Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Why the UN Investigation is Open to Question

Post created July 19, 2014 
last edits January 6, 2015

The findings of the United Nation Commission of Inquiry into Syria (CoI), carried out under the auspices of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, provides the closest thing the "international community" or has to an official story on the Houla Massacre. Because of its supposed rigor and impartiality, the CoI's findings are the first source turned to by the Western media and leaders to support their decision to blame the government and allied, genocidal, Alawite militias. 

The findings related on this blog differ greatly, and this post is meant to answer the questions many will have on seeing that disagreement. How on Earth could their rigorous, impartial findings, with such a logical conclusion, be trumped by amateur online investigators?  How is their investigation even really open to question at all? 

The Reports:
* Oral Update of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab 
Republic UN Human Rights Council, June 27, 2012. PDF link
* United Nations Human Rights Council: Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic. August 16, 2012. A/HRC/21/50 PDF link

Some reasons to doubt their findings: (not an exhaustive list):
1) The Commission of Inquiry was chaired by Karen Koning Abuzayd,  a US diplomat and director of a Washington think tank (Middle East Policy Council) that clearly shares the basic outlook and goals of the US government and its corporate backers. Imagine if this were reversed and a pro-Assad Russian think tank director were put in charge of the probe - can you imagine the uproar? But it's reversed and so everyone calls it credible, not because our slant is the good guy one but because its the one so pervasive it's generally invisible. 
2) Its findings are based largely on believing, with little scrutiny, the rebel-supplied alleged witnesses while doing whatever they could to ignore the other alleged witnesses. The Western media and governments already relied on this screening method for their narrative. Repeating that exercise does nothing to "confirm" those prior calls in a manner that reflects well on the report's credibility. (see post Witness Reliability.)

3) A number of flawed and shifting decisions regarding the rebel offensive and security situation are highlighted in our 2014 report, pages 38-40, 43-45, 46, 52, and pages 54-57. The net effect, perhaps coincidentally, is to leave them presuming unfettered government control in the massacre zones rebels almost got themselves into. Thus, most likely it was pro-government forces who did the killings, and so on.

4) The CoI seemingly ignored the UN's own previous findings on Houla to leave itself uninformed, and then blamed the Syrian government. Their June report with its lack of clear blame on the regime notes, perhaps in explanation for that, "the CoI was unable to visit the site of the killing as it has yet to be afforded access to the country. This fact substantially hampered the investigation, and its findings should be viewed in that light."
  But they had a report submitted by the UNSMIS monitors with detailed testimony from Houla residents, and apparently failed to look at it, while insisting on new access for the CoI in particular. I say they apparently failed to look because they otherwise must have consciously ignored what it said; the CoI said in its later August report, assessing the field of alleged witnesses, "apart from the two witnesses in the Government report, no other account supported the Government’s version of events.” There are over a dozen around in the public record that do so. And there are the ones their own monitors heard from but we have not, in a report they should have had access to, but give no clue - in the reports, anyway - of knowing about.
  At a press conference with journalists in Damascus on June 15, Major-General Robert Mood, head of UNSMIS (the UN Special Mission in Syria) spoke on the report he submitted to New York after his team's visit to Taldou. "We have interviews, interviewed locals with one story, and we have interviewed locals that has another story," he said, both included in the report. He gave no further details, but we know what the two basic stories are, and one is consistent with the government's. Was neither of these narratives his people heard from "locals" (plural) that same one supported by the video evidence? Or did the CoI just never see the report?
  As for how the UNSMIS weighed the two witness sets, Gen. Mood said on June 15 "the circumstances leading up to el Houla and the detailed circumstances, the facts related to the incident itself, still remains unclear to us." In the same press conference, Mood offered to help with further on-site investigation to settle the matter. The first UNSMIS Houla report was never referenced, and the mission was willfully shut down in July (mandate allowed to expire by decision of western governments) so there could never be a second one. Note: a month before that proper disbandment, the UNSMIS decided (were compelled?) to suspend all field investigations due to security worries - on June 16, the day after that press conference. 
  So ... the UN's on-the-ground investigation heard two stories, both compelling enough that the situation remained unclear to them. When everything else the CoI considered at first left it unclear as well ... they blame Syria, for not letting them do an on-the-ground investigation ... even though that already happened and yielded a result that sounds at least as murky.  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Some Failed Massacre Narratives

December 21, 2014

Our broad study of all sources remains stuck on the issue of who did it, but broadly, there's agreement on most of the when questions. It was around 1-2 PM, just after noon prayers, when the rebel attack or the army shelling began. With one side or another chased off or circumvented, someone moved onto Saad street and started massacring the Abdulrazaq families, the majority of the dead, somewhere between 2:30 and 5:30 PM, wrapping up by 6-7:30 PM. Around 11 PM the army either regained control of the massacre area, or still had control like they always did but just then started the smaller massacres on Main Street. By morning all bodies not at the main street sites were gathered by rebels with free access.

A few outlying sources disagree with this broad general consensus. but two I only stumbled on recently are incredibly out of whack with all else. I'm glad we didn't start with these, as it would have gotten us even more confused at first and even slower to make sense of stuff.

Der Spiegel
Der Spiegel (English) published a report on May 28 by Ulrike Putz  in Beirut, citing "at least 109" dead that contains a whole different narrative, I think, from any we've considered.
During the demonstrations, as had often happened in recent months, army snipers opened fire on the protesters, an eyewitness told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Several people were killed in the salvos and demonstrators dispersed.

As the afternoon progressed, the FSA unit, under the leadership of a commander named Mahmud,* decided to take revenge for the deaths. As night fell, the rebel fighters attacked all regime checkpoints in and around the village. Up to this point, the official government version of events is in accordance with these reports, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad al-Maqdisi saying that on Friday afternoon "from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m." there were attacks from "terrorists" against regime troops stationed there. 
....An eyewitness reported that the FSA unit suffered significant casualties during their offensive before committing a decisive tactical error. Instead of holding their position in the village, Mahmud elected to withdraw his unit, leaving the villagers unprotected.

At roughtly 11:30 p.m., the Syrian military then began its bombardment of the village, firing tank shells and mortars into town. One witness claimed that rockets were used as well. Most of the casualties occurred during the bombardment, the eyewitness says. But the eyewitness, whose account could not be independently verified, says that 26 victims were killed by regime supporters who entered Houla during breaks in the bombardment. Many of the perpetrators, the witness claims, came from the surrounding villages.
* Mahmoud Al-Houli, FSA activist?

So instead: snipers at the protest, a rebel offensive and no massacre during the early massacre span, then shelling and rebel retreat only near midnight, not mid-day. Mass shelling deaths, and a few executions by Shabiha types followed, all late at night. This odd assemblage agreed with government reports up to a point, but clearly cut off short of the core assertion that rebels conducted a massacre, and even claims the opposite, to a point.

A later report was already clarifying the regime blame, and criticizing the FAZ claims of a rebel rampage. On June 19 they ran Christof Reuter's report citing a few witnesses who all saw the Shabiha drive and/or walk up from Fullah, as soon as the Army shelling stopped. Since they walked, they must be from there and probably were Shabiha, and he asks why would rebels kill their own supporters? One alleged witness he believed entirely was Ayman Abdulrazaq (aka Hassan, Abu Firas, killed by some reports). The New Century Foundation contacted Spiegel about these somewhat contradictory reports (see here seemingly overrating the discrepancy). They received a defense of  the later report, but no authority to quote anyone. And of course a couple week later they were publishing Reuter's collaborative project with numerous interviews of rebel-supplied alleged witnesses, laced with its own internal contradictions...

Summary: the May 28 piece is an early report of a late massacre following the rebel rampage they almost acknowledged (and that more closely coincides with the bulk of the killings and which video proves!). It has value in showing what might be an abandoned early effort to provide a comprehensive rebel narrative.

"Rawan": Massacre in the morning, massacre at night
Now consider that alongside another much later report I just caught, described as coming directly from an eyewitness to events of May 28 [sic]. Syria Direct, Oct. 22, 2013:‘Men returned from prayer to find their families killed’ "Rawan" is now a nurse in the Al-Aisha refugee camp. A once-neutral Sunni, she "lived among Alawites in al-Houla," which everyone else agrees was effectively Alawite-free. But then "on May 28, 2012," she was radicalized, when she "witnessed the United Nations-condemned al-Houla massacre, where the Syrian regime and the shabiha are reported to have summarily executed at least 108 people in two separate incidents, mostly women and children." She clarifies:

The perpetrators of the Al-Houla massacre are the residents of Al-Houla. The shabiha [pro-Assad militias] are our neighbors, people who used to eat and drink with us.

