.
And why in any case would rebels carry out a massacre of their own supporters, who were, incidentally, buried with the participation of Sunnis from Houla?
So who’s telling the truth? I have no idea. I would say this, however. If you think that Der Spiegel’s reporting is to be rejected out of hand because it is supposedly biased against Bashar al-Assad, keep in mind that they published this as well back on March 29:
An Executioner for Syria’s Rebels Tells His Story
By Ulrike Putz in Beirut
Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses committed by Syrian rebels in their stronghold of Homs. But one member of a rebel “burial brigade” who has executed four men by slitting their throats defended his work in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. “If we don’t do it, nobody will hold these perpetrators to account,” he said.
Hussein can barely remember the first time he executed someone. It was probably in a cemetery in the evening, or at night; he can’t recall exactly. It was definitely mid-October of last year, and the man was Shiite, for sure. He had confessed to killing women — decent women, whose husbands and sons had protested against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. So the rebels had decided that the man, a soldier in the Syrian army, deserved to die, too.
Hussein didn’t care if the man had been beaten into a confession, or that he was terrified of death and had begun to stammer prayers. It was his tough luck that the rebels had caught him. Hussein took out his army knife and sliced the kneeling man’s neck. His comrades from the so-called “burial brigade” quickly interred the blood-stained corpse in the sand of the graveyard west of the Baba Amr area of the rebel stronghold of Homs. At the time, the neighborhood was in the hands of the insurgents.
Not the kind of reporting one would expect from a pro-rebel outpost.
Oddly enough, there is a curious kind of role reversal going on with the pro-Assad left. Despite its disdain for organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, its intervention into the Houla massacre has followed the same logic. Basically, the questions that preoccupy Marxists, namely those that revolve around historical tasks, are pushed to the side in favor of a kind of casuistry based on which side is more brutal.
And closely associated with this is a line of reasoning in which the Jihadist tag trumps everything. As was the case with Libya all that is required is proof that the Free Syrian Army consists of al-Qaida operatives and then a guilty verdict is assured. You find this most of all on the left (broadly interpreted) from Asia Times’s Pepe Escobar who gets as worked up over Sunni extremists as the late Christopher Hitchens on a bad day.
One of the odder things I’ve noted on the Houla controversy is the kind of politics makes strange bedfellows affinity between leftists like Michel Chossudovsky (again, broadly interpreted) and some howling Islamophobes like Pam Geller. Here’s Geller dredging up all the talking points of the pro-Assad left around Houla:
Here is part of the reason I have not been screaming for the ouster of the Assad regime. Clearly, I am no Assad fan, but I am much less a fan of the jihadist rebels. As we have seen in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc., there are Islamic groups that are far more gruesome than the secular regimes they overthrow. The Muslim Brotherhood is agitating for overthrow and is calling for intervention.
Jordan for the first time publicly stated that its security officials arrested two jihadists affiliated with al-Qaida on their way to Syria to fight against President Bashar Assad.
The bloodshed and the massacres are as much the work (if not more) of the “opposition”; knowing the enemedia, Islamic supremacists, and their apologists will blame Assad.
Syria: Houla massacre blamed on Assad regime actually work of jihadi rebels Jihadwatch
And the BBC illustrated its report on the Houla massacre with a ten-year-old photo from Iraq. All this goes to show: when it comes to jihad violence, you just can’t trust the mainstream media. At all. Not even a little bit. “Report: Rebels Responsible for Houla Massacre,” by John Rosenthal in National Review, June 9…
This is the same Pamela Geller who encouraged Israel to “stand loud and proud. Give up nothing. Turn over not a pebble. For every rocket fired, drop a MOAB. Take back Gaza. Secure Judea and Samaria. Stop buying Haaretz. Throw leftists bums out.”
Maybe Geller was on to something. Perhaps being for Israel and being for Assad is not such a contradiction in terms:
The Assads were in many ways ripe for celebrity treatment by the news media. The president, who was trained as an ophthalmologist, received part of his education in Britain, where he met his wife, a Briton of Syrian descent who grew up in London and worked as an investment banker in New York.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who once worked for a charity sponsored by Mrs. Assad, summed up the appeal the Assads had for some news outlets: “He speaks English, and his wife is hot.”
–NY Times, June 12, 2012
Washington Institute for Near East Policy Board of Advisers:
Max M. Kampelman
Henry A. Kissinger
Secretary of State
Samuel W. Lewis
U.S. ambassador to Israel
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
National Security Advisor
Editor in Chief and Chairman, New Republic
Assistant Secretary of Defense
James G. Roche
Secretary of the Air Force
George P. Shultz
Secretary of State
R. James Woolsey
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