Syria Cultural Heritage Destroyed by the “State Sponsors of the ISIS”: Palmyra Rising from the Ashes

By Jeff Klein
Global Research, April 20, 2016
Mondoweiss
Region: Middle East & North Africa
Theme: 9/11 & ‘War on Terrorism’, Crimes against Humanity, US NATO War Agenda
In-depth Report: SYRIA: NATO’S NEXT WAR?

Daesh is on the retreat in Syria, which is very good news for the people of that beleaguered country and for the world. However, the Syrian tragedy is far from over and rebuilding the country, even under the best circumstances of an end to the war, will take many years.

Our little international delegation — we were two Americans, a Canadian, two Norwegians, a Palestinian from Jordan and another Palestinian from Lebanon — got to see the evidence for this first-hand, along with the horrific devastation left in the wake of the ISIS occupation of the world-famous ancient city of Palmyra and the neighboring Syrian town of Tadmor.

The tour was arranged and led by a Palestinian organization based in Australia that is very supportive of the Syrian government and it was facilitated by the Syrian Ministry of Tourism and other government agencies.

It took some very intense negotiations with the Syrian authorities to secure visas, especially for the Americans, who are understandably viewed with some suspicion given the very hostile policies toward Syria by the US government. Even more complicated efforts were necessary to get permission – from the Syrian security agencies, the Ministry of Defense and the Russian military mission in Syria – to visit Palmyra, which was only recaptured by the Syrian army on March 26. We were the very first group of international civilians to view the site and the aftermath of the battle that took place there.

Some members of our delegation: Khaled, a Palestinian from Jordan, whose family is originally from Kufr Saba (now Kfar Saba) in central 1948 Israel, is in the white shirt; the author is second from the right.

Image: Some members of our delegation: Khaled, a Palestinian from Jordan, whose family is originally from Kufr Saba (now Kfar Saba) in central 1948 Israel, is in the white shirt; the author is second from the right.

Even with permission, traveling to Palmyra was not easy. Because the direct route northeast from Damascus was not yet safe, it was necessary to travel first due north to Homs and then east across the desert along a road only recently cleared of armed rebels. Even exiting Damascus required a detour to the west in order to avoid a dangerous stretch of highway threatened by fighters in the rebel-controlled town of Douma, just north of the capital.

There were also frequent military checkpoints along the way, at each of which Qusay (everyone here is identified only by first name), our liaison with the government, had to negotiate passage and show various documents and permissions – along with our passports. The drive to Palmyra, which in peacetime would have taken maybe two hours on the direct route, took us six hours to complete.

Even in the tense security situation, though, at least one Syrian officer at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus had not lost his sense of humor. When told that we were an international group on the way to visit Palmyra, his parting words after checking our documents was “Say hello to Zenobia!” He was referring to Zenobia, the famous queen of Palmyra who led a doomed revolt against the Roman Empire in the third century AD and has been adopted – quite ahistorically — as a kind of early freedom fighter and Syrian national heroine.

In Homs we picked up or military escort, Colonel Sameer, who packed a Makarev in a shoulder holster and carried a gym bag inside of which it wasn’t hard to make out the bulges of a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a bunch of grenades. Comforting.

With Colonel Sameer riding shotgun, it was relatively simple to negotiate the frequent military stations and roadblocks along the rest of the way to Palmyra. As we approached the city we observed increasing signs of war damage – bullet-pockmarked and partially destroyed buildings, down electrical transmission pylons, burned out vehicles – but nothing prepared us for the utter devastation of the town of Tadmor/Palmyra when we arrived.

The town of Tadmor/Palmyra when the delegation arrived.

Image: The town of Tadmor/Palmyra when the delegation arrived.

The place had suffered both from the Daesh occupation and even more so from the fighting to retake it. There was hardly an undamaged building to be seen and although the rubble blocking the streets had largely been cleared, there were many areas where only the skeletons of destroyed buildings remained. And the retreating Daesh fighters had left the town and the ruins riddled with mines and booby traps which took a huge effort, not yet completed, to disarm. Most of the inhabitants had fled the Tadmor/Palmyra when it was taken over by Daesh last summer.

When we visited last Sunday, the town was crowded with busloads of former residents collecting their personal possessions and household furnishings to take away on buses and trucks. Only in the previous few days, weeks after retaking the town and extensive de-mining, was it possible for any of them to return safely in order to retrieve some of their surviving belongings. But the town was still uninhabitable for civilians due to the severe damage and the lack of electricity or water.

The streets were guarded by soldiers and the somewhat more ragtag National Defense Forces militia fighters in various stage of partial uniform.

Tour guide “Tony” in front of the ruins of the Temple of Baal blown up by Daesh’ He’s holding a drawing of the temple as it used to appear.

Image: Tour guide “Tony” in front of the ruins of the Temple of Baal blown up by Daesh’ He’s holding a drawing of the temple as it used to appear.

The systematic vandalism and destruction by Daesh at the historic archaeological site of Palmyra has been widely reported, but viewing the damage was still a shock. Our cultural guide Antoine (“Tony”), who had led countless groups to visit the Palmyra, was brought to tears. Ya haram (“shameful”), he muttered repeatedly as we saw the remains of the formerly well-preserved monumental archway leading into the ancient city and the Temple of Baal which the Daesh fighters had blown up when they took the city last summer.

Only the remains of the theater had been left untouched, possibly as a monument to the brutal execution of 25 captive Syrian army prisoners that Daesh had carried out and filmed there.

