This report is the latest in our series on Syria.
Every week we have committed ourselves to dealing with media issues. Today we cover the Tremseh massacre. These findings are published in haste and we apologise for any errors (which we shall address once there has been sufficient time to prepare a more accurate report):
The Massacre in Tremseh
The Massacre that took place in Tremseh village yesterday morning (12 July 2012) was atrocious. Two issues need to be resolved. First, who was responsible and second the number that died. We will address this issue again once the dust has settled. But these are our preliminary findings. We have canvassed all sources available to us.
After talking to our best available sources, the NCF take on the Tremeseh killings is that the Syrian Government decided to undertake a surgical attack against a rebel stronghold. Syrian forces surrounded the village of Tremeseh (population 6,000) hemming in the Free Syrian Army forces in residence who had earlier attacked an army convoy. They (the Syrian Army) bombarded the village in preparation for an attack. This was a major defeat for the Free Syrian Army, a large number of whose fighters were killed or captured. During the process collateral damage was immense and a large number of civilians were killed. The much quoted figure of 200 plus dead may or may not be correct, but seems on the high side given the limited video evidence available (see links below which are all provided by the opposition but would actually accord with a civilian death toll of exactly fifty – the government figure). The number of FSA fighters killed is less clear. It is suggested that at least a third of the presumably larger number of total dead were FSA fighters (possibly more – according to some reports). The attack was ruthless. One of those captured was paraded on Syrian TV today. His face showed clear evidence of severe beating. He said, under coercion, that 200 armed FSA members had been cornered (but that figure is likely to be much exaggerated). Syrian TV said many had been captured (including one Turkish citizen) but failed to provide any evidence to support the claim.
The above information is from our own NCF sources. The following information is available on the web and has been garnered by the NCF Syria research team. We leave it to you to make your own mind up if you have the patience to read through all the following:
For several reasons it is still difficult to confirm exactly what happened in Tremseh, near Hama, yesterday morning. Firstly, given the short time that has elapsed since, it is difficult to gather information from a wide range of credible sources. Secondly, the UN and international media are finding it difficult to reach sources inside Tremseh as communication lines are down. Thirdly, there are no independent accounts as yet as the UN monitoring team has confined itself to Damascus, refusing to investigate in the absence of a local ceasefire.
From what we know so far, it seems that news agencies such as EA Worldview had “received reports, and posted videos, that [sic] a series of towns, Kornaz, Jalama, and Tremseh (from north to south) had been heavily shelled”. This occurred very early on Thursday morning around 6.00am local time.
EA Worldview report states that violent clashes were already present on the roads from Kafr Zita to Khan Sheikhoun, or further northwest in Qa'allat al Madiq. EA’s reports, “all from different sources, that three villages were heavily attacked on the same road, suggested to us that a fairly major military operation was occurring along that route. It was also interesting that so many buildings in all three villages were reportedly on fire, suggesting that there may have been similar shells used against all three areas.”
Accounts from separate activists started to emerge on Thursday morning. “At 6.00am on Thursday, a convoy of 25 vehicles carrying army and security forces, three armoured vehicles and five trucks mounted with artillery passed West through the town of Muharda and headed toward the village of Tremseh”, activists told Reuters.
The village was then blockaded from all sides, and helicopters overhead started shooting at houses arbitrarily. Simultaneously, the communication lines were cut. The Reuters report then quotes an opposition activist from Tremseh, "It appears that Alawite militiamen from surrounding villages descended on Tremseh after its rebel defenders pulled out, and started killing the people. Whole houses have been destroyed and burned from the shelling.”
Similarly, a local activist said: “a convoy of vehicles from Alawite villages had parked outside the village early Thursday, including five trucks filled with soldiers, and began shooting. They were backed by tanks along the village’s eastern edge. Pro-Assad militiamen known as shabiha deployed on the western edge of the village,” he said, and “fired at anyone or any car that tried to leave the village.”
