High Commissioner Pillay, President Lasserre, all relevant researchers and decision-makers at the UN Human Rights Council:
Greetings. I am Adam Larson, cofounder of the Citizen’s Investigation into War Crimes in Libya (CIWCL), actively investigating events in Syria as well. [i] Please see that this important letter is recieved by the commission of inquiry tasked with studying the August Daraya massacre in Syria.
Despite its size, the following letter is not a report. It makes numerous unusual claims but does not try, within itself, to explain how they were reached. That is explained at the refereces indicated in the endnotes and can be examined there. The CIWCL requests a considered response to the important points raised herein. Please know this is an open letter that will be publicized, along with any response or lack of response. It’s hoped it will be aired prominently, but is already up at the CIWCL site at any rate. [ii]
Daraya Investigation: Quicker than Immediate
In late August Syrian government forces re-conquered the city of Daraya, along the way allegedly committing the largest massacre of civilians to date, reportedly in the range of 400-600 or even more. High Commissioner Ms. Navi Pillay spoke on September 10 on “bearing witness: human rights and accountability in Syria.” She said in part “I am deeply shocked by the recent reports of the killings in Daraya and I urge an immediate investigation into this incident.” [iii]
By the time of this urgent call, there was already a public Internet investigation, in which I am involved, running for two weeks. The fruit of our work so far is available at the research wiki site A Closer Look on Syria. [iv]
“Bearing witness” in the Syrian conflict, as in the Libyan one before it, usually starts with quietly assessing the alleged witnesses. When there are two competing sets, it ends with bearing one set across the river of doubt, while leaving the other stranded on the far shore. The side blaming the government is almost universally selectedfor the crossing, and so is “acountability” directed.
What the opposition-supplied witnesses say happened in Daraya is well known, familiar, and generally accepted. But we also get to hear, louder and clearer than usual, from Daraya locals not affiliated with the opposition, thanks to Robert Fisk and others. These alleged witnesses – whose number and consistency we have yet to witness, mention government loyalists taken hostage in unknown numbers, many of them executed as the army pushed out the insurgents.
Some specify the armed men who had run of Daraya broke into their homes and abducted people, forcing some into “shelters,” explaining this was to protect them from an impending government massacre they (the rebels) already knew about. Several of these people spoke upon liberation by the army, and perhaps others like them were found by anti-government activists over the following days – executed in silence in their basement shelters.
There is also serious obfuscation about the Abu Suleiman Al Darani Mosque at which a reported 150 or more bodies were dispalyed. Opposition sources said they simply found these corpses in the basement of the mosque, perhaps after they were killed by Shabiha in that refuge, in a bold and criminal gesture of disdain for Islam.
Rather, they were clearly killed elsewhere (no blood spay across the floor) and brought there wrapped in the blankets they were then displayed on. The claimed mosque basement is really an open courtyard at night; the bodies are seen again in daylight on the same floor, in the same arrangement, now calle a “makeshift morgue.” Then they were buried in a mass grave that can be verified, comparing satelite images with photos and videos of the scene, as the lot next to this same mosque. On the southern fringe of Daraya, it was apparently a rebel base since at least April, and a viable fall-back point in August.
The Free Syrian Army apparently gathered and brought the massacre victims south with them, but their spokespeople, especially the Local Coordination Committees, have been less than clear about that. The lack of clarity in its turn suggests a guilty conscience, that perhaps rebel forces had the main hand in their deaths.
Two Versions of the Houla Massacre
Foreshadowing the conclusion for any Daraya investigation, Ms. Pillay followed the call quoted above by summarizing the last such undertaking over the once-chief massacre of whole families in Al-Houla, on May 25, 2012, where again the rebels and activists were the ones with immediuate access to the victims:
Meanwhile, as outlined in the most recent report of the Commission of Inquiry, the evidence clearly points to the responsibility of Government forces and their allies for the appalling massacre in El Houleh.
In fact, there’s nothing clear about how the evidence, seen in whole anyway, justifies the findings in question. The way one understands that event, again, comes down to which set of alleged witnesses to believe and which to consider somehow wrong. There were those who sided with the rebels and blamed the government, and did so clearly. But there are also those who sided with the government, as it were, and blamed local rebel brigades and unknown, possibly foreign, auxilliaries. Of course their assessments of who was targeted and why also diverge drastically.
A Closer Look on Syria outlines both sets, both described as alleged witnesses.[v] Our prevailing bias thus far has been to allow the non-rebel witnesses a fair hearing and a chance to see clearly whether or not it meshes with the evidence. If for no other reason that the sore lack of such an approach elsewhere, this bias is valid and potentially useful, and is of course moderated with careful study.
