On the Deir Al-Asafir "Playground Bombing"  (Syria)

sent to Human Rights Watch, December 12, 2012
hrwpress@hrw.org, blatche@hrw.org, berlin@hrw.org

December 12, 2012


Greetings. My name is Adam Larson, and I’m the cofounder of Citizen’s Investigation into War Crimes in Libya (ciwclibya.org). Since June, we've been focusing (without a name-change) on events in Syria. In lieu of one clear address for such things, I'm sending this to three addresses. Please, someone among you, see that this message gets to the research/fact-finding department.


I write this open letter (will be published) in regard to the recent Human Rights Watch report on the alleged government bombing of children in Deir al Asafir, Syria, with cluster munitions. If the investigation into that is ongoing, HRW might want to consider the findings published at the research wiki I’m a contributor at: http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Deir_Al-Asafir_Playground_Bombing (the work on this is primarily my own so far, and it will improve in time). As this high-profile alleged use of unconventional weapons fed into about-to-emerge fears of the government using chemical weapons, and as we now stand on the verge of someone relesing toxic gas to secure more direct Western intervention, it’s past time to think carefully about who was really behind the killing at Deir Al-Asafir and in so many other places in Syria.


The Map
I double-checked the video location HRW's researchers selected and agree 100%. Only later did I see how it was done. But as can be seen at our research page, I did it the same way, although it was only to confirm, which is obviously easier.

While the pictures are right, the given coordinates – 36.4230E 33.4656N – are incorrect, pointing to another town just north of there. In case it’s worth correcting, I got this for the alleged bombing site: 33.465691E,36.422853N


Also the (clinic ?) location the victims are off-loaded at is perhaps pinned down (here), immediately across from the town’s central mosque, 400 meters west of the field. My initial shadow analysis suggests a time around 3:00PM, give or take 20 minutes. (The latter video, in the field, is at 4 :30, +/- 20 minutes. I was unable to say just what azimuth angle the sun is at.) 


In exchange for these small contributions, I ask only for a hearing-out the following and, if not structurally prohibited, perhaps some of the appropriate follow-up vis-avis the public record.


The Stricken Home 

The alleged bomblet spread seems strange. Of six bombs dropped, three aren’t explained. HRW specified three; one fell on a field killing two, 150 meters from where another bomb “landed in the field where the witnesses said the children were playing,” while another “landed on a house less than 50 meters away” from that spot. 


Having used it to set the location, Human Rights Watch will have studied the field video of the alleged bombing site. A shrapnel hole or possibly bullet hole can be seen in the tea pot they were playing tea time with, along with the splashes of blood on the dirt. Buildings 50 meters distant to the north are shown with damage not unlike the horizontal "regime shelling" of the rebel assault on al-Houla on May 25, just before the "regime massacre" there. * Anti-aircraft rounds and RPGs seem to be reasonable explanations for both.


Having seen the video, HRW's researchers will have seen the long sequence where the courtyard of a home is entered, immediately next to the ‘playground,’ just a few meters distant. If this is the bombed home, the given distance - "less than 50 meters" from the killing site - is misleading, if not technically incorrect. It’s said the second bomb, or some of its 150 bomblets, "landed on" this home, while another 150 hit the near back yard, for 300 alleged bomblets centered on an area perhaps 30 meters square.


Conversely, if the home that was bombed is a different one (maybe one of those to the north, about 50 meters, that do show marks), then this one where people apparently died is left unexplained. Either option should be seen as interesting and worth further study.


When the camera steps inside a room where it seems people were killed, it’s nice and dark, with no hint of a ruptured roof, and little reason to expect one from the relatively low-powered cluster bomblets. The only things really out of place are a door-sized wooden frame, just behind the door into this room, and some mid-sized piece of machinery, like an air conditioner, just to its right. Perhaps these were pushed back/aside by rescuers after they had fallen on the door in the bombing and blocked it closed. Or perhaps they were put there on purpose, and it was neither a bomb nor sympathetic helpers that pushed the door open. There’s a pink spot in the dust that seems to be a puddle of blood where someone died right against the door after it was opened.


There is a possible timeline problem in the pool of blood by the door; it looks a day old or more and fairly dried, when the alleged bombing was at most two hours prior the filming. The marks seen on the outer walls of the home (2:13, 2:33-38, and 2:43) should be really studied by an expert, along with the whole video, from the near ground to the distant buildings, for signs that can rule out alternate explanations. If nothing can, then the fact they can't be ruled out should be clearly noted. 


The Rest of the “Compelling Evidence” 
HRW’s "compelling evidence" that the Syrian government dropped bombs here shortly before the filming, if I follow, is:
- the bomblets and shell fragments shown on video.
- the two witnesses and the activists speaking on video.
- ‘injuries consistent with those caused by cluster bombs,’ as seen on video.


