Home » Critical Flaws in UN Report on Syria, 16 August 2013

Critical Flaws in UN Report on Syria, 16 August 2013

Criticism of the 6th UN Report presented by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria

An Independent Commission of Inquiry was set up by the United Nations in August 2011 to investigate alleged violations of international human rights law in Syria. Much of the mainstream media and political discourse on Syria is presumably being determined by COI reports on Syria.  What follows is a critical analysis of the COI’s 6th report dated 16 August 2013. (See the bottom of this paper for the report’s Summary.)

Some of the main criticisms of this COI report can be summarized as follows:

  1. No information is given about the interviewees. Those directly quoted in the report all present accusations against the ‘government and pro-government armed forces’. This indicates that the sample of interviewees did not include a broad range of Syrian people, and so raises questions about the methodology and bias of the research.
  2. No information is presented about researchers or interviewers involved in supporting the four Commissioners, which means it is impossible to check if there were any conflicts of interest.
  3. It is not known who or what bodies funded the work of the Commission.
  4. The majority of the sweeping charges in the report do not include tentative language although it is presumed they are based on the assertions of interviewees.  There are many more charges levelled against the ‘government and pro-government forces’ than there are against ‘anti-government armed groups’; however, these charges must be taken on trust as there are no references given to any ‘evidence’ except occasionally to the hearsay of interviewees who all present one side.
  5. There are strong grounds for considering the report to be politically biased. Firstly, as stated above, all the interviewees quoted make allegations against the ‘government and pro-government armed forces’. No interviewee is quoted alleging that an ‘anti-government armed group’ committed a crime.  Secondly, despite the strong presence in Syria of anti-government armed groups with links to al-Qaeda or to other listed terrorist organizations and despite the presence of hundreds of different anti-government armed groups (many with foreign Muhajideen among them) who are not accountable to any legitimate authority, the report principally blames the ‘government and pro-government armed forces’ for ‘spreading terror’. In addition, it declines to blame ‘anti-government armed groups’ for car or suicide bomb attacks although these are clear acts of ‘terror’ which almost invariably take place in areas controlled by government forces.  Moreover, despite the fact that the Syrian government and the army are made up of people from all religious backgrounds and the majority of government ministers and army officers and soldiers are Sunni Muslims, and despite the support ‘anti-government armed forces’ receive from scores of extremist clerics across the region (eg Sheik Adnan Arour and Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi) who have encouraged the targeting of minorities and the killing of civilians, in the body of the report it is the government and pro-government armed forces which are chiefly blamed for sewing ‘sectarianism’. It is as if there has been