We had to wait a while before entering the theater ourselves because there was a high-ranking group of Russian military officers visiting inside when we arrived. Accompanying them was a contingent of very steely-eyed special forces soldiers, despite the heat, in full battle gear – body armor, helmets, boots and gloved hands with fingers poised close to the triggers of their automatic weapons.

There is a contingent of Russian military engineers and technicians engaged in the ongoing effort to disarm mines and booby traps it the city and among the ruins, with a large camp just outside the town. Near the ruins is a former restaurant whose red sign announces, in Cyrillic and English, that it is the “Sappers Café.” While we toured the site, explosions could be heard at regular intervals nearby and we could see the smoke of detonated mines.

The streets were guarded by soldiers and the somewhat more ragtag National Defense Forces militia fighters in various stage of partial uniform.

Image: The streets were guarded by soldiers and the somewhat more ragtag National Defense Forces militia fighters in various stage of partial uniform.

When the officers and their guards exited the theater, our group leader Khaled, who like many Palestinians of his generation had received scholarships to study in the old Soviet Union (Leningrad, in his case), enthusiastically greeted the soldiers in fluent Russian, somewhat to their surprise. Colonel Sameer had earlier told us that we could photograph anything we wanted – except the publicity-shy Russians. Given the cordial chitchat with Khaled, I thought I might ask if I could take a picture. The Russian translator answered, to everyone’s amusement, with an emphatic monosyllable — NYET.

What does the future hold for Syria?

Nearly everyone we met – and they were by no means all uncritical supporters of the Assad regime – told us that they believed any hope required, first of all, the defeat of the armed rebels and an end to foreign intervention in their country. This was especially the sentiment of Christian and Druze religious representatives, along with ethnic minorities and secular people of any faith background, who together undoubtedly comprise a majority of the Syrian population.

Image: A Mahmoud Darwish quote

A Mahmoud Darwish quote

Regardless of the legitimate grievances at the root of the crisis which began in 2011, and even if the opposition may not all be “terrorists,” as the Assad regime charges, the armed rebels now overwhelmingly represent Sunni fundamentalists of various stripes, whose vision for Syria is a religiously exclusive Islamic state, not a secular democracy. This is true of the so-called “moderate” opposition which the US and its allies are arming and financing, not only the recognized extremists and foreign fighters in ISIS/Daesh and the Nusra front.

Amid the destruction and despair of the current situation in Syria, there are also signs of hope and resilience. In central Damascus the shops and restaurants are open, even if the hotels remain nearly empty. In the Old City Bab Touma neighborhood where we stayed – especially since the partial cease-fire agreement that was established earlier this year has minimized the rebel mortar and rocket attacks – the streets were crowded with students and shoppers, even if there were also military checkpoints along the major streets and at the gates to the town. There was a vibrant nightlife at many cafes and eating places, often with live music and diners who took to enthusiastic and spontaneous dancing and singing along to the musicians.

In the midst of the near total destruction in the old city of Homs, which was under rebel control and the scene of intense fighting until 2014, the historic Khaled Ibn Walid mosque, heavily damaged in the fighting, is now the site of a major restoration project. But a hundred thousand new housing units will also be required to replace what was destroyed.

In another part of the city, not far from where the courageous Dutch Jesuit Frank van der Lugt was murdered by the retreating rebels, the vandalized Syrian Orthodox Notre Dame de la Ceinture de Marie is also undergoing restoration. Across the street, one of the few re-opened shops is a café filled with young men and women – a circumstance unthinkable in zones under rebel control. On the wall is a statement of hope, along translation of some famous lines by the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who is also revered by Syrians.

Jeff Klein, is a retired local union president, a long-time Palestine solidarity activist and a board member of Mass Peace Action. He has a blog: http://atmyangle.blogspot.com/
The original source of this article is Mondoweiss
Copyright © Jeff Klein, Mondoweiss, 2016

Live from Damascus: The Syrian Election Results

By Ken Stone
Global Research, April 18, 2016
21st Century Wire
Region: Middle East & North Africa
Theme: Media Disinformation, US NATO War Agenda
In-depth Report: SYRIA: NATO’S NEXT WAR?

160px-Logo_of_the_Baath_Party“Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party and its allies have won the majority of the votes in the recent parliamentary elections in the country, official results show.

The Syrian electoral commission announced late Saturday that the National Unity coalition, comprising the ruling party and its allies, had won 200 of the 250 seats at the People’s Assembly (Majlis al-Sha’ab).” ~ Press TV

Tuesday’s Syrian election was a vote of confidence by the Syrian people in their government. 5,085,444 voters cast their ballots out of a possible 8,834,994 eligible voters.

The overall participation rate of 58% (virtually identical to Canada’s last federal election) exceeded the government’s expectations in most places but was low in others.

For example, it was over 80% in Homs but only 52% in Tartous. What might explain the uneven results is the history of the war. People who suffered the most from the war, for example in Homs, were probably more grateful for their liberation and more motivated to exercise their political rights than people in Tartous who saw no fighting at all (though they lost thousands upon thousands of sons and grandsons in the war).

Also significant was the fact that over 140,000 refugees returned across the Lebanese border in just one day in order to vote.

hall-vote Damascus

And the polling hours in Damascus, which suffered a lot from the fighting, had to be extended until 11 pm to accommodate all the voters.

There were even polling stations set up by the government in recently liberated Palmyra and Al-Qaryaten, though those polls were largely symbolic because the inhabitants of those towns have not yet been able to return to their homes due to widespread destruction, prior to liberation by the Syrian Arab Army.

The voter participation rate is key to this election, more important than the individual candidates who were elected.

Here’s why: you need to understand elections in a constitutionally-created state, in which one party dominates, in terms of a strike vote in a trade union.

