Syrian Massacres in Context

Part 2: The Houla Massacre and the Battle of Taldou -- The Digital Witnesses Have Their Say

Read Part 1.

The Security Scene: At Least 40% Overrun

To understand what the videos examined show, it’s useful to have a feel for Taldou’s security scene and the bases the government/Alawite villains would have operated from as they launched their massacre on May 25.

Most of Al-Houla and its three towns was apparently open by then to rebel fighters who had formed into brigades. Syrian official sources record an escalating string of militant attacks in the area from the uprising’s start, including attacks on security posts, on a fuel pipeline, and on the electrical grid. Abductions and killings are mentioned sporadically, while the rebels were often able to show actual bodies as evidence of brutal massacres the official sources didn’t mention. One massacre, on April 5, 2012, was of allegedly defected army officer Mohammed Sawaf, killed with his wife and son. That Sawaf defected is countered by his young son still wearing the Syrian national colors (red, white, black) on his wrist, visible in at least two opposition videos.

To increase the scope of freedom, Houla rebels increasingly brought their attention to bear on the secured remainder; Taldou was apparently the front-line in their struggle from the summer of 2011 forward. The center and south of town hosted the strongest government presence in Houla, with five relevant posts (see targets on the map below). Nearly all rebel videos of protests, fighting, and dead civilians — including the Sawaf family — are from Taldou.

The northernmost base was in the center of town, marked by a traffic roundabout, the central clock tower, the city’s main mosque, Baath party HQ, and a general military presence with armored vehicles and sandbagged embattlements. Rebels call this area “Freedom Circle,” at least after its “liberation.” This is a distinct area from the mosque-based square rebels already held in the north of town, complete with a fake clock tower, that would host the famous mass grave on May 26.

660 meters south on Main Street was the local headquarters of military intelligence, guarded by two permanently parked blue armored vehicles. Just south of that was a mobile army post, usually stationed at the arches over Main Street (“the Qaws,” the old city gate), or nearby.

Further south, the army’s presence was anchored by the “water company,” (water authority, etc.). This was a proper, if very small, army base on the southeast ridge overlooking Taldou (“the mountain” in some accounts), near the highly visible water tower. Tanks or artillery were likely positioned there, and it’s the origin of the reported shelling on the massacre day.

Between the ridge and the arches on Main Street was the National Hospital, with a security detachment present, constituting the fifth main point of control. These five posts and the forces stationed at them, the Syrian government would tell us, normally offered protection for the citizens. On May 25 they didn’t do that job correctly. Either they went murderous then as widely presumed, or they were overpowered by someone else who did.

The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI) showed little interest in clearing the Syrian government of blame, but were forced by the evidence to concede that the northernmost “one or two” security posts were taken over by rebels in what might have been a “premeditated attack.” (p 7). The clock tower post was acknowledged as overrun (p 10), and various videos show an area vacated and abandoned in the days after.

The intel HQ further south was given by the CoI as “likely overrun by anti-gov’t forces” (map, p 21). Charred armored personnel carriers guarding a charred building, as revealed on videos from May 26 forward, makes it more than just “likely.” An Associated Press article noted this with what proves to be an understatement; a day-after video was released by the U.N. monitors that “showed two destroyed armored personnel carriers – suggesting that local rebels put up more of a fight than the activists acknowledged.”

The non-rebel alleged witnesses imply that four, or even all five, of these posts were taken. But the CoI decided the three posts surrounding the massacre sites in the south of Taldou (those marked in orange on the map) remained in government hands. That continuity started, they felt, with the mobile unit at the Qaws. It was quite near a better-fortified site that fell to rebels, and was the only post capable of driving away. Therefore, holding that position makes little sense, and the given reasoning is questionable (army trucks were at the arches – still or again – the following morning).

