Today the U.N. claims that “5000 people a month” are dying in Syria. As I have before, I have to demonstrate why I find this claim utterly non-credible. 5000/month would be 167 every single day. Now we don’t know what the standard deviation might be, but we have to assume it would be reasonably large, which would mean that some days would be much lower, while on other days, we could easily expect 300 or more to be killed in a single day, if the 5000/month were to be believable.
So let’s look at a report from today, when major battles are being reported. Looking through the article, we find (claims of) six mediators shot in Homs, eight Nusra front militants killed by Kurds, nine people killed at a checkpoint, and “several” regime fighters killed. All in all fewer than 30 were reported killed on a day when major battles are being fought. Is it remotely credible that an average of 167 are being killed every single day? Just yesterday we read about 40 people being killed in a single bombing in Iraq; when is the last time we read about an event in Syria which killed even that many people? And when was the last time we read about a day when more than 200 people died in Syria in just a single day? For my part, the answer would be: never.
I don’t know what the statistics are, and I’ll also state clearly that they make no difference whatsoever to my stand, which is: Hands off Syria! No U.S. intervention in Syria. However, because these numbers are being used (and, in my opinion, “ginned up”) to justify ever-increasing intervention in Syria, it is important to understand them, and rebut them, if they are false. Which, in my opinion, is without question.
- Kurdish leader says Syria Kurds not after forming own government (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Syrian Kurds to declare autonomy from Damascus (timesofisrael.com)
The new head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said he expected advanced weapons supplied by Saudi Arabia to reach militant mercenaries soon, strengthening their currently weak military position.
Ahmad Jarba, who has close links to Saudi Arabia, told Reuters in his first interview since being elected president of the coalition on Saturday that the opposition would not go to a proposed peace conference in Geneva sponsored by the United States and Russia unless its military position improves.
“Geneva in these circumstances is not possible. If we are going to go to Geneva we have to be strong on the ground, unlike the situation now, which is weak,” Jarba said on Sunday after returning from the northern Syrian province of Idlib, where he met commanders of insurgents’ brigades.
Asked if shoulder-fired weapons that could blunt President Bashar al-Assad’s massive advantage in armor and air power would reach the militant groups after Saudi Arabia took a lead role in supporting the opposition in recent weeks, Jarba said: “We are pushing in this direction.”
“I think the situation is better than before. I think these weapons will arrive in Syria soon,” he stated.
“We are working on getting advanced and medium-range weapons to the Free Syrian army and the liberated areas,” he added referring to the regions occupied by the armed opposition groups of foreign mercenaries fighting the Syrian government and people.
Jarba offered Assad’s forces a truce for the duration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on Tuesday, to stop fighting in the city of Homs, where armed gangs face a ferocious ground and air onslaught by the Syrian army. There has been no indication that the government is ready to accept such a truce, probable to fears of more military support the opposition might receive from foreign actors.
Homs, 140 km (90 miles) north of Damascus, is situated at a strategic crossing linking the capital with army bases in coastal. The city also links Damascus and the coast with neighboring Lebanon.
“We are staring at a real humanitarian disaster in Homs. Assad, whose military machine was on the verge of defeat, has been propped up by Iran and its Hezbollah proxy,” Jarba said, denying all the massacres committed by his militant groups against the people of Aleppo, Homs, Idlib, Hama, Latakia and Deir Ezzor.
“I will not rest until I procure the advanced weapons needed to hit back at Assad and his allies. … I give myself one month to achieve what I am intent on doing,” Jarba said in an implicit hint at his intend to arm the opposition groups during month of Ramadan and exploit any possible truce period.
Jarba was speaking in Istanbul after a meeting of the so-called Syrian National Coalition, which has little physical presence in Syria and little influence over al-Nusra Front militant brigades that play a major role in the fight against President Assad’s forces.
As the battle for Qusayr winds down, regime forces are preparing to wrest Aleppo from the Syrian opposition, which overran the city last July.
According to Syrian security sources, the Syrian army has begun building up its forces in several areas in preparation to storm opposition-controlled Aleppo. The sources explained that they are in the process of surrounding the city in order to cut off the oppositions supply lines.
If it were to succeed, then the regime would have managed to regain two of Syria’s most important governorates: Homs and Aleppo.
Homs was the “capital of the Syrian revolution,” until government troops retook the city. Ten months have passed since opposition fighters managed to flood Aleppo by the thousands, surprising both the regime and the city’s residents. The city had remained solidly in the loyalist camp for more than a year into the Syrian crisis and no one expected it to fall into the hands of the opposition so quickly and easily.
Government sources attributed the fall of Aleppo to the collusion of Mohammed Mufleh, the former chief of Syrian Military Intelligence in Hama, with the opposition’s Tawhid Brigade. According to military sources, Mufleh was paid a large sum of money to facilitate the passage of thousands of opposition fighters into the city.