It demonstrates continuing confidence in the leadership at a turning point in the struggle. A union would not be satisfied with a strike vote of 58%, going into a strike. And probably the Syrian government would have wished for a higher rate going into the negotiations at Geneva. But it knew from the start that holding the elections under the conditions of war and occupation was a gamble, because there are a lot of eligible voters living outside of Syria right now, living in places besieged by the terrorists, and who have died but not yet been accounted for.

Taking into account these factors, the participation rate would probably have been much higher.

Among our solidarity delegation, we have been pleased that the Syrian authorities did not try to inflate the figures to make the election results appear better than they actually were:

It reinforces our contention that the Syrian government is a credible force in the serious negotiations ahead.

As mentioned, the turning point for Syria is the current round of negotiations taking place right now in Geneva to find a lasting political solution to the crisis.

Today, the Syrian delegation took their seats with a mandate from the Syrian people, whereas the opposition delegation of head-choppers cobbled together at the last minute by the USA and Saudi Arabia have no mandate at all from the unfortunate Syrians who suffer under military occupation in “rebel-held” areas.

No elections were held there. Western governments, such as the USA, have dismissed the Syrian election out of hand, though the participation rate in the last US election was only 48%.

But that’s not to say there weren’t any interesting candidates elected. The sister of a Syrian soldier, Noor Al-Shogri, stood for election as an independent in parliament. Her brother, Yahya Al-Shoghri, was filmed as he was being executed by ISIS terrorists in 2014 in Raqqa. (If you can stomach the summary execution in cold blood of a prisoner of war, you will find the video brazenly posted by the terrorists on Youtube.)

The barbarians demanded that he say, as his dying words, “Long live the caliphate!” He famously refused and declared instead that “It will be erased!”

His last words then became a rallying cry in the national resistance against the foreign aggression. Noor Al-Shogri easily won her seat.

I met an independent candidate in the Old City of Damascus, Nora Arissian, a small Armenian woman with flaming red hair. She came up to me in the Greek Melkite Patriarch’s procession to the polling station and thanked me for Canada taking in 25000 Syrian refugees and then she pointedly added, “We want them all eventually to come home!”

She too won her seat.

The election results were delayed by a couple of days because the Syrian election commission was unsatisfied with the preparedness of eight polling stations in partially-occupied Aleppo. As I understand it, the elections in Aleppo had to be continued on the day following election day.

Some people have asked what is the role of Palestinian refugees in this election. The answer is that Palestinians, ethnically-cleansed in 1948 and after, do not vote in Syrian elections.

The political and social status of Palestinians in Syria is the highest of any Arab country but the Syrian government doesn’t grant them citizenship or let them vote because it doesn’t want to dilute their right under international law, reaffirmed by numerous resolutions of the United Nations, to return to their homes and farms in Palestine.

The fact that the Syrian government has been so adamant about this principle, is one of the main causes of the foreign aggression against the country (and in support of the State of Israel.) So the Syrian government pays a heavy price for its strong support of the Palestinian people.

In turn, the vast majority of Palestinian refugees in Syria strongly support their government, even though many have been made refugees a second time by the invasion into their neighbourhoods of the terrorist mercenaries from over 80 countries.

For example, a fierce struggle is taking place in Yarmouk right now just a few kilometres from where I write, among Isis, Al Nusra, and other terrorist gangs, over control of this former Palestinian neighbourhood/camp, which used to hold a quarter of a million people but is now a devastated ghost town with only a few thousand souls.

ISIS-Yarmouk

It bears repeating that these parliamentary elections were defiantly called by the Syrian government as “an exercise in national sovereignty.”

The point was to show the world, especially those western and Gulf states, who have waged the five-year long war of aggression against Syria, that Syrians are united in the belief that Syrians, and only Syrians, will decide the fate of Syria.

It appears that the gamble paid off.

Ken Stone is a veteran anti-war and peace activist.
The original source of this article is 21st Century Wire
Copyright © Ken Stone, 21st Century Wire, 2016

Posted by Ainhoa Aristizabal — Unruly Hearts editor

Hillary Clinton: “If I’m President, We Will Attack Iran… We would be Able to Totally Obliterate Them.”

 

 

 

In-depth Report: IRAN: THE NEXT WAR

 

Endless wars are certain no matter who succeeds Obama. Clinton’s finger on the nuclear trigger should terrify everyone. ~ Oliver Stone filmmaker

 

By Stephen Lederman

Note: This piece which is of extreme relevance to the US election campaign was originally published in July 2015.

On July 3, 2015, presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton addressed a hand-picked audience at a Dartmouth College campaign event. She lied calling Iran an “existential threat to Israel… I hope we are able to get a deal next week that puts a lid on (its) nuclear weapons program.”

Even if we do get such a deal, we will still have major problems from Iran. They are the world’s chief sponsor of terrorism.

They use proxies like Hezbollah to sow discord and create insurgencies to destabilize governments. They are taking more and more control of a number of nations in the region and they pose an existential threat to Israel.

We…have to turn our attention to working with our partners to try to reign in and prevent this continuing Iranian aggressiveness.

Fact: US and Israeli intelligence both say Iran’s nuclear program has no military component. No evidence whatever suggests Tehran wants one. Plenty indicates otherwise.

As a 2008 presidential aspirant, she addressed AIPAC’s annual convention saying:

The United States stands with Israel now and forever. We have shared interests….shared ideals….common values. I have a bedrock commitment to Israel’s security.

(O)ur two nations are fighting a shared threat” against Islamic extremism. I strongly support Israel’s right to self-defense (and) believe America should aid in that defense.