As for the "two separate incidents," it's not the Abdulrazaqs in broad daylight and the al-Sayeds after dark. No, in her nameless version, the Sunni women and children victims were all herded together in one area in the morning, raped and then burned alive. Then the men - who had been away praying - not fighting or even protesting - were killed at night, after they "went mad" and launched an afternoon-evening offensive (not rampage) in revenge.
The massacre happened on a Friday, when all the men were in the mosque, praying. The shabiha called the regime and told them that all the men were in the mosque, that the houses were empty of men. They took their orders from the regime and went to people’s homes. There were around 50 of them, or more; I saw them with my own eyes. They were going to houses, killing women and children in the morning. Reports say 100 women and children were killed.  
After they finished, they called the security forces and told them the operation had been completed successfully. All the men returned from prayer to find their families killed. They went mad, and decided to exact revenge. They gathered at the mosque, and the shabiha surrounded them and killed them all. By a miracle, some survived.  
Imagine gathering all the women and children and raping them. They didn’t have enough time to kill them before the men got back from mosque, so they put them in one house, closed the door and burned them alive. A massacre in the morning and a massacre at night.
Hm... one could spend days dissecting the inconsistencies within  this word salad or between it and the vast remainder that seems to be based on some kind of real information. It's had zero effect, it seems. But it goes to show how people just opening their mouths and claiming things does not make their claims true. And what happened on May 25 has always been, to the dumbed-down masses, a matter of what Shabiha-blaming people opened their mouths and claimed.

But hey, look! One more direct eyewitness who's probably right, because she blames Shabiha, and that's consistent with what the other correct witnesses said.

The Weak In Review

Post started July 24, 2014
Last addition December 21, 2014

I've been alerting people on both sides of the mental war about the new report. I was expecting some would be unable to handle hosting that info and simply delete my comments. The first one gets itself published here (below)and creates the space for the rest (above that, newest at top).

Note: Anyone irked at my review of their weakness in deleting me, don't bother commenting here. The problem is you're one show of strength behind, and the only rebuttal I won't delete is one that's on-topic and lodged here.

Weak: Eliot Higgins aka Brown Moses (added Dec. 21)
Here I compare the coverage of the Houla Massacre by Eliot Higgins aka Brown Moses with that of ACLOS-CIWCL and myself. Easily it's shown that his flakiness and calls for "cynicism" were no match for our solving the Houla Massacre case. I figured he'd be inclined to ignore our work, explaining midway:
He's all but sure to refuse the challenge because he knows when you read videos right, it can't be shown wrong, and he knows we have it right. He won't want to look stupid denying the undeniable, can't be caught agreeing with it, and has himself boxed into irrelevant silence. History will have to move on without him then, if he can't break down that cardboard box of his own construction.

But I made sure he was aware and gave him ample time, over a week total, to show the slightest public sign to the contrary. As expected, he did not deliver, and shows no sign of the strength needed to break out of that box. That's weak, if also common.

Ironic older quote, Post, Nov. 2013: "If you want someone to really question your work, just post it on the Internet," he says. "There are plenty of people who'll want to tell you you're an idiot and you're wrong." SOmetimes maybe they want to, but they just can't come out and say it, either because you're not wrong, or maybe because they're just too busy.

But then there's this other more recent comment to Syria Direct - December 17, during the challenge period - that would serve well as a segue into an actual review of the type I was suggesting. However, that's most likely a coincidence.
I think we’re facing a situation in Syria where what we need is to get more people working with open-source information ... we keep seeing videos popping up relating to certain battles, but nobody’s really doing anything with them. They need to be put into context; they need to be examined, to see what’s happening, who’s fighting, just to have a better view of the conflict. But that requires a lot more effort.
Covered: the Battle for the Houla Massacre. Open source video evidence all but proves rebels launched it, won it, and exploited that by conducting the massacre after. Higgins reviewed that work, it seems to me, just enough to know he wished it didn't exist and doesn't want to touch it. Maybe I'm wrong on that, and maybe he'll want to tell me I'm wrong and an idiot, But so far he hasn't been able to vocalize anything much.

Weak: Ammar Abdulhamid, Syrian Revolution Digest 
Comment submitted here July 23:
"satellite photography showing pro-Assad checkpoints all over the place." We have on-the-ground video showing rebels taking over 40% to probably 80% of those on the same afternoon right before the killings started. That trumps what their "witnesses" say. These findings - new report, following on another last year -  can be reviewed and challenged here:   http://taldoutruth.blogspot.com/2014/07/2014-report-main-challenge-space.html In there, I correct Hermann on some points (where the Alawites were massacred), but the evidence came out supporting that version after all. Please don't delete this. 
But of course I left him no choice but to delete it. As he explained:
Any person who relies in any part of his analysis on the so-called "voting record"  provided by the Syrian regime demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the farcical nature of the electoral processes in Syria under the Assad. Your analysis of anything Syrian cannot be trusted. For this reason, I will have to delete your comment. 
And that's how it came to be here, with this rebuttal I'll try to make sure he sees:
Well, if you have to, then that's that, right? At least you had a look, apparently. Appreciated.
Am I wrong to trust the election results? Maybe. You noticed it wasn't my major area of study or focus. That's the kind of thing best brought to the challenge space to explain, because people have been just as knee-jerk sure who did the Houla Massacre and they were wrong. Precedent says politically charged claims against Damascus should be examined, not just accepted.
And even then, as I said there, challenges to side-issue like that are less valued than ones that actually touch the core issue of the video-evidence Battle for the Houla Massacre. Anyone who skips over the video evidence to latch onto a weak excuse to "have to" censor me has shown their intellectual weakness. Even Louis Proyect is unrepentant enough he just deletes me without the posturing.
Good luck with the book, hack weakling. 
I could go on with an expose of this guy's slimy propaganda, absolving Islamist atrocities in a way that's got to be at least partly conscious by now, but I'm in this to save time and keep moving.

Dec. 21 note: I may cover - should have already - his exploitations of the Houla Massacre in favor of his "Assad's sectarian strategy" crap, to highlight what he does while running against the best evidence.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Brown Moses on the Hook

Brown Moses on the Hook: Revisit the Houla Massacre
By Adam Larson aka Caustic Logic
December 12, 2014
last edits Dec. 21 4:15 AM

Note: anyone wanting to skip right to the core challenge, start reading at The Hook. Otherwise, the following set-up explains the issue as it hangs

The public career of Eliot Higgins (aka Brown Moses) runs far above and a bit parallel to my own, often tracing the same crimes with the same techniques, but from different points of view and reaching different conclusions.

From April, 2011 I ran the blog The Libyan Civil War: Critical Views, using video evidence especially to untangle some blatant rebel lies. At the time, Higgins was working the comments section at the Guardian as Brown Moses (using for an avatar the Francis Bacon painting sampled at left), gaining a reputation for research-based comments supporting the Guardian's pro-opposition news coverage. (the Huffington Post lauds his 4,500 comments there - the Guardian later sponsors a prominent seminar to teach his methods to more people).

We both took a keen interest in Syria developments, looking into that and later both turning to events in Ukraine. I had just teamed with Petri Krohn and others in the "Citizen's Investigation into War Crimes in Libya" not long before we switched to Syria and started gathering more collaborators at the research wiki A Closer Look On Syria (ACLOS). Higgins eventually grew a team now called or working at "Bellingcat" and getting media props for what the group calls "the examination of open source material overlooked by other organisations," especially making use of available video evidence, geolocated. That's exactly what we do, on all these same subjects. We're not following him/them, or vice-versa (that I know of), just riding two sides of the same geopolitical waves.

How we took our turns to focus on Syria over Libya in a dedicated new spot is interesting - we both switched gears at news of the Houla Massacre, widely heralded as "a turning point" for the world, and for both of us.

After calling it a turning point myself, I mostly moved away from Blogspot to help with ACLOS. Petri, "CE" and I kept working the case in a collaborative effort, with sub-pages, both sets of alleged witnesses, the video record, victim lists, timeline etc. It took a while, as we worked on other things (including a site re-location), but Houla remained a priority and eventually we solved the case, more or less. By year's end we had a good grasp and the May 2013 report, and especially in the July 2014 report, presented some of the best arguments - especially the geo-located videos, timed by sunlight angles, compared with other evidence, that illustrate the victorious rebel/terrorist offensive that left them in control of the massacre area during the massacre. That, we think, is how they got access to all the bodies.

