Monday, June 25, 2012

Disinformation- The Houla Massacre

NCF daily Report on Syrian Issue – Disinformation – Report dated 24 June 2012 (evening)

This week we address the Houla massacre. Aeschylus, the Greek who wrote for the stage in 500BC, was the first to say that truth was the first casualty of war. Does it matter? We like our righteous indignation, especially when we unleash the dogs of war. We are entitled surely? Especially given the evident fact that Bashar al Assad is such a brutal man. You will remember that the massacre of around a hundred innocent civilians at Houla, many of whom were women and children, led to the international community expelling Syria’s Ambassadors across the globe and a step change in the race to arm the rebels.
Ten days after the mass killings, the German press announced that it was in fact the rebels that had committed the atrocity, and Alawites were the victims. Could this possibly be true? Had the world’s diplomatic community been hoodwinked by the insurgents?


We decided to take up the issue and see what we could do to get to the truth. The first thing we did was write to Dr Rainer Hermann, the respected Middle East Bureau Chief of The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (F.A.Z.) newspaper, the man that broke the curious story that there were Alawites amongst those who had been killedThe German text is at:
We questioned his version of events. He responded promptly and in detail, having just spent eight days in Syria.
Rainer explained he was sceptical that the truth on the massacre would become known. Rainer said that he believed that people were too frightened to talk – being afraid of retaliation either from the government or from the rebels. “If the UN-observers are not able to investigate (not even to “observe”), who else can?” he wrote. He added, “If I have to choose between protecting my sources and being considered reliable by you, I have to choose the first option.” Rainer, who studied in Damascus in the mid-eighties, explained that he had known his sources for many years, believed them to be credible, and they were from Houla. He explained that he “saw them in Damascus in a private house, not in the climate of fear in Houla. I find their account for credible, even if I acknowledge that a neutral investigation would be the only key to bring light in this massacre.” But, he explains, his questions remain. He asks: “Why were only two pro-regime families targeted and eliminated?” He also asks: “The massacre, cui bono (who benefits)?”

Looking at it from the Syrian Government angle:

The Syrian Government has shown little restraint in its acts of repression. The world media condemns it daily for atrocity on atrocity. Nobody would suggest that the Syrian Government has not undertaken some grossly questionable acts. However, nor is the opposition playing fair. Which begs the question, who was actually responsible for the Houla massacre on May 25th?
Two German newspapers, the Spiegel (online edition only) and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), released reports on May 28th and June 7th with regard to the Houla massacre. Whilst the UN and Western powers blame the Government for this event, these two newspapers blamed the Free Syrian Army.
According to the May 28th report by the Spiegel, snipers either from the Syrian army or the Shabiha opened fire on Sunni protesters after midday prayers. Following this event, the Free Syrian Army undertook a revenge mission against the Alawite minority in Houla and attacked military checkpoints in the area. The Syrian Army responded. After suffering from numerous casualties, the Free Syrian Army retreated and shelling from Government forces started around 11:30 pm.
According to the FAZ, the massacre started after midday prayers. Sunni militants attacked government checkpoints around Houla protecting the Alawite minority in the Houla area. After the massacre of Alawites, the rebels posted videos of the massacred saying they were Sunnis instead of Alawites. The rebels supposedly framed the Government by carrying out the massacre in their name.
We cast the net a little wider, consulting a key member of the Syrian opposition (but a man who favours peaceful process rather than armed insurrection). This man we regard as a reliable source, though he is from Derra, not Houla. He blames the Free Syrian Army for the massacre, describing them as “loose armed elements from the Syrian army”. He also accuses foreign fighters (from Lebanon, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia) who joined the opposition of taking part in missions with the Free Syrian army like the Houla massacre. “There is no way the Syrian army did it” he stresses, “in my hometown, members of the FSA (Free Syrian Army) have disguised themselves into Syrian soldiers (from the Syrian army) to frame the Government. I am not saying that the Government had nothing to do with the massacre. We cannot be sure of what happened before an investigation has taken place”. Our source, who, like almost all Syrians, once served in the Syrian army, also added “The mixture of sects in Houla is a prime cause of the massacre.
“With tensions rising in Syria and distribution of power in the future unknown to date, religious and ethnic groups are battling for survival. It is not in the Government’s plan to massacre children and their mothers. The rebels are trying to make the Government look like a murderous administration. The rebels act as ‘agent provocateur’. They are the ones cooking up a sectarian conflict in Syria”.
To suggest that the FSA, or a faction of the FSA, dressed up as Syrian soldiers, seems farfetched in the extreme. There is one disturbing report in support of this perspective byAbbie Fielding-Smith in the Washington Post. She uses reports that the killers were irregular troops or shabiha rather than regular army troops because though some had army uniform, they did not have army boots but instead wore white trainers. If actually true this would be a deeply disturbing report because the more obvious conclusion is not the one Abbie draws.