I am committed to making sure that Israel maintains a military edge to meet increasing threats. I am deeply concerned about the growing threat in Gaza (and) Hamas’ campaign of terror.

No such campaign exists. The only threats Israel faces are ones it invents.

Clinton repeated tired old lies saying Hamas’ charter “calls for the destruction of Israel. Iran threatens to destroy Israel.”

“I support calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard what it is: a terrorist organization. It is imperative that we get both tough and smart about dealing with Iran before it is too late.”

She backs “massive retaliation” if Iran attacks Israel, saying at the time:

“I want the Iranians to know that if I’m president, we will attack Iran. In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them.”

She endorses using cluster bombs, toxic agents and nuclear weapons in US war theaters. She calls them deterrents that “keep the peace.” She was one of only six Democrat senators opposed to blocking deployment of untested missile defense systems – first-strike weapons entirely for offense.

Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago. He can be reached at lendmanstephen@sbcglobal.net.

His new book as editor and contributor is titled “Flashpoint in Ukraine: US Drive for Hegemony Risks WW III.”

http://www.claritypress.com/LendmanIII.html

Visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com.

Listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network.

It airs three times weekly: live on Sundays at 1PM Central time plus two prerecorded archived programs. 


The Dirty War On Syria. The Houla Massacre Revisited

By Prof. Tim Anderson
Global Research, December 07, 2015
Theme: Crimes against Humanity, US NATO War Agenda
In-depth Report: SYRIA: NATO’S NEXT WAR?

122875This article examines and documents the Houla massacre of May 2012, a terrible incident in the Syrian Crisis which came closest to attracting UN intervention. The analysis here seeks to include all relevant evidence, both from witnesses and on the UN processes. A series of appalling civilian massacres during the conflict helped set the tone for another round of ‘humanitarian intervention’ or ‘responsibility to protect’ debates.

The killings at Houla deserve close attention. However, because of NATO’s abuse of the ‘no fly zone’ authorisation for Libya and the wider geo-politics of Syria, Russia and China would not allow a similar UN Security Council authorisation of force. As the US did not want another prolonged ground war, big power intervention remained indirect, through proxy militias. While the Syrian army attacked those armed groups, those groups carried out public executions and constantly tried to blame the Syrian Army for attacks on civilians.

I explained in Chapter Four the context to the Islamist insurrection in Daraa, and that the centre of the insurrection spread up into the Homs area. Many Homs residents became terrified by the sectarian-genocidal slogans of ‘Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the tomb’ Reports of these slogans appeared in the US media from May 2011 onwards (Blanford 2011; Eretz Zen 2012; Adams 2012; Wakefield 2012). These FSA groups, with their al Nusra partners, did indeed drive Christians to Beirut and slaughtered Alawis and many other pro-government people. The Orthodox and Catholic churches blamed Farouq for the large scale ethnic cleansing of more than 50,000 Christians from Homs (CNA 2012). They began to impose an Islamic tax (Spencer 2012). A local analyst concluded most of Farouk were sectarian Salafis, armed and funded by Saudi Arabia; while ‘Khalid Ibn al-Walid remained loyal to and supported by the Muslim Brotherhood’ (Mortada 2012). Genocidal slogans and actual ethnic cleansing would never have come from ‘moderate’ religious people, let alone a secular revolution.

Houla-massacre-1024x751

Victims of the Houla massacre included families of some who had participated in the recent elections. Leaders of the Farouq Brigade (FSA), identified by villagers as responsible, took over the area and blamed un-named government thugs (shabiha). Photo: SANA

 

8.1 The Houla Massacre

After the Syrian Army had driven the FSA groups out of Homs, and on the eve of a UN Security Council meeting on Syria, a dreadful massacre of more than 100 civilians took place at the village of Houla, on the Taldou plains just north-west of Homs. The Houla massacre (25 May 2012) became important to ‘Responsibility to Protect’ discussions, as it formed the basis of a failed attempt to authorise UN intervention to protect civilians, based on the claim that the Syrian Government had massacred civilians. Evidence to back that claim, however, was hardly clear.

The governments of Britain, France and the USA immediately blamed the Syrian Government. In what has been called the ‘western and Arab media narrative’ the victims were killed by army artillery (Correggia, Embid, Hauben and Larson 2013). The Syrian Government, in turn, accused the foreign-backed terrorists, in particular the groups that had been driven out of Homs. Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the army clashed with ‘hundreds’ of armed men who committed Friday’s massacre. The killers used knives, which they said was a ‘signature’ of Islamist militant attacks (Reuters 2012). The Government told the UN ‘the victims were reportedly killed by terrorists numbering between 600–800, who had entered Al-Houla previously from the villages of Al-Rastan, Sa’an, Bourj Qaei and Samae’leen, among other locations’. The General Command of the armed forces held an inquiry (HRC 2012a: 6).

Allegations of Islamist ‘false flag’ provocations had been made before. Mother Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, the mother superior in charge of an ancient monastery in Qara, south of Homs, had observed the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Homs, and had grave suspicions about who was behind the killings at Houla. She had said publicly that Syrian Christians had been pressured to join FSA groups, had been used by the rebels as human shields and that Christian homes had been taken over by ‘Sunnis’. She denounced their ‘false flag’ crimes in 2011 (SANA 2011; AINA 2012), pointing out that the Catholic Media Centre had a list of names of hundreds of murder victims, many of whose images had been later used in [FSA] media setups (SANA 2011).

