Syria – Houla Massacre Revisited

15.06.2012 - Damascus - Pressenza IPA

**Despite contrary reports emerging,western media and allied coverage is continuing to place blame on the Syrian regime. For this reason Pressenza here makes some repetitions, but we do so un-apologetically.**


The Houla Massacre Redux
By John Rosenthal
June 15, 2012

In their “Assad’s Houla Propaganda,” responding to my recent NRO post on the Houla massacre, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth pull a sort of bait and switch. They start out as if they are going to challenge the credibility of Rainer Hermann’s report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), which attributes the massacre to anti-Assad Sunni militants and identifies the victims as predominantly Alawis and Shia. But they then proceed to spend the bulk of their post attacking the credibility of Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery in Qara, Syria.

As I mentioned at the end of my post, the account of the massacre in the FAZ echoes accounts being circulated by the monastery. Monastery officials claim, incidentally, to have had contact with many refugees from the Houla region and not just the single “supposed eyewitness” invoked by Al-Tamimi and Smyth. As I also mentioned, Mother Agnès-Mariam has previously warned of rebel massacres’ being repackaged in media reports as massacres committed by the regime.

I was aware in mentioning this that Mother Agnès-Mariam had given an interview to the website of Thierry Meyssan, the French writer who gained notoriety in the aftermath of 9/11 for his abstruse conspiracy theories about the attacks. I was also aware that this ephemeral connection would provide fodder for the defenders and publicists of the rebellion to taint Mother Agnès-Mariam with guilt by association. I was aware of this because the French-language Web is already rife with such ad hominem “refutations” of her reports. Never mind the content of the reports, which are highly detailed and show a degree of local knowledge that is extremely rare for Western observers. Never mind either that other persons who have spent time at the monastery — notably, the Belgian priest Father Daniel Maes — have issued similar warnings.

Perhaps Mother Agnès-Mariam ought, after all, to have refused Meyssan’s interview. But in a French media landscape as bereft of any semblance of balanced reporting on the Syria crisis as the American one, I can assure Al-Tamimi and Smyth that she will not have received many such requests.

Al-Tamimi and Smyth write that “it’s hard not to conclude that Mother Agnès-Mariam is little more than another Assad propagandist.” But they offer no evidence for this claim — other than the “evidence” that her assessments of the Syrian situation sometimes correspond with those of the Syrian government. Moreover, they fail to address an obvious question: Why in the world would Catholic priests and nuns want or need to serve as “Assad propagandists”? Is not the more simple and obvious explanation for their reports that religious minorities are in fact being threatened and persecuted in rebel-controlled territories and that as Christian missionaries they are bound to be concerned by this?

In any case, what do Al-Tamimi and Smyth’s ad hominem observations on Mother Agnès-Mariam have to do with Hermann and the FAZ report? The answer is: Nothing. Al-Tamimi and Smyth suggest otherwise, writing, “One might be tempted to think that FAZ has got hold of a real scoop, but the truth is that these allegations have their origins on outlandish conspiracy websites.”

The notion that the Frankfurter Allgemeine would publish such a report based on information gleaned from “outlandish conspiracy websites” is, frankly, laughable. As noted in my post, Hermann’s report, which was filed from Damascus, cites local opposition figures. Hermann adds that his sources declined to have their names appear in print out of fear of reprisals: reprisals, that is, from other — notably, armed — parts of the opposition. Do Al-Tamimi and Smyth mean to suggest that Hermann is lying about his sources?

As concerns the risks incurred by his sources, Hermann wrote, more specifically, “recently, opposition figures who reject the use of violence have been murdered or at least threatened.” Earlier this month, Hermann reported the following about one such case, that of the Damascus-based doctor Adnan Wahbi:

Wahbi was a member of the National Coordination Committee, an opposition party. He treated wounded rebels in his clinic. After he had called for all sides to lay down their weapons, however, he was killed by a gunshot to the head.

There have, moreover, been other reports of politically motivated assassinations carried out by rebel forces. Earlier this week, for instance, Hermann published an interview with Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria. Hermann himself describes the Mufti as being “close” to Assad; and the Mufti’s words make clear that he endorses the secularism of Assad’s Baathist regime — and, by the by, rejects the religious extremism that characterizes a large part of the armed opposition. According to Hermann, Hassoun has been the target of death threats as a result, and in October of last year, his son Sariya was murdered.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Hermann’s sources would request anonymity. Or do Al-Tamimi and Smyth believe that Hermann is in this respect too a dupe of regime “propaganda”?

