On HRW's "murky" Invest​igation of the Crime​s at Aqrab 

Sent December 22, 2012 to Human Rights Watch 

hrwpress@hrw.org, blatche@hrw.org, berlin@hrw.org


Greetings. My name is Adam Larson, and I’m the cofounder of Citizen’s Investigation into War Crimes in Libya (CIWCL - ciwclibya.org). We’re not famous, but since June, we've been focusing (without a name-change) on events in Syria. At the moment, we’re studying the subject of this message - the mysterious recent events in Aqrab, Syria.


The following is an open letter that will be published at the CIWCL site and hopefully more prominent places as well. In lieu of one clear address for such things, I'm sending this message to three addresses. Please, someone among you, see that this message gets to all relevant people, especially Middle East director Nadim Houry,


Compelling Evidence ?

As Human Rights Watch (HRW hereafter) will be aware, eleven days ago it was alleged that some 125-150 or more Alawi civilians were killed in Aqrab, just two miles north of the rebel stronghold of Al-Houla. The first reports were from Sunni activists who said they had besieged and surrounded a house containing criminal Shabiha, until they learned of a huge number of civilian human shields there too. Talks were tried, but the Shabiha killed the negotiators and then killed their captives with grenades, blew up the building somehow, and slipped away through the rebel cordon never to be seen again. The building explosion wasn't enough to kill their now-unneeded human shields, so the government itself finished the job with both artillery and air strikes. They did this to frame the rebels, they said. [i] The rebels were there the whole time, but apparently never fired a shot and remained stunned on the sidelines as these events cascaded around them, completely un-recorded.


There was an unusual level of skepticism evident in the first Reuters dispatches. he said, without explaining why they would attack their own side.Duly citing the rebel-held boy witness who vaguely blamed Shabiha, they noted “it was not clear whether the boy was speaking freely.” [ii]


Veteran war reporter Alex Thomson for Channel 4 news has stated the boy and others were “apparently speaking under duress.” Of course his actual reporting, from the scene, challenged the story the rebels had them tell us. Thomson was the first journalist, and still the only Western one, to bother getting up to the edge of Aqrab (no one dares go in - it’s been ‘liberated’). He brought back what could be called compelling evidence: three alleged witnesses separately interviewed on-video with no minder from either side, ‘dozens’ of off-camera interviews, and a visual survey of them and the city they fled. All of these painted a consistent picture that seems to have all but convinced Thomson that the rebel narrative he aggressively attacked was a lie. [iii]


Channel 4’s report was widely respected and accepted, and was soon corroborated by similar video reports by Al-Khabar Tele-Site (Syria) [iv] and Al-Mayadeen TV (Lebanon) [v]. Speaking to refugees and escapees in neighboring Al-Taonah (2 km west of Aqrab and vulnerable), all these reporters heard the same story. It wasn’t Alawite militias but heavily-armed foreign-backed Sunni rebels from nearby Al-Houla that took them hostage. That’s why they were around the building.


Collectively, they say about 500 Alawites, all those who didn’t flee in time, were rounded up soon after the decisive rebel conquest of the city on December 2 (an event acknowledged by both sides). Their homes were burnt, and they were all herded into a house owned by a local businessman. Theose who allegedly escaped report being badly mistreated, denied food and water, and by one account and some evidence, subjected to the smoke of burning tires in the confined space. [vi]


All this is consistent with an intent to force some decision on the part of the Alawites. The "Shabiha" keeping the women and chldren imprisoned there were perhaps their male family members, and any bond holding them was of love - they didn’t want to be separated. They say the rebels wanted to spare the women and children, to be cared for as human shields in rebel-held Al-Houla. The men were to be killed.


It seems about 300 prisoners total were released, perhaps in exchange for some of the four rebel commanders the captors wanted in trade. Some others may have escaped. Most of those released went to Al-Taonah, but some were re-routed to Al-Houla after all. That’s likely who we saw blaming the Shabiha in the clear presence of rebel minders.


It’s true, as Houry notes, that we cannot with certainty consider a massacre to have happened. However, the urgent fact is that the same approximately 200 people the rebels last described as mostly dead are in fact unaccounted for. As Thomson noted, the prison building the escapees point to was still standing, not demolished and bombed like the rebels first said. One early report specifies 233 prisoners, nearly all of them Alawite, were finally killed by the rebels; 88 of those were women and children. [vii] This might suggest they got their way – the remaining men plus a few dozen die-hard family members were liquidated. Among those seen wounded and cared for in Al-Houla, there seem to be only women and children. As with at Deir Al-Asafir, there are shrapnel/shelling/bombing injuries among them hat look a lot like bullet holes. [viii]


It will be hard for some to fathom. How could Human Beings, and anti-dictator freedom-fighters at that, be so cruel and deceptive? Aren’t they Muslims? Don’t they understand Human Rights norms? In fact they’ve never had to. Anything really horrible they do will go down as yet another cartoonishly evil crime of the "Shabiha" and/or the Alawite puppet-master Bashar Al-Assad. HRW and many others have always been there to help. It’s hard to learn in an overly-permissive climate like that.