The reasoning for the two posts further south holding seems to follow on that; the attackers came from the north, and never got south of the arches. Plus, they said, “there was no indication or evidence” that either post fell (p. 10). There were witnesses who said so, but the CoI decided those were “unreliable” and thus not generators even of the faintest evidence. Clearly, that reasoning is inadequate.

The Rebel Assault: Video Exhibits

Shortcomings aside, the CoI’s decision is worthy of some deference. However, the amount due is nowhere near enough to overcome strong video evidence to the contrary. The following seven exhibits, most comprising two or more videos, form a broad sampling of May 25 fighting videos. All the clues they have to offer have not yet been exhausted; the investigation is ongoing.

Exhibit A: Early Movement — Attacking The Clock Tower Post (app. 12:30-1:30 PM)

One astute alleged witness — dubbed “Arifah” by ACLOS — says she gleaned information by listening in on rebel communications with a radio scanner, with details filled in later. This sounds a little fishy, but it is possible. As translated, she said “the groups attacked checkpoints in the area simultaneously at around 1:30. ” A mortar was fired, and then they “opened heavy fire on the checkpoint,” in what the chatter suggested was a distraction.

The post isn’t clearly stated, but another witness dubbed “the rebel defector,” claiming he was part of the attack (although not that part), says the clock tower post was hit first, as a distraction. (“Arifah” said it was attacked again and actually conquered later, around 7 PM).

“The rebel defector” said:

Gunmen showed up near the Clock Roundabout, while a large group headed down the road to al-Sad area [Saad Road?] which is known as Tripoli road, with the first group beginning to shoot their guns in the air to keep the checkpoint at the roundabout busy and give the impression that they intend to attack it.

His account had that attack as starting “after noon prayers,” when a rebel unit gathered “in the northern district of the village, which is located beyond the checkpoint, next to the place with the clock.” An activist video shows rebel fighters with machine guns and RPG launchers run around alleys, firing a bit east down a street, and otherwise seeming to be preparing more than fighting. From the short shadows, the time is near solar noon, 12:30 PM +/- 15 minutes. Perhaps two dozen lightly-armed men are shown in different groups, seeming cheerful and exuberant. The location is most likely in the center of town or further north, but the spot is not set.

Perhaps close by, we can see several explosive attacks on houses filmed in the center of town at about 12:40-12:50 PM. The stationary cameraman  was seemingly expecting the hits at the spot he was filming, just northwest of the roundabout and the mosque. It’s not clear what the targets are, what they’re being hit with, and who’s firing (although one gunner might be on the roof of the building this activist filmed from – possible shell casings are seen falling). It’s branded as government shelling.

RPGFrom the north, the defector says, the rebels fired on the security post “with the clock.” Three videos show just such an attack, with a few men taking turns firing automatic rifles around the corner. They’re in a certain spot 110 meters NNW of the detachment, and firing right along that line. One of them with many rounds prepared (see inset image) is hit by return fire almost instantly, a bullet clear through the abdomen, and he’s carried away. The shadows suggest a time of 1:25, +/- 15 minutes, or just about the 1:30 that “Arifah” cited for the roundabout attack.

Exhibit B: RPG Firing near City Center

One of the more famous activist videos, cited widely in support of government shelling, contains a powerful and little-noted contradictory clue. Filmed on north Saad Road, just southwest of the mosque at city center, it’s said to show rebel men laboring “to rescue the women, children and elderly men who were trapped in their homes, some of which were being splintered by artillery and tank shells” that were “crashing down.”

But following the one nearby blast and billow of smoke that makes the video so dramatic, we can see no damage, and one man alone falls down a second after the blast. His white headscarf falls off, but he stands right back up unharmed. The Jihadist was the victim of recoil; he walks straight towards the camera, holding his RPG launcher loosely at his right side.

He seems to be ignored in embarrassment by the activists loading some bodies (perhaps his victims) into a van. He walks south, and then two more similar explosions are heard — to the south, it seems — before he seemingly disappears in a puff of exhaust smoke. Four rocket blasts, at least from one person, and that is among the best available raw video of the “shelling” of Taldou.