An Anti-Government Perspective on Houla massacre:

On 25 May the Houla region near Homs suffered one of the worst massacres since the Syrian uprising started last year. UN observes confirmed that 108 people were killed, most of them women and children.
“Some had been killed by shell fire, but the majority had been shot at point-blank range or stabbed.”
The United Nations has condemned the "indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force", but says that "the circumstances that led to these tragic killings are still unclear".

However numerous accounts from eye witnesses, survivors, human rights activists, journalists and the UN's high commissioner for human rights point the finger towards the Government and the shabiha. It seems that the government started the shelling of the town and the militiamen carried on with the killing house-by-house. While the UN Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) remains cautious, it is definitely suspicious of the government and has stated that “these massacres underscore the Syrian Government’s manifest failure to protect its population”.

On the 1st of June the UN Human Rights Council called for “a special inquiry” into the massacre and asked the Commission to identify whenever possible those responsible for the atrocities. A report should be published at its next session which will take place from 18 June to 6 July. However, remember:
  • Firstly, the fact that the Syrian Government has a proven track record of human rights abuses and killing.
  • Secondly, so far the UNSMIS observers have been prevented from accessing the areas where the killings had taken place. It is suspicious that the UN observers have been prevented from accessing troubled areas and have even been attacked. Why would rebels shoot UN convoys when all they want is enhanced UN presence in conflict areas?
For UK’s Foreign Minister, William Hague, it is clear who is behind these atrocities and he has publicly said that he would like to see President Assad appear at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over the Houla massacre. He also stated on 1 June that there is “evidence from the UNSMIS and independent witnesses that security forces shelled the village of Houla and that government militia then went house to house slaughtering entire families without compassion or mercy”.  See also his Sky interview on 10 June

and in Parliament on 11 June

Another perspective:

All clear so far? Clear as mud probably. We decided to consult journalists we respect on the ground. We contacted a couple of them, currently in Beirut, who spend much of their time in provincial Syria. We were particularly interested in hearing what they had to say but they wished to remain anonymous (to be fair that’s largely because they have to retain a reputation for impartiality given they have to travel in Syria). According to these journalists, it is very difficult to verify information on the ground; however there are things that seemed pretty clear to them in the case of Houla. They were completely sure that it was not the rebels who committed the massacre as they thought that it was a far too complicated cover-up for the rebels. It was clear that the families targeted were not predominantly Alawite” as we are talking about a region where over 90% of the population are Sunni. When asked if they would blame the security forces they were not so sure. They would not openly blame the government as they believe that sectarian hatred is growing so much everyday that people from enemy sects are just taking revenge upon each other. Many Alawite would have come from neighbouring villages and participated in the violence. They are not denying that the government could have had something to do with it, but they said that it is not the main/direct party responsible for the massacre.