Military sources maintained that the Aleppans were not particularly welcoming of the opposition, which committed massacres against whole loyalist families, like the Bazzi clan. The same sources estimated the number of fighters in the city may have now reached 20,000.
Mufleh’s defection and the role he played in Aleppo is old news by now. What has not been known until now, however, is his relationship to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tawhid Brigade, particularly in its initial phases.
Reports suggested that the intelligence chief – before announcing his defection – was in cahoots with Tawhid as it tried to establish its hold in the areas of Aleppo and Idlib.
The relationship reached a point in which Mufleh was prepared to hand over all the weapons at his disposal to the brigade. Tawhid waged a series of successful side battles with other armed groups, accusing them of working for the regime.
After Mufleh’s defection, contacts between Tawhid and commanders loyal to him continued. The breaking point, however, came when these commanders requested that Tawhid “lay down its weapons and declare that it will enter into negotiations with the regime,” only to discover that the opposition brigade had opened up new channels with Turkey and Qatar, before finally announcing its loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood.
- Syria: Border Clashes Pit FSA Against Kurds (alethonews.wordpress.com)
- Have Washington and Tel Aviv Miscalculated Events in al-Qusayr (alethonews.wordpress.com)
Homs Province, Syria – During a tour of some of the neighborhoods in Homs, Syria’s third largest city after Aleppo and Damascus, with a pre-conflict population of approximately 800,000 (nearly half Homs residents have fled over the past two years) located maybe about 22 miles NE of the current hot-spot of al-Qusayr, this observer engaged in a few interesting conversations. More accurately labeled diatribes–with some long bearded Sunni fundamentalists who claimed they came from Jabhat al Nusra, aka Jabhat an-Nuṣrah li-Ahl ash-Shām, “Front of Defense for the People of Greater Syria”), and were preparing to return to al Qusayr to fight “the deniers of Allah”!
It is the strategic crossroads town of al-Qusayr, and its environs, which whoever controls, can block supplies and reinforcements to and from Damascus and locations north and east. For those seeking the ouster of Syria’s government, including NATO countries led by Washington, were their “allies” to lose control of al-Qusayr it would mean the cutting off of supplies from along the Lebanese border, from which most of the local opposition’s weapons flow and fighters have been smuggled over the past 26 months. If the Assad regime forces regain control of the city, Washington believes they will move north and conquer current opposition positions in Homs and Rastan, both areas being dependent on support from Lebanon and al-Qusayr. Some analysts are saying this morning, with perhaps a bit of hyperbole that as al-Qusayr goes so goes Syria and the National Lebanese Resistance, led by Hezbollah.
If government forces can retake the city it will put an end to the Saudi-Qatari green light, in exchange for controlling al-Qusayr, of the setting up of a Salafist emirate in the area which would constitute a threat to the nearly two dozen Shia Lebanese inhabited villages of the Hermel region. If the Syrian army re-takes al-Qusayr, it would also avoid the likelihood of a full-fledged sectarian war on both sides of the border.
Meeting with a few self-proclaimed al Nusra Front militiaman last week, in Homs, one who spoke excellent British English, they had plenty to say to this observer about current events in al Qusayr to which they planned to return the next day to fight enemies “by all means Allah gives us”. One added, when asked if they had confronted Hezbollah: “Of course but Hezbollah can’t defeat us. Eventually they will withdraw from Syria on orders from Tehran. But first enshallah we will bleed Hezbollah with thousands of cut throats”, he boasted raucously as nearby kids cheered and gave V for victory signs, smiles, giggles and cackling all around.
Such Jihadist rants are music to more than a few US congressional and White House ears these days, as once more in this region, a major US-Israeli carefully calibrated regime change project, appears to be falling short.
This week, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted overwhelmingly to arm elements of the Syrian opposition with a recommendation to “provide defense articles, defense services, and military training” directly to the opposition throughout Syria, who naturally, will “have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States”. History teaches that the vetting part would not happen if the scheme is implemented, despite only a few in Congress objecting.
Perhaps lacking some of his father Ron Paul’s insights into US hegemonic plans for this region, Senator Rand Paul did object to the measure and he fumed at his colleagues: “This is an important moment. You will be funding, today, the allies of al Qaeda. It’s an irony you cannot overcome.”
According to the Hill Rag weekly, veteran war-hawks Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, flashed a knowing smile but gave no rebuttal, perhaps realizing that Senator Paul is a bit untutored on the reality of current Obama Administration policy in Syria generally, and for al-Qusayr, in particular.
Contrary to the shock and anger expressed by Senator Paul, American policy in Syria is to de facto assist allies of al Qaeda including the US “Terrorist-listed” Al-Nusra Front as well as anti-Iran, anti-Shia and anti-Hezbollah groups gathering near al-Qusayr. These groups currently include, but are not limited to, Ahl al-Athr Brigade, Ahrar al-Sham, Basha’ir al-Nasr Brigades, Commandos Brigades, Fajr al-Islam Brigades, Independent Farouq Brigades, Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade, Liwa al-Haq, Liwa al-Sadiq, Al-Nour Brigade, Al-Qusayr Brigade, Suqur al-Fatah, Al-Wadi Brigades, Al-Waleed Brigades and the 77th Brigade among the scores of other Jihadist cells currently operating in, near, or rushing to, al-Qusayr.