Judging by the various responses, the world public recognizes the logic of the clarified narrative, and embraces Thomson’s report as a rare case of excellent journalism in the climate that both enables rebel crimes and clearly discourages clear reporting like this.


Rebel Response

The Syrian opposition leader of the NCSROF, Mouaz Alkhatib, issued an interesting statements on Dec. 12, speaking with the “Friends of Syria” in Marrakech just as news of the Aqrab massacre broke. Alkhatib used the then-prevailing storyline of Alawite-on-Alawite violence to urge the whole Alawi community to rise up against the government with the rebellion; the alleged massacre was pronounced a “turning point” for the whole war that was sure to finally trigger the Alawite awakening. That hasn’t been retracted, but after the 14th, such calls were not heard again as rebels and their supporters perhaps started trying to forget the whole issue.


With another week since the questions were lowered, the rebel brigades and the opposition activists have yet to provide any video proof the captives are dead or, conversely, that they’re still alive. Anyone of influence who is concerned with the rights of Humans, even Alawite ones, might make themselves useful by pressing the NCSROF, the "legitimate representatives" of the Syrian people, to press their armed forces to help clarify this matter.


If such things are possible. If not, God help Syria now.


HRW’s Response Thus Far

Whatever exactly happened, this is clearly a Human tragedy of some type and degree, and one HRW should take at least as seriously as most. I’m not implying the organization is reticent to find out and speak up. The evidence implies it.


When the Houla Massacre happened on May 25, the same day as the biggest rebel offensive there to date, it took three days for HRW to weigh in. They had seen enough rebel videos of alleged witnesses to announce “All of the witnesses stated the armed men [who massacred families] were pro-government,” and demanded a UN investigation. [ix]There has been no follow-up when other witnesses and other evidence emerged from UN Monitors, rebel vidoes, and other sources, proving the rebels gained military control of Taldou at the same time the mass-killings occurred. [x] HRW were last seen blaming the Syrian government and the Alawite "Shabiha" for the massacre, and thus contributing to the mania that drives (or covers the real reason for) persecution of Alawites like we witnessed in Aqrab (or chose not to witness, as the case may be).


When 11 children were massacred in Deir Al-Asafir exactly six months later, and rebels who controlled their bodies blamed cluster bombs, HRW decided within two days that was “compelling evidence” of another grave crime of the government.[xi] It’s entirely possible they’re correct, but I alerted HRW to some interesting questions about that in a recent e-mail. In case the message never got through to the right people, it’s still publicly available on the Internet. [xii]


This time, the death toll is at least as big as both of those combined. It has been eleven days since the alleged massacre, ten since the news broke on December 12, and eight days since Channel 4 gave us our first detailed glimpse behind that curtain. Still, there is no report or public statement on the HRW website, even to announce that it’s being looked at.


At the very least we can say things are a bit behind schedule.


In the interim, we have had small words from Middle East director Nadim Houry, ensuring us (with some prodding) that there is an investigation. The Los Angeles Times quoted him on December 15 as saying:

“…the situation in Aqrab was "very murky," but it seemed clear that  a number of people had been killed. "There are various narratives there, and we don’t have enough to have a conclusion yet," Houry said. "I’m not using the word massacre. It’s not clear to me how they died." [xiii]


Previously, when it has seemed clear enough the government is responsible, HRW has been quick to blame them. But now it’s plain for the world to see this is a rebel crime, and an extremely grave one that threatens the whole humanitarian intervention narrative. Perhaps coincidentally, it’s also far too "murky" for HRW to call just yet.


Given this climate of suspicious silence, Mr. Houry made a serious mis-step with this Twitter message of December 17 :

How to get to bottom of Aqrab massacre claims? send UN investigation team to the scene. Who can allow them in? #Syria government


Nevermind who would allow them in, UN monitors who can only be sent in with a mandate, which the Western powers willingly allowed to expire in August. By citing as the best (only mentioned) solution an investigation that can’t happen, then blaming the Syrian governmnet for that, I read this as a tacit admission that HRW cannot or will not be getting to the truth, and probably nobody will or should. That permanent mystery would be Syria’s fault, and so we should presume they’re trying to hide the truth as usual, and so might be to blame after all, somehow.