Der Spiegel’s perspective:

The story as carried in Der Spiegel was interesting. There was a different angle. Plus Der Spiegel carried two contradictory pieces, one blaming the rebels (the online edition) and the other blaming the government (the print edition some days later which criticised FAZ but incredibly did not criticise or even mention the story in its own online edition which it was contradicting). We decided to contact Der Spiegel in Germany. Not easy because Der Spiegel puts no contact details on its website. We got help from an intern’s Mum who knew a journalist who knew a journalist who knew a journalist. We got a detailed reply from Der Spiegel in defence of its print edition coverage. But alas, when asked whether we could include their reply in our report they refused. In their defence this response is commonplace. Most journalists, though happy to quote others, are reluctant to be quoted. In regard to this investigation by the NCF three of the four key journalists best placed to know what was going on have refused to be quoted though they are happy to comment at very great length off the record. We fully understand to be honest – we put them in a very difficult position as often their employers call them to task if they comment.

NCF Note – A Syrian Christian nun often features in pro-government reports on this matter because she lives close to Homs (near where these events have taken place). Perhaps a little unfairly, she is often used to discredit a viewpoint (if the nun says it’s true it must be false is the line). In her blog she supports (but is not quoted in) the Der Spiegel online version. She is certainly not a main source for the FAZ work, but for your information, the reference is to Mother Agnès-Mariam of the Cross, Mother Superior of a Syrian convent. Here is an example of Mother Agnès-Mariam’s evidence in a clip of a Sky interview at


To assess what actually happened in the absence of an investigation is difficult.  And even were there to be an investigation, in the current climate of fear it is near impossible to be sure all the witnesses would come forward.

However, we have included a selection of sources in our appendix which follows. The truth, the NCF thinks, is that all the accounts are correct in part, including the German anecdotes.  At the NCF we think that the chain of events may, sadly, have been something like the following (or a variation on this theme but we think this is basically correct):
1.      There were demonstrations after Friday prayers in predominantly Sunni Houla (the town is actually a collection of four predominantly Sunni villages, surrounded by three Alawite villages and a Shiite settlement).  The demonstrations both annoyed and frightened the predominantly Alawite local secret service, who fired into the crowd, killing some of the demonstrators. (this point is uncontested and agreed by most commentators)
2.      The local FSA attacked all government checkpoints in and around the village in revenge - killing all of the Alawites manning the checkpoints. (this point is uncontested and agreed by most commentators)
3.      The Syrian Army started an extended bombardment of Houla to regain control killing a number of people in the process. (witnesses all agree this happened but place it at differing points in the timeline)
4.      Men who were presumably Alawite villagers who had lost family members (and may by some accounts have come from a small Alawite hilltop village called Fula) attacked the large village (or small town) of Taldou to the South of Houla (Taldou had not been subject to bombardment). They were supported by a group of men who arrived in cars and were dressed in army uniform but also wore “white trainers” – so were not regular soldiers but could have been “shabiha” (or there may be other implications of a more sinister nature. This very disturbing detail would be important in any subsequent enquiry. A difficult judgement call is required with regard to this issue. On balance, we at the NCF believe the reports that the men were indeed shabiha). They gunned down the Abdel Razeq family (originally erroneously reported to be the extended family of the local FSA commander – a key question for any investigation will be why this family was singled out). They were slaughtered in their homes, killing around sixty in this one atrocity. Several men fled from Taldo when they saw the “army” and the Shabiha approaching, leaving women and children behind (which is why so many of them were killed and so few men)
5.      Local FSA soldiers took the town (or village – Houla could be described as a small town or a large village or collection of villages), presumably to protect their people
6.      Local FSA soldiers or sympathisers (it is hard to be sure which) killed at least one and almost certainly two pro government families in vengeance. These are numbered amongst the 100 plus killed in the slaughter that weekend (there is confusion about the location of these killings in the small cluster of villages around Houla. There is some suggestion that one family may have been killed in the Alawite village called Shomariya nearby).
As the civil war in Syria grows increasingly sectarian, atrocities like the above are increasingly inevitable. We have no reason to doubt the sources of Dr Rainer Hermann, an incredibly diligent mid east hack. Nor do we doubt the word of experienced hands like many of the British journalists who have covered this story. There is a real possibility that the truth lies in an amalgam of both accounts which amount to differing perspectives of the same event. Indeed this is no contrivance, and this is the line we have taken in our own analysis above.