Now in comparison...

Higgins' Record on Houla (so far)
Higgins had joined me at Blogspot at his soon-famous Brown Moses blog in late March, 2012. He at first covered the phone-hacking scandal and Leveson inquiry, and passing on some Syria video lists and lightly tackling "Syrian regime propaganda." He got more serious about Syria after May 25, his career reportedly taking an early boost from covering the massacre. As Syria Deeply explained in 2013:
A turning point came when Higgins live-blogged the Houla massacre, which unfolded near Homs last summer. “There was a massive amount of info coming from Twitter and Facebook,” he says, “so I decided to live blog it. And that was reported on NPR, and then after that I got lots of followers on Twitter and people [began] reading the blog. I set targets to do stuff. I’m competitive, so I like to be able to build up an audience.”
He started at the Brown Moses blog with an early and impressive list of videos from the scene, both of the dead and the supposed regime shelling, all the emotion-loaded scenes with little to no analysis, (see all posts labeled Houla Massacre) He made some sound findings; for example, he confirmed there had been children executed, besides the shelling (that was controversial for a moment). Children's hands were bound, yes, but it wasn't a clue; it's post-mortem, to make body handling easier (tied in front is no good to bind living people anyway).

Some early limits on his investigation: That rebels so easily got the bodies - as they usually do - is a clue he apparently missed the implication of. "Survivors" are cited, but it was never known they were really that. We tried to stick with "alleged witnesses/survivors" for everyone. It can now be seen the story those alleged survivors told clashes with the video evidence, and sometimes with itself.

The other set of alleged witnesses agree with the visual record of a rebel victory. For whatever that's worth... And it was in early June that controversy emerged, driven by those new and detailed witness accounts of a rebel assault followed by punitive killings of government loyalists and converts to Shi'ism. This gained an unusually high media profile, including Rainer Hermann's famous but flawed article in German daily Frankfurter Algemeine Zeitung (FAZ). UN Monitor mission chief Robert Mood also mentioned on June 15 that his team had spoken to alleged witnesses in al-Houla and heard two differing stories. The UN's investigators released a report June 27 acknowledging two different stories of the events, which it was unable to decide between. It was an awkward month for anyone hoping for easy blame on Assad and his "Shabiha."

Higgins had paused his Houla coverage after a May 30 post on fresh shelling video (which, we can now see, came after a rebel takeover on May 25). By posts, it seems he stayed quiet into June, as if awaiting guidance. Only on the 28th did he come back with one final word, a re-post of someone else's words: "The Holy See And Senior Catholic Church Members Criticise Pro-Assad Clergy" . Perhaps to avoid the execution of Christian hostages in al-Qusayr, senior clergy announced that Syrian Christians suffered no problems from the rebels in Syria. They included for criticism one Mother Agnes Mariam of the mixed reliability, who did provide one or two of the several alleged witnesses countering the rebel claims, allegedly sheltering at her convent after fleeing the rebel conquest. This spurred Higgins to note at the end:
Mother Agnes Mariam claims about the Houla massacre were also basis of a controversial article in the German newspaper FAZ which has resulted in an ongoing spat between John Rosenthal and Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth, which in the light of the latest comments from the Catholic Church suggests John Rosenthal may owe the other two an apology. Hopefully the media will take some time to reflect on what has been said about these individuals at the ROACO, and treat their claims with more cynicism in the future.
This was his only word about the witness-based controversy, in his only post after its emergence. With that opportunity to put down the wrong messenger and thus the supposed message, he promptly flaked out on this transformative event. He never bothered to analyze the videos or start correlating things to make full sense of it. He wasn't the one to - for example - correctly identify one regime attack weapon as a rebel dude firing an RPG over and over just south of the central security post, around 6:15 PM.

As far as I can tell from a quick look, the lauded citizen investigator did not re-visit the subject of the Houla Massacre during the many months our work expanded the knowledge base. The new Bellingcat site doesn't yet have anything new on it either. And they have a team now.

Brown Moses had to move on to other things and never return. Why? As he said to Syria Deeply, specifically in connection with Houla, "I’m competitive, so I like to be able to build up an audience." Hey, me too! My article is a consistent #2 to the Wikipedia article in a Google search for Houla Massacre, while Higgins' pale old video lists no longer registers. So far, the CIWCL-ACLOS investigation I've led (at least in summation and promotion) easily wins this one-sided competition. Brown Moses' flakiness and calls for "cynicism" were no match for our solving the Houla Massacre case.

The only way for Higgins to turn that back, which risks giving me/us more of an audience, is to address the challenge (see below), review the video case, and weigh in with a concrete opinion on the matter. I've already asked him once about some kind of peer review, but he expressed disinterest, citing time constraints. That's understandable, but not good enough. So after some time to let us both prepare, he goes now on the hook.

The Hook

I know you're a perceptive cat and can likely sense what's in store, maybe from the start. I'm sure your main inclination is to continue letting this one lie. I encourage you to confront it openly instead. Run the risk of showing you can work outside the corporate controlled box and follow the video clues, even in this case where it's inconvenient. We've seen these last 29 months that you can ignore the Taldou evidence. Let's see a different skill now.

The Challenge: review the 2014 report (direct PDF link) and somewhere (comments here is best) give your informed opinion. The only immediate action required: some public acknowledgment, initial assessment, letting me know what to expect and when.  Thisshould be submitted as soon as possible in a comment below.

Deadline: it will be the end of Tuesday, December 16, before I consider you as seeming to doge the issue. I'll be annoyed if so. Just a quick word at first is all we need. The rest, the actual review, we need as well, but with a negotiable schedule.

Further points/thoughts:

- You'll need to have a decent look, maybe watch the videos, doubt the locale, find a better one, or question the significance of the military actions we've placed and timed, etc. If possible. If not, acknowledgments would be good.

- I'd love to hear from Bellingcat/other affiliates as well, doing some of the analytical work and sharing it. But I need a Brown Moses overview in the end, public and verifiable. We're getting you back on the record on this subject, okay?

- I'm accepting related comments here (other readers not working with Eliot can take it to the general challenge space post).

-If you think the Houla Massacre, with the executed children is important enough to revive on Bellingcat, or your old blog, or wherever, that works probably even better. But pointers left with me, preferably in comments right below, would be best. Keeping it all in blog comments, minimal, and agreeable is probably the best and most low-key option. (note Dec. 13 - there's also a Twitter track I expect will remain silent)

- the core video evidence is all that really matters. If time is limited, ignore the last sections and focus on the "exhibits" - who's shooting, where, when, what's burning, etc. Other issues are fair to critique, but not as a replacement for reviewing the video record and our reading of it.

- In the end, I need to hear what's wrong with our case, what's right with it, what now seems to you the best supported narrative? We started with very different views, and after re-visiting it, who should change viewpoints?

- No set time-frame. Done the best way, it could be a bit of a project, preferably with a team. But a swift and public initial response is needed (there is also an e-mail track open, but the aim is public word)

- No need - necessarily - for a full review of every point, nor for being totally decisive (especially at first)
- I intend to be polite and engaging (once we're moving), and look forward to hearing from/working with you and hopefully some of the team members I don't know yet (that's all of them, I think, and it's my bad - I'm almost anti-social media)

- We have made errors - until just before the 2014 report we were citing the wrong times, forgetting daylight savings time. It didn't change anything, but maybe there are other mistakes at work you could spot.

More! Dec. 14
honey-butter: I should note that our video review got its start, long ago, building off the Brown Moses list, which was and remains valuable. But ... it's just a list. It fell to us to do the reading, and then lobbying for a simple review of that.

Inspired by recent tweets (none responding to me...) re: ShamiWitness: "I can see it now" Time to think about re-thinking things you still can't see? It's all assembled for ease of review.

re: Syrian Girl comments...in 29 months you couldn't scrape up "5 minutes" to review the Houla evidence, ever? Since I first asked you for peer review about six months ago, you couldn't take "5 minutes"? Will you take just one minute before the end of Tuesday to say, if nothing else, "okay, I'll review it, but not right now because blah blah"? Even later on, "5 minutes" would be wrong, but maybe 45 minutes total could achieve a decent overview to let you choose your position wisely.

