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.  Perhaps two dozen others who say they escaped from various targeted homes, most by playing dead, are known so far.  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) 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  and gave a lip-chewing Skype interview for a documentary by France 2 , as well as being featured in an Arabic-language opposition video re-enacting his ordeal.  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.  He also spoke to Martin Chulov of the UK Guardian via Skype, first un-named but with plenty of detail.  Both of those occurred on or before the 28th, but he also spoke to the Associated Press the same way on the 30th. 
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.” 
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." 
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.  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. 
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.  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.”  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.”  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.” 
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.  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. 
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.”
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.  (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.”  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."  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.  In the video, Shaoqi (Shawki) is his killed older brother.  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.  But to Martin Fletcher, he said the killed uncle was named Abu Haider.  (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. ” 
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.”  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. 
* 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.  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.  To Der Spiegel, the witness spoke as “Ali Adil Sayyid.”  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.” 
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.  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. )
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). 
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. 
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. 
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.  (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. 
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.)  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.”  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. 
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.  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).”  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.  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.” 
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.”  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. 
The article further says this tenuous kinship “prompted UN observers to make the assumption” that’s why the family was killed.  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. 
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.”  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.  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.  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)
 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9KnjNxU8nI (account deleted, said vacuum cleaner) or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6yVbOBbO6I (says broom)
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 Comment by “Shaamnews” on posted original version of this article http://arabisouri.wordpress.com/2012/07/04/houla-massacre-star-witness-reconsidered/
 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
 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
 “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
 Damascus Center for Human Rights Study. http://www.dchrs.org/news.php
 “The Household Ali Explains,” A Closer Look on Syria: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Ali_Al-Sayed#The_Household_Ali_Explains
 SANA, May 15: http://sana.sy/eng/21/2012/05/15/419139.htm
 SANA, May 24. http://sana.sy/eng/21/2012/05/24/421043.htm
 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/
 “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
 Alex Thompson’s blog, Sunday June 3, 2012. http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/search-houla-killers/1811