Exhibit C: Main St. Fighting/Intel HQ

“The rebel defector” describes a unit attacking from Satto Road which, by the spot he points to on the map, connects to Main Street from the east, south of city center. One video from “the battle to liberate freedom circle” shows a group firing guns and rockets west from a barricade on Satto Road minutes before sunset. They run towards Main Street and, from the corner, stage an attack. One of the rebels, covered by automatic gunfire, runs out and fires a rocket-propelled grenade south, towards the military intel HQ and/or the Qaws, then returns cheering a successful hit.

Another video of May 25, perhaps as early as 6:45 PM but once again near sunset, is filmed from a great distance to the northwest. It looks southeast clear across Taldou, to the giant water tower by the elevated “water company” post. In between, huge plumes of smoke rise from the south span of main street, very near or at the intel HQ. Since no one contests that that post was overrun and torched, the discovery is not earth-shattering, but gives us a rough no-later-than timestamp.

Defenses were overcome again, and the way was opened further south, where more fighting right at sunset was seen just below the HQ. A small group fired machine guns around the corner, south towards the Qaws, as smoke rises to the south and another building right across the street started belching smoke.

Exhibit D: Firing on the “Water Company”

Twice, it seems, and again near sunset, we can see a presumed rebel militant firing an RPG towards the “Water company” army base that was the backbone of Taldou’s defenses. Again, just before sunset, a video shows (at 0:43) a flash and smoke on the hillside a ways north of the base. Another sunset video (timed at 7:31 +/- 3 minutes) is shot nearer, and shows another flash and a smoke trail originating further north, but with its direction more clear – south towards the base.

Continued attacks suggest this elevated position at least remained government-held at that time. Syrian official sources seem to have it holding out through the night and later helping reclaim Main Street. (SANA video, 4:17). However, they say it was incapable of an offensive for a time, pinned down by a rebel attack. The video record is entirely consistent with that.

Exhibit E: Burning The Hospital?

“Arifah” heard that in the mid-afternoon (3-4 PM), rebels took over some check-point (unclear), then set fire to it, along with “the nearby hospital and the woods behind it, completely burning down the trees.” Syrian official sources and at least one other witness agree the National Hospital was burned by rebels, although later video proves the trees remained.

Rebel sources never mention the hospital either way, aside from one activist, Monther Hrfosh, who posted a video of the hospital apparently burning, wanting to accuse the Army of shelling it. The time is not certain, but about sunset, 7:30 +/- 8 minutes. The hospital’s distinctive trees and outer wall are seen from across the fields, with a giant cloud of whitish smoke rising above. The bulk drifts north over the seconds, so it may be smoke from an RPG or other explosion dissipating. There are not, however, any other sounds suggesting an ongoing battle there.

However, two other videos show smoke rising on different lines of sight matching the hospital. One is from the same activist, a bit south and perhaps earlier, with faint whitish smoke seen at 0:10. Another view just seconds before full sunset (approx. 7:36) captures it from the north up Main Street at 0:40. Here the smoke appears fairly dark and billowing. This video would seem to be later than the others; apparently, the National Hospital started burning at about sunset, following at least one explosion. In context, it’s fairly clear who’s responsible.

Exhibit F: The Six-Hour Blank Spot

Some facets of the alleged rebel attack do not come through in these available videos. The use of mortars or truck-based heavy machine guns isn’t shown. No security post is shown up-close. Neither is the capture or execution of any soldiers shown, nor obviously the reported rebel massacres themselves.

In fact, the whole relevant period from about 1:30-7:30 seems to be almost completely un-documented. At least from the wide portion ACLOS has studied, there is a general gap of about six hours  after the few shared videos of the early afternoon (ex A). There is the Saad Street RPG video around 6:15 PM (ex B), but nothing else until minutes before sunset, when activists all across town were suddenly able to film again. For reference, the fighting started at 1-2 PM, all sides agree. The first bases fell around 3-4 PM, and the early massacres seem to have run from roughly 5-7 PM (others reportedly ran from 10/11 PM until 3/4 AM).