Above I described you as perceptive, meaning intuitive. I don't know that. Maybe. What matters more is what I've noticed whenever I have to agree with a Higgins/Bellingcat visual match. It's usually right (in the cases I've double-checked). And I think you're aware that we're pretty good at it too, and unlikely to put up something that could instantly be shown wrong, like a bad geo-location call. As I just worded it elsewhere:
He's all but sure to refuse the challenge because he knows when you read videos right, it can't be shown wrong, and he knows we have it right. He won't want to look stupid denying the undeniable, can't be caught agreeing with it, and has himself boxed into irrelevant silence. History will have to move on without him then, if he can't break down that cardboard box of his own construction.
Your call, Mr. Higgins. December 16, deadline: UK I think is 8 hours ahead of me, so it will be just about the deadline, Eliot, and still no word. So, I'll extend the deadline, to the end of Saturday. Four days where you can't say I timed you out. Maybe with more time to get over the annoyance you'll agree it's time to think ahead to your credibility down the road, and get over your fears of stepping off the empire's script just this once. And I can't say there's nothing to be afraid of. You'd know better than me what kind of mental shackles and tortures await you if you ever assist in overturning a lie this important. Presumably nothing would be risked past public reputation, but you'd think that might get a boost from a mixed record where you can blame both sides. But oh yeah, one side has to be guilty of token crimes only, and Houla ain't token ... Still thinking you'll chicken out in total silence, but giving you a bit more time to prove otherwise.

December 21, Sunday The deadline is necessary to creating "pressure." It means nothing if it's not enforced. The second deadline has come and gone, and still no public word. He couldn't spare one minute to let us know if he'll ever have the minutes for a review, or what. I still welcome any reaction, but I'm not holding my breath which means, in this case, he must now be considered WEAK.

"Fight for Us" And Other Things Ali Said: Houla Massacre Star Witness Reconsidered

"Fight For Us" and Other Things Ali Said: Houla Massacre Star Witness Reconsidered
Re-posted here December 13, 2014

This is a revised and updated version of an article originally posted July 3, 2012 as "Houla Massacre Star Witness Reconsidered" at SyriaNews.cc. After that site’s closure, it was also carried by Arabi Souri at Wordpress.com). This revision, with much new information, was drafted for and included in the 2013 CIWCL report Official Truth, Real Truth, and Impunity for the Syrian Houla Massacre. Small updates and an extra graphic only are added here. 

1. Adored, Not Ignored

Ali Al-Sayed has been heralded as the most important survivor of and witness to the Houla massacre of May 25, 2012. Just over one hundred people, nearly half of them children, were cruelly butchered in the collected villages called Al-Houla, in Syria’s Homs province (the killings were in the southernmost town of Taldou). But this boy survived, a miracle and a ray of hope. And most importantly, by living to tell, he was a window for the world onto what happened, and what should be done about it. (Or, alternately, a window onto what someone wanted us to think and do).

As related by the news, the victims of the massacre were members of Sunni families being punished for aiding the protests against Assad’s regime, or just on suspicion, or just for being Sunni. Ali’s is no exception; the eleven-year-old says he was shot at but unharmed as his entire family was massacred around him. He dramatically smeared himself with his brother’s blood, after seeing that Nader’s spirit had left his body, and played dead. He then escaped unharmed into the night to tell the world. Or so he says.

Ali wasn’t alone in surviving to blame the government and its allied shadow militia, the Alawite “Shabiha” (roughly “ghost”) armies. [1] Perhaps two dozen others who say they escaped from various targeted homes, most by playing dead, are known so far. [2] Like Ali, they all blame soldiers, Shabiha, or “Alawite pigs,” and ask for outside protection. Ali actually puts it best, if not most subtly, conveying his strong personal feelings about the world’s responsibilities, considering what he says he saw.
“I demand that the international community stop the killing in Syria & in Houla … We’re being killed in our homes. The international community is sitting, just talking and not doing anything. The people must fight for us, do what they say, and protect us.” (3:09-3:38) [3]

The world is now dimly aware of a whole other set of alleged witnesses with an opposite story. These have said rebel-affiliated terrorists, including known local families and unknown foreign helpers, carried out an attack on loyalist families remaining in this rebel-dominated area. This witness set contain less miracle escapees who saw the killings, and their accounts are thus more distant, more vague, and more realistic. But somehow these others were ignored while Ali, above all, was adored.

Little Ali is so cute with his baby face and “supergame” t-shirt that he barely even looks eleven. In fact he doesn’t; by the video Ali looks about eight or nine. Perhaps he is younger than stated, maybe after someone decided that the sophisticated plea for foreign help just looked preposterous coming from an 8-year-old.

2. Contacts and Suggestion

Later in 2012, Ali was interviewed by German news Der Spiegel [4] and gave a lip-chewing Skype interview for a documentary by France 2 [5], as well as being featured in an Arabic-language opposition video re-enacting his ordeal. [6] But it was in the days after the massacre that Ali made such big waves in English and worldwide, initially speaking out at least four times, all apparently via a Skype video connection. The first was a video of the boy interviewed, in Arabic, by an unknown man. [3] He also spoke to Martin Chulov of the UK Guardian via Skype, first un-named but with plenty of detail. [7] Both of those occurred on or before the 28th, but he also spoke to the Associated Press the same way on the 30th. [8]

Chulov noted that, with all his family allegedly dead, the boy was living with “a town elder who is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Council and is now caring for him,” as well as arranging the discussion. The AP contacted him “through anti-regime activists in Houla who arranged for an interview.” [8]

The UN Commission of Inquiry’s initial report, released June 27, shared their investigators’ doubts about a boy that’s clearly Ali. They spoke to him via Skype, making a fourth known interview, but with no details shared. They also reviewed the previous video, but not apparently the Guardian or AP interviews. “In both interviews he blamed the killings on Shabbiha and soldiers of the Syrian army,” they found. "In one interview the survivor stated that the perpetrators arrived together in tanks. The CoI took note of the age of the boy and duly considered his suggestibility." [9]

  The bolded part is something the corporate media and world leaders apparently never did. Considering Ali’s guardian and handler and his network, it’s quite clear who would be doing the suggesting and what basic form it would take. That geo-politically useful form is likely the reason it was accepted with no question.

  Suggestibility is a type of unreliability, but only a potential one. New research shows that active story break-down is a more immediate problem with this alleged witness and survivor. Between only three publicly available accounts, the kid has managed to contradict himself to the point of absurdity, as explained below.

  3. “That is True” – The Attack

In the video, Ali says the attackers entered his home after emerging from “the tank” that pulled up out front. To Chulov, he said “they came in armoured vehicles and there were some tanks.” To the AP, he said they arrived “in a military armored vehicle and a bus.” To Der Spiegel, Ali described, by sound, a “BMB” personnel carrier. [4] Later in the video (around 4:00), he says in Arabic: “they wanted to burn the house, and then they left in cars.” That sentence was bypassed in the translated captions. [10]

  In general, Ali describes the attackers as eleven in number, primarily military in appearance, with some in uniforms and some in civilian clothes, sporting big beards and shaved heads. Some commentators, like Martin Janssen and by him Rainer Hermann, have noted the hair and beard style could describe anti-government Sunni fanatics. [11] However, in various details Ali clearly describes them as Alawites and Assad loyalists. At 2:07 in the video, he’s asked “how did you know it was the army, not armed gangs?” He answered “the tank was outside, they came out of it.” Further, they “were dressed as military,” and were “Shabiha.” [3] Chulov noted the boy’s calm delivery relating his family’s massacre, but how he then grew argumentative when asked how he knew who the attackers were. “Why are you asking me who they were? I know who they were. We all know it. They were the regime army and people who fight with them. That is true.” [7] Later, he was quoted by Chulov as saying the attackers “spoke with an Alawite accent,” and “said they were from Foulah (a neighboring Alawite town). They were Shabiha. And they were proud of it.” [12]

  He agrees in all accounts his mother was killed after shouting at the soldiers. In the video, he says “my mom screamed at them as they were arresting (brother) Shaoqi and my uncle(s),” who were taken alive but killed before the next day. [3] AP reported back “the men led Ali’s father and oldest brother outside” and killed them there, and then she screamed “Why did you take them? Why did you take them?’” before being shot down. [8]

  But in the version told to Chulov, Ali’s mother and the young children were shot dead while the sought men stayed hidden nearby in the house. “My mum yelled at them … ‘What do you want from my husband and son?’” They gunned her down, tried to kill Ali, and murdered Nader and Rasha, then started looting. After all of this, “on the way out of the house, the boy said the gunmen found the three men they had been looking for. “They shot my father and uncle. And then they found Aref, my oldest brother, near the door. They shot him dead too.”[7]

  In general, Ali claims he escaped only after the attackers left, having played dead until that point. They had found him and shot right at him, he’s said, but managed to miss, and then he dramatically smeared himself with someone else’s blood as a disguise. Some sources say it was his mother’s blood he used, but no primary sources seem to support that. Martin Chulov reported in the Guardian “he smeared himself in the blood of his slain brother.” To the AP, he specified it was Nader’s blood, a point played up in the cited New York Post publication (the photo is captioned “blood brother”).

