Tag Archives: John McCain

Found: Journalistic Differences

Journalists write stories for particular audiences.  It is widely known that in order to succeed in the business of publishing news, or what is taken as news, they need to write about what interests their intended audience.  What is less often publicly acknowledged, but no less true, is that what they write needs to be plausible enough that it is not rejected as a test of credulity (“the Loch Ness monster attacked tourists!”) or propaganda (“the Loch Ness monster works for the communists!”).  But what one audience considers plausible another considers pure fantasy or mere agitprop.  On any of the numerous contentious issues swirling around the modern Middle East, events which are considered reliable “news” to one audience are “impossible” to another, and these boundary lines often (though not always) lie along national, linguistic, and religious lines.

A news source I do not usually read reported on June 13 that the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs “late last month” as they withdrew from al-Qusayr in the wake of its capture by the Assad regime.  Apart from many pictures showing damage to a church, to church property, and to houses, the text of the report is worth quoting in full (fortunately it is not too long):

More details of a massacre in Homs late last month have emerged following the global outcry of a massacre in Deir el-Zour yesterday.

The massacre, carried out by Free Syrian Army militants reportedly targeted men, women and children in the Christian village of al-Duwayr/Douar close to the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon. The incident received little media attention, having occurred at the same time as thousands of Syrian troops converged on the insurgent-occupied town of al-Qusayr.

According to sources, around 350 heavily armed militants entered the village, broke into homes and assembled residents in the main square of the village where they were executed. The final death toll is not known but photos show severe damage to property in the village.

Syrian army sources said that they reached the village after the massacre, resulting in clashes with militants. Sources also reported that Turkish and Chechen extremists were among the perpetrators. Chechen militants are known to have kidnapped two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this year. The following images show al-Duwayr/Douar village after the massacre:

[photos omitted]

Conditions for ethnic and religious minorities have been made increasingly worse as Free Syrian Army affiliated organisations including Jabhat al-Nusra increase ethnic and sectarian cleansing across Syria. Kidnappings, executions and assassinations are common.

Late last month, around the time of the massacre in Homs, a fifteen year old girl was kidnapped by militants in Damascus, who demanded $100,000 for her release. Miryam Jbeil, a niece Damascus-based Catholic priest Nader Jbeil, was released after a number of days in captivity.

In the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on al-Qusayr, the church was discovered to have been desecrated by Free Syrian Army militants.

This outlet reproduces this article from Syria Report, whose article dated 12 June on the subject does not cite anything, so in order to find out where Syria Report got the information from, it took some additional searching.  The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which reports on issues relevant to Assyrian Christians in the Middle East or in the diaspora, published a clearly related story on 29 May, drawn from the Fars News Agency‘s identical article dated 27 May.  Fars News Agency seems to be the original source in English.  From there the story has branched out, and especially in the past five days it has been picked up by many blogs and anti-Obama discussion forums, but by no Western news outlets.  Google News is not as effective at searching Arabic news outlets but I did eventually find an article on the Syrian news agency breakingnews.sy (Arabic, English).

The Fars News Agency’s short article reads as follows:

Armed Rebels Massacre Entire Population of Christian Village in Syria

TEHRAN (FNA)- Armed rebels attacked a village in Syria’s Western province of Homs and slaughtered all its Christian residents on Monday.

The armed rebels affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) raided the Christian-populated al-Duvair village in Reef (outskirts of) Homs near the border with Lebanon today and massacred all its civilian residents, including women and children.

The Syrian army, however, intervened and killed tens of terrorists during heavy clashes which are still going on in al-Duvair village.

The armed rebels’ attack and crimes in al-Duvair village came after they sustained heavy defeats in al-Qusseir city which has almost been set free by the Syrian army except for a few districts.

Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011 with organized attacks by well-armed gangs against Syrian police forces and border guards being reported across the country.

Hundreds of people, including members of the security forces, have been killed, when some protest rallies turned into armed clashes.

The government blames outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorist groups for the deaths, stressing that the unrest is being orchestrated from abroad.