Western media reports, however, generally dismissed statements from Damascus. Several governments expelled Syrian diplomats, in moves designed to isolate the government. The UN Security Council said it: ‘condemned in the strongest possible terms the killings … in attacks that involved a series of Government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighbourhood … [and] also condemned the killing of civilians by shooting at close range … [this] constitutes a violation of applicable international law and of the commitments of the Syrian Government’ (UNSC 2012). France’s representative at the UN, Martin Briens, said: ‘Tanks and artillery cannons from the government shelled residential areas killing civilians’ (RT 2012). Britain’s envoy Mark Lyall Grant said ‘there is not the slightest doubt that there was deliberate government shelling against a civilian neighbourhood’ (Cowan 2012).

These accusations were premature, betraying prejudice. Russia insisted on a UNSC briefing by UN Special Mission (UNSMIS) head, Norwegian General Robert Mood, who told them the victims included 49 children and 34 women, most of whom had been shot at close range or had their throats cut. Russian diplomat Aleksandr Pankin summarised: ‘very few of the people who died in Houla were killed by artillery shelling’ (RT 2012). From then, culprits in western media stories shifted to pro-government militia (shabiha). Britain’s Daily Telegraph blamed ‘Assad’s Death Squads’. The paper suggested a sectarian motive, from an opposition source: ‘They would fight for Bashar to the death. It is natural – they have to defend their sect’ (Alexander and Sherlock 2012).

The certainty of the British and French governments, and of the anti-government ‘activists’, was not evident in the statements of the head of UNSMIS. General Mood’s group visited the massacre site and heard two distinct stories. His public comments three weeks after the massacre deserve attention, given that the UN did not release the report to which he refers:

We have interviewed locals with one story and we have interviewed locals that have another story. The circumstances and … the facts related to the incident itself still remain unclear to us … we have sent [statements and witness interviews] as a report to UN headquarters New York … if we are asked [to assist] obviously we are on the ground and could help (Mood 2012).

This report was delivered to the UN Secretary General (UNSG 2012); yet it seems it was not received by the Security Council (Hauben 2012). Mood’s ambiguity may have been disconcerting for those wanting clear findings against the Syrian Government. On 1 June the Human Rights Council (three against and two abstentions) blamed the Houla killings on the Syrian Government (‘wanton killings … by pro-regime elements and a series of Government artillery and tank shellings’) before calling for a ‘comprehensive, independent and unfettered special inquiry’ (HRC 2012c). That was an odd coupling of prejudice and a pretence at fair inquiry. UNSMIS had its activities suspended and was disbanded in August, to be replaced by another Committee co-chaired by a US diplomat.

Circumstances and timing were certainly important. As the Syrian Army drove Farouq from Homs and into surrounding towns, Syrians turned out for the 7 May National Assembly elections. Those sections of the opposition aligned to the FSA called for a boycott, and armed groups threatened to enforce this (al Akhbar 2012). In the event, the ruling Ba’ath party won 60% of the vote and their allied parties another 30%, though turnout was only 51% (Zarzar and al-Wahed 2012). There was reason to suspect enforcement of the threat, through reprisals against those who had participated and so lent legitimacy to the state.

Yet that line of inquiry was not pursued by the second UN inquiry. With three of the UNSC permanent members openly backing regime change in Syria, the debate was heavily politicised. The Houla massacre inquiry was taken over by a Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry, co-chaired by US diplomat Karen Koning AbuZayd (HRC 2012a; HRC 2012b). Appointing a US delegate was a mistake, on the part of the UN. Karen Koning AbuZayd had worked for the UN for many years, but was explicitly listed as a USA delegate to the Commission. The US Government had, by this time, publicly blamed the Syrian Government for Houla, demanding that President Assad resign for ‘killing your fellow citizens’ (AP 2012) and, with Turkey, had ‘stepped up’ what it called ‘non-lethal aid’ to rebels in Syria (Barnard 2012). By any standard Washington was a belligerent party to the Syrian conflict. On principles of independence and avoiding conflicts of interest the Human Rights Council should not have incorporated a US representative.

Unlike UNSMIS, this Commission did not visit Syria. A review of evidence was carried out and eight additional interviews were conducted, at a distance from Syria. The interim report reflected some of the ambiguity of the UNSMIS team: ‘[We are] unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators at this time; nevertheless … forces loyal to the Government may have been responsible for many of the deaths’ (HRC 2012b: 10). This was an injudicious statement. The report blamed both government forces and anti-government groups for crimes of war, but came in more strongly against the Syrian government, relying on the formal duties of government to ‘prevent or punish’ violence, as well as not commit it (HRC 2012b: 23). That is, the ‘catch-all’ argument had it that the Government was ultimately responsible for all violence on its territory, regardless of killings by the anti-government armed gangs.

The Commission’s 15 August report firmed up against the Syrian Government, removing most of the earlier ambiguity, but without identifying perpetrators. They wrote: ‘The commission conducted eight additional interviews, including with six witnesses from the Taldou area, two of whom were survivors. They looked at a range of statements from ‘various sources’, including ‘international human rights NGOs’ (HRC 2012b: 64-65). All statements, they said, were consistent with deaths being caused by government shelling and unidentified ‘shabiha’ forces. Even though they had heard evidence that the Al Sayed and Abdulrazzak families (the main groups of civilians killed) were government supporters, this committee concluded that the unidentified killers of those families ‘were aligned to the government’ (HRC 2012b: 67). They discounted evidence that FSA groups had committed the murders, claiming that ‘apart from two witnesses in the Government report, no other account supported the Government’s version of events’ (HRC 2012b: 10). The Government ‘was responsible for the deaths of civilians as a result of shelling’, they said; while as regards the ‘deliberate killing of civilians, the Commission was unable to determine the identity of the perpetrators … [but] it considered that forces loyal to the Government were likely to have been responsible for many of the deaths’ (HRC 2012b: 10).