  However, in the video interview, he doesn’t mention anyone’s blood. He does however say that when they shot and missed, he was actually “hit,” or grazed on the back of his right hand. He shows this to the camera, which can make out what seems like three faint scratches, less than three days after the massacre. It seems it was his own (bloodied?) hand that he used to hide under; “after they killed us, I went like this (right hand covering the side of his face), acting like I was shot.”

  There are other points he was more consistent on between his Guardian and video interviews. For example, the number of bullets (five) fired through the front door lock. The stolen items are consistent; on video, he lists three televisions, a computer, and an item translated once as a vacuum cleaner, another time as a broom. [3] (2:36) The Guardian’s Martin Chulov listed only “three televisions and a computer.” Later speaking to Der Spiegel, however, the vacuum cleaner had been explicitly replaced; they stole “two TV sets, our washing machine and the computer.” [4] This seems to refer to the usual, bulky and low-value, domestic clothes-washing machine, but to be fair, it could be just another translation issue.

  From his attack chronology conflicts alone, the boy’s account is highly questionable. Traumatic reality has a way of driving facts home better than attempts at memorization, and these alleged facts are pretty loose.

  4. A Fungible Family

  Considering Ali as a questionable witness, it might well follow that he was never a member of the massacred Al-Sayed family. And if that were so, his alleged facts of this family might be as loose as his attack narrative, seeming to be sloppily memorized rather than driven into place by a short lifetime of shared history.

  And in fact Ali seems unable to keep his family members straight. A certain pool of names remains constant, but these shift freely from one member to another between accounts. The effect, distilled below, is bizarre.

  To Der Spiegel, Ali recalled his unnamed father fondly; he took his son "to many demonstrations," always having "kebabs and cola first!" But an arrest in November left Mr. Al-Sayed "afraid to go." [4] Rendered harmless, he was killed anyway.

  As for the father’s name, Ali gives that as identical to his own – Ali Alsayed -  in the video interview. But to the Guardian, he’s apparently named Aref: “They said they wanted Aref and Shawki, my father and my brother.” Then it turns out Aref was “my oldest brother,” and Shawki apparently his father. [7] In the video, Shaoqi (Shawki) is his killed older brother. [3] So perhaps Aref is the father after all? No – the video is where it’s specified he was named Ali.

  On video he names two uncles, Oqba and Arif/Aref. Though the interviewer repeatedly reminds him both uncles were taken, Ali keeps using the singular form, apparently referring to Oqba, and insists the third male killed was his own brother, not his father’s. [3] But to Martin Fletcher, he said the killed uncle was named Abu Haider. [13] (MF) To Martin Chulov, the killed uncle isn’t named, but the gunmen initially “asked about my uncle, Abu Haidar. They also knew his name. ” [7]

  Ali’s mother is always dead and never named, and his younger siblings are a bit more stable. Rasha, 5, and Nader, 6, both killed before his eyes, both mentioned in the video and in both early interviews. To the AP he also adds another brother, Aden, age 8. That’s seven murders minimum, eight if there were two uncles taken. But when he saw the soldiers later “they were describing six people dead in my house. They included me. They thought I was dead.” [7] By this he thinks there were only five people killed, forgetting at least two.

  The one known victims list, * from the Damascus Center for Human Rights Study (DCHRS), comprehended with Google translate, doesn’t even contain the family names Al-Sayed or anything close. There is a family name “Mr. Arif” or Aref, the first name of Ali’s brother/ uncle as given, and the father of the family by other sources (see below). This appears for entries 30, 31, 48, and 93, with matching first names Nader (#30) and Rasha (#48). But there are only the four entries when 7-8 family members are said to have been killed. [14]

   * 2014 note: other lists were later tracked down and correlated - see updated endnote 14

  The other two Arifs given on that list as dying are Mohammed and Adel. [14] Adel is similar to Aden, the brother who was mentioned by Ali only in his later interviews with AP and Spiegel. And it’s Ali’s middle name too; “A baby, Ali Adel al-Sayyed, miraculously survived,” anti-government activist Maysara al-Hilawi told Reuters. [15] To Der Spiegel, the witness spoke as “Ali Adil Sayyid.” [4] Further, when the interviewer in the video repeats back Ali’s father’s name, he seems to add, and even emphasize, an “Adel,” repeating “Ali Adel Sayed.” [3]

  The Adel link might also help explain why the DCHRS victim list also contains one “Mr. Adel Shawki,” perhaps meaning “Mr. Aref Shawki,” meaning Shaoqi Al-Sayed, the brother/father that Ali cited. [13] Thus it seems possible these related entries were gathered from Ali himself, who managed to confuse things again to create the mess recorded here. (DCHRS is a member of the International Federation for Human Rights, FIDH/IFHR. [16])

5. The Physical Family

  A partial family identification, pieced together by A Closer Look On Syria (ACLOS) after this article’s first publication, draws on several sources. The first appeared only in September, when Ali made a video with opposition Houla Media Office and a couple of rebel fighters, taking a long walk together south across the fields just east of Main Street. At a certain home, they stop so he can re-enact the massacre as he allegedly saw there (this is still not fully scrutinized for details). [6]

  The home in question is the same one shown by SANA news on May 26 and filmed by UN monitors as well. As both showed it, the home featured in situ bodies matching the family Ali describes; two dead boys (aged app. 6-9), a girl (app. 5), and an adult woman inside, and three men executed just outside the door. [17]

  Further, the identities SANA specified are head of household Aref Mohammad al-Sayyid, killed alongside "his two brothers Imad and Ouqba, his wife Izdihar Ali al-Daher,” and the three children, unnamed. (The mother is seen in a room apart from the others - laid across a bed - in a UNSMIS video. Though fully clothed, it’s said in a France 2 documentary that she was raped before her murder, conflicting with Ali’s claim she was simply shot right in front of him). No survivor is mentioned. [17]

From SANA TV, May 26, the men killed just outside Ali’s alleged home. SANA cites Aref Al-Sayyid and his brothers Imad and Ouqba. Ali cites his brother Shaoqi / Aref, their father Ali / Shaoqi, and uncle Ouqba / Aref / Abu Haidar. 
  The father’s name, Aref, is a common one in Ali's narratives, used for his uncle or his older brother, but never for his father. All three were, he said in most versions, taken outside and shot. Uncle Oqba is a fit, but the third man is in contention: Ali cites his older brother Aref/Shaoqi, while SANA said it was his alleged uncle Imad.

  At this point, it’s more than reasonable to put the name “Ali Al-Sayed” in quotes, on suspicion of being a fake witness who, lucky for him, was nowhere near the massacre sites that day. His winding up under protection of opposition people could be from being born there. Perhaps the “town elder who is a member of the Syrian Revolutionary Council” is his uncle.

  His story then would be untrue, but it does seem crafted to fit with, and explain, the very real demise of this one particular family.

  6. A Government Family?

  Abdelmutti Al-Mashlab is a name that doesn’t appear in Ali’s early narratives. He was in the Syrian parliament, the Peoples’ Assembly. This had just been chosen on May 7 in an election the rebellion insisted was a regime ploy no one should participate in. [18] (Rebels managed to block polling in many areas, but about 52% of eligible voters managed anyway, according to official sources). The winners – this time including many pre-rebellion opposition members, and working with a brand-new constitution – were sworn in on May 24 and voted into positions within the parliament. [19]

SANA reported that “Abdel Mou'ti Mashlab” was elected as one of two secretaries that day in Damascus. (A previous version of this article said that he was elected the parliament’s speaker, but SANA says that went to one Mohammad Jihad al-Laham.) [20] The next day, as the new assembly set to its first day of work, it’s strongly alleged that part of Secretary Mashlab’s family back in Al-Houla was one of those slaughtered. As with all the others, that was blamed on the government, right along with its “reforms” and “democracy.”