There have also been separate reports of bodies being found in the Orontes River, corpses taken to mosques, and number of people detained. “Demonstrations in solidarity with al-Treimseh emerged in a number of neighbourhoods, including Shaikh Anbar, Bab Qebli, and Tareeq Halab, as well as the town of Kafarzeita.”
An activist, part of the Shams News network, told the AFP that most of the dead were fighters for the Free Syrian Army: “An army convoy was on its way to the region of Hama when it was attacked by the FSA," he said. "The army staged a counter-attack with the support of [pro-regime] reinforcements from [nearby] Alawite villages. The FSA resisted for an hour before it was defeated.”
Major General Mood, head of the UN monitors in Syria confirmed the presence of “mechanized units, indirect fire as well as helicopters”, which seems to collaborate activists’ accounts. It also contradicts Government accounts, with SANA reporting:
“The competent security units, in response to al-Treimseh inhabitants' pleas, clashed with the terrorists, inflicting huge losses upon them, capturing scores of them, confiscating their weapons, among which Israeli-made machineguns.”
The SANA report says that at least 50 people were killed by terrorists, much less than the figures of 220 being given by Hama Revolutionary Council and the Local Coordination Committee, or 160 by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The government has blamed the international media for fabricating numbers. The SANA article reports that three government army members were killed, however SANA has not published any videos or images to support the accounts.
There are also a few of videos that have been circulating today, in the Guardian and EA Worldview, which show a wounded man, and a row of 15 dead men. Another video shows 35 dead, wrapped in burial garments. Another, which may be of the same 35 dead, unwrapped, shows women and children, some burnt to death.
The BBC have compiled a timeline of their own.
ONE SIDE TO THE STORY: AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT
First it was Houla, then Al-Qubeir and now it is the turn to Tremseh (Hama) where some sources claimat least 200 people have been massacred by the Syrian forces. Most media have reported that early Thursday morning government forces entered the town committing one of the deadliest massacres so far since the uprising started. According to the Hama Revolutionary Council more than 220 people have been killed:
“The town of Tremseh was subjected to violent shelling by the Assad army since the early hours of the morning. A convoy composed of 25 cars filled with army personnel and security forces ...and a number of shabiha thugs from surrounding villages headed toward the town. They surrounded the village from all sides and prevented residents from leaving. The shelling lasted for about 5 continuous hours. Tens were killed as a result of the violent arbitrary shelling. Afterwards, shabiha thugs from surrounding pro-regime villages (al-Safsafah – Tal Sikeen – Aseela – Hanjoor) stormed the village and committed another horrific massacre. Those who survived the shelling were slaughtered.”
International media are relying on limited sources as journalists have restricted access to the area. Some local activists have reported that the attacks were especially heavy as the army targeted a mosque where people were taking refuge. Other witnesses described the scene as horrible and said that “there’s no one left in the town as most of them have been killed and a few escaped”. They claimed that “the army seemed to target those who tried to escape through the fields and so bodies can be found everywhere”.
We still have to wait to have a clearer picture of what has happened but the picture sounds familiar. Some claim that this is evidence of ethnic cleansing as Tremseh village, (as with Houla and al-Qubeir where massacres occurred in recent weeks) was majority Sunni Arab and surrounded by Alawitevillages. The preceding massacres followed a similar pattern. First the army surrounds the village,blocks all exits and bombards it. Then once the army has done its job the pro-government militia, Shabiha, come in and finish the job going house by house and killing entire families.
The Syrian opposition and the West have already reacted. The SNC has called on the UN Security Council to pass a “binding resolution” against Assad. They have asked the UN:
“To stop this bloody madness which threatens the entity of Syria, as well as peace and the security in the region and in the world, requires an urgent and sharp resolution of the Security Council under Chapter VII (of the U.N. Charter) which protects the Syrian people. We expect members of the Security Council to assume total responsibility to protect defenceless Syrians against these shameful crimes," said the SNC, which added that the latest killings ranked "among the more infamous genocides of the Syrian regime”.