Al-Tamimi and Smyth note, with scare quotes, that the Syrian government itself has attributed the Houla massacre to “armed terrorists,” as if the mere fact that the government has said it disqualifies the claim. In so doing, they follow what has become the standard practice in the Western media, which dismiss Syrian-government claims out of hand, while frequently relying on none other than the opposition — or, more precisely, that part of it that has embraced armed struggle and called for outside intervention — as their virtually exclusive source for supposed Syrian news. By proceeding in the manner described, Western media — perhaps not coincidentally, like their governments — have quite obviously abandoned impartiality and taken sides in the conflict.

It is undoubtedly the same modus operandi that gave rise to the initial, improbably swift “certainty” about the massacre. The UN observer mission would eventually arrive in Houla to confirm the horrific nature of the victims’ wounds. It did not, however, establish the circumstances under which they were incurred. A glance at the initial Western media reports leaves no doubt just who was the source for the attribution of Syrian-government responsibility: unnamed “opposition groups” and local “activists.” (Moreover, as the Dutch Middle East expert Martin Janssen has pointed out, the UN Human Rights Council, which appears to have lent credence to the initial reports, has admitted to likewise consulting opposition groups as its sources.)

But what do Al-Tamimi and Smyth make of the abundant evidence that al-Qaeda and kindred Salafi terror groups are in fact heavily involved in the armed opposition? When has al-Qaeda not made a habit of slaughtering not only Christians, but also those whom they regard as Muslim “heretics,” such as the Shia and the Alawi?

What do Al-Tamimi and Smyth make of the string of suicide bombings in Damascus, in Aleppo, and elsewhere in Syria — attacks that even U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda? Perhaps Al-Tamimi and Smyth belive, in the style of Thierry Meyssan’s 9/11 theories, that these attacks were orchestrated by the regime itself. But what do they make, then, of the video evidence showing rebel brigades or supporters of the rebellion proudly posing with al-Qaeda’s notorious black flag: the very flag made famous by terror master Abu Musab al-Zarqawi while targeting American troops, local “collaborators,” and Shia in neighboring Iraq? Do they believe that these are all fakes cleverly fabricated by regime “propagandists?”

What do they make, for instance, of this mind-boggling video shot in Hraytan, a suburb of Aleppo, in late January? Al-Tamimi and Smyth will undoubtedly find it suspect that the clip was reposted by a pro-government, anti-rebellion website. But, as demonstrated in my article here, it was in fact originally posted by an apparent supporter of the rebellion.

Rainer Hermann’s FAZ report need not be regarded as the last word on the Houla massacre. But in order to conjure away all the evidence that renders Hermann’s report credible, it is in fact Al-Tamimi and Smyth who must resort to abstruse conspiracy theorizing.

— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at or on Facebook.

New FAZ Piece On Houla Massacre: “The Extermination”
From: Moon Of Alabama

A well regarded and qualified author of the prime German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported (in German) how the recent massacre in Houla, Syria, was perpetrated by Sunni rebel forces. I translated the piece to English. There was some push back against the piece and an anonymous rebuttal from Houla activists.

In a new piece (in German) the reporter, Rainer Hermann, extends on the first one and explains why his reporting is correct and why other reporting was terribly wrong.

What follows is my translation of the FAZ piece:

The Extermination

The Houla massacre was a turning point in the Syrian drama. There was great worldwide outrage when 108 people were killed there on May 25, among them 49 children. Calls for a military intervention to end the bloodshed became louder and the violence in Syria has since steadily escalated. Based on Arab news channel and the visit of UN observers on the following day, world opinion almost unanimously blamed the regular Syrian army and the Syrian regime’s Shabiha militia for the massacre.

In the past week and based on reports from eyewitnesses the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung put this version into question. It reported that the civilians killed were Alawites and Shiites. They were deliberately killed by armed Sunnis in Taldou, a town in the plains of Houla, while fierce fighting between the regular army and Free Syrian Army was taking place at checkpoints around the village. Our report was taken up by many media outlets worldwide and was rejected by many as implausible. We have therefore to ask four questions: Why did the world opinion so far followed a different version? Why does the context of the civil war makes the doubted version plausible? Why are the witnesses credible? What other facts support the report?

Firstly, why world opinion follow a different version? It is undoubted that during the first months of the conflict, when the opposition did not yet possess weapons and was defenseless, all atrocities were done by the regime. The assumption is therefore obvious that this would continue. [Note by the translator: Here Mr. Hermann errs. There were reliable reports about deadly attacks against government forces by well armed perpetrators, allegedly foreign financed, as early as April 10 2011.] Furthermore, the Syrian state media enjoy no credibility. They use the standard labeling “armed terrorist gangs” since the beginning of the conflict. Thus no one believes them, when that is indeed the case. Two media outlets, the Arab news channel Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have become key sources even as their owners, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are two states which are actively involved in the conflict. Not without reason do we know the saying “In war, truth dies first.”