What could cause the rebels filming of such a dramatic event to pause for six hours? Perhaps they all had to retreat, and all returned just before sunset. But it could also be an order from local rebel command to avoid filming the heart of their victory-studded battle that apparently did occur.

Exhibit G: Celebration Videos

Finally, some different recorded moods of the opposition might be instructive. Those activists seen on video wailing over the bodies of women and children clearly seem upset, cursing both Assad and UN peace envoy Kofi Annan. Contrast that with the activists who filmed themselves reviewing those videos, now up on Youtube, and watching the news; smiles and victory signs abound. This could just be the euphoria of getting out the horrible truth, or something more ugly than that.

Rebel fighters celebrate either on July 14 or May 25.

Rebel fighters celebrate either on July 14 or May 25.

Potentially more troubling is a video of about two dozen armed rebels standing atop Taldou at sunset, pouring heavy smoke from at least two spots that are difficult to identify at this resolution. The fighters are smiling, raising their guns, and cheering “Allahu Akbar,” as if the devastation below were something good.

Filmed somewhere on the ridge near the Water Company, this video is dated July 14, 2012, the attack given as a response to the Tremseh “massacre” two days earlier. But an ACLOS analysis finds this and other videos in the same batch show signs of the May 25 battle (like fighters from Rastan arriving from the northeast, also around sunset). Furthermore, there is no news of any actual violence in Al-Houla on July 13 or 14 (see above link), and it’s difficult to imagine a smoldering city going unreported as “regime” shelling, a rebel victory, or both. That makes it all too likely this is a laundered video of May 25, when violence of course was reported. If so, they’re celebrating the destruction – and perhaps the massacre that rode in with it — as if it was their own job well done.

Video Recap

In summary, we see in opposition videos actions that illustrate the alleged rebel attack on Taldou, almost as if it actually happened. The early afternoon attacks from the north are eerily consistent with the dismissed witness set’s description. The sunset also matches with their “blatant lies,” showing rebels firing on the last holdout posts, and smoke rising from the military intel HQ and the hospital, both of which they say were hit.  And the missing six hours between these glimpsed periods is itself a clue, especially the seemingly synchronized resumption of shared videos in the minutes before sunset.

Conversely, opposition sources are less consistent with their own video record. The multi-front offensive we can see becomes, in their accounts, a single passing skirmish at a checkpoint, either before or after a protest. After this victory-free fluke, the unhindered security forces unleashed their fiercest shelling yet, forcing the rebels to retreat and stay away. One of them told the Guardian “the places that were being hit were impossible to reach,” especially by him and his fighters.

Again for emphasis, they made no video of the Shabiha or army invaders, their tanks or buses, or any such thing, even from a safe distance. In short, the videos offer no support for what rebels say, and do show things they didn’t say.

The rebel story was of course successfully sold to the world at large, and this and all other contradictory evidence has been kept from interfering with the planned sale. Apparently, it’s quite a seller’s market for this particular type of bogus product.

Syrian Massacres back in Context

The RPG firing in exhibit D is just south of a cluster of homes that might be the Alawi village of Al-Shumeriyeh. There, ten or even “dozens” from Alawi families were reportedly killed on May 25, victims the opposition simply doesn’t seem to acknowledge, as Sunni or otherwise. Fighters reportedly came down from the northeast, so the people firing on that hillside might well have passed through that village.

The bloodied “veranda” of a verified massacre site, perhaps of the Mustafa Abdulrazaq family, May 27. That video, and another cited above (exhibit E), were both posted by a Houla activist called Monther Hrfosh. They’re also tied together by apparently mixed-up names; “targeting the hospital” shows RPG firing, and “heavy shelling of the city” shows smoke over the hospital. Both are filmed from different spots about 100 meters apart, in the orchards just off South Saad Road, 2-300 meters from several homes where some 65 members of the Abdulrazaq family had just been massacred. By rebel accounts, that wrapped up by roughly 7:00 PM, while a direct reflection of sunlight in one of the videos gives us a time of filming at 7:31 +/-3 min.  Hrfosh was there within minutes of the killing’s end, or he was there before, but decided not to record the actual events or the killers, whoever they were.