In October 2011, calm was almost restored in the Arab state after President Assad started a reform initiative in the country, but Israel, the US and its Arab allies sought hard to bring the country into chaos through any possible means. Tel Aviv, Washington and some Arab capitals have been staging various plots to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is well known in the world for his anti-Israeli stances.

The relevant portion of the article on breakingnews.sy reads more briefly:

The “Free Army” militia has committed a massacre on Monday 27 May, in the right of civilians in Homs countryside, as the army continued operations in al-Qusair and thwarted the infiltration of gunmen from Lebanon and killed Saudi members from al-Qaeda.

The elements of armed militia’s has broken in the village of al-Dweir in Homs countryside, committed a massacre in the right of civilians, killing women and children.

Our correspondent in Homs pointed that the army has intervened and currently is engaged in severe battles against the insurgents in the mentioned village, claiming martyrs of the army and tens of deaths in the militia’s ranks.

Our correspondent noted that the gunmen have break through the town and carried out the massacre after their major defeats in al-Qusair, which is about to fall in the army’s grip.

It is obvious that the news of Syrian rebels massacring Christians, especially the Free Syrian Army which Sen. John McCain was already campaigning to supply with weapons, looks well for the Assad regime and poorly for President Obama who has just decided to provide greater arms to that group.  Even the most cursory review of the headlines on breakingnews.sy reveals its pro-Assad stance, and of course the semi-official Fars News Agency follows Iran’s public support for the Assad regime, so it is no surprise that these news outlets would run this story.

The more important question is how much of this is true.  For many Americans, merely saying the story was found on Syrian and Iranian news outlets is enough to condemn it to implausibility, which just shows the differences of intended audiences (although my inability to find translations of this story in Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish on the Fars News Agency website may indicate that it is primarily intended for an Anglophone audience).  The reason Western news outlets have failed to report on this story is no doubt that they do not trust the source, and they do not regard it as sufficiently plausible for their audience.  But we dare not break down the world into mutually exclusive news feeds for mutually exclusive audiences; we need news from sources that do not agree with our preconceptions, in order to reveal to us our own blind spots.

Our ability to evaluate parts of this story is aided by the identification of progressively increasing sources.  The original report that portions of the Free Syrian Army massacred Christian civilians in al-Duwayr is the most important detail.  Fars News Agency states that the Free Syrian Army massacred all the inhabitants of al-Duwayr, but they probably have no source apart from the breakingnews.sy, so the “all” component can be confidently rejected.  Indeed, from the logic of the case, the breakingnews.sy article indicates that the Syrian Army engaged the Free Syrian Army in the village of al-Duwayr, which most likely indicates that the massacre cannot have killed the whole village, unless the Syrian Army interrupted the murderers in the post-execution process of looting.

It is unclear what sources Syria Report has to peg the number of militants who perpetrated the massacre at 350, or their method of rounding up the villagers in the central square.  Syria Report also comes up with a way to include both Fars News Agency’s report that “all” the villagers were killed and also breakingnews.sy’s report of Syrian Army engagement with the rebels in the village: the Syrian Army reached the village “after the massacre.”  The rest of the Syria Report article is their gloss on the situation, linking Jabhat al-Nusra with the Free Syrian Army and highlighting rising sectarianism and violence against civilians.

Finally, it is not at all clear that breakingnews.sy has correctly identified the group responsible for the attack on al-Duwayr.  Indeed, news articles from 10 March 2013 celebrate the Free Syrian Army’s “liberation” of al-Duwayr from regime control, which suggests that they were in control of the village before the massacre took place.

Unfortunately it is only too plausible that a massacre took place in the Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs.  Sources favorable to the Assad regime blame the Free Syrian Army, the group to which US President Obama has just promised weapons.  The absence of counter-claims by the rebels suggests that at least some rebel group probably did carry out the massacre.  Their motive is less clear; the contemporaneous battle for al-Qusayr may indicate that looting was the desired goal, or perhaps a desire not to leave anything that would help the regime when it came into town, but it is unlikely that the Christian village of al-Duwayr had any equipment that would be useful to either side.  Some graffiti in the ruined church indicates an Islamist rejection of other religions (to a degree not required by shari’a), but it is not clear whether this graffiti was the tag on the church or the motive for the entire attack.  If the fighters had recently escaped from a siege in al-Qusayr, they may have been primarily after food.  But like so many other war crimes and works of opportunistic violence during the Syrian Civil War, the actual chain of events along with any possibility of justice in this situation may be lost beyond recovery.