Secondly, why is, in the context of the civil war, the doubted version plausible? During recent month many weapons have been smuggled into Syria and the rebels have long had mid-sized weaponry. Every day more than 100 people are killed in Syria with about equal numbers of dead on both sides. The militias that operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army control wide parts of the provinces of Homs and Idlib and extend their dominion over other parts of the country. The increasing lawlessness has led to a wave of criminal kidnappings and also facilitates the settling of old disputes. If one looks through Facebook pages or talks to Syrians: Everyone knows everyday stories of “religious cleansing” – of people being killed just because they are Alawite or Sunni.

The plain of Houla, which lies between the Sunni city of Homs and the mountains of the Alawites, is predominantly inhabited by Sunnis and is burdened by a long history of sectarian tensions. The massacre took place in Taldou, one of the largest sites of Houla. Of the names of civilians killed, 84 are known. These are the fathers, mothers and 49 children of the family Al Sayyid and two branches of the family Abdarrazzaq. Residents of the city state that these were Alawites and Muslims who had converted from Sunni to Shia Islam. A few kilometers away from the border with Lebanon, this made them suspect of being sympathizers of Hezbollah, detested among Sunnis. Additionally killed in Taldou were relatives of the government loyal member of parliament Abdalmuti Mashlab.

The homes of the three families are located in different parts Taldous. The members of the families were targeted and killed up to one exception. No neighbor was injured. Local knowledge was a prerequisite for these well-planned “executions”. The AP news agency quoted the only survivor of the family Al Sayyid, the eleven year old Ali, as saying:. “The perpetrators were shaved bald and had long beards.” This is the look of fanatical jihadists, not of the Shabiha militia. The boy said he survived because he had pretended to be dead and smeared himself with the blood of his mother.

On April 1 the nun Agnès-Maryam, from the monastery of Jacob (“Deir Mar Yakub”) which lies south of Homs in the village of Qara, described in a long open letter the climate of violence and fear in the region. She comes to the conclusion that the Sunni insurgents operate a stepwise liquidation of all minorities. She describes the expulsion of Christians and Alawites from their homes, which are then occupied by the rebels, and the rape of young girls, who the rebels pass off as “war booty”; she was an eye witness when the rebels killed a businessman in the street of Wadi Sajjeh with a car bomb after he refused to close his shop and then said in front of a camera from Al Jazeera that the regime had committed the crime. Finally she describes how Sunni insurgents in the Khalidijah district of Homs locked Alawite and Christian hostages into a house and blew it up only to then explain that this was an atrocity of the regime.

Why are, in this context, the Syrian witnesses (in my report) regarded as credible? Because they do not belong to any party of the conflict, but are caught in the middle and have no other interest than to stop a further escalation of violence. Several such people have already been killed. Therefore, no one wants to reveal their identity. In a period in which an independent review of all facts on the spot is not possible there can be no certitude that all details have happened exactly as described. Even as the massacre in Houla took place in the version described here, no conclusions can be drawn from it for other atrocities. As before in Kosovo every massacre must be examined individually after this war.

What other facts support this version? The FAZ was not the first to reported on a new version of the massacre of Houla. Other reports could just not compete with the big key media. The Russian journalist Marat Musin, who works for the small news agency Anna, was in Houla on May 25 and 26, in part became an eyewitness and also published the statements of other eyewitnesses. Additionally the Dutch Arabist and freelance journalist Martin Janssen, who lives in Damascus, contacted the Jacob Monastery in Qara, which has taken in many victims of the conflict with the nuns doing devote humanitarian work, after the massacre.

Sunni rebels perpetrate “liquidation” of all minorities

The nuns told him how on that May 25th more than 700 armed rebels, coming from Rastan, overran a roadside checkpoint of the army near Taldou, how these, after the massacre, piled up the corpses of the killed soldiers and civilians in front of the mosque and how they, on next day, told their version of the alleged massacre by the Syrian army in front of the cameras of rebel-friendly channels and to the UN observers. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced on May 26 at the UN Security Council that the exact circumstances are unclear. The UN could confirm, however, “that there has been artillery and mortar attack. There were also other forms of violence, including shots from up close and serious abuses.”

The following sequence of events can be reconstructed: After the Friday prayers on May 25th more than 700 gunmen under the leadership of Abdurrazzaq Tlass and Yahya Yusuf came in three groups from Rastan, Kafr Laha and Akraba and attacked three army checkpoints around Taldou. The numerically superior rebels and the (mostly also Sunni) soldiers fought bloody battles in which two dozen soldiers, mostly conscripts, were killed. During and after the fighting the rebels, supported by residents of Taldou, snuffed out the families of Sayyid and Abdarrazzaq. They had refused to join the opposition.

Posted on June 15, 2012

Categories: International, Middle East, Opinions, Politics


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