Appendix – Background information

The Houla massacre occurred on the 25th of May 2012, in the town / village of Taldou located in the province of Homs. There are several opposing views on the crisis:


Activist view and The Guardian:
Activists, human rights groups and members of the UN such as the high commissioner for human rights state that the Syrian army and the Shabiha are to blame.
Named activist in the Homs area, also a member of the LCC: Salim Qabbani declares it was the Shabiha, as quoted in the New York Times.
There is speculation that the militia came from the Alawite villages that surround the largely Sunni town of Taldou.

Government view :
The government on the other hand cast aside all blame, stating that their soldiers were attacked, and armed terrorists were to blame from the opposition. This is supported by the German paper: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The FAZ sources said the massacre had been committed by the Free Syrian Army, claims backed up by reports from eyewitnesses given to the author (Rainer Hermann) by oppositionists who had visited the Houla region.

Reports provided by Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
According to some eyewitnesses, the Sunni rebels who had committed the massacre filmed the victims directly afterwards, distributing the videos on the internet claiming the massacred to have been Sunni victims.

Reports provided in the Washington post:
According to some eyewitnesses, members of the village Taldou and a ten year old boy, the culprits of the point blank slaughter were definitely the Shabihah as they wore white running shoes, which were too expensive to be owned by the poorer rebel fighters. Analysts have backed up these claims as has Human Rights Watch (NCF note – these claims are important. Of course the trainers do not identify the killers as Shabiha - anyone who knows the region knows that white trainers are not the exclusive prerogative of the rich in the Levant – but it identifies them as NOT being regular army even though they wore army uniforms).


Activist view:
Activists, survivors, international journalists and human rights organizations state that the massacre began with army shelling of the town and ended with point blank executions of people in their homes. According to reports, the attack began with tank fire and then mortars, which tallies with the UN discovery of tank and mortar shells in the area. Furthermore, the UN supervisor to Syria General Robert Mood reported ‘multiple’ Syrian military tanks in the area.
Some reports suggest the opposition fighters then counter attacked the army

Government view:
The government issued a statement through Jihad Makdissi claiming that the opposition sent hundreds of gunmen to attack the Syrian army with mortar and anti tank missiles, resulting in three deaths on the Syrian army side. He further stated that the army did not send tanks into Taldou, claiming they only remained in a defensive position. All civilian deaths, he declared to be a result of ‘terrorists’ going from house to house killing men, women and children.

Other diplomatic sources views:
Diplomatic sources, contrary to earlier reports state that people were killed from the spraying of bullets through the walls, rather than point blank executions, as commonly believed. Furthermore, the sources have told the BBC that no throats were slit.

Russian view:
The Russian perspective on the massacre is that the Syrian army began with the shelling of the village, but that the opposition forces then went in and killed the villagers from the ground.

Reports provided in  Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung:
According to reports provided in the German newspaper  Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the massacre began after midday prayers, caused by Sunni rebels attacking the Alawite checkpoints designed to keep the surrounding Alawite villages safe from the largely Sunni Houla population.
The German newspaper declares the fighting went on for 90 minutes, ratcheted up by Syrian army reinforcements.

Reports provided in Der Spiegel:
Another German newspaper, Der Spiegel reports from eyewitness accounts that snipers opened fire on Sunni protesters in Houla, upon which members of the FSA (who had occupied the region), began to commit revenge killings.
The FSA fighters attacked all regime checkpoints in the area, and suffered many casualties before retreating (apparently a tactical error). After leaving the village unprotected, the Syrian army began its bombardment of the village at roughly 11.30pm, contrary to reports provided by the UN and other human rights organizations. According to eyewitnesses (which Der Spiegel claim may not be accurate), most of the killings occurred during the Syrian military bombardment of the region.
This version of events is contradicted by a later article published in Der Spiegel, that takes the view of eyewitness reports, and states that Sunni rebels did not kill their own people, going against what was said in the FZA.  