Yesterday and Today in Syria

US Senator John McCain recently crossed into Syria to demonstrate how feasible that was, how easy it would be to supply arms to rebel forces, and how clearly one could distinguish between the “good rebels” of the Free Syrian Army led by Gen. Salim Idriss and the “bad rebels” affiliated with al-Qa’ida, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.  Unfortunately, he was photographed with a spokesman for a rebel group which last year kidnapped Lebanese Shi’ites and is still holding most of them.  The denials of McCain’s spokesman that he met the spokesman in question revolve around denying that any commander he met used either of the names “Muhammad Nur” or “Abu Ibrahim.”  But the question is not whether he met a name, but whether he met a person, and people in the Syrian Civil War are known to be using noms de guerre.  It is also unlikely that Sen. McCain, who I suspect speaks no Arabic, would remember the few dozen Arabic names he would have heard that day, if every commander he met was introduced by name.  This underscores the degree to which Sen. McCain was shown what the rebels wanted him to see, and he heard only what the translators wanted him to hear.  This does not change the importance of his visit, but reminds us that most things are not as they seem in Syria today.

In other news, CNN reports that Iraqi troops busted a terrorist cell synthesizing sarin, the chemical weapon used in Syria.  Western governments and opposition forces have blamed the Assad regime for using sarin, while Carla del Ponte last month alleged that there was evidence for rebel use of the chemical weapon.  While the US and Turkey poo-poo’ed the suggestion, this report suggests the real possibility of jihadi rebels in Syria getting sarin from al-Qa’ida-affiliated supporters in Iraq and using them, perhaps for their own effectiveness, perhaps to attempt to frame the Assad regime.  At the time of del Ponte’s remarks, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said their report was not yet ready.  According to the press release issued at that time, their report is due out today, and I at least am eager to get a glimpse at what it says regarding chemical weapons usage.

Found: Syria’s Other Secularist Opposition

First let me say that I know there is bigger news about Syria today, such as US Senator John McCain‘s surprise visit to the Free Syrian Army and the European Union’s decision to end the arms embargo against Syria.  I am not yet commenting on those, as I wait to learn more about what each development will mean.  I also have yet to post regarding the effectiveness of drone attacks, as I still intend to do.

But what caught my eye earlier today was a small article from the Chinese government news agency Xinhua, which reported that Hasan ‘Abd al-‘Azim, the leader of the Syrian secularist opposition group the National Coordinating Body, promised to participate “positively” in the US-Russia backed “Geneva 2” negotiations to seek a political end to the bloodshed in Syria, widely expected to occur some time in June.

Wait a sec, you say?  The Syrian opposition is divided between jihadis (such as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian Islamic Front, Ghuraba al-Sham, and the Muhajireen Brigade) on the one hand, and the secularists in the Syrian National Council and the Free Syrian Army on the other, right?

Well, yes, I mean, well, sort of.  The Syrian National Council brings together secularists like George Sabra and non-jihadi but distinctly non-secularist politicians such as past president Burhan Ghalioun, who was criticized for being “too close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”  The National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (هيئة التنسيق الوطنية لقوى التغيير الديمقراطي, often known as the “National Coordination Committee” or NCC), on the other hand, is a coalition of secularist opposition parties which is not recognized by the Syrian National Coalition, many of whose members suspect that they are a front for regime sympathizers or double agents working for the Assad regime.  It is true that the Assad government is secularist as well, and the NCC did not formally call for Assad’s removal until September 2012.  On the other hand, the NCC is now calling for Assad’s removal, which puts them more squarely with the rest of the opposition, despite the suspicions of other opposition groups.  They have rarely been noticed by Western media outlets, which have tended to focus on the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition, perhaps viewing them by analogy with Libya’s National Transition Council.