Mr. Houry’s Twitter responses to some criticism are slightly reassuring, if a bit defensive.


“… we don't know what happened in Aqrab & still investigating. … Aqrab may be a massacre. We just don't know yet given lack of available info & ongoing investigation … Where did I say we concluded our investigation.”


The CIWCL, and many others, look forward to the announced results of this investigation, if it’s ever concluded.



One of Houry’s tweets said “when i was asked the question, narrative was Alawites killed Alawites. I said, details were murky. Which by they still are.” … FYI Journo asked me about Alawite v. Alawite.” If he means his LA Times interview on the 15th, that was not the narrative. The point of that was supposed to be asking for his comment post-Channel 4. He implies that he wasn’t asked about that, and perhaps he wasn’t.


So apparently Mr. Houry has not yet commented on that in the days since it appeared - aside from seemingly passing the buck to nobody. It would be most useful if he now did.


“Murky” is indeed the right word for the pre-existing rebel narrative(s), but it’s now been contrasted with something much clearer and less confusing. It squarely blames the rebels with the murky stories, and Mr. Houry says “details were murky. Which by they still are.” He has no comment on the details of the new type of murkiness, but it’s implicitly about the same as before. Five rebel versions plus Thomson’s report might equal, on average, rebels mostly right somehow.  


All one really needs to do to investigate a crime is review the evidence, as we few ordinary citizens have done just with what’s been made publicly available. [xiv] With their resources, HRW could do something much better; in fact, much of their work has been done for them. And of course, HRW has the influence to be even clearer in its identification of the Human Rights violators responsible, and more powerful in demanding accountability.


Please be aware this is no time for making a game of finding some excuse to discount the evidence behind these escalating events in Syria. In the emptied streets of Aqrab of all places, there is ample room for the unforgivable rebel atrocity being the sad truth of the matter, and everybody knows it. And if that were the case, as it seems to be, I need not elaborate on the grave threat that would be posed - to HRW’s credibility, to Human Rights in Syria into 2013, to World Peace and the Human Soul - by the world community proceeding as it has despite that fact.


We don’t need a clever way to blame the Syrian government again. We need a voice for truth, now more than ever, or next time it may be worse yet, and harder yet to admit the horrible truth.



Adam J. Larson

Cofounder, Citizen’s Investigation into War Crimes in Libya

[v] Al-Mayadeen Report: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVZGIuXLHIs (starts at 6 :25, English subs)

[vi] Smoke evidence:

-        Al-Mayadeen Escapee in Al-Taonah: “They’re burning tires inside the building to suffocate them. There’s no water, no food. Perhaps 3/4 of the people there are already dead by now.”

-        An enhanced view of the house Channel 4 heard was the prison shows smoke stains above the windows on the foreground/attached building, and from lower floors of the main building, but not from the blacked-out upper windows those 200 people were last seen behind. http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/File:Aqrab_Hostage_House_enhanced.png

-        A woman speaking on rebel video (content uncertain), has smoke stains in her nostrils : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4DBBjRi7qY

-        An injured teenage boy (possibly the same one famously seen blaming the Shabiha) has smoke-stained hands. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQQJlrhZ-Dc

He acts frightened and talks much, so might be the one NYT quoted as saying "Man, so what if I was in the Alawite sect?" Significance of the past tense “was” not clear. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/world/middleeast/alawite-massacre-in-syria.html?_r=0

[viii] Apparent gunshot wounds (non-expert assessment) :

- boy’s legs, three hits minimum, back side (same one with the smoke-stained hands): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQQJlrhZ-Dc

teenage boy’s back/right side, toddler’s head (left side): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAdl6zFNd8I


Massacre late on May 25, statement up on May 28. http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/05/27/syria-un-inquiry-should-investigate-houla-killings

[x] Our research on the events of May 25 indicates that anyone’s research, if continued in an even-handed fashion, would at the last cast serious doubt on the controlled half-probes thus far carried out.

-        See here for links to all of it – witness analysis, video and scene analysis, timelines, etc.: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/The_Houla_massacre

-        And in particular, this page on the rebel offensive of May 25: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Houla,_May_25:_Who_Was_in_Control%3F

-        And as for UNSMIS findings, please don’t ignore the censored portion of their first report featuring … two credible and conflicting versions of what happened. We predict that the silenced set agrees with the facts now documented, conflicting only with the accepted rebel cover-story. http://blogs.taz.de/netizenblog/2012/11/28/why-is-unsmis-report-missing/