As the relevant investigators may or may know, UNSMIS head Major General Robert Mood submitted a report, after a much more immediate investigation than the CIWCL could ever hope for, also making note of the two schools of thought on what happened. As Mood said at a June 15 press conference :
“The statement we issued after el Houla is still valid. Which means we have been there with an investigating team. We have interviews - interviewed locals with one story, and we have interviewed locals that has [sic] another story… We have put this together, the facts that we can - could establish by what we saw on the ground. We have put together the statements, the witness interviews and we have sent that as a report to UN headquarters, New York.” [vi]
This report was never handed to members of the UN Security Council, and has been downplayed wherever possible. It’s almost as if it doesn’t exist. An image prevails that only the Syrian government (the possibly guilty party) could provide so-called witnesses for their version. But the monitors were able to find them instantly, in the form of locals at the scene. The Commission of Inquiry’s interim report (oral update) of June 26 made no mention of the UNSMIS witnesses with “another story.” Nonetheless, that early report conveyed as viable possibilities both a rebel attack and a government attack, and found evidence and arguments – aside from witness acounts - in support of both.[vii]
One Version Preferred
While both narratives of the Houla massacre made it through in the oral update of late June, there was even then a perceptible bias for those blaming the government. Something happened before the final report of August, the bias was enhanced and solidified, and the opposing version was mentioed only enough to explain why it didn’t matter. They would, as the mass media and world governments had already done, embrace the anti-government set as “the witnesses.” Paragraph 44 of the final report lays out the CoI’s final attitude:
Forty-seven interviews from various sources were considered by the commission. Interviews were consistent in their depiction of events and their description of the perpetrators as Government forces and Shabbiha. Apart from the two witnesses in the Government report, no other account supported the Government’s version of events. The commission carefully reviewed the two witnesses’ testimony as set out in that report, and judged their accounts as unreliable owing to a number of inconsistencies (see also annex IV). Accounts of other witnesses interviewed by different investigators remained consistent, including those collected from children, despite the fact that they were conducted over an extended period of time.[viii]
The body of witnesses the commission has sided with here, those with public accounts we can verify, are indeed consistent in “their description of the perpetrators as Government forces and Shabbiha.” The conformity between accounts on that point can signify a common reality they witnessed, or, possibly, a script they were familiarized with. They also consistently show how the villains managed to leave almost exactly one miracle escapee from each crime scene to tell the world.
According to these escapees, the attackers also revealed who they were and where they were from, broadcast their Shi’ite/Alawite sectarian beliefs with chants and forehead painting, and were seen by some marching all the way back to the Alawite village of Foulah. The Shabiha’s brutish stupidity and genocidal cruelty to Sunni families comes through, along with their heretical disdain for Islam in general (stomping on a Quran, etc.). Thus, their accounts are consistently well-suited for the anti-government and anti-Alawite propaganda they’ve served as. True or untrue, these allegations, along with many many others, have already sown the seeds of future discord up to full genocide against Syria’s Alawi community and those remaining loyal to the existing government.
Some of the purported witnesses are rebel fighters, defectors, who could be helping cover for comrades, or even be involved in the killing themselves. They too consistently cite primarily the Shabiha, rather than themselves. Some of the civilians, including Ali Al-Sayed (see below) and a woman called “Fatima,” have a penchant for implicating their own alleged family members in the slaughter they survived. Ali describes seeing an unnamed uncle of his hobnobbing with Shabiha after the killings, and then lying about it on Syrian TV, blaming armed gangs. [ix] “Fatima” strings together for our eyes all the clues to realize, just then in her Youtube interview, the truth. Her own husband, missing for the exact duration of the massacre, must have been the masked man leading the rampage, and he abducted their 4-year-old son. Also, her hiding in the AbdulRazaq home with “around 40 to 50 kids and women inside the house” (no such house) is what got them all killed by her husband’s rampage, while she survived to reveal this strange story. [x]
The accounts of children in particular “remained consistent,” the report noted, “despite the fact that they were conducted over an extended period of time” and with “different investigators.” Most of the few child witnesses have publicly spoken to only one source each. Only the famous Ali Al-Sayed has given numerous accounts, and the CoI’s statement, at least in reference to him, is incredibly misleading. I sent an e-mail to the UNHRC (to: infoDesk@ohchr.org, July 5, 2012) directed to investigators. This drew their attention to a research article on that particular, ridiculously unrealiable, alleged witness, demonstrating the drastic shifting of crucial details from one account to the next. [xi] Heeding this timely assessment could have saved the CoI the embarrassment of that line in paragraph 44.
