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.

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