He did, however, film the attack with the possible implications for the Alawi victims mentioned above. And he filmed the hospital attack, with its implications for yet another set. The family of Muawiya Al-Sayed, a retired police officer, lived immediately across the street from the hospital. Whoever was in charge of that area killed him, along with his son (an active-duty Army soldier on leave with a broken leg) and an eight-year-old daughter, plus most likely his wife and his adult daughter (people claiming to be those are among the alleged witnesses blaming Shabiha).

While government forces were seen in the days after the massacre battling to regain control, they didn’t really keep it. Both armed rebels and the world told them to pull out of Taldou; at month’s end, the roundabout post was still vacated, with the Baath party HQ exploded from inside (described as a shelled house). The south of town was afterwards apparently empty of civilians, meaning some thousands more displaced. Rebel brigades have retained the run of Al-Houla, while still suffering frequent military attacks and several smaller massacres among the dwindling population, all decried with yet more videos.

It was in fact from this base that rebel forces in early December 2012 attacked Aqrab. Not two kilometers north of Houla, it had an Alawi western district of 2-3,000 that was forcibly emptied, with homes burnt. Most fled, but around 500 men, women, and children were taken hostage, with 300 released in prisoner exchanges. Again in Aqrab following a rebel victory, the Alawite Shabiha attacked on December 11, rebels said, killing most of the remaining hostages as mentioned at the start of part 1. Rebels tried to stop it, but the Shabiha blew up the house they were held in, and army shelling and an air force bombs followed.

This time, there were less videos; a few showed survivors under rebel control, vaguely blaming Shabiha. None showed the dead, except for one of the rebel-approved hostage negotiators. One important video was from the news, Channel 4 in the UK, showing that thrice-exploded house still standing. Although it’s not clear what happened to the last prisoners, it can hardly be good, and the rebel story of the Aqrab massacre is now acknowledged – to the extent it is acknowledged – as a bald-faced lie. Sadly, so it seems is the tale of the big massacre that essentially gave these rebels Al-Houla, their base from which to launch a campaign of genocide and deception.

This campaign has been enabled by a “world community” – the United Nations and several world governments, the bulk of the mainstream media, human rights groups, etc. — accepting of any rebel explanation that demonizes the target government. In this way, the artificial moral clarity continues to lubricate the pursuit of an “inevitable post-Assad Syria,” just as it did in Libya to such disastrous effect. It seems a bit like we’re living under a system completely twisted by Western geo-strategic goals, once again putting convenient regime-change projects far ahead of truth and justice and human life. All the while, of course, that system loudly claims to do the opposite.

If the “world community” is serious about stopping these hideous acts, it needs to acknowledge that we probably have the Houla massacre understood backwards. Further, we’re likely wrong about a whole lot of horrible things explained, in part, by their similarities to that high point of moral outrage. And these things could either get better or far worse, depending, as long as the insurgency is encouraged and enabled by outside powers.

It could be the attitude that has underpinned this crisis for nearly two years will, in the end, only delay the inevitable return of peace and sanity to Syria. That is, aside from claiming tens of thousands of lives, and scarring perhaps millions. If, on the other hand, the government is finally destroyed as so many propose, it could be far worse.

As they have for 23 months already, Syrians — men, women, and children — will have to pay the price for any wrong choice the “world community” makes. It remains to be seen how steep and sharp that cost will be, once the dust that used to be people settles.

Adam Larson is the Co-founder of the Citizen’s Investigation into War Crimes in Libya and a contributor to A Closer Look on Syria. Read other articles by Adam.