Monday, December 14, 2015

Suspected Tree Farm Reveals Houla Massacre Deception

December 14, 2015

I think the first concrete debunk we made with the Houla Massacre was this exposé of shoddy journalism in service of regime change by the BBC. It was first published in shorter form at the CIWCL site, June  19, 2012, here re-written a bit and updated to reflect the years of research in between
Shortly after the Syrian government made official their refutation of responsibility for the “Houla massacre,” the ever-diligent BBC unearthed "Satellite image clues” to refute them with a "suspected artillery site." Once reported by the Beeb, this claim was bound to be echoed forever by the credulous. But the first time it was said by a supposed expert, it was a bunch of crap.

First, there were the clear activist reports of prolonged shelling, generally thought to mean heavy artillery only the army was thought to possess. It was after this chased away rebel defenders that the Alawite "Shabiha" militia moved in and massacred entire families. But ... The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI), in its “oral update” report of June 26 noted “much of the damage appeared to be caused by mortars, including large caliber mortars, heavy machine guns or light artillery.” The first two rebels had at the time, and the last one only possibly, but it's attached with an "or." So well-armed rebels could easily explain all the damage at least as well as army shelling could. 

Further, the damage afterwards is not random like distant shelling would be, but rather precise damage to security posts and the homes of pro-government and Shia convert families, and a deliberate massacre of civilians somehow rendered defenseless.

But the BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner presented images suggesting masses of artillery had moved in the area, leaving “tell-tale tracks.” “All the images were taken on the morning of Saturday 26 May, within hours of the massacre ending,” he reported. One is to presume that’s relevant, and shows things that hadn’t been there on May 24, and were put there by the events of the massacre day. 

They called on military analyst Forbes McKenzie, a former military intelligence officer. He pointed out, in the forested area labeled “H,” what he “believes are the caterpillar tracks left by a mobile artillery battery that fired on the civilian houses.” McKenzie told the BBC: “This would be standard Soviet bloc tactics, firing from woods and then withdrawing.” 

It took about one minute looking and five thinking to put that claim to rest. Google Maps public imagery (at the time of writin, June 2012) shows the same tracks already there at a different, earlier time. According to Goole Earth, the imagery was taken on February 22, 2012, three months before the attack. I'm not sure why Mr. McKenzie failed to catch this.

It is possible these are artillery tracks, where cannons are routinely driven all around the forest here, almost up to each and every one of the trees. Evidence that happened on May 25 in particular, and that these cannon fired on Taldou that day? Zero. 

We can’t even say these are cat tracks. They seem rather to be worn dirt roads, but in an unusual pattern - organically dense like veins. What they seem to be, in fact, are access roads in a tree farm, used to plant, tend and harvest each of their little sunlight factories when the time is ready.

If we could be sure heavy weapons were used, from this vicinity (as the Beeb noted, it's near an army checkpoint), this location is as good a guess as any. But the only spot specifically blamed as the main shelling origin - and much closer to the area in question - is the "Water company" base at the crest on the southeast edge of town (position G in the BBC graphic at right).

But of course nothing in the damage proves who did it, while motive and some witnesses point to rebels, and our video research has by know shown beyond much doubt they overpowered the town's security posts just before the massacre. Only the Water co. base withstood the assault. The other four bases were overrun, the evidence suggests. Here's our better and more relevant map showing massacre sites in relation to these posts. The white ones in the north are the two the UN's investigators agree were overrun by rebels. Wi disagree on 2 of the other 3.

Rebels took over Taldou on May 25, 2012, and the government still hasn't gotten it back. But they held onto the water co. post at the edge of town, maybe just to hwlp prevent a move south on the Alawite villages there. (Above, the Beeb shows two "reported Shabiha militia positions" there, where rebels say the killers came from. But there's still no evidence for Alawite Shabiha coming in from the south or anywhere, and some evidence for fresh terrorist mercenaries moving from the Turkish border area to just north of Houla, between May 22 and 24, already slaughtering children along the way)

But we can finally see (at right) tank or artillery tracks at the right spot visible by March 9, 2013 (next new images to be published by GeoEye/Google Earth). There were no such tracks visible in the Beeb's day-after images.