Reports provided in the Guardian:
Reports provided in the Guardian support the activist view, and name witnesses. They state that the shelling started at 1.15pm, before residents could start their protests. The shellings are supposed to have lasted around 3-4 hours. Apparently, the civilians, who were used to such attacks, sensed something accelerated about the force of the shelling, which alerted them of the events that were to follow.
Syrian armed forces (a mix of Shabiha and the Syrian military) were waiting to the southwest of the town. The security force members went into houses in the Sunni villages of Taldou shooting fathers in front of their children, and shouting phrases that aligned them with the “Shia and Alawite” sects of Islam.
Members of the Abdul Razziq family were slaughtered, his extended family making up more than 60 victims of the killings. This is allegedly confirmed by a ten year old member of the Razziq family, who survived.
After this slaughter most of the Shabiha returned to the Alawite villages of Foulah and Qabou, however a small number of them remained in the Sunni sectors of the region, looking for members of the Sayed family. The Sayed family were linked to the regime, but according to nurses treating the wounded, were targeted to frame the rebels and make the massacre look like it was the fault of the Sunni rebels.


All parties agree that mostly women and children were slaughtered
The main view given by activists, members of the UN and alleged eyewitnesses is that the large portion of those executed were members of the Sunni majority. (Activists, statements by the UN and eyewitness accounts)
Many of those killed are considered to be part of the extended family of Abdul Razak, minister of higher education.  Sources provided by a member of the family and eyewitness reports
According to some oppositionists, as sourced by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, most of those slaughtered belonged to the Alawite and Shia minorities who were passed off as Sunni by the rebel militia.  (Eyewitness accounts)

TIMELINE OF EVENTS (APPROXIMATION) sourced from a UN, alleged eyewitness and activist perspective
13.00 local time – Eyewitness reports state that just after midday prayers Syrian soldiers fired on a protest in Taldou
13.00 - approx 15.00 - Sustained shelling of Taldou by the Syrian army
16.00 - 01.00 - Shabiha massacre of villagers targeted at point blank range.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS (APPROXIMATION) sourced from a Syrian government, alleged eyewitness and oppositionist perspective found in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
12.00 - 13.00 local time- Members of the FSA attacked three Syrian army checkpoints around Houla. Syrian army reinforcements were sent to combat the rebels.
13.00 - 14.30 – Fighting continued between rebels and the Syrian army.
14.30 - ?  Rebels pass off the slaughter as the work of the Syrian army, claiming the victims to be Sunni.

TIMELINE OF EVENTS (APPROXIMATION) sourced from alleged eyewitness reports as provided by Der Speigel
13.00 local time - Government snipers shoot at protesters in Houla
14.00-23.00 - Attacks by the FSA on Syrian army, Alewites and Shiites
23.30 - Syrian army bombardment of Taldou

Der Spiegel article:
UN, activist, diplomatic, humanitarian organizations point of view:
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sources:
Washington Post:
The Guardian:
If you have a media issue you in regard to coverage of Syria you wish us to investigate, please do not hesitate to let us know and we will do our best to get back to you on the matter.

4 comments: said...


masterpapers said...


Caustic Logic said...

I had never seen this interesting report, and also had missed that strange early Spiegel report. Thanks. If you're still following, 2.5 years on ... some points:
1) I think you have Hermann's report wrong - he heard a mix of Sunni loyalists, Sunnis who converted to Sji'ism, and Alawites were killed. The Alawites part is the mix-up - family Shomaliya was actually village Shumariyeh, way south, hit the same day by other rebels from Qusayr. Syria reported 10 Alawite victims there, not part of the Houla Massacre. The all-Alawite-victims aspect was never really alleged (straw man, if accidental) and the victims were Sunnis and allegedly former Sunnis(Abdulrazaq) Also almost all civilian deaths, even from "shelling" are from people intermarried with the Abdulrazaqs. Odd, huh?
2) The best investigation available is largely done - all available evidence, especially video, correlated. A Closer Look On Syria, and especially the report "The Battle for the Houla Massacre" that lays out the video evidence that the rebel victory version is the true one (and contains most updated relation of the best of the rest of the evidence).
- Adam/Caustic

Caustic Logic said...

Also, the Abdul Razaq - minister of higher education thing is new to me. What's that based on?