Truth Dies in War

Eyewitness version of Houla massacre

The Houla massacre is a turning point in the Syrian conflict. Supported by the accounts of UN observers, the Western public blames the Syrian army for the bloodbath. This version can be doubted based on reports from eye-witnesses, according to whom the civilians were killed by Sunni rebels.

The Houla massacre was a turning point in the Syrian drama. The worldwide outrage was great as 108 people, among them 49 children were killed in Houla on May 25. Calls for a military intervention to put an end to the bloodshed in Syria became louder and the violence in the country has unrelentingly increased ever since. Based on Arabic news channels and the UN observers visit on the next day, world opinion almost unanimously accuses the regular Syrian army and the regime-affiliated Shabiha for the mass murder.

The German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) questioned this version on the basis of accounts from eye-witnesses. The newspaper had reported that the killed civilians were Alawites and Shiites. They were intentionally killed by armed Sunni insurgents in Taldou, a town in the plains of Houla, as violent clashes broke out between the regular Syrian army and units of the [so called] Free Syrian Army at checkpoints around the village. This account was taken up by many media outlets worldwide and rejected by many as incredible. Therefore four questions arise: Why does the world opinion so far follow another version? Why does the context of the civil war make this doubted version plausible? Why are the witnesses reliable? What other facts support this version?

First of all, why does the world opinion follow another version? In the first months of the conflict in Syria as the opposition still did not possess any weapons and was defenseless, all atrocities were attributed to the regime. Hence the assumption was that the regime continues to commit such acts. [Translator's note: the writer is mistaken in this regard. According to reliable reports deadly attacks against government forces had taken place by armed, purportedly foreign-financed rebels as early as April 10, 2011.]

Moreover the Syrian media enjoy no credibility. From the beginning of the conflict they used the standard language “armed terrorist gangs.” So nobody believes them when this is indeed the case. Yet Al Jazeera and Al Arabia have become two leading sources in the case of Syria although their two owners, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are two states actively involved in the conflict. The German saying, “Truth dies first in war,” is therefore not pointless.

Secondly, why does the context of the civil war make this doubted version plausible? Many weapons were smuggled into Syria in recent months and the rebels have long possessed mid-sized weaponry. More than 100 people are killed in Syria every day with equal numbers of deaths among both sides. The militants, who operate under the banner of the so-called Free Syrian Army, are in control of extensive parts of Homs and Idlib provinces and extend their rule over other parts of the country. [Translator's note: Facts on the groud contradict the author's claim as according to media outlets, even Western media, militants have not so far had enough power to bring any cities under their control]. The increasing lawlessness has led to a wave of criminal kidnappings and also opened up old wounds. If you look at Facebook or speak to Syrians, everyone knows stories from everyday life about the “religious cleansing” of people who are killed just because they are Alawites or Sunni.

The largely Sunni-populated plain of Houla, located between the Sunni Homs and the mountains of the Alawites, has endured a long history of sectarian tensions. The massacre took place in Taldou, one of the biggest towns in Houla. The names of the 84 killed civilians are known. They are the fathers, mothers and children of the family Al Sayyid and two branches of the family Abdarrazaq. Town residents testify that those killed are Alawites and Muslims who have converted from Sunni Islam to Shia Islam. As they are only a few kilometers away from the border of Lebanon, this has made them suspected of being Hezbollah sympathizers, which is detested among Sunnis. Furthermore, relatives of the regime-loyal Member of Parliament Abdulmuti Mashlab, who lived in Taldou were also among those murdered.

The homes of the three families are located in different parts of Taldou. The family members were deliberately targeted and killed with one exception. No neighbor was even injured. Good knowledge of the place was a prerequisite for these well-planned “executions”. The AP News Agency quotes the only surviving member of the Al Sayyid family, an eleven-year-old Ali as saying, “The perpetrators were shaved bald and had long beards.” Fanatic Jihadists look like this, not the Shahiba. The boy said he had survived because he pretended to be dead and had smeared himself with his mother’s blood.

Sunni rebels press ahead with the “Liquidation” of all religious minorities

As early as April 1, the nun Agnes-Maryam of the monastery of Jacob (“Deir Mar Yakub”), which is located south of Homs in the village of Qara had described the climate of violence and fear in the region. She came to the conclusion that the Sunni rebels are proceeding with a step-by-step liquidation of all minorities, she describes the eviction of Christians and Alawites from their homes, which were occupied by the rebels and the rape of young girls, whom the rebels passed off as “war booty”; she was an eye-witness as the rebels first killed a businessman who had refused to close his shop with an auto bomb in the street of Wadi Sajjeh and then said before an Al Jazeera camera that the regime had committed the crime. She finally describes how Sunni rebels in the Khaldijah district of Homs locked up Alawite and Christian hostages in a house and blew up the house to later explain that it was an atrocity of the regime.

Why should the Syrian eye-witnesses be held credible in this context? Because they do not belong to any party of the conflict but are entrapped in the midst of the crisis and have no other interest but to stop a further escalation of the violence. Many people have already been killed from their circle. Hence nobody wants to pay a price by revealing his identity. Certainty that all details have happened exactly as described cannot be obtained at a time when an independent review of all facts on the spot is not possible. Even if the Houla massacre took place as in the version described here, no conclusions about other atrocities can be drawn from it. As before in Kosovo, every massacre must be studied separately after this war.

What other facts support this version? The FAZ was not the first to report on a new version of the Houla massacre. Other reports simply stood no chance of being proven against the big leading media sources. The Russian journalist Marat Mussin, who works for the small news agency Anna, was in Houla on May 25 and 26, and became to some extent an eye-witness herself and also published the testimonies of other eye-witnesses. Moreover, after the massacre the Dutch-Arab and freelance journalist, Martin Janssen, who lives in Damascus, contacted the Jacob Monastery in Qara, which had taken in many victims of the conflict as its nuns devote themselves to humanitarian work.

Rebels describe their version of the massacre for the UN observers

The nuns told him how on May 25 more than 700 armed rebels coming from Rastan, overran a checkpoint of the army near Toldou after the massacre and piled the corpses of the killed soldiers and civilians in front of the mosque and how, on the following day, they described their version of the Syrian army’s alleged massacre in front of the cameras of rebel-friendly channels to the UN observers. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon stated at the UN Security council on May 26 that the exact circumstances are unclear. The UN could, however, confirm 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 of May 25, more than 700 armed rebels under the leadership of Abdurrazzaq Tlass and Yahya Yusuf who came in 3 groups from Rastan, Kafr Laha and Akraba attacked three army checkpoints around Taldou. The rebels who outnumbered the (mostly also Sunni) soldiers fought bloody battles, in which two dozen soldiers, mostly conscripts, were killed. During and after the battles, the rebels supported by the residents of Todou annihilated the Sayyid and Abdarrazzaq families. These families had refused to join the opposition.

  • By Rainer Hermann, published in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and translated for Press TV by Vida Gilyaneh.
  • Press TV is the first Iranian international news network broadcasting in English on a round-the-clock basis. Read other articles by Press TV, or visit Press TV's website.