As for the BBC's site H: It's right on a main road, but has some tree cover. It is miles from town, so range issues come into play. It would suggest big guns, little good use against a terrorist takeover. But maybe the regime did pound the town with heavy cannons that day as well, the kind that leave tracks, and they were based here. But again, UN's investigators also felt the damage looked like "heavy mortars, heavy machine guns or light artillery," with nothing about heavy artillery - and they were trying to implicate the government.

And again, these are preexisting dirt roads in a tree farm, so you can't tell if artillery had driven on it. These tracks could have hosted a dirt bike rally there that day, or done nothing. The BBC's expert's decision was pure imagination, wishful thinking from the blame-Assad crowd.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Joshua Landis Proves He's Not Weak

I Hope.
December 8, 2015

My Take on Landis
Dr. Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies and a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and runs the respected Syria Comment blog. He's not an overt partisan hack but a real expert in the region, with an Alawi wife from Latakia. But he's been put in a tough spot these last years to provide credible analysis in a raging sea of disinformation, under pressure to be both truthful and anti-government. Do you want to go down as the expert in and apologist for old Syria if the rebels win? Or tough out the criticism or worse for voicing support to the government until their eventual victory? Or do you want to do like most high-profile supposed experts, and demonize the regime and demand its collapse, lionize all rebels possible, and go with that flow?

He seems to have taken a mostly-ambiguous middle course - calling Syria's government a "regime" and crediting a majority of its alleged crimes, but offering more realism and nuance than most who do that, and criticizing the rebel side more than most would. He's seen by many who support Syria as a gatekeeper, who guards his "credibility" with the mainstream, using selective expertise ... There is this aspect, and previously it's about how I saw him. But I'm not in the mood to check that record or dig for many examples now, just the one below will do. But he's also seen by others, for example by Tony Badran, as the "Professor of Propaganda," "To read Landis’ commentary about Syria over the past half year is to track the development of Baath propaganda." Or, alternately, Ba'ath propaganda follows the truth more than he'd like to admit, as does Landis.

Badran's complaint was from late 2011, and indeed Landis solidly challenged some early lies like the shooting of soldiers in Baniyas on April 10, 2011 "for refusing orders" (see my coverage of it featuring his, and note he even "liked" my tweet about it). And he's kept a relatively even keel in the storms of disinfo since, surely pelted from both sides to trade some of his credibility for stronger support to one side or the other (and I'm guessing this was 10:1 from the opposition side).

Recently, since Russia has opened its own air campaign in Syria, he's issued comments (like in his interview on RT) taking a stronger line against the ongoing regime change campaign/anti-ISIS effort,. Now that it can be compared to Russia's anti-ISIS campaign, which hangs on supporting, not destroying, the government there... As he named it at Syria Comment, Regime-Change without State Collapse is Impossible in Syria. And for those who don't know, state collapse is a bad thing (see Iraq, Libya, and now much of Syria).

Houla Blind Spot: Time to Correct it
In between, Landis is lacking in what we have - detailed event analysis to see through some of the bigger lies, like the hideous massacres blamed on "Assad" and his "Shabiha" militia. It's these, from the earliest Homs massacres to the Ghouta alleged sarin attack and beyond, that ensure decent people would have a hard time ever accepting that kind of "regime" to continue existing.  Obviously, after all this, "Assad" (meaning ??) has to go.

And so these stories underpin the continued destabilization of Syria. They'll do that truthfully, untruthfully, or probably some mixture. Do "we" really know the true mix? Rebels blamed the government for the Dec. 2012 Aqrab massacre, the first Ma'an massacre right after that, besides so many others, which were clearly their own crimes (to the extent they even happened, which people remain vague about. But they happened.). Other massacres, they just never reported (Latakia, Aug. 2013, etc.)

Landis was/would be able to easily see through those three lies (one by omission). He knows Sunni extremists (and not just the boogeyman ISIS) kill civilians, especially Alawi ones. For example, in this early 2014 article, Landis countered the prevalent claims of regime-ISIS cooperation, pointing to plenty of other groups who commit atrocities like the recent (second) Ma'an massacre.