First, there's nothing wrong with using videos as evidence. Second, one should note that “compelling” is a relative word. Next, there was no video footage of the MiG-23 or of any of these six bombs being dropped. Likewise, there seems to be no such proof in any of the other alleged cluster bombings in Syria. As usual, the only proof these bombs from 40 years ago were actually dropped from a jet on November 25 is the word of the allegd witnesses. The one quoted sounds like an anti-regime activists and, from “the rest of the men who were with me,” possibly a leader of rebel fighters. He could, in fact, have overseen the ground-based killing of the people in question, or be helping cover for it, and he says he saw the Syrian Air Force do it.


An alternate explanation for the bomb debris is that it was simply planted from a rebel pickup truck, after being found or supplied wherever. The ‘gathered’ remains would then really be those they didn’t scatter around for realism. We might see one they did at 2 :43 in the field video, jammed into a hole in the concrete (are the things really that heavy ?), nose-first but with tail fins bent, and undetonated. Do the experts feel this bomblet is shown where found, or arranged for dramatic effect ? How about the rest of the "more than 70?"


As for the injuries, they are arguable consistent with srapnel wounds following an Air Force attack with cluster munitions. But can it be truthfully said they’re not also consistent with some form of execution? Perhaps killing from mid-distance (100 meters?) with old cluster bomblets somehow lobbed en masse by some catapult? Or alternately, with something that explodes similarly, like hand or rocket-propelled grenades? Guns and blade injuries could even be seen as consistent enough.to explain even the most cluster-bomb-looking injuries.


We could in fact be seeing any of these things. One boy suffered a perfectly round bullet-hole-looking wound in his upper forehead, and the girl in purple was apparently wounded in the neck and hardly anywhere else. None of what I’ve seen yet shows the certain execution evidenced by the child victims of the Houla massacre six months to the day earlier. But people can learn and adapt less obvious tactics, especially if the plan was to have it look like a cluster bomb attack. A reliable post-mortem examination could settle the mystery, but such a thing seems just as unlikely with these rebel-held bodies as with all the thousands of others they’ve interred in their mass graves across the country.


Further, while the opposition claim is indiscriminate bombing, I don’t think anyone really has a reliable identification of the victims, their sectarian identity or political affiliations. So discrimination, in whatever method of killing occurred, really can’t be ruled out.


There are other unexplained clues around town. Please see also a November 25 video from Deir al Asafir claiming cluster bomb damage at a fourth location. It’s an apparent hair salon with a pink color theme, with its front windows seemingly shot out with bullets, and blood on the floor inside. Also consider in the famous clinic gate video the obvious adult male who died strangely right there, not at a bombing site, head-down and possibly executed (although the classic signs, again, aren’t there) He died next to an official-looking heavy vehicle, and remains pretty much ignored. Another man lays dead right next to the doors, also just walked past. This is the place where local opposition members feel safe taking victims and bodies they just found. So why are people being killed and ignored there?


One finally note: around 1:30 in the field video, an older man walks up un-invited and starts gesturing towards the camera and the rebel men assessing the bomblets. Any words that might come through with the gestures might be of note.


Nothing in this evidence or the questions raised herein makes this a clear fobbed-off crime of opposition forces, like for example the killing of Sari Saoud, the Douma Hostage Massacre, or arguably the Houla massacre. * But neither is it a clear anything else, not with the amount of brutality and deception following in the wake of the Syrian "revolution," as it drags the nation farther from the mythic Arab Spring into a prolonged Arab Nuclear Winter. 


All along the way, the public is conditioned as a civic duty to oppose the tyrant (the unquestioned villain who does all the bad guy things), and embrace the rebels (good guys doing good and noble things - protesters, activists, freedom fighters), and take their narratives as true. But it’s hard sometimes, or seems irresponsible, to ignore that they – like the government and its supporters - are combatants with an agenda and might fudge the truth.


Thankfully, the professional and neutral voice of HRW is there to, it often seems, launder the opposition's stories with some small changes in wording. Suddenly it's "Human Rights Watch has found...", generally read as "it is true that..." But as we all know, is almost totally based on the usual "activists tell Human Rights Watch that..." We create our own realties, as it’s always been. I ask anyone reading to just remember these created places are not where the Humans with the Rights physically live, suffer, and die. That happens in a place HRW and its constituent Human members might want to pay more attention to someday. 


Most sincerely yours,

Adam Larson,

cofounder, Citizen's Investigation into War Crimes in Libya


* Our detailed investigation of the Houla massacre continues, and has now essentially proven, with numerous points of verified video evidence, that the killings occurred after and during a massive rebel/FSA assault that saw at least three, probably four, and perhaps all five government security posts in Taldou overrun, with the rest pinned down in defensive mode. The non-rebel witnesses and the Syrian government had always said that, and pro-rebel witnesses neglected to mention it, but the video record their own activists left us with underlines that troubling omission. See: Houla, May 25, who was in control?