Their victory according to US Senate sources would be a severe blow and challenge to Iran’s rising influence in the region and Iran’s leadership of the increasing regional and global resistance to the Zionist occupiers of Palestine in favor of the full right to return of every ethnically cleansed Palestinian refugee.
While Congress was considering what else to do to help the “rebels”, on 5/22/13, no fewer than 11 so-called “World powers” foreign ministers, including Turkey and Jordan, met in Amman to condemn, with straight faces, even, tongues in cheek, the “flagrant intervention” in Syria by Hezbollah and Iranian fighters.” They urged their immediate withdrawal from the war-torn country. In a joint statement, the “Friends of Syria” group called “for the immediate withdrawal of Hezbollah and Iranian fighters, and other regime allied foreign fighters from Syrian territory.”
Not one peep of course, about the Salafist-Jihadist-Takfuri fighters from more than 30 countries now ravaging Syria’s population. The truth of the matter is that the governments represented by their foreign ministers this week in Amman, will follow the US lead which means they will assist, despite some cautionary public words, virtually any ally of al-Qaeda whose fighting in Syria may be seen as weakening the Assad government and its supporters in Iran and Lebanon.
According to one long-term Congressional aid to a prominent Democratic Senator from the West Coast, while the Amman gathering described Hezbollah’s armed presence in Syria as “a threat to regional stability”, the White House could not be more pleased that Hezbollah is in al-Qusayr. When pressed via email for elaboration, the Middle East specialist offered the view that the White House agrees with Israel that al-Qusayr may become Hezbollah’s Dien Bein Phu and the Syrian conflict could well turn into Iran’s “Vietnam”. “Quite a few folks around here (Capitol Hill) think al-Qusayr will remove Hezbollah from the list of current threats to Israel. And the longer they keep themselves bogged down in quick-sand over there the better for Washington and Tel Aviv. Hopefully they will remain in al-Qusayr for a long hot summer and gut their ranks in South Lebanon via battle field attrition and Israel can make its move and administer a coup de grace.”
The staffer followed up with another email with only one short sentence and a smiley:
“Of course the White House and its concrete wall-solid ally might be wrong!”
The dangers for Hezbollah are obvious – that it may be drawn ever deeper into a bottomless pit of conflict in Syria that could leave it severely depleted and prey to a hoped for death-blow from Israel.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and other party officials have dismissed that possibility.
The next few weeks may tell.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and can be reached c/o firstname.lastname@example.org
Manufacturing Dissent is a documentary about the psychological-warfare by the media and political establishment of the west and their allies aimed at facilitating the US, European and Israeli agenda of getting rid of the current Syrian government. It demonstrates how the media has directly contributed to the bloodshed in Syria.
The documentary de-constructs the main allegations those actors have presented, namely that the Syrian government was systematically repressing peaceful protests and that it has lost legitimacy. It shows how such claims are supported by scant evidence and are therefore little more than propaganda to serve the foreign policy interests of their countries.
Manufacturing Dissent includes evidence of fake reports broadcasted/published by the likes of CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera and others and interviews with a cross section of the Syrian population including an actor, a craftsman, a journalist, a resident from Homs and an activist who have all been affected by the crisis.
Produced by journalists Lizzie Phelan and Mostafa Afzalzadeh.
Edited by Lizzie Phelan.
Website for the documentary here http://www.manufacturing-dissent.com/ designed by Shahinaz Alsibahie.
- Israeli Media reports “Syrian Rebels Claim to Take Over Chemical Weapons” (pennyforyourthoughts2.blogspot.com)
- “Progressive” War Propaganda: Deception with a Human Face (vaticproject.blogspot.com)
French journalist Gilles Jacquier, who lost his life in central Syria earlier this year, was killed by the Syrian opposition’s mortar fire, a report says.
“This investigation was carried out by French intelligence and based on a ballistic study carried out in the area. According to my contact, the mortar fire came from the Sunni rebel zone,” wrote Georges Malbrunot, a member of the editorial board of Le Figero, in the French newspaper.
This is while Western reports have put the blame on Damascus, saying Jacquier was killed by a Syrian army shell.
On January 11, Jacquier, 43, was killed in the central Syrian city of Homs.
The Western journalists were on a government-authorized trip to the city at the time of the attack.
Gilles Jacquier, working for France 2 TV, was the first Western reporter to die since the beginning of the unrest in Syria in mid-March 2011. He had covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo.
The Syrian government had previously blamed armed groups for the attack.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since mid-March 2011. Many people, including large numbers of security forces, have been killed in the turmoil.