That's right on, but he screwed up by following that with:
None of this is to deny sectarianism exists on the regime side, as evinced by sectarian massacres perpetrated by forces fighting for the regime, whether by Alawite irregular militiamen (the Houla massacre) or foreign Shi’a militiamen (the Nabk massacre in rural Damascus province...
I haven't really studied Nabk, but should have - that's around the same time as the Adra massacre, and pretty nearby, isn't it? Must be Iranians, maybe in both cases </sarcasm>. But this is our specialty, imperfect but quality work dissecting massacre marketing claims - not all, but many.

I asked him some months back to have a look at our Houla research, but the response was vague and seemed like an attempted permanent dodge. I was tempted to right then declare him weak, but more review led me to think maybe not. 

Again, our findings - which add to other evidence brought by other witnesses, journalists, and researchers, comes from a careful study of the most reliable, evidence - video. The rebel-supplied videos (most of them presented as proof of the government shelling attack) do little to prove much on a singular basis; naturally, they would try to avoid showing too much of the truth. But taken as a whole they show enough of the picture to be pretty clear what's going on. We see rebel fighters firing guns and RPGs towards the clocktower, qaws, and water co. posts (see map), clearly on the offensive and not the retreat, and we see the clocktower and MIHQ posts and the hospital burning and belching smoke by sunset.

In context, this means rebels took over the exact massacre area, immediately before the massacres happened there. These massacres happened at no other time than when rebels took over. The reasonso few get that disconnect is they've never heard that rebels took over. Rebels never told us about that, and they're the only people in Syria "we" believe. Luckily, they provided a few videos that - with careful decoding - disprove their own case. 

Here's the map showing security posts and massacre in relation - white security posts are acknowledged as overrun by UN's Commission of Inquiry investigators. What's new/contested is that the next two orange posts seem either overrun as well, or circumvented. Pink dots are reported massacre sites, red dots ones we can verify by video evidence (there were more than this, but the rest can't be mapped yet). The yellow-green letters indicate where different videos were filmed.

Now consider the competing narratives compared to this:

Rebels/activists/"survivors" version: Rebels were in charge of the whole "village of Houla" until the army chased them out of the Taldou part on May 25 with shelling that started at mid-day. Some claim there were limited clashes before this, but no mentioned victories. They had to run away and leave the village undefended. Then the Shabiha moved in and massacred apolitical Sunni families for clearly genocidal reasons, before they withdrew, leaving over 100 bodies behind. Rebels came back and documented the truth.

Government/other witnesses version: Rebels ran all towns of the Houla region except the southern half of Taldou, still lightly held with five security posts. Rebels attacked these on May 25 starting at mid-day, overran most or all of the posts, killed and captured soldiers, and then massacred pro-government Sunni and/or Shia convert families. Also, they attacked the Alawite village of Shumariya to the south that same night, killing ten (a different group of rebels did that, though). They used the Houla victim bodies and false witnesses (largely their own family members) to blame the government and demand foreign intervention. After this day, rebels did control all of the Houla area, and do so until the present day.

The map alone, from UN investigator info mainly, shows how the rebel story was never anywhere near as credible as people (including the UN investigators) made it seem. They wound up blaming the government, but had to admit along the way rebels launched a successful offensive that day, and overran two posts, but no more. Rebels never mentioned that. And when we examine the video evidence compared to those orange security posts next to the red and pink dots, it gets downright creepy... 

The challenge: Dr. Landis should endeavor to analyze it or at least encourage a team member or some readers to have a look at the report:

Someone else on the Syria Comment team might do the actual analysis, but in the end, I'd like a Landis opinion. A mention on Syria Comment might even be warranted.
- 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.

- The relevant work is video analysis, geolocation - someone experienced is best, but anyone can do this, compare video to satellite images and see if it is or isn't a match, challenge the time readings, implications, our reading what's happening at that place and time, etc.

- The important question mark over the June videos we decided show event of May 25 might be worth challenging. That counts as a core video issue (should they even be included? We think so and explain why). Other side-issue relating to the video readings are equally fair game and totally relevant.

- 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.I'm not threatening a weakling write-up, just hoping to see a response.

- Format: open to suggestions, but to start I offer the comment space here.

Someone should make the best effort they can to find a real error, and maybe if they can't find one, to say so - endorse this battle-tested work, and help it move forward from neglected to relevant. This is supposed to be the age of the citizen journalist and blogger-investigator, open-source intel and "geolocation." And you aren't supposed to have to be a Brown Moses type to matter.