Why is China picking up on the NCC?  While the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Coalition are calling for foreign military aid, the NCC rejects external military intervention.  This accords very well with China’s (and Russia’s) repudiation of “foreign meddling” in Syria, seen in their repeated UN Security Council veto of any UN military action in Syria, and this mutual interest in “non-interference” explains why the NCC has received diplomatic support from both China and Russia.  If China and Russia cannot have the Assad regime, the NCC is their opposition of choice.

The NCC also used to have a number of Kurdish member parties, but those parties have withdrawn to form the Kurdish National Council, which is separatist as well as secularist and leftist.  The KNC is arguing that the part of Syria where Kurds form the majority (in the northeast of the country) should be given full Kurdish autonomy, while the SNC and NCC both are pushing for maintaining Syria’s current borders.

With so many opposition groups to choose from, the Geneva 2 meeting may end up with every foreign country having its preferred Syrian opposition coalition.

Lost: Specificity of Responsibility

Carla Del Ponte of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria today said there are serious suspicions that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria, but by rebels rather than the government, to her total surprise.  General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army responded that the remarks were “an injustice to the rebels and a provocation to the Syrian people’s feelings” (here in English, here in Arabic).  The UN commission has issued a terse statement saying its findings are not ready, which the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes interprets plausibly enough to suggest that Del Ponte’s remarks caught the commission by surprise.  But, as I raised the possibility in an earlier post, the allegations of chemical weapons usage raise more questions than answers.

I have three questions, and a plausible answer only to one of them:

1. When “the rebels” have done something, who are we talking about?  Is Del Ponte suggesting that the Free Syrian Army is using sarin, against the protestations of Salim Idris?  Or is it some other group (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian Islamic Front, etc.)?  “The rebels” are a diverse group of organizations with very different structures, priorities, methods, and goals, apart from the single shared goal of bringing down the Assad regime.

2. How can the commission tell who has used the sarin?  The only method cited by the articles were interviews with exiles and refugees, but unless some of those interviewed were themselves rebels who confessed to deploying the chemical weapon, it is not clear how the responsibility could be inferred.  Certainly the use of sarin could be inferred based on a description of symptoms, but in a battle scenario it is very difficult to tell afterwards who did what to whom, as the phenomenon of “friendly fire” amply demonstrates.  If chemical weapons are used, anyone nearby regardless of whether they support or oppose the regime will suffer, so the identify of the victim cannot indicate the weapon’s use by the opposing side.  Del Ponte did not give any indication as to when or where the alleged use of sarin occurred, or under what circumstances, so it is unclear how the commission is able to distinguish regime from rebel usage.

3. Given that the commission’s report is not due yet, and Del Ponte herself emphasized that there are “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” while her comments seemed to catch the commission off guard, according to Foulkes’ interpretation, why did she make these allegations now?

I suspect this is related to the Israeli airstrikes against Syria over the weekend, and mounting pressure on the US government to arm “the rebels,” amid concerns of high-powered weapons falling into the hands of the terrorist component of “the rebels.”  Del Ponte’s remarks were probably designed to caution against rash Western military intervention, to indicate that the evidence of sarin used could go both ways (she did not rule out that the regime had also used the chemical weapon).  How much do we really know about what is going on in Syria?  How much can we discern among different armed groups, in order to supply weapons only, as John McCain advocated yesterday, to “the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in”?  I think these are important questions, and I wonder if Del Ponte’s remarks were designed to slow things down after earlier news reports of chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime and Israeli airstrikes had sped up the expected decision timetable.

The Fall of the Minaret

The medieval minaret of Aleppo’s most important mosque, just down the street from Aleppo’s famous citadel, fell yesterday, the latest casualty in the uncontrolled violence which has engulfed Syria.  When I visited Aleppo in 2010, before the “Arab Spring”, I was struck by the relatively quiet neighborhood and the shiny expensive car parked just outside the mosque.  That quietude has long been lost in Aleppo, which has proved to be one of the deadliest battlegrounds of the Syrian Civil War, despite being one of the last cities in Syria to experience battle firsthand.

