The Houla Massacre and the Battle of Taldou

Part 1: The Digital Witnesses Have Their Say

The Golden Measure of Regime Massacres

In the 23 months since the start of the Syrian “Arab Spring” uprising, the charges of violent Syrian government repression of its own people have persisted and piled up. So too have credible claims the other way: car bombings, attacks on hospitals and TV stations, hostage-taking, mass executions, and more, have all emerged as crimes of the (partly foreign) Syrian opposition. Genocidal threats from the mostly-Sunni insurgents against the Alawi (Alawites – Bashar Al-Assad’s co-religionists), other Shi’ites, Christians, and others — and some delivery on those promises — have been accumulating for some time. So too have promises and implementation of Salafist Islamism grown in the rebellion’s wake. Their most effective force for change became and remains Jabhat Al-Nusrah, a direct offshoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Alleged government massacres — as sold by opposition activists and even rebel fighters — have continued to be denounced by the “world community.” However, over the last year they have increasingly been modified by outside media activists before being partially credited, passingly decried, and then shelved as increasingly “murky” and decreasingly urgent. The Tremseh massacre in July 2012 became a battle the rebels lost, most of the dead being their own. The enormous Daraya massacre, of at least 4-600 in August, was marred by accusations of mass hostage-taking (and killing) by rebels, as well as of padding the death toll with a much larger lost battle. Most recently, the story of a pro-government militia killing 106 at Al-Haswiyeh, Homs, on January 15, is questioned by locals who say Jabhat Al-Nusra killed at least 30, with many rebels dying in the following battle.

Most pointedly and far more one-sided was the alleged December 11 Aqrab massacre of up to 235 Alawi civilians. The rebel story of Alawi Shabiha militia killing their own human shields was proven to be a lie, and all now agree that rebel brigades in fact held those hostages. They last described them as killed, and have given no word or sign either way since then, and yet still they’ve avoided any overt censure for what fits at least a few definitions of genocide, even absent a massacre.

As for rebel-explained mass-killings, the golden days of disinformation were those following the May 25 massacre in Al-Houla, a cluster of three farming towns northwest of Homs. It was in the southern edge of the southernmost town of Taldou where a reported 108 people, 49 of them young children, were killed in often cruel ways. Rebels blamed army shelling, followed by home invasions by the Army and Shabiha from neighboring Alawi towns. The targets were all Sunni Muslims and killed mainly for that reason, it was said, in a genocidal gesture.

The government has of course always denied this, claiming the usual protection they offered was circumvented that day by a rebel (“terrorist”) attack. The alleged operation was planned in advance and was unprecedented in size, with an estimated 600-800 men from Taldou, from Kafr Laha and Tal Dahab (the other towns of Al-Houla), from nearby towns, and other nations. It’s said they hit different security posts in waves for the whole afternoon and evening, using truck-mounted heavy A-A guns, RPG launchers, and mortars, killing many soldiers.

It was after neutralizing the defenders that, Damascus said, the attackers turned, with swords and “sharp tools,” to their main targets. These were allegedly families that were Shi’ite and even Alawi, and those that were Sunni who remained loyal to the government. Whole families were liquidated, their homes and fields burnt.

That preposterous-sounding explanation was generally dismissed or called “another blatant lie.” The brutal Shabiha killings were widely decried, and most nations decided then to expel Syria’s ambassadors, as calls for the government to relent or surrender grew louder. It was a tipping point or turning point, depending, where it became clear “the wheels were coming off ” of Kofi Annan’s peace initiative.

Military and other aid to rebels increased, as did talk of direct intervention. That would become increasingly likely, said UK Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt, “if massacres like this are to continue.” A similar killing of 78 was reported at MazraatAl-Qubeir two weeks later, then Tremseh, Daraya, and the rest, with an increasing flow of smaller massacres between them coming on a near-daily basis. All along, the government blamed “terrorists,” and the opposition blamed Shabiha. All along, the world community was firm in its stated resolve to stop the people who would do something so horrible, and to hasten the return of peace and sanity to Syria.

Alleged Witness Conflict

What the world community thinks it knows about the events in Al-Houla comes from people claiming to be witnesses, and there is a set supporting each of the two main versions. The ones most will have heard about came through opposition channels. Activist-supplied eyewitnesses (a large roster) include the local activists themselves, FSA fighters, and alleged massacre survivors, mostly children and women.

Their stories are vague in spots and curiously precise in others, with the Shabiha explaining just what Alawite villages they came from, singing Alawite songs and speaking non-existent “Alawite accents.” They made sure to be seen stomping on the Qu’ran to prove that Alawites aren’t true Muslims. And, of course, they cruelly cut-down everyone except roughly one all-seeing survivor from each Sunni home.

Some of these supposed survivors contradict each other, and others contradict themselves. Consider widely-cited boy witness Ali Al-Sayed, who can’t remember what it was, beside the TVs and a computer, the Shabiha stole (it was either a vacuum cleaner or the washing machine). And he has given three different first names for his father — Ali, Aref, and Shaoqi (the middle one is the name of the man killed. Ali is probably not his son.