In summary, Ali has alternately given his father’s name as Ali, Aref, and Shaoqi/Shawki. His older brother once was Shawki/Shaoqi, and elsewhere Aref. His killed uncle was named Oqba sometimes, and at other times, yet another Aref. He once said these men were killed first, before the mother and the children were gunned down. In another version, they hid like cowards while the mother and children were killed and the Shabiha looted the house ; they were only killed upon chance discovery, still hiding, as the attackers left. As for the looting, Ali cites 2 or 3 TV sets stolen, a computer and, depending on the version, a vacuum cleaner or the family’s washing machine. [xii] Those seem both pointless/awkward to steal, and difficult to confuse.
Ali Al-Sayed, therefore, is clearly not reliable and may not be a witness at all. Even his credibility-building “real name” might not be that. His age doesn’t seem to be given correctly; he appears closer to eight years old than to the stated eleven. He does remain consistent in blaming the government, identifying the killers as Shabiha; with all the knowledge of an 8-11 year-old, he recognized their foreign “Alawite accent” from the town one mile away. And and he demands intervention from the “world community” who are so far “doing nothing.” If that consistency on the political implications, absent real-witness details (like what his closest family members were named) is adequate for the commission to believe his politicized pseudo-testimony, the world is a sad place.
One Version Ostracized
Taking out the opposition, the CoI’s final report mischaracterized the number of non-rebel witnesses with an untrue statement ; again from paragraph 44, “apart from the two witnesses in the Government report, no other account supported the Government’s version of events.” In contrast, our research wiki has listed at least seven such witnesses, five more than they felt exist, and perhaps more than ten, (with some uncertainty and possible overlap).[xiii]
As the CoI once found, these accounts are consistent with some clues on the ground. For example, they decided in June that “the evidence collected by the CoI indicates that … either in retaliation [for the shelling], or in a pre-meditated attack, anti-Government armed groups, including the FSA present in Taldou, fired upon the security forces checkpoints, probably overrunning one or two of them.” [xiv] The rebels speak only a single, un-planned clash at a checkpoint, not of any conquest of any of the at least four such posts in Taldou. The non-rebel witnesses, collectively, specify three posts taken (near the ‘water plant,’ near or at the National hospital, and the clocktower roundabout). The roundabout, next to the mosque where the rebels would lay out the dead, remained out of government control in the following days, littered with abandoned personnel carriers and tanks, and empty sanbagged fortifications. Nearly every available surface is marred with Arabic graffiti (no translation yet), always black. Some remains readable, but the majority of it was painted over with more black spraypaint before the monitors and the media arrived (unless some serious nihilists were involved, saying the world ‘big black rectangle of nothing (unless some serious nihilists were involved, saying to the world ‘big black rectangle of nothing.’). [xv]
The fourth post, a mobile unit, remains unclear. Maybe it drove away to safety. Location videos of May 26 and May 27 show clear signs of battle at the arches (Qaws) over main street, near which that post was reportedly stationed. Along with moderate damage to all the buildings lining the streets north and southof the position, the arches are marked by bullet holes, and some crest in the center – a great place for the national colors, perhaps - was apparently torn down. The CoI later decided that “the checkpoint at Al-Qaws, which is closest to the Al-Sayed house [sic] on Main Street, remained in Government control on the day of the incident. The front line between the opposition and Government forces was north of the checkpoint” [xvi] The bullet holes we can see suggest firing from the south, from the area of the hospital. In fact, all this is less consistent with government shelling or Shabiha invasion than with an up-close rebel/Islamist attack and conquest, if temporary, at the same time as the massacre.
The two government/SANA witness the CoI acknowledged were actually interviewed by Marat Musin and an Abkhazian news team from ANNA. This team also talked with three other witnesses; a policeman, a soldier injured in the rebel attack, and acivilian local, all generally consistent with each other and the city-wide battle evidenced by the above clues. That makes five witnesses. “Jibril” and an anonymous man from Kafr Laha were both sheltered at a Christian monastery at Qaraa, and cited pretty widely. By that and account details, these two are quite possibly the same person. That makes at least six, maybe seven.