  One of the ignored local witnesses explained the man she called Abdullah Al-Mashlab “was elected on May 24th, and the next day they killed his wife and three kids and his brother and his big family as well.” [21] She may have the name wrong and the victims too closely related. SANA reported, as do other witnesses, that the family with Oqba in it was only somehow “related to a People's Assembly member.” The link was distant enough to have a different actual family name, but close enough, SANA implies, to matter here. They say the election raised the ire of “one Haitham al-Housan,” (aka Hassan, Hallak) a local bandit who already hated the Al-Sayeds, and oversaw their murders on May 25. [22]

This parliament connection to the Houla massacre is acknowledged, if vaguely, by the other side. American NPR reported on the testimony of a possible alleged relative of Ali’s, 17-year-old Maryam Sayid. “The Syrian government says [the attackers] were out to punish one family that had a relative in the Syrian parliament,” NPR reported. But Maryam, a self-described member of that family, “said the government’s version is simply untrue.” She wouldn’t “hide with anti-government rebels,” as she did, if that’s who she was running from. [23] But it could be, as it could be with Ali, that she was always with the rebels, and only pretending to have first been a survivor of a government massacre.

The killed family Maryam describes was headed by retired police officer Muawiya Al-Sayed, who, as SANA reported, “didn’t defect (to the rebels) and was always in danger (from them).” [22] Maryam says he never defected, but was killed by the government anyway, along with some portion of his family. This included his grown son, Maryam said in a more detailed interview with Der Spiegel - an army soldier on leave with a broken leg. [4] Innocent of rebellion and seemingly almost on the government’s side, they were apparently hit for their sectarian credentials alone, in her provocative and propagandistic narrative. “They killed us because we are Sunni,” NPR quoted Maryam as saying; the killers were “Alawite thugs wearing all black and chanting sectarian slogans.” [23]

While they share a common name and lived close to each other on Main Street, the available information is not decisive on whether the Muawiya Al-Sayed family and the Aref-Oqba Al-Sayed family were directly related. But Maryam says - to NPR, if not to Der Spiegel – that she was related to the People’s Assembly secretary. And the latter heard that Ali from down the street was “a distant relative of Abdulmuti Mashlab, a member of the Syrian parliament.” [4] In fact, Ali says, he “was merely the uncle of his uncle's wife,” probably too distant to hurt like the authorities suggested, or to be related at all. [4]

The article further says this tenuous kinship “prompted UN observers to make the assumption” that’s why the family was killed. [4] No source was given for that claim, and no such statement is readily available. It would be encouraging to learn that the UN’s investigators had become open-minded when presented with a clue like that. But in the end, such things didn’t seem to matter much to them.

7. The Unnamed Evil Uncle

Despite the amazing confusion over his alleged immediate family and their names, two of Ali’s accounts consistently suggest another, closer relative, described as an uncle – unnamed but living nearby – was complicit in the killings.

To the Guardian, he reported running to this uncle’s house for safety, but strangely, the soldiers who had attacked his own home then arrived right after him. Unseen, apparently by everyone, he overheard the Shabiha talking to his uncle as if on good terms. They mentioned the six killings that were only five, and then he recalled them “asking his uncle if he knew who lived in the house that they just rampaged through,” as if he had been the one to send them. [7]

Furthermore, in the video, Ali says his father, uncle, and brother were taken away, rather than killed there. He said he only knew they had been killed because “the next day I saw them dead on the government TV channel.” [3] This 8-11 year-old from an ostensibly rebel family apparently makes sure to keep up on what SANA is saying, perhaps while eating a bowl of cereal back at his uncle’s house. After that, “my uncle came on saying that armed gangs killed his children.” (emphasis added) But Ali knew this wasn’t true – he caught the lie on both ends, at his own home and his uncle’s, in his fanciful story.

The name of this evil uncle is unspecified in both cases, which is noteworthy. Relation Abdelmutti Al-Mashlab, the Peoples’ Assembly secretary, is likely to be featured on state TV following the murder of his family. Was Ali accusing him of celebrating his election victory by running back to Al-Houla and overseeing the massacre of his own traitorous or too-Sunni  family? Maybe that was the idea at first, but the there’s no indication Mr. Mashlab lived in Taldou, and Ali’s Spiegel interview all but rules him out even if he did, as too distant to be called “uncle.”

  These stories could refer to Muawiya Al-Sayed, the possibly related police officer up the street. But he was killed that night, Maryam and the Syrian authorities say. SANA has specified an uncle Imad, but Ali never has, so that’s probably not it. He too was killed. Ali might also refer to his uncle Abu Haidar, whom the soldiers asked after before gunning down uncle Oqba. Unless Abu Haidar was the uncle killed along with Ali’s father and brother, as he once said. [13] Then, maybe it was Oqba he ran to, but he too is reported dead, and more reliably so.

  None of these works very well, and none of them seems to be the intended match. So it must have been some other uncle yet to whom Ali ran, only to find he’d sent the killers himself and lied about it on national TV. And still, this villain allowed Ali himself to see it all and survive, apparently escaping again to his new anti-government friends and their world audience.

  Perhaps this convenient uncle was more of a literary device than a real person. That would explain it.

8. Conclusion: Abilities and Disabilities

The case for a Syrian government-ordered massacre at Al-Houla was taken as obvious fact from day one by the Western powers and all those kept on the same page with them. The blamed government had its ambassadors expelled over the blame, along with harsh condemnations of the blamed government, and increased talk of arming the rebels to help stop the killing.

But the blame comes down to a handful of alleged miracle escapees and the “activists” they now live and roll with, divorced from all consideration of the non-rebel witnesses. The believed batch is anchored by this juvenile star witness, but we can now assess his abilities and disabilities.

He’s not able to remember the names of his own father and older brother, nor of his cluster of named uncles simmered down to a dead one vs. an evil one. He apparently cannot count past six or know when he should try. He cannot remember consistently whether the men of the house were killed first, were taken away and killed later, or cowered by the door in silence as the youngest and their mother were mowed down one by one. He cannot well explain how he escaped with those faint scratches on his hand standing in for the slightest actual injury. He reports gunfire only, no stabbing, throat-slitting, eye-gouging, or any such thing. We know these things happened in the Houla massacre, but not to Ali or any of his kin, he reports.

Ali’s abilities more than make up for his shortcomings. Like a video camera he consistently recalls minor details, like the five bullets in the lock and that everyone knows it was the regime, and those who fight with them, who did it. He can expose his scheming uncle’s wicked plots, detect an “Alawite accent,” from the Foulah “Shabiha” a mile away, who don’t seem to exist. [24] He’s incapable, apparently, of telling us what really, realistically, might have happened. But as we’ve seen, he’s been fully able to move a world that badly wants to believe the poor little guy anyway.
2014 addendum: an odd pattern that popped up where one early list of only 7 names seems almost like half of the Aref al-Sayed family, with the other half of its members swapped in from other families. (Fatima stayed appearing on her own merits as a real victim, while Ali and Khawla - listed as adults, maybe meant to be his "real" parents - remain unsupported anywhere else but for seeming phantom entries at the VDC (Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria)