Those describing something more like the government’s version are also problematic. There are 15 known alleged witnesses to a rebel attack; a few are soldiers, but most are local civilians. The UN’s investigation looked at two of these, decided those were the only two, and found them “unreliable.” However, the given reasons have been studied and are poorly founded; their main weakness, really, was not agreeing with the rebel-supplied witnesses like Ali.

Nonetheless, these people’s accounts are vague, combining the little bit each of them saw and, mostly, what they heard, into disjointed strings of allegations with scant details that sometimes conflict. There are specifics they give but it would seem difficult to verify any of it.

Both sides absolve those they are loyal to and demonize the other side. But red flag that this is, whoever committed the Houla massacre is about as close to demonic as human beings can get. The “whoever” part is key, and the sheer gravity of this crime requires greater than usual patience with setting the blame. The rush to accuse the government while the story was hot and confused was not suited for the occasion. Neither side’s guilt has really been ruled out, and all these finger-pointing people should be considered as alleged witnesses, since it can’t be known for certain which of the two sets lied to us.

The Digital Witnesses

It’s long-past time for a third force in the witness battle – cameras, the digital witnesses – to publicly have their say. Video evidence is prone to shakiness and poor resolution, possibly to fakery and deceptive editing, as well as being misattributed to the wrong time or place. But with a bit of visual confirmation, these problems can be identified and neutralized, and the digital witnesses can show their strength – the lack of an agenda in passing on just what they saw, and letting us see as well.

The video record has been cited before by the media, but in a vague manner: passing on the rebel description of what it shows, describing the scene a little, and capping it with the claim that they can’t possibly confirm it. Further, almost everything cited is from after the key events, when all that can be seen are corpses in rebel possession. That fighters swiftly recovered the bodies and took them to their mosque in the north of Taldou is not contested, and it does only so much to prove what happened before the victims died. The shooting and shelling of May 25 is what set that up, and it’s on videos of that that we must focus.

To really tell what a video shows requires analysis, as carried out by the author and others at the wiki site A Closer Look on Syria (hereafter ACLOS). This includes deciding where in town a scene was filmed, by comparing footage to satellite maps. With a location, the time of day can be set fairly accurately by measuring sunlight angles and using a solar calculator. These timed and placed events are then considered in relation to the other known and reported details. This has been done for tens of videos, with the work gathered and shown on the page Houla, May 25: Who Was in Control?

The Video Record: General Patterns

Digital witnesses can only tell us anything when available. For the availability here, we have rebels and opposition to thank. The overall record from Taldou is mostly theirs, and for the events of May 25, we have exclusively their videos to call on.

One class of things we can learn from a broad study of rebel video offerings is what is missing from the record. They filmed themselves in action on May 25, but took no video whatsoever of the Army and Alawite invaders. The reader might take a moment to ponder the significance of that curious and rather massive blank spot.

Horizontal “shelling” damage along Main Street.

Horizontal “shelling” damage along Main Street.

The damage shown in support of the crucial government shelling is nearly all horizontal in nature, effecting the walls – and only a very few roofs – of buildings right along Main Street in particular. Strangely enough, much of the damage is to government security posts. Some of this might pre-date the massacre, but much of it seems to be from fighting on May 25. The holes seem more likely to have been punched by light weapons, from street-level and up-close, than by artillery shells lobbed from the ridge south of town as alleged.

The UN’s Commission of Inquiry (CoI), in its “oral update” report of June 26 (PDF link) noted “much of the damage appeared to be caused by mortars, including large caliber mortars, heavy machine guns or light artillery.” (emphasis added) Implicitly, none of it could be explained only by artillery, which the rebels lacked, while they had plenty of truck-based heavy guns and mortars of all calibers by then. Some of the damage also looks like the work of rockets or rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), which rebels also had no shortage of, thanks to Turkey, Rebel-held Libya, and others.

Neither are there are any great videos of the shelling occurring. Two of the best supposed scenes of it are discussed in part two (exhibits A and B). One of the videos could show government artillery hits, but it could also be rebel-fired RPGs, and the other is clear in showing nothing but a rebel firing RPGs.

This absence of direct evidence doesn’t mean there was no government shelling or Shabiha attack. Nor does it prove there was an FSA operation instead. It does, however, leave both of those distinct possibilities at the outset.

arabic_DVSyrian state TV on May 26 showed at least three massacred families left behind in Taldou. One family with young children was them gunned down while seated in their living room. On the bullet-pocked wall is scrawled an Arabic rebel slogan translating “from here on out, Free (Syrian) Army.” (see inset) This prima facie evidence for a rebel crime could, in fact, have been written by either side. So once again, nothing is proven.

Looking through the lens in such general terms, what we see is not remotely conclusive, but already intriguingly different from what rebels initially told the world, and what the “world community” has tried to continue believing.

What happens when we get more specific yet with the video record, as we will in part two, should be downright startling to most.

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.