A prominent witness presented by the anti-government side was 11 year old boy Ali Al Sayed, who says many members of his family were murdered. In an online video little Ali says:

There were tanks in the street, they shot at us with machine guns … soldiers came out … they fired 5 bullets on the door lock … arrested my brother … [and] my uncle … then my mum screamed at them … they then shot her 5 times, they shot her in the head … then he went to my brother and shot him … some of them were dressed as military, some had regular clothes, had shaved heads and beards, shabiha’ (Marchfifteen 2012).

He pretended to be dead, and thus escaped being murdered. Later he saw news on state television of his uncles having been murdered. His story is not consistent in several respects (Larson in Correggia, Embid, Hauben and Larson 2013: 20-28) and, at the end, with the help of some leading questions, he gives what appears to be a tutored appeal for foreign military intervention, the same openly stated aim of the FSA groups:

I demand that the international community stop the killing in Syria and in Houla … we are being killed … the international community is sitting, just talking and not doing anything … the people must fight for us, do what they say and protect us (Marchfifteen 2012).

Whatever the strengths or weaknesses of the boy’s story, Ali’s was hardly the only eye-witness account of the massacre. Further, it was quite false for the UN Commission of Inquiry to suggest that only ‘two witnesses … supported the Government’s version of events’. By that time there was public evidence from at least fifteen witnesses, broadly consistent with the account by the Syrian Government. Russian journalists tried to present their interview material to the Commission and apparently met with a lack of interest (Janssen 2012). The Commission claimed that the Russian reports ‘relied primarily on the same two witnesses as the Government’s report’ (HRC 2012b: 66). Yet a simple reading of a summary of evidence from the latter’s witnesses shows this to be false. Below is a summary of evidence from witnesses the UN Commission ignored. These accounts of ‘rebel’ culprits are broadly consistent with the account of the Government and often quite specific. Several gunmen are named.

8.2 Inconvenient Evidence

First, the Syrian news agency reported two unidentified people who feared for their safety. The first said the gunmen were locals plus a larger group from other areas. The locals assembled after noon prayers before attacking check-points. They then selected pro-government people, those who participated in elections or ‘didn’t give the gunmen money’. One was Haitham al-Housan. The bodies shown on television were of ‘people murdered by terrorists along with the bodies of the gunmen killed in the initial conflict’ (SANA 2012). The second witness, a woman, saw the larger group attacking a check-point. They heard of people from Tal Dahab, Aqrab and al-Rastan. A man called Saiid Fayes al-Okesh fired a mortar and police responded; he was shot in the leg. Another gunmen was Haitham al-Hallaq, who led a group of about 200. The victims belonged to the al Sayed family, with Muawiya al Sayed ‘a police officer who didn’t defect’ and others related to Meshleb al Sayed, who ‘recently became Secretary of the Peoples’ Assembly’. Other targeted groups included four households of the Abdelrazzaq family (SANA 2012).

Syrian television news showed interviews with two distressed male witnesses. The first man said: ‘The terrorists are from this area and all the areas around … a huge number of them, hundreds. They started to use shells and RPGs … hitting the houses with guns, machine guns … They killed people in their houses … some bodies have been burned’ (Syria News 2012: at 6.47). The second man said: ‘A man, his brother, and nephew were killed in front of my sister … [another] was able to run away and hide … the United Nations, those observers, what are they doing while shells are hitting us?’ (Syria News 2012: at 7.35).

German journalist, Rainer Hermann, who speaks Arabic, interviewed witnesses from Houla within days of the massacre. His sources included Syrian opposition members who had rejected violence. He withheld their names. They said Islamist rebels had attacked three army checkpoints. His sources told him:

The massacre took place after Friday prayers … dozens of soldiers and rebels were killed … [in fighting of] about 90 minutes … those killed were almost exclusively families of the Alawite or Shia minorities … [including] several dozen members of a family which had converted to Shia Islam in recent years … and the family of a Sunni member of parliament, because he was considered a collaborator … after the massacre, the perpetrators filmed their victims, presented them as Sunni victims and spread their videos (Hermann 2012).

Hermann gave names to the gang leaders:

more than 700 gunmen under the leadership of Abdurrazzaq Tlass and Yahya Yusuf [Farooq leaders] came in three groups from Rastan, Kafr Laha and Akraba and attacked three army checkpoints around Taldou. The numerically superior rebels and the soldiers fought bloody battles … the rebels, supported by the residents of Taldou, snuffed out the families … [who] had refused to join the opposition (LRC 2012).

German journalist Alfred Hackensberger spoke with a man who had been given refuge in the Qara monastery headed by Mother Agnes Mariam. This man called ‘Jibril’ said:

The fighting began around noon, when the rebels, coming from Ar-Rastan and Saan, attacked the checkpoints … the rebels went to the hospital and killed patients there … several teams targeted and went in selected houses and started to shoot all of the inhabitants. He knew the Sajid’s personally. ‘They were Sunni Muslims, like all of us’, he says. ‘They were killed by them because they have refused to join the revolution. They’ve even murdered a Member of Parliament who … had refused the boycott of the FSA

Asked about the ‘regime loyalists’ claims, Jibril responded derisively:

Nonsense … Houla is in rebel hands since December 2011 … the Army would like to reclaim Taldu, but it has not been done … many people know what really happened … who’s there … can only replay the version of the rebels. Everything else is certain death (Hackensberger 2012).

