Sunday, July 6, 2014

Houla Massacre Primer

(incomplete - last edits May 27, 2015)

(Feel free to consult the Wikipedia article, mainstream media sources, etc. as well, but don't skip this more informed primer)

The massacre under study occurred on May 25, 2012 in the town of Taldou, al-Houla area of northwest Homs Province, Syria (see area map below).

(map notes forthcoming, may be split-off) 

More specifically, the massacre sites were mainly along the southern edge of the southern half of Taldou - the part under government control. About 108 victims, mainly from two extended families, were singled out, with entire households liquidated, men, women, and especially children (about 50). The widely accepted death toll of 108 is disputable - it seems fairly close to that, but both a bit higher (some seem left off) and a bit lower (rebel fighters weren't "massacred" but killed in fighting). The number and nature and details are partly worked out, more work to come. See Houla Massacre Victims for a partial overview, some links, etc.

The actual details of what happened are best covered in the general investigative work of this blog. From here, this page is down to what different people have said, decided, and done since then - a short summary of the allegations and investigations from May 25, 2012 to present.

Both sides agree there was some type of violence in the early afternoon, followed by a massacre of over 100 civilians but from there it breaks down into two broad and irreconcilable narratives:

Shabiha Guilt Narrative:This story combines friday protests, maybe a little fighting at a checkpoint, and massive artillery shelling by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), with the orders given differently but the shelling starting between 1 and 2 PM. This caused rebel forces with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to retreat from Taldou. With no one to stop them, local "Shabiha" militias from neighboring towns then invaded homes and massacred exclusively Sunni families for no obvious reason aside from their religion. The killers then withdrew, leaving the bodies behind for the rebels to find and exploit as proof of the crime the government - whose army gave cover to the operation - tried to deny and blame on "terrorists."

Rebel Guilt Narrative: An unprecedented rebel assault - 6-800 fighters estimated - attacked all security posts with mortars, RPGs, trucks with heavy machine guns, and more beginning about 2 PM. Over the afternoon they conquered four of the town's five security posts, keeping the other one pinned down in defensive mode. Then, they massacred the families they targeted: government-loyalist Sunnis (the Al-Sayeds) and converts to Shi'ite faith, former Sunnis (the Abdulrazaqs). The alleged survivors and witnesses rebels put forth were friends and family lying for them.

Initial reactions: The Western-led "international community" took the crime and solution as obvious: dead children and damage to the town were evident, and many decided damage can only be from artillery. That can only be the SAA, and so the massacres too must have been by them or allies. Besides, that's what the survivors and witnesses said. The Kofi Annan peace plan was kiiled at Houla, many would say - you can't negotiate with massacring scum like that. Syria's ambassadors were widely expelled, sanctions increased, and support surged for rebel fighters to help stop such massacres (instead, they got worse).

In early June unexpectedly pronounced counter-accusations of rebel guilt emerged and were widely reported. Syrian state media, working with Russian-language ANNA News produced a number of interviews with locals and two especially - one of them claimed to be a former rebel involved in the May 25 battle who had defected to tell the inside details. Rainer Hermann's two articles in the prominent German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) followed - sadly muddled (eg "Alawite family Shomaliya") but still useful. And there were others, some echoing Hermann, some scoring their own source. Between them the same basic picture emerged of a rebel victory followed by a tafrgeted massacre of their now-vulnerable enemies. 

The initial findings of the UN's Commission of Inquiry (CoI) was released in June: as many noted, it was troublingly vague pointing out repeatedly they could not rule out rebel guilt and in fact it made enough sense given the body of conflicting evidence they had gathered. Consider Alex Thomson's fair assessment of the first report here. As he notes:
The UN report says anti-government civilians and fighters from al-Houla were first on the scene of the massacre and took care of body retrieval and burial. The report leads to two possible reasons for this: they were there anyhow because they’d committed the atrocity. Or they’d heard the shots and screams, knew what had gone on and naturally entered the location at the first safe opportunity.
(Side-note: as this ambiguous report came out, Thomson was waiting to see it, and in a weird space - he himself had just been set-up by rebels to be shot by murky snipers in "no-man's land" after he went to investigate the follow-up massacre in Mazraat al-Qubeir in early June - quick action by their driver helped him survive unharmed, but ... "jaded." He might have a bias in these things, faintly present already in his next-day reports from Taldou, and sharp as hell by the December, 2012 alleged Aqrab Massacre of hundreds of Alawite civilians, just north of Houla, which was by then all rebel-held and man was that bad for the Alawite people of that once-mixed town - see the map at top - the Alawite district was on the western edge, and most managed to flee in time.)

Official Story Solidified
All this unusual open-mindedness was addressed with further reports strengthening the initial opposition claims. The German media apologized for Hermann with Der Spiegel's most intensive listen to often laughable alleged witnesses who sometimes contradict themselves. And as it went, the UN probe clarified its views on the same side, with a markedly different August report. This is widely cited as the definitive source due to its supposed impartiality, but their whole process is open to question and their results should not be taken as gospel by anyone but the lazy. 

(rest forthcoming)

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