While the West and the Syrian opposition accuse the government of killing protesters, Damascus blames ”outlaws, saboteurs and armed terrorist groups” for the unrest, insisting that it is being orchestrated from abroad.
- Opposition offensive on Damascus a lie – Syrian gov’t (english.ruvr.ru)
- French Foreign Minister Accused of Falsifying Reports on Syria “To Provoke a War” (theuglytruth.wordpress.com)
There are reports that “Syrian Helicopters have fired on rebel strongholds“
The news preceding that was the “US fears another massacre“
Addressing the first linked story. Where is the information coming from? The articles claim the information comes from the UN monitors. But, is it? Or are the UN monitors getting information from the rebels?
U.N. monitors say the Syrian government is using helicopters for air attacks against rebel strongholds, and there are fears that many civilians are trapped in besieged cities.
Exactly where the news is originating from is not being mentioned. Or intentionally omitted?
The use of helicopters gives NATO the justification to launch airstrikes.
The second linked story- Fears another massacre. In conjunction with news of helicopters being used feels a lot like were being prepped for a false flag to justify intervention
“Mr Hague said that Britain was (HAD?) training activists who were monitoring and recording atrocities, including that in Houla last month in which 108 men, women and children were killed.
Was training or had trained activists to monitor and record?? Or create and video?
Mr Hague, does not rule out intervention. Of course.
From Gulf News
Beirut: Six Syrian soldiers were killed and another 26 were buried with official ceremonies, as attacks by rebels across the country increased the pressure on President Bashar Al Assad’s army.
The soldiers died in Deir Al Zor in the country’s eastern oil-producing region, and rebel fighters also attacked a checkpoint in the village of Qusair in Homs, causing several casualties, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in an e-mailed statement on Monday. Four security personnel died when an explosive device hit their vehicle in Idlib in the north, while army helicopters attacked rebels in the city of Al Rastan, the group said.
So, it is the Syrian Human Rights group reporting the helicopter attacks… via e-mail?
“The government is using helicopters more often now because of major losses to its tanks,” Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a phone interview from the UK on Monday.
UN Monitors Continue Mission
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday condemned the terrorist bomb attacks in two Syrian cities but said UN observers had brought some improvement in areas where they have been deployed.
The UN chief called on “all parties” in the Syria conflict to halt violence and work with the growing UN Supervision Mission in Syria, UN deputy spokesperson Eduardo del Buey said in a statement.
Ban “condemns” what he called “terrorist bomb attacks” in Idlib and Damascus on Monday, the spokesperson said.
“While noting improvements in areas where UN monitors are deployed, the secretary general remains gravely concerned by reports of continued violence, killing and abuses in Syria in recent days.”
“He calls for armed violence in all its forms by all parties to cease immediately and full cooperation of all parties with the work of UNSMIS as it expands its presence on the ground,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
The UN monitors are scheduled to visit the western cities of Homs and Hama on Tuesday.
The latest UN schedule comes a day after at least 20 people were martyred and scores of others injured in two bomb attacks in Idlib.
Syria’s information minister has blamed “terrorist gangs” for the massacre in the central city of Homs, describing the killings as part of plans to increase international pressure on the Damascus government.
Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said on Monday that terrorist groups carried out the massacre in the Karm el-Zaytoun neighborhood of Homs to tarnish the image of the Syrian government.
“Terrorist gangs carried out the most horrible massacre in the Karm el-Zaytoun neighborhood of Homs … in order to incite international reaction against Syria,” Adnan Mahmoud told AFP news agency.
The Syrian minister also accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting “armed terrorist gangs” operating in Syria and hold them responsible for the killings in the country.
“Some of the countries backing armed terrorist gangs, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are accomplices to the terrorism targeting the Syrian people… and bear responsibility for the bloodletting,” Mahmoud said.
At least 45 people, including women and children, were tortured and killed in Karm el-Zaytoun on Sunday night.
Relatives of a number of victims have announced that they were kidnapped by armed groups several months ago.
Opposition activists, however, have blamed the pro-government forces for the killings.
From the Alawite Fantasy to the Surrealism of the UN
By PIERRE PICCININ | March 06, 2012
More than a year after civil unrest broke out and plunged part of Syria into the chaos of the ‘Arab Spring’, the Baath government remains firmly in control and the majority of the country is calm; almost untouched by an opposition which is scattered and confined to the cities of Homs and Hama, as well as a few towns on the Turkish and Lebanese border. The main reported cases of unrest are linked to regular attacks from Salafist bands which are of an extremely violent nature and more importantly, the Free Syrian Army. The latter counts amid its ranks numerous Qataris and Libyans, all whom have been trained in the art of urban guerilla warfare by the French army in refugee camps, which provide perfect bases from which to operate and orchestrate attacks.
How can one explain the resilience of this regime? A regime which is more or less in complete control despite facing what is usually described as a “revolutionary populist uprising”? One which is determined to overthrow the “Alawite dictatorship” from the political and economic realms of Syrian society, the so-called privilege of the Alawi, a community which accounts for no more than about 10% of the population?