Unclear “opposition activists” collected an unclear number of witness accounts they passed on, second-hand, to Rainer Hermann in Germany, cited in a report for the widely-read Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. This report was actually addressed by the CoI, and dismissed in footnote 100 (page 65). They explain they “examined the version of events reported in [FAZ],” for some reason combined with ANNA’s report, and “found these reports relied primarily on the same two witnesses as the Government’s report and not on additional investigation or witnesses in Al-Houla.” The ANNA-SANA link is already known, but the finding about Hermann’s witnesses remains unexplained. (Hermann also cited anonymous from Qaraa, which the CoI missed.) Considering the ambiguity, that’s at least zero more witnesses, and possibly several.
An anonymous man from Houla dubbed “Ahmed,” apparently of the Abdul Razaq family, later spoke to Jurgen Todenhöffer, becoming the first known miracle escapee for the ostracized version of events. “Ahmed’’ says he convinced the attackers in his home he was still Sunni, while his brother and his family next door were less lucky - slaughtered for going Shi’ite. [xvii] And that makes at least seven public witnesses to the two acknowledged by the CoI.
And, of course, there is whoever and however many were in the UNSMIS report with “another story.” Perhaps these too are only two in number, and the same two the CoI feel are the only ones the government could scrounge up. But chances are that’s not the case.
So while substantial, the field of such known, alleged, witnesses is not huge. They tend to be ananymous, claiming to fear for their own and their family’s lives in a rebel-dominated area. Unfortunately, they tend to mix what they (allegedly) witnessed with what they heard from others in a sometimes confusing way. It’s this last that does the most harm in the CoI’s assessment. Annex IV of the final report explained :
“The commission, nevertheless, carefully reviewed their testimony as set out in the Government report and interviews they gave to other sources, and deemed their accounts to be unreliable as they contained a number of inconsistencies.” [xviii]
The supposed inconsistencies, most of which we can double-check, were almost exlusively regarding the female witness, nicknamed by us “Arifah,” while all but ignoring the other one, dubbed “the Rebel Defector.” He claimed to be one of the attackers who somehow wound up spilling the beans on an event he was clearly unhappy with. Describing the attack from the inside, and naming commanders spoken of by those around him, his account is fairly strong, and barely addressed. “As noted, the commission’s request to interview those two witnesses was not fulfilled, not the best sign for their credibility, and that meant “that those inconsistencies could not be further explored” or, for that matter, cleared up. However, some of the supposed diecrepancies could be explained by paying closer attention to what’s said (see point 2 below).
Challenging the Dismissal
Following are the six examples laid out by the CoI in their annex IV, presumably the stronger arguments to explain their disdain for these two “unreliabale” alleged witnesses, and my own six informed rebuttals:
1. They failed to describe the location of the main incident, specifically the Abdulrazzak family home [sic];
Collectively, the non-rebel witnesses describe a city-wide attack on Taldou by different waves of rebel attackers over the day. Neither of these two specifies they were at any of the numerous attacked homes of the Abdulrazaq family. “Arifah” never specifies her locale, to our knowledge. The rebel defector claims to have been on “Tripoli Road,” which apparently leads to the site, but it seems likely his unit wasn’t involved in the massacre at the end of the road. So why either of them should have described it is not clear.
2. The witness purported to know that in the northern part of the town “terrorists” were distributing ammunition to each other, but elsewhere the witness described her presence as being in the centre near the clock tower or further south during the same time frame;
The publicly available sources do not specify “Arifah’s” location. If, however, the commission had access to a fuller interview or a better transcript, this is just something we missed. However, the weapons distribution cited was in the south of town, where she never claimed to be, near the hospital, following the 3:30 pm conquest of that army post.
"After taking over the checkpoint they stole the weapons and ammo which was in it and began distributing them among themselves, then immediately set fire to the checkpoint along with the nearby hospital and the woods behind it."
If the commission reviewed her video testimony, they should have caught that, as well as this clever way around the distance problem(s) that she offered up-front. “Some men carried radio telephones (walkie-talkies) and we heard their conversations from inside our houses.” It could be she's altering details to obscure her identity; by “houses” she might mean security posts. It seems possible that “Arifah” was, or was related to, soldiers and/or police, describing in detail various deadly attacks on them in different areas, most or all of it learned either from radio traffic or later discussions with witnesses she knew.
3-. The witness also stated that the “terrorists” included “strangers who don’t belong to our village,” and was able to remember their names individually while the village has 30,000 people, and the whole area of Al-Houla’s population is more than 100,000. It is unclear how she could be so certain of terrorist individual identities\names in the described context;
“Arifah” mentions strangers, names unknown, as well as some locals (most of them not townsfolk) who were notorious regional crime lords. Especially if she was a police officer, hearing reports from the field, she could easily pick up a visual ID of scum-buckets like Haytham Al-Hallak/Al-Hassan, Nidal Bakkour, and Manaf Abdulrazaq Tlass. In fact, given the crimes of these thugs, as she describes them in her testimony, just why those names should suddenly be so forgettable is not made clear by the CoI in their report.