[1] http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/The_Shabiha:_Ghost_Stories%3F
[2] http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Houla:Alleged_witnesses_for_a_government/Shabiha_attack
[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9KnjNxU8nI (account deleted, said vacuum cleaner) or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6yVbOBbO6I (says broom)
[4] Christoph Reuter and Abd al-Kadher Adhun for DER SPIEGEL, "Searching for the Truth Behind the Houla Massacre", published July 23, 2012 http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/a-look-back-at-the-houla-massacre-in-syria-a-845854.html
[5] Houla, autopsie d'un massacre, France2 documentary aired September 20, 2012 http://envoye-special.france2.fr/les-reportages-en-video/houla-autopsie-d’un-massacre--20-septembre-2012-4605.html
[6] http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Talk:Ali_Al-Sayed#Field_expedition_with_Ali 
[7] Houla massacre survivor tells how his family were slaughtered. Martin Chulov, the Guardian, May 28, 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/28/houla-massacre-survivor-boy-syria
[8] Syrian boy says he survived military massacre of his family by smearing himself with his brother’s blood and playing dead. Associated Press, via New York Post, June 1, 2012.  http://www.nypost.com/p/news/international/syria_slaughter_miracle_boy_awn8GLCUh0o8Qp3kRcVVLO
[9] UN Human Rights Commission, Oral Update, June, 2011 A/HRC/20 http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session20/COI_OralUpdate_A.HRC.20.CRP.1.pdf
[10] Comment by “Shaamnews” on posted original version of this article http://arabisouri.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/houla-massacre-star-witness-reconsidered/
[11] Janssen: http://opinie.deredactie.be/2012/06/02/de-verschrikkingen-van-houla/ Hermann: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/neue-erkenntnisse-zu-getoeteten-von-hula-abermals-massaker-in-syrien-11776496.html (translation from German) http://www.moonofalabama.org/2012/06/prime-german-paper-syrian-rebels-committed-houla-massacre.html
[12] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/01/houla-massacre-reconstructing-25-may
[13] http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120602/jsp/frontpage/story_15560453.jsp#.UWlHaUbTQ98
[14] 2014 note: DCHRS victims list, Arabic, compressed with original auto-translate names, better translation, etc. available here at ACLOS: http://www.shoutwiki.com/w/images/acloserlookonsyria/archive/3/3a/20140708110056!Houla_Victims_Arabic_Correlated.pdf
[15] “Families herded “Like Sheep” to die in Houla massacre” By Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Reuters (Amman), May 30, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/05/30/us-syria-crisis-houla-idUSBRE84T1BH20120530
[16] Damascus Center for Human Rights Study. http://www.dchrs.org/news.php
[17] “The Household Ali Explains,” A Closer Look on Syria: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Ali_Al-Sayed#The_Household_Ali_Explains
[18] SANA, May 15: http://sana.sy/eng/21/2012/05/15/419139.htm
[19] http://english.cntv.cn/program/asiatoday/20120524/122858.shtml
[20] SANA, May 24. http://sana.sy/eng/21/2012/05/24/421043.htm
[21] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JD0PA0BxNAQ
[22] Witnesses to al-Houla Massacre: Massacres Were Carried Out Against Specific Families That Support the Government. Syrian Arab News Agency, English. Jun 02, 2012 http://www.sana.sy/eng/337/2012/06/02/422915.htm http://nsnbc.me/2012/06/02/witnesses-to-al-houla-massacre-massacres-were-carried-out-against-specific-families-that-support-the-government/
[23] “Sectarian Syrian Group Blamed In Houla Massacre” by Kelly McEvers, NPR Morning Edition, June 05, 2012 http://www.npr.org/2012/06/05/154335032/sectarian-syrian-group-blamed-in-houla-massacre
[24] Alex Thompson’s blog, Sunday June 3, 2012. http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/search-houla-killers/1811

Monday, December 1, 2014

2014 Report: The Battle for the Houla Massacre

Last edit July 28

Report released, July 19:
PDF Download Link
CIWCL download page with summary

The ACTION - when it starts - will be here at the main challenge space.

You can sometimes get a good idea of a book by its cover:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Taldou. Truth. - Site Overview

(this post created on July 6 but re-dated to keep at top)
Last Edit: July 20

Note July 19: With the 2014 report now published, this site is officially open for business. Please see the report, dear reader, and consider yourself invited to comment. A somewhat slow start is expected ...
This site is intended as a limited purpose tool to revive interest in and examination of one important event in the brutal and long-running Syrian conflict. This is the Houla Massacre of over 100 civilians on May 25, 2012
* Those needing a refresher on the basics, see Houla Massacre Primer.

It's the one famous for having 49 (or even more) children among the dead, some of them horribly slaughtered - either by Alawite Shabiha from down the road, or by false-flagging foreign-backed terrorists, depending who you ask. It was the first incident that sparked me to suggest the creation of the research website A Closer Look On Syria (ACLOS) in June, 2012. There I and a few others teamed up to examine this and other incidents. The Houla research spawned several sub-pages, which are/will be organized for usefulness here:
* ACLOS Research Guide

Some key parts of this were partly related, along with works by by a few other authors, in a 2013 report (see page for that here). Now the best form of (arguably) the most potent part of it is packaged in new report:
* The Battle for the Houla Massacre: The Video Evidence Explained (and the rest reconsidered) PDF, 61 pages - Get it here.

I decided a space was needed, at least one, for the evidence to be reviewed and challenged - the new report especially. This site will host that, starting with:
2014 Report: Main Challenge Space
(and in more specific posts to come.)

There will also be space (and time?) left for the rest of the evidence, at least parts of it, to get a wider viewing. I'm hoping for lively debate and participatory, comment-driven appeal. I'm currently alerting some minds I'd like to see activated on this, and I hope to hear from them here. This is a complex issue with many parts, and a fair amount of information (mis, dis, and straight) to work with. But with a full blog dedicated to it, it could be thoroughly reviewed, depending how many people put in what kind and amount of energy in what time frame. It's hoped this site and related work will help revive public interest and push for a new and more even-handed investigation.

Any subject posts with comment spaces that someone waishes I would create because I haven't yet - egg me on here.

May 22 Bus Hijacking - Houla Massacre Link?

July 22, 2014
lat edits August 4, 2014

I'm not meaning to find things this interesting at the moment, but ...  As I just posted in graphic form here at ACLOS, there's some intriguing patterns in a reginal rash of violence on the same Friday as the Houla Massacre, and a bit of stuff right before and after. The details are discussed in the talk page there, worth copying here, but in reverse for variety.

First, a report from October, 2013:

Lebanese Al Manar TV reported the release of 9 Lebanese pilgrims after 17 months of being held captive by Qatari-backed terrorists in north of Syria.
On 22 May 2012 a group of terrorists stopped a passenger’s bus near the Turkish borders north of Syria and the passengers were held by a group of anti-Islamic Wahhabi terrorists with direct links to Turkish prime minister office and the Qatari Emir. The terrorists then released the women and children and kept 11 men captive, 2 of them managed to escape after a Syrian Arab Army operation in Azaz last year that killed one of the terrorists leaders responsible of the kidnapping.

I doubt this basic event - the taking of a busload of people including (Shi'ites, it sounds like, from Lebanon) three days before the Houla Massacre and a long ways away - will be disputed. Just where south of the border this happened isn't clear, but presumably way north of the al-Houla area. But another source might help narrow it down, and show the terrorists did not release all their women and children hostages. Nor the driver. Unless maybe there were two busses hijacked that day ...

here's the clincher story, part 1: VDC query - all Hama martyrs May 24 - 7 total. All but the top one play in here. Five represent a family:
* Natania Oreib Al-Saleem, Child - Male
* Yahya Oreib Al-Saleem, Child - Female
* Yakoub Oreib Al-Saleem, Child - Male
* Farouq Oreib Al-Saleem, Child-Male
* Fadwa Al-Shaddeh, Adult Female (mother) (details f/c as needed, available there, including (alive) photos).

These entries tend to say "Date of death: 2012-05-24," "Cause of Death: Kidnapping - Execution" Notes:
"The whole family, consisted of a mother and five children were kidnapped 2 days ago while they were on their way back from Sahl Al-Ghan to Hama. They were executed, and their corpses were found today in Mesyaf. They were slaughtered by knives." 
Note "Shabiha" or the regime aren't specifically blamed. The VDC, like the SOHR, accepts information from a variety of sources, so maybe no rebels even reported this, just alarmed locals. Who knows? There is apparently one child not listed - maybe not dead for all we know.

Sahl al-Ghan ... not sure how I figured out that means al-Ghab plain, aka Sahl al-Ghab. It's north and west of Hama, and part of the province - its northern panhandle I didn't know about, running north, flanking Latakia up to the Turkish border. It's a large, vague locale to return from. You might drive south to Mesyaf a bit south of its south end, then east to Hama. Or get killed anywhere prior and dumped in Mesyaf - not far from Aqrab, just 16 km direct.

This family wasn't driving their own car back from wherever as far north almost as Turkey. The other relevant victim on that list is Refaat Al-Hussein, adult male, killed also May 24 by "Kidnapping - Torture - Execution." Notes:
"He was a bus driver. He was transporting the family who was slaughtered. His corpse was found too with signs of torture."
So ... were there only the six passengers on his bus, or are these seven corpses the residue of a once-larger pool? The date of death isn't clear - found "today," apparently meaning the 24th, after being captured by some kind of bus hijackers two days earlier, is the best reading - so it should be May 22.

If the bus hijackings are the same, and both reports are accurate, we can say it was at the north end of the Al-Ghab plain not far from Turkey and the infiltration points there for foreign Islamists. And if this all lines up, these 7 or so victims of that then proceeded way south with some friends of their captors before getting dumped by the 24th just shy of the arena's edge for the coming Houla Massacre. This has its Aqrab connections  - fighters from there swooping south to help, victims from there dying either with the Abdulrazaqs in Taldou, in Aqrab, or both) - and alleged units of unknown foreigners, presumably filtered in via Turkey as usual. This Salem-Shaddeh family might've been the kind of thing a horde of fresh Ottoman mercenaries track in on their boots/sandals.