Perhaps it is because the reality does not correspond to this over simplified equation.
Indeed, the communitarian and religious Syrian patchwork is far from closing ranks on the Alawi population. Moreover, this group, do not in fact monopolize the political landscape.
Therefore, even back in the 1980s, when Hafez Al-Assad, father of the incumbent president, Bashir, and author of the “Alawi coup d’état”, succumbed to serious health issues, he had designed a directorate of six members to run the Syrian government – All six were Sunnis.
Furthermore, all the prime ministers who have served in Bashir Al-Assad’s government have been Sunnis. Similarly key positions including the Ministers of Defence, Finance and Oil and the heads of the numerous police corps and the secret service do not depend on the Alawi community. The Druze, Christian, Shiite and Kurd minorities also benefit from governmental representation.
This would explain why the opposition is a fractious minority whose support base lies outside Syria’s borders rather than at the heart of the population.
In these circumstances it is understandable that Russia (and China), treading carefully in order to preserve her last card in the Middle East, resolutely opposes the pressure to sign up to the latest United Nations Security Council resolution. This would undoubtedly lead Syria into a scenario similar to Libya, where tens of thousands of civilians would perish as during the destruction of Sirte (and Russia has asked for there to be a UN commission to investigate these Atlantic war crimes).
The most striking element in this whole situation is that the UN has neither the right nor the objective, to decide the nature of a sovereign government, less still the identity of its head of state; meaning that the text proposed to the Security Council by the Arab league, calling for the departure of President Bashir Al-Assad, a text supported by Qatar with substantial French backing, is directly opposed to the basic principles of international law and completely surreal.
Furthermore, if the Baath regime is dictatorial and brutal, so are numerous factions of the opposition: an opposition which is seriously divided and made up of groups with conflicting objectives, none of which necessarily represent the Syrian population; for on the one hand there are the radical Islamic factions, who massacre their opponents and commit atrocities against the military (kidnappings, mutilations, decapitations…) but also civilians who refuse to support their objectives. This is why Russia has demanded that any UN resolution must be applied not only to the government forces but to all factions resorting to violence, including those supported by foreign states, specifically France and Qatar.
It would therefore seem that from an Alawite fantasy to the surrealism of the United Nations, Syria as depicted by the mass media certainly bears very little resemblance to the reality of the actual situation.
Pierre Piccinin is a professor of political science at the Ecole Européen de Bruxelles I.
- Israel’s No.1 asset in the Senate calls for airstrikes against Syria (alethonews.wordpress.com)
March 5, 2012
The Lebanese army on Sunday arrested a group of Syrian armed men who had entered Lebanese territory via the border town of al-Qaa, seizing a car and a large cache of weapons.
In addition, the Syrian forces started bombing the tunnel which connects the Syrian town Jose with the region of al-Qaa in the Lebanese territory.
“The tunnel was used, facilitated by “Future” party, to the smuggling of arms and fighters to Syria,” NNA reported.
In the same issue, al-Binaa newspaper reported that “39 armed Syrians were arrested by the Lebanese army in al-Qaa region.
In parallel, the Daily Star Lebanese paper reported Monday that “around 13 French officers are being held by Syrian authorities in central Homs city.”
“It was not clear why the officers were in Syria, when they had arrived or whether they were part of a larger contingent in the city,” the paper informed.
Stating that the “French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said there was no confirmation of French armed forces being held in Syria,” the paper’s sources stressed that “Paris and Damascus were working to reach an agreement on what to do with the officers.”
“Perception is 100 percent of politics,” the old adage goes. Say something three, five, seven times, and you start to believe it in the same way you “know” aspirin is good for the heart.
Sometimes though, perception is a dangerous thing. In the dirty game of politics, it is the perception – not the facts of an issue – that invariably wins the day.
In the case of the raging conflict over Syria, the one fundamental issue that motors the entire international debate on the crisis is the death toll and its corollary: the Syrian casualty list.
The “list” has become widely recognized – if not specifically, then certainly when the numbers are bandied about: 4,000, 5,000, 6,000 – sometimes more. These are not mere numbers; they represent dead Syrians.
But this is where the dangers of perception begin. There are many competing Syrian casualty lists with different counts – how does one, for instance gauge if X is an accurate number of deaths? How have the deaths been verified? Who verifies them and do they have a vested interest? Are the dead all civilians? Are they pro-regime or anti-regime civilians? Do these lists include the approximately 2,000 dead Syrian security forces? Do they include members of armed groups? How does the list-aggregator tell the difference between a civilian and a plain-clothes militia member?
Even the logistics baffle. How do they make accurate counts across Syria every single day? A member of the Lebanese fact-finding team investigating the 15 May 2011 shooting deaths of Palestinian protesters by Israelis at the Lebanese border told me that it took them three weeks to discover there were only six fatalities, and not the 11 counted on the day of the incident. And in that case, the entire confrontation lasted a mere few hours.