4. The witness said she saw the burning at the hospital area “when we passed by.” The area around the hospital was in government hands throughout, so it is unclear when and how she was able to reach the given location given the circumstances of the day;
First, we’re aware of nothing in the publicly available accounts saying she passed the hospital. Again, however, yielding the point, the discrepancy itself is not clear. The CoI seem to have no good guess just what kind of witness she was, or how she got her information. Yet they feel she's some class of person that can't set foot in or pass through an area under “government control,” without withering up and blowing away. “Jibril”/Anonymous also says the hospital was attacked and burned.
5. She suggested that the armed groups were in fact mentioning the real first names of the groups’ leaders over their radio communications. The commission finds this lacking credibility;
There is a certain amount of logic against that, as it risks exposure. Using code names would clearly be a safer choice. On the other hand, they might have been arrogant and sloppy. They may have felt even if they were overheard and that was revealed, that no one who mattered would believe the messenger. The CoI chose not to believe the claim, suggesting that any such calculation would have been correct.
6. The witness described the Al-Sayed family as having been shot from across the street when all other evidence, including by UNSMIS visiting the scene, indicate the victims died from gunshots at close range.
I’m not sure where the “across the street” part came from. There were at least two, probably three Al-Sayed households allegedly attacked (Muawiya, Abdelmutti/Mashlab, Oqba, and Ali have been named as heads), so which one is meant is not clear. The non-rebel side has no witnesses on the inside of that portion of the massacre, and even “Arifah” has no details from these late-night attacks. Perhaps the attackers were on radio silence.
In summary, the reasons for dismissing one whole version of events are:
1) An underlying impression that the anti-government witness set is broad, deep, and completely honest.
2) Falsely simmering down the opposing camp to only two recycled witnesses.
3) Focusing on the details of only one of those two, the one with more possible inconsistencies.
4) Using those alleged flaws to make a plausible-looking case for dismissing the two witnesses standing in for all of them.
5) Relying on a lack of direct access as an excuse why, unfortunately and/or conveniently, “those inconsistencies could not be further explored” and/or resolved.
The Importance of Reality
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is all about Rights, which are supposedly bestowed on Human Beings. These are physical organisms that live within a world governed by set rules of causation, which, in Al-Houla, led to the physical and brutal deaths of around 108 people. The best ways to determine the exact crime, its causes, and the wisest solution to prevent more of the same, are the time-tested methods of truth divination supposedly followed to this day: collecting and assessing physical (photographic) evidence, gathering purported eyewitness evidence, looking for patterns, applying logic. Truth is of course the best basis for justice, and as UNHRC President Lasserre said in Geneva on September 10 truth and justice are first among four things (the others being “reparation and guarantees of non-repetition”) which are “central in combatting impunity and consolidating a democratic society.” [xix]
Yet these methods of finding the physical truth seem to be poorly employed in the UN’s investigations thus far, at least in Syria and, before that, in Libya. They wind up championing people who exist only in rebel statements, from crimes that only on paper aren’t rebel ones. Continuing on this path risks assisting abhorrent war criminals, the perpetrators of the actual carnage at Houla and Daraya and much more, into power over all of Syria’s physical people. Every person of every sect, from the cradle to the grave, except those who flee, would be at their mercy. The CoI may have assessed this risk as close to 0%, but they could be wrong, and the cost could be a quarter of a million people unnecessarily killed before the dust finally settles.
As a believer in the physical world as the home of truth, and respect for that as the proper basis for justice, I must speak out and advocate against this deadly selective blindness. I urge all relevant investigators to please have mental courage and, whatever the countervailing forces, keep reality and those who live in it foremost in mind.
Cofounder, Citizen’s Investigation into War Crimes in Libya.
[iv] Daraya Massacre. A Closer Look on Syria. Last modified Septmber 18, 2012.
[v] Houla: Alleged Witnesses. A Closer Look on Syria. Last modified 28 June, 2012.
[ix] Ali Al-Sayed.’ A Closer Look on Syria. Last modied 22 September.
[x] "Fatima" A Closer Look on Syria, Houla:Alleged witnesses for a government/Shabiha attack
[xiii] Houla:Alleged witnesses for a rebel attack. A Closer Look on Syria. Last modified 22 September.
[xiv] See vii para 34, p. 7
[xvi] See viii paragraph 45, p. 11