It might sound like grasping at straws except we must remember video evidence repeatedly backs the witnesses who describe a rebel attack on Taldou the 25th. They say that attack was huge, with 6-800 fighters total. That's an attractive (alleged) force, like a dry sponge is to water. Hundreds of people, probably more than were just hanging around already, would need to swoop in, probably from the north, at about this time, to fill the space that apparently was filled. So I propose it's quite likely the southward journey of that poor Syrian family and their driver is a valuable clue to understanding the Houla Massacre.

Update, August 4:
I just stumbled across the missing Oreib-al-Saleem child: listed as dying earlier, on May 22, VDC victim #16911 Shahd Oreib Al-Saleem], girl, age 4 (rounded down, it appears - see photo). Her notes are the same, kidnapped, slaughtered with knives. A Facebook page is provided: https://www.facebook.com/aribalsalim This was started on May 24 to share photos of the just-killed children. It's all in Arabic and I didn't check the content, but it seems to completely lack rebel colors and icons - and government ones. It was active at least into 2013.

From the VDC entry, her photo at left. What eyes. The name Shahed means "witness," it seems - a girl of that name had her mouth torn off a few days later in al-Houla. Again, what this episode suggests is a mappable movement of child-slaughtering terror towards the site of the Houla Massacre. And it's not from the Alawite villages just south of there, but from the distant and ominous Turkish border to the north. Someone should seal that thing off for good. I think little Shahed would agree.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Aqrab Connection

July 26 (last edits July 27)

Aqrab is a mid-sized town of - originally - about 11,000 people. It lies just about 2 km north of the Houla region, and even called a part of Houla in some readings, despite being across the border in Hama province.

The direct Houla Massacre-Aqrab connection is of two parts: fighters from there swooping south to help, and victims from there dying either with the Abdulrazaq familiess in Taldou, in Aqrab, or both.

The indirect connections also are fascinating, with a massacre in each locale about six months apart, each with its own telling patterns covered below. First, the two connections to events of May 25, 2012:

Fighters From:
"Houla" Sunni solidarity rebels from Aqrab reportedly took part in the May 25 battle. The ANNA News witnesses reported:
At 7:00 pm, Al-Farouq brigade, led by Abdulrazak Tlass, of the so-called “Free Syrian Army” arrived. He had more than 250 armed men with him from the city of Rastan, he also had 2 other groups with him one from Al-Qabo village, led by Yehya Al-Yusef, and another from Falla village.
These towns sounds like Al-Qabo and Fullah/Fallah - the two main Alawite villages the Shabiha were said to come from. Why are Sunni rebel fighters coming from there too? Apparently not, and this is an especially odd/ironic mix-up. The better telling seems this seems to be based on:
The town was attacked from the north-east by groups of bandits and mercenaries, numbering up to 700 people. The militants came from Ar-Rastan (the Brigade of al-Farouk from the Free Syrian Army led by the terrorist Abdul Razak Tlass and numbering 250), from the village of Akraba (led by the terrorist Yahya Al-Yousef), from the village Farlaha , joined by local gangsters, and from Al Hula.
I conclude Qabo = Akraba/Aqrab, and Falla = Farlaha = Kafr Laha, the biggest town of Houla just north of Taldou. Al Hula = elsewhere in, maybe Taldou itself.

Possible verification for the presence of a Yousef family contingent comes from a May 25 victim listed by only the VDC - Saeed Mohammad Munib Al-Yousef "martyr" # 17034. The entry number shows he was reported earlier than most victims, who number well above the 1700s. All the other rebel fighters are listed in this early portion. Age 32 and hailing from Houla (again, sometimes considered to include Aqrab), it says he was a civilian who died in shelling.

Civilian doesn't mean much in this context; another one killed by "shelling" that day was Talal Bakour, # 17017 who the same source notes was the "brother of defected major Nidal Bakour," an alleged leader of one unit involved directly in the massacres. How did his brother get shot if not by fighting or helping alongside his brother? He was dressed in sporty clothes, prepared for physical movement, like the fighters we see on video. The same may go for Saeed al-Yousef, image-free as far as we know. He was likely tagging along with his brother Yehya as they both helped pave the way for the massacres of May 25.

Victims From: 
The 2014 list of victims says, as prior sources did, that the whole Fadi Mahmoud Al-Kurdi family "came from Aqrab village." Fadi's wife was an Abdulrazaq - un-listed, unnamed, implicitly a survivor, and by some details likely to be - allegedly - a shot survivor blaming Shabiha and calling herself "Rasha Abdulrazaq." That part is unclear, and the father Fadi also didn't die, by not being in the frame to begin with - off on business or what is unclear. Just the 3 sons and/or 2 of them and, the new list says, a daughter Zeynab Fadi Adulrazaq, age 9. Or, the provided photos might say, all 3 plus the girl. (to be considered better...)

But that wasn't all - these 3-4 kids also had their paternal grandparents fall to assassins that day. Fadi's father, Mahmoud, and his wife Zainab Arouq, both from Aqrab but implicitly - by being listed as Houla Massacre victims - killed in Taldou, in the zone of "Shabiha" invasion. Zainab - the granddaughter's namesake - isn't listed in the 2014 roster unless it's by that reincarnation, but her husband is, with this odd note:

91- Mahmoud Omer Al-kurdi, 45 years old, father, he was resident of Aqrab village and lived in place where massacred happened. (emphasis mine)

The straight reading of that is that he was killed in a part of the "Houla Massacre" that happened in Aqrab where he lived. Nothing else rules that out, nor directly supports it.

Well, Akrama Bakour counters it, saying the "shepherd" al-Kurdi was killed at the entrance to the Abdulrazaq alley on Saad Street. But he seems to place the children both with him and inside Samir Abdulrazaq's house - maybe they were all visiting and he was the last to arrive, caught as he pulled up and killed first. His wife isn't mentioned there. Why this one victim out of all would be jut outside the area is unclear, when he and his wife are also the most likely to have been killed all the way outside of Al-Houla proper. That might be his coded way of explaining how they too came to die by the Shabiha who, we hear, walked to and from Fullah 1.5 km away. He just shifted Mustafa way south to that alley, but not into some house of his own there.

Further, the alleged movement of fighters from there to Taldou means either place is entirely reachable to that force likely in either location. They could hit at least the granparents in Aqrab early on, or just take them captive to kill with the others, before setting out to Taldou at mid-day. Whereas those alleged idiot thugs from Fullah would face a ten km march each way to and from Aqrab. Therefore, Bakour's story that they all happened to be visiting the Abdulrazaq in-laws that day.

Indirect Links: Massacre to Massacre
(modified from the report, pages 51-52)

Just after the Houla Massacre, when allegations of Shia or Alawi victims were widespread, opposition people countered with a blanket claim that anyone killed in Houla was by default a Sunni. That's all that lived in any of its three towns or implicitly in the whole area.

But Aqrab, often considered part of Al-Houla, was then, before, and for another six months, a Sunni majority city with a western Alawite district of about 2,000 people. The world learned faintly about this – and the CIWCL learned much more - after an early December, 2012, attack by rebels from Houla, Aqrab, and Rastan who took over the western district and emptied it. Reports say most inhabitants fed in time, but about 500 civilians were taken hostage. Including children and women, these were mostly of an extended  Jubeili family, and perhaps some Melhems, among others. About half of these were freed in exchanges with the government over the following week, with rebels saying nothing to the world.

They only broke the news of an Aqrab Massacre on December 11 - about 200 Alawites in a house were blown up by their “Shabiha” captors, they said, with help from the Syrian army and air force. That story fell apart spectacularly, thanks to an unexpected, spot-on report by Channel 4's Alex Thomson showing that house still standing unscathed the next day. But the fate of the fnal 200-230 or so smoked-out Alawite civilians has never been settled. See the ACLOS page on Aqrab Massacre. I made sure Alex Thomson saw it, and he says it "seems to bear out what I reported from Aqrab at the time."

Either way, after this, opposition sources could say Aqrab was 100% Sunni, the way they said al-Houla was - right after the May massacre. I would caution against reading too much – or too little – into that parallel.

The Aqrab connection increases the possibility of Alawite massacre victims. But with nothing else but an erred suggestion of that (see Houla Massacre Myths) and that they married into a family of alleged Shia converts, we should presume the Kurdis' religious status as simply unknown.

For effect, the rudimentary map we came up with for the few locations we could place in Aqrab - explained here.