The Arabic speaking Dutch writer Martin Janssen constructed his view from three sources: the Catholic Fides news agency, information from refugees at the Qara monastery and the accounts of Russian journalists Musin and Kulygina. He questioned the shabiha story because many victims were Alawi, who are almost all pro-government. Fides had reported that ‘large groups of Syrian Alawites and Christians in the region were fleeing to Lebanon to escape the violence of armed gangs’, after the events at Houla (Janssen 2012). The Qara monastery told him witnesses said the army was absent in the region, with ‘Rastan and Saan … under full control of the Free Syrian Army’. The armed groups attacked the al-Watani hospital and killed the guards. ‘Then they invaded the hospital where armed rebels killed all present and … put the hospital on fire’ (Janssen 2012). At Tal Daw, near Houla, armed groups murdered all the Alawite families. The report from the monastery described the area around Qusayr as ‘in turmoil’ and wracked by sectarian violence (Janssen 2012).

Those Russian journalists, Marat Musin and Olga Kulygina from the Abkhazian Network News Agency (ANNA-News) had a camera crew in Houla on 25 May and took a number of witness interviews. Their sources make it very clear the murderers were Islamist ‘rebels’. An old woman called ‘The grandmother of Al-Hula’ said: ‘Checkpoint positions were attacked … All the soldiers were killed, then they attacked our villages, torched a hospital … Bandits killed our pharmacist … [because] he had treated a wounded soldier Nobody but the army will help us … They say there have been airstrikes! Lies, lies, lies. Liars, all of them come from Ar-Rastan’ (ANNA 2012). Taldou resident Syed Abdul Wahab, said: ‘The terrorists want to come here … to take power. We have always lived in peace. We cannot leave the house’. A local woman from Al-Gaunt, next to Al-Houla, said ‘Nine terrorists killed my relatives in the field. The bandits set fire to our houses and we fled … we have a martyr, who was burned alive. Why, by what law did they die? Is this Islam? Is this justice?’ (ANNA 2012).

Another woman from Taldou they call Arifah told them she listened to the radio chatter from the ‘bandits’, before the massacre (Musin 2012a). They began by firing at the main checkpoint while a group from the al Hassan clan, led by Nidal Bakkur, attacked a ‘second checkpoint’ outside the village. The bandits lost about 25 people but after about two hours they had taken over both check-points. ‘They then proceeded to murder the Al-Sayed family which lived across the street from the police station’. Three families including about 20 children were murdered, along with another 10 from the Abdul Razaq family. That afternoon Abdul Razak Tlas, leader of the Farouq Brigade, arrived with 250 men from Ar-Rastan, Aqraba and Farlaha (Musin 2012a). The city of Ar-Rastan had been abandoned by most civilians for some time, taken over by Islamists from Lebanon (Musin 2012b). Arifah said that by 8pm the murdered civilians and dead bandits had been taken to the mosque. They then filmed for the Qatari and Saudi television stations. On Saturday morning, when the UNSMIS observers arrived, ‘The fallen rebels involved in the action were presented as civilians, while the conquering rebels dressed in army uniforms posed as defectors. They were surrounded by their family members who told the story of a government attack with heavy shelling and posed as victim’s relatives, while the relatives of the real victims were nowhere to be seen’ (Musin 2012a).

Violence continued after the UNSMIS visit. Musin and Kulygina later interviewed two wounded soldiers, a wounded policeman and another resident, who gave more detail of ‘rebel’ sniper attacks and murders, and of the ‘rebel’ escorts set up for the UN observers. They continued to identify attackers and victims. A group from the Al Aksh clan had been firing mortars and RPGs at the checkpoints. All checkpoint prisoners were executed: a Sunni conscript had his throat cut, while Abdullah Shaui of Deir-Zor was burned alive (Maramus 2012; Musin 2012b). The police officer said ‘the attackers were from Ar-Rastan and Al-Hula. Insurgents control Taldou. They burned houses and killed people by the families, because they were loyal to the government’ (Musin 2012b). The resident saw the clashes from the roof of the police station. ‘Al Jazeera aired pictures and said that the Army committed the massacre at Al Hula … in fact, they [the gunmen] killed the civilians and children in Al-Hula. The bandits … steal everything … most of the fighters are from the city of Ar Rastan’ (Maramus 2012; Musin 2012b). The second UN inquiry ignored these 15 witnesses, who told of specific perpetrators with clear political motives. An outline of major reports and their associated evidence is below.

 

Houla massacre (May 2012): significant reports
Source/report Method and conclusion
Mother Agnes Mariam FSA had previously attacked Christians and was engaged in ‘false flag’ attacks, falsely blamed on the government
Most western media reports Massacre by ‘Assad’s death squads’
British and French government Massacre resulted from Government shelling of civilian areas; later changed this to ‘regime thug’ attacks
UN Special Mission on Syria (UNSMIS), Gen. Robert Mood Went to massacre site, heard stories that blamed both sides. Could not resolve the two versions.
UN HRC Commission of Inquiry Interviews in Geneva, co-chaired by US diplomat; witnesses selection assisted by anti-government groups; Commission blames pro-government ‘thugs’ (shabiha)
FSA video, on Al Jazeera and elsewhere Show young boy Ali al Sayed, he blames ‘shabiha’ in army clothes with shaved heads and beards.
Syrian Government, state news agencies and television Four direct witnesses say attacks were by armed gangs, who killed security and targeted pro-government families
German journalist Alfred HACKENSBERGER Interviews refugee ‘Jibril’ at Qara monastery – massacre carried out by FSA gangs on pro-government families
German journalist Rainer HERMANN Interviews anti-violence opposition people – they say local gangs and FSA killed pro-government families
Dutch Journalist Martin JANSSEN Notes large outflow of Christian and Alawi refugees from Houla; refugees at Qara blame FSA gangs
Russian journalists Marat MUSIN and Olga KULYGINA Eight witnesses blame FSA-linked anti-government gangs, victims pro-government families
Correggia, Embid, Hauben and Larson Critical review of evidence and UN reports – says the second UN report is not credible.