The Muslim Brotherhood went further and blamed not only Assad for committing these atrocities against its own people but also Russia, Iran and Kofi Annan:
"The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria do not consider Bashar the Beast the only one responsible for this horrific massacre."Responsibility for this and for previous massacres also lies with Annan, with the Russians and the Iranians, and all those states which claim they are protecting peace and stability and yet stay silent and skulk away from taking any responsibility," the movement said.
Meanwhile Russia and the West are meeting at the Security Council in order to pass a resolution to deal with the conflict and decide whether to extend the observer mission. The West has strongly condemned the massacre and has clearly pointed the finger towards the Syrian government asking for binding measures under chapter 7.
William Hague said: “Everything we have seen of the Syrian regime's behaviour over the last seventeen months suggests that these reports are credible. They demand a united response from the international community. We have two urgent priorities – to establish an accurate account of what happened in Tremseh so that those responsible can and will be held to account; and to agree urgent action at the United Nations Security Council. To that end, the UN mission in Syria must be able to access Tremseh quickly and without hindrance so they can carry out an independent investigation into what has happened and who is responsible.”
Reports state that there is an ongoing military operation in Tremseh and other urban areas north of Hama city.
WHAT THE SYRIAN GOVERNMENT IS SAYING
There has as yet been no formal statement by the Syrian government, although The Syrian Arab News Agency is claiming that ‘armed terrorist groups’ are responsible for the killings. SANA claims that ‘according to eyewitnesses, terrorists ransacked, destroyed and burned scores of the village houses before the competent authorities arrived to the village.
RUSSIA AND CHINA
China has reacted to the Tremseh massacre by saying it would seriously consider the new UN draft resolution, after some claimed that more than 200 people were massacred in the village of Tremseh. The resolution would be compliant with a transition plan that had been previously drafted by Kofi Annan.
Russia, however, is still standing firmly by Assad’s side, and has stated after talks with Kofi Annan that they want the international world to work more closely with the opposition to stop the crisis. They blamed Kofi Annan and the UN for the failure to bring an end to the violence. Deputy foreign minister Gennady Gatilov said they did not “see any practical results from him and his team’s contact with the opposition”. Meanwhile, Interfax was more interested in the fact that the same Russian cargo ship that had tried and failed previously to carry attack helicopters to Syria (because of UK intervention), has left port again carrying the same cargo.
Russian news agencies such as The Voice of Russia have reported the same version of events at Tremseh as appeared on SANA, making no mention of the opposition’s take on events.
As the first reports of the massacre emerged, the UN were in talks to consider major sanctions against the Assad government in the event that Syria fails to comply with an updated version of the Annan peace plan. Once more, Russia threatened to veto the proposal. It is curious that these major massacres (e.g. Houla and Tremseh alike) occur on the eve of major UN Security Council discussions. One would think that the Syrian government had a deathwish (or were extraordinarily confident).
Kofi Annan has released statements confirming that the Syrian government had violated its commitment to the Annan peace plan by using heavy weapons in Tremseh, causing Annan to claim he is “shocked and appalled”. The UN confirmed that the heavy weapons used included tanks, artillery and helicopters.
Annan further stated that UN observers were ready to investigate the massacre in Tremseh, however General Robert Mood said that the investigation could only take place once a ceasefire had been agreed.
Whilst western governments put more pressure on the UN to end the violence, Annan issued a statement stating that it was urgent for the violence to end, and governments with influence should exert it more effectively to ensure an immediate end to the violence. Additionally, General Mood stated that the Unsmis needed effective leadership from the United Nations Security Council. However, the 300 observers stationed in Syria currently are not being allowed, although observers in Hama did verify fighting.
Much of the anger of Syrian protesters is now directed at Kofi Annan and the UN, at not having been able to broker an end to the violence. In Damascus slogans are being chanted “remove Annan, servant of Assad and Iran”.