The regime and the rebels quickly exchanged blame for the fall of the minaret, part of the UNESCO World Heritage site.  This is not the first time the mosque was damaged, nor the first ancient minaret to fall, but it has hit the Western news to a greater degree.

What’s at stake in the fall of the minaret?  Surely, the allegations of chemical weapons deployment by the Assad regime, made yesterday by Israeli officials and seriously considered today (after initial poo-pooing) by US officials, has much higher stakes.  But perhaps the two are parallel, in some dangerous ways.

Who brought down the minaret?  According to the Washington Post, the opposition described the army deliberately and repeatedly targeting the minaret until they hit it, while the Syrian state news ascribed the collapse to the local branch of al-Qaida, known as “Jabhat al-Nusra” (more fully, جبهة النصرة لاهل الشام, “the frontline of aid to the people of Syria).  The Syrian National Coalition asserted in a YouTube video, “The Assad regime has done everything it can to destroy Syria’s social fabric. Today, by killing people and destroying culture, it is sowing a bitterness in people’s hearts that will be difficult to erase for a very long time.”

Both sides have a lot to gain if their version of events is believed.  If the regime’s account is believed, then fears of empowering al-Qaida might further prevent the US from intervening against the regime, especially in light of calls today by Sen. John McCain and others to provide weapons to the rebels against Assad.  On the other hand, the opposing accounts of the regime targeting a UNESCO World Heritage site which is an Umayyad mosque might succeed in mobilizing both Sunni outrage (leading to an increase in personnel to fight the regime) and Western liberal outrage (leading to an increase in military provision).

Neither account seems plausible to me.  After the damage to the same mosque last October, Assad issued a decree promising to repair the edifice, so I presume that Assad and his forces would be sufficiently aware of the danger of provoking greater opposition than to see the value of taking down the minaret, even if it could be used as a sniper perch.  On the other hand, although Jabhat al-Nusra is certainly interested in manipulating media reports for its own side, I would be surprised if it took down the minaret in the mosque which it controls solely for the purpose of trying to play on jihadi or Western liberal sympathies.  It would be a form of destruction too liable to arouse mixed feelings among the ranks, and then too damaging if leaked.  I think the most likely explanation is that the explosions that are part of the battle for the mosque, presently controlled by Jabhat al-Nusra, incidentally took down the minaret as well, an event unforeseen by either side but quick to be blamed on the opponents.

But similarly with the allegations of chemical warfare, it is not at all clear what can be believed.  There seems to be evidence that chemicals (especially sarin) have been used in small quantities, but who is doing the using?  If the regime is using the nerve agent, it might be “using those weapons in small amounts to gauge U.S. reaction” as suggested by the Chicago Tribune editorial.  US failure to react could then mean increased deployment of chemical weapons.  On the other hand, if an anti-regime group had developed the ability to synthesize small quantities of sarin, it could release those in order to blame the regime.  Since sarin, once mixed, only has a shelf-life of up to several months, whatever sarin has been used recently has been mixed since the beginning of the Civil War.  There are certainly groups active in Syria which would have no qualms about employing sarin if they could.

All of this means that more investigation is crucial, although the fact that the regime has blocked the arrival of UN Chemical Weapons investigators into Syria suggests that Assad is worried about the result of an investigation.  If increasing foreign intervention in Syria seems inevitable, since neither side appears able to defeat the other nor willing to dialogue, the precise nature of the intervention becomes more significant for averting a more intense international conflict between those members of the UN Security Council which have favored Assad (Russia and China) and those which have favored his opponents.  The UN Security Council exists, after all, to prevent the UN from doing anything which would spark World War III.

In the meantime, the minaret is destroyed, along with many other bystanders in the conflict.  Whoever “wins” the war will have to deal with the loss of Syrian population, infrastructure, agriculture, tourism, social stability, and culture.  Even if these things were not particularly targeted for destruction by either side, both sides’ violent intransigence have led to the destruction of much that Syrians and the world have loved about Syria.