8.3 Dissent at the UN

The partisan report clearly influenced UN discussions. Although the HRC passed a motion with a strong majority, condemning the Syrian Government, the dissenting comments were significant. Russian representative Maria Khodynskaya-Golenischv (UNTV 2012: 7.00 to 8.10) said ‘we cannot agree with the one-sided conclusions put out in the resolution concerning the Commission on the Houla tragedy … We believe that the question of guilt is still open. An investigation should be carried out thoroughly … unfortunately some states are de facto encouraging terrorism in Syria therefore we have no doubt that the episode in Houla has definitely been whipped up in the media and has been used to carry out force against this country. The delegate from China (UNTV 2012: 13.25 to 15.50) also flagged that country’s intention to vote against the resolution, as there was a need ‘for a political solution … [and an] immediate end to violence … putting pressure on one party for the conflict will not help solve the problem’. The Cuban delegate (UNTV 2012: 16.05 to 18.50) said ‘there are parties that are interested in not fostering the path of dialogue and understanding … [some saying clearly they want] regime change, and even promoting the idea of military intervention with the use of force to impose on the Syrian people decisions that are being taken outside the country’. The Indian delegate (UNTV 2012: 19.00-21.30), who abstained, said India had given ‘unqualified support to the joint missions’ but urged the Human Rights Council to ‘always act with complete impartiality, in order to maintain its credibility and retain the trust and confidence of all … [there is a need for] a balanced and impartial resolution that can help start a meaningful political process in Syria’

The Syrian delegation (UNTC 2012: 24.33-35.30) came out hardest against the resolution, saying that the Commission of Inquiry ‘didn’t even visit Syria’ and had ignored the Syrian inquiry. Referring to some ‘Arab co-sponsors’ Syria said they had no right to ‘give advice’ because they were ‘directly involved in the killings of Syrian people, and criminals cannot be judges’, imposing sanctions and then ‘shedding tears about the humanitarian situation’. The refusal to condemn terrorism in Syrian reflected badly on the Council. Nevertheless, the big powers had the numbers, with 41 voting in favour, three against and three abstentions. The resolution was adopted but no UNSC action was possible because of opposition from two of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia and China.

The unsatisfactory UN process does not negate the fact that strong prima facie evidence emerged against particular groups and individuals. Witnesses identified as perpetrators four local gunmen (Haitham al-Housan, Saiid Fayes al-Okesh, Haitham al-Hallq and Nidal Bakkur) along with groups from two clans (the al Hassan and the al-Aksh), plus a large Farouq group led by Abdurrazzaq Tlass and Yahya Yusuf. Their motive was to punish pro-government villagers, in particular the al-Sayed and Abdulrazzak families, then to set up a scene to falsely blame the government for their own crimes. The Houla massacre did not result in a Libyan-styled intervention, but false accusations afforded temporary impunity to the killers and created a great risk that military intervention could have been set in play.

8.4 The Aftermath

Houla set the tone for a series of similar ‘false flag’ massacres. When the August 2012 massacre of 245 people in Daraya (Damascus) came to light, western media reports quickly suggested that ‘Assad’s army has committed [another] massacre’ (Oweis 2012). However that story was contradicted by British journalist Robert Fisk, who observed that the FSA had slaughtered kidnapped civilian and off-duty soldier hostages after a failed prisoner swap (Fisk 2012). Similarly, the 10 December 2012 massacre of 120 to 150 villagers in Aqrab (less than 15 kilometres from Houla, and also at that time under ‘rebel’ control) was also blamed by ‘activists’ on the Syrian Government. The New York Times suggested ‘members of Assad’s sect’ were responsible (Stack and Mourtada 2012). In fact, as British journalist Alex Thompson (2012b) later reported, from the tightly corroborated evidence of survivors, the FSA (including foreign fighters) had held 500 Alawi villagers for nine days, murdering many of them as the army closed in and the FSA fled. In this case those of ‘Assad’s sect’ were the victims, just as the victims at Houla had been mostly government supporters and their families.

The Houla massacre illustrates great dangers in the practice of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine, when the big powers have proxy armies in the field. The idea that almost any sort of atrocity could be blamed on the Syrian Government, with little fear of contradiction in the western media, must have played heavily on the minds of Islamist armed groups. Farouq in particular was very media savvy, regularly producing videos for the television networks of Qatar (Al Jazeera) and Saudi Arabia (Al Arabiya). Up against a superior national army, which was not disintegrating along sectarian lines, Farouq and the others were in desperate need of military backing. Inflaming moral outrage against the Syrian Government just might bring in NATO air power, as it had in Libya. In the meantime, they could carry out major crimes with impunity.

The failure of UN processes to recognise the UN’s own role, in fomenting both impunity and escalation of the violence, further discredited the ‘no fly zone’ idea, which had been cynically exploited in the Libyan intervention. After Houla, while the propaganda war continued, there was no real hope of Security Council authorised intervention in Syria. The next major incident, involving the use of chemical weapons in ‘rebel’ occupied East Ghouta, more than a year later, would have as its reference point a unilateral ‘red line’ decree by Washington. Houla in many respects marked the failure of attempts to build any real UN-sanctioned ‘official truth’ over the conflict in Syria.

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The original source of this article is Global Research
Copyright © Prof. Tim Anderson, Global Research, 2015

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