How then does one count 20, 40, or 200 casualties in a few hours while conflict continues to rage around them?
My first port of call in trying to answer these questions about the casualty list was the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which seemed likely to be the most reliable source of information on the Syrian death toll – until it stopped keeping track last month.
The UN began its effort to provide a Syrian casualty count in September 2011, based primarily on lists provided by five different sources. Three of their sources were named: The Violations Documenting Center (VDC), the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) and the Syrian Shuhada website. At that time, the lists varied in number from around 2,400 to 3,800 victims.
The non-UN casualty list most frequently quoted in the general media is the one from the Syrian Observatory – or SOHR.
Last month, SOHR made some headlines of its own when news of a rift over political viewpoints and body counts erupted. Two competing SOHRs claimed authenticity, but the group headed by Rami Abdul Rahman is the one recognized by Amnesty International.
OHCHR spokesman Rupert Colville stated during a phone interview that the UN evaluates its sources to check “whether they are reliable,” but appeared to create distance from SOHR later – during the group’s public spat – by saying: “The (UN) colleague most involved with the lists…had no direct contact with the Syrian Observatory, though we did look at their numbers. This was not a group we had any prior knowledge of, and it was not based in the region, so we were somewhat wary of it.”
Colville explains that the UN sought at all times “to make cautious estimates” and that “we have reasonable confidence that the rounded figures are not far off.”
While “also getting evidence from victims and defectors – some who corroborated specific names,” the UN, says Colville, “is not in a position to cross-check names and will never be in a position to do that.”
I spoke to him again after the UN decided to halt its casualty count in late January. “It was never easy to verify, but it was a little bit clearer before. The composition of the conflict has changed. It’s become much more complex, fragmented,” Colville says. “While we have no doubt there are civilian and military casualties…we can’t really quantify it.”
“The lists are clear – the question is whether we can fully endorse their accuracy,” he explains, citing the “higher numbers” as an obstacle to verification.
The Casualty Lists Up Close: Some Stories Behind the Numbers
Because the UN has stopped its casualty count, reporters have started reverting back to their original Syrian death toll sources. The SOHR is still the most prominent among them.
Abdul Rahman’s SOHR does not make its list available to the general public, but in early February I found a link to a list on the other SOHR website and decided to take a look. The database lists the victim’s name, age, gender, city, province, and date of death – when available. In December 2011, for instance, the list names around 77 registered casualties with no identifying information provided. In total, there are around 260 unknowns on the list.
Around that time, I had come across my first list of Syrians killed in the crisis, reportedly compiled in coordination with the SOHR, that contained the names of Palestinian refugees killed by Israeli fire on the Golan Heights on 15 May 2011 and 5 June 2011 when protesters congregated on Syria’s armistice line with Israel. So my first check was to see if that kind of glaring error appears in the SOHR list I investigate in this piece.
To my amazement, the entire list of victims from those two days were included in the SOHR casualty count – four from May 15 (#5160 to #5163) and 25 victims of Israeli fire from June 5 (#4629 to #4653). The list even identifies the deaths as taking place in Quneitra, which is in the Golan Heights.
It also didn’t take long to find the names of well-publicized pro-regime Syrians on the SOHR list and match them with YouTube footage of their funerals. The reason behind searching for funeral links is that pro-regime and anti-regime funerals differ quite starkly in the slogans they chant and the posters/signs/flags on display. Below, is a list of eight of these individuals, including their number, name, date and place of death on the casualty list – followed by our video link and further details if available:
#5939, Mohammad Abdo Khadour, 4/19/11, Hama, off-duty Colonel in Syrian army, shot in his car and died from multiple bullet wounds. Funeral link.
#5941, Iyad Harfoush, 4-18-11, Homs, off-duty Commander in Syrian army. In a video, his wife says someone started shooting in the mostly pro-regime al Zahra neighborhood of Homs – Harfoush went out to investigate the incident and was killed. Funeral link.
#5969, Abdo al Tallawi, 4/17/11, Homs, General in Syrian army killed alongside his two sons and a nephew. Funeral footage shows all four victims. The others are also on the list at #5948, Ahmad al Tallawi, #5958, Khader al Tallawi and #5972, Ali al Tallawi, all in Homs, Funeral link.
#6021, Nidal Janoud, 11/4/11, Tartous, an Alawite who was severely slashed by his assailants. The bearded gentleman to the right of the photo, and a second suspect, are now standing trial for the murder. Photo link.
#6022, Yasar Qash’ur, 11/4/11, Tartous, Lieutenant Colonel in the Syrian army, killed alongside 8 others in an ambush on a bus in Banyas, Funeral link.
#6129, Hassan al-Ma’ala, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.
#6130, Hamid al Khateeb, 4/5/11, policeman, suburbs of Damascus, Funeral link.
#6044, Waeb Issa, 10/4/11, Tartous, Colonel in Syrian army, Funeral link.
Besides featuring on the SOHR list, Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, Iyad Harfoush, Mohammad Abdo Khadour and General Abdo al Tallawi and his two sons and nephew also appear on two of the other casualty lists – the VDC and Syrian Shuhada – both used by the United Nations to compile their numbers.
Nir Rosen, an American journalist who spent several months insides Syria’s hot spots in 2011, with notable access to armed opposition groups, reported in a recent Al Jazeera interview:
“Every day the opposition gives a death toll, usually without any explanation of the cause of the deaths. Many of those reported killed are in fact dead opposition fighters, but the cause of their death is hidden and they are described in reports as innocent civilians killed by security forces, as if they were all merely protesting or sitting in their homes. Of course, those deaths still happen regularly as well.”
“And, every day, members of the Syrian army, security agencies and the vague paramilitary and militia phenomenon known as shabiha ["thugs"] are also killed by anti-regime fighters,” Rosen continues.
The report issued in January by Arab League Monitors after their month-long observer mission in Syria – widely ignored by the international media – also witnessed acts of violence by armed opposition groups against both civilians and security forces.
The Report states: “In Homs, Idlib and Hama, the observer mission witnessed acts of violence being committed against government forces and civilians…Examples of those acts include the bombing of a civilian bus, killing eight persons and injuring others, including women and children…In another incident in Homs, a police bus was blown up, killing two police officers.” The observers also point out that “some of the armed groups were using flares and armour-piercing projectiles.“
Importantly, the report further confirms obfuscation of casualty information when it states: “the media exaggerated the nature of the incidents and the number of persons killed in incidents and protests in certain towns.”
On February 3, the eve of the UN Security Council vote on Syria, news broke out that a massacre was taking place in Homs, with the general media assuming it was true and that all violence was being committed by the Syrian government. The SOHR’s Rami Abdul Rahman was widely quoted in the media as claiming the death toll to be at 217. The Local Coordination Committees (LCCs), which provide information to the VDC, called it at “more than 200,” and the Syrian National Council (SNC), a self-styled government in absentia of mainly expats, claimed 260 victims.
The next day, the casualty count had been revised down to 55 by the LCCs. (link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-16883911)
Even if the count is at 55 – that is still a large number of victims by any measure. But were these deaths caused by the Syrian government, by opposition gunmen or in the crossfire between the two groups? That is still the question that needs to break through the deafening narratives, lists, and body counts.
In International Law, Detail Counts
While the overwhelming perception of Syrian casualties thus far has been that they are primarily unarmed civilians deliberately targeted by government forces, it has become obvious these casualties are also likely to include: Civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and opposition gunmen; victims of deliberate violence by armed groups; “dead opposition fighters” whose attire do not distinguish them from regular civilians; and members of the Syrian security forces, both on and off duty.
Even if we could verify the names and numbers on a Syrian casualty list, we still don’t know their stories, which if revealed, may pose an entirely different picture of what is going on in Syria today
These questions are vitally important to understand the burden of responsibility in this conflict. International law provides for different measures of conflict: the two most frequently used gauges for this are the Principle of Necessity, i.e., using force only when it is necessary, and the Principle of Proportionality, i.e., the use of force proportional to the threat posed.
In the case of Syria – like in Bahrain, Yemen, Egypt and Libya – it is widely believed that the government used unnecessary force in the first instance. Syrian President Bashar Assad, like many of these Arab rulers, has as much as admitted to “mistakes” in the first months of protests. These mistakes include some shooting deaths and detaining a much larger number of protesters than expected, some of whom were allegedly tortured.
Let us assume, without question, that the Syrian government was over zealous in its use of force initially, and therefore violated the Principle of Necessity. I tend to believe this version because it has been so-stated by the Arab League’s observer mission – the first and only boots-on-the-ground monitors investigating the crisis from within the country.
However – and this is where the casualty lists come in – there is not yet nearly enough evidence, not by any measure acceptable in a court of law, that the Syrian government has violated the Principle of Proportionality. Claims that the regime has used disproportionate force in dealing with the crisis are, today, difficult to ascertain, in large part because opponents have been using weapons against security forces and pro-regime civilians almost since the onset of protests.
Assuming that the number of casualties provided by the UN’s OHCHR is around the 5,000-mark -the last official figure provided by the group – the question is whether this is a highly disproportionate number of deaths when contrasted directly with the approximately 2,000 soldiers of the regular Syrian army and other security forces who have been reportedly killed since April 2011.
When you calculate the deaths of the government forces in the past 11 months, they amount to about six a day. Contrast that with frequent death toll totals of around 15+ each day disseminated by activists – many of whom are potentially neither civilian casualties nor victims of targeted violence – and there is close to enough parity to suggest a conflict where the acts of violence may be somewhat equal on both sides.
Last Sunday, as Syrians went to the polls to vote on a constitutional referendum, Reuters reports – quoting the SOHR – that 9 civilians and 4 soldiers were killed in Homs, and that elsewhere in Syria there were 8 civilian and 10 security forces casualties. That is 17 civilians and 14 regime forces – where are the opposition gunmen in that number? Were none killed? Or are they embedded in the “civilian” count?
Defectors or Regular Soldiers?
There have also been allegations that many, if not most, of the soldiers killed in clashes or attacks have been defectors shot by other members of the regular army. There is very little evidence to support this as anything more than a limited phenomenon. Logically, it would be near impossible for the Syrian army to stay intact if it was turning on its rank-and-file soldiers in this manner – and the armed forces have remained remarkably cohesive given the length and intensity of the conflict in Syria.
In addition, the names, rank and cities of each of the dead soldiers are widely publicized by state-owned media each day, often accompanied by televised funerals. It would be fairly simple for the organized opposition to single out by name the defectors they include on their casualty lists, which has not happened.
The very first incident of casualties from the Syrian regular army that I could verify dates to 10 April 2011, when gunmen shot up a bus of soldiers travelling through Banyas, in Tartous, killing nine. This incident took place a mere few weeks after the first peaceful protests broke out in Syria, and so traces violence against government forces back to the start of political upheaval in the country.
“Witnesses” quoted by the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian insisted that the nine dead soldiers were “defectors” who had been shot by the Syrian army for refusing orders to shoot at demonstrators.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, debunked that version on his Syria Comment website. Another surviving soldier on the bus – a relation of Lt. Col. Yasar Qashur, #6022 on the SOHR list, whose funeral I link to above – denied that they were defectors too. But the narrative that dead soldiers are mostly defectors shot by their own troops has stuck throughout this conflict – though less so, as evidence of gunmen targeting Syrian forces and pro-regime civilians becomes belatedly apparent.
The VDC – another of the UN’s OHCHR sources for casualty counts – alleges that 6,399 civilians and 1,680 army defectors were killed in Syria during the period from 15 March 2011 to 15 February 2012. All security forces killed in Syria during the past 11 months were “defectors?” Not a single soldier, policeman or intelligence official was killed in Syria except those forces who opposed the regime? This is the kind of mindless narrative of this conflict that continues unchecked. Worse yet, this exact VDC statistic is included in the latest UN report on Syria issued last week.
Humanitarian Crisis or Just Plain Violence?
While few doubt the Syrian government’s violent suppression of this revolt, it is increasingly clear that in addition to the issue of disproportionally, there is the question of whether there is a “humanitarian crisis” as suggested by some western and Arab leaders since last year. I sought some answers during a trip to Damascus in early January 2012 where I spoke to a select few NGOs that enjoyed rare access to all parts of the country.
Given that words like “massacre” and “slaughter” and “humanitarian crisis” are being used in reference to Syria, I asked International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh how many calls for urgent medical assistance his organization had received in 2011. His response was shocking. “Only one that I recall,” said Dabbakeh. Where was that, I asked? “Quneitra National Hospital in the Golan,” he replied, “last June.” This was when Israeli troops fired on Syrian and Palestinian protesters marching to the 1973 armistice line with the Jewish state. Those same protesters that ended up on SOHR’s casualty list.
A Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) worker confirmed that, recalling that his organization treated hundreds of casualties from the highly-publicized incident.
As the level of violence has escalated, however, the situation has deteriorated, and the ICRC now has received more calls for medical assistance – mainly from private hospitals in Homs. The SARC today has nine different points in Homs where it provides such assistance. The only two places they do not currently serve are the neighborhoods of Bab Amr and Inshaat “because the security situation does not allow for it – for their own safety, there is fighting there.”
During a phone call last Thursday, one NGO officer, explained that the measure for a “humanitarian crisis” is in level of access to basic staples, services and medical care. He told me off the record that “There is a humanitarian crisis in (i.e.) Baba Amro today, but not in Syria. If the fighting finishes tomorrow, there will be enough food and medical supplies.”
“Syria has enough food to feed itself for a long time. The medical sector still functions very well. There isn’t enough pressure on the medical sector to create a crisis,” he elaborated. “A humanitarian crisis is when a large number of a given population does not have access to medical aid, food, water, electricity, etc – when the system cannot any longer respond to the needs of the population.”
But an international human rights worker also cautions: “the killing is happening on both sides – the other side is no better.”
People have to stop this knee-jerk, opportunistic, hysterical obsession with numbers of dead Syrians, and ask instead: “who are these people and who killed them?” That is the very least these victims deserve. Anything less would render their tragic deaths utterly meaningless. Lack of transparency along the supply-chain of information and its dissemination – on both sides – is tantamount to making the Syrian story all about perception, and not facts. It is a hollow achievement and people will die in ever greater numbers.
Sharmine Narwani is a commentary writer and political analyst covering the Middle East. You can follow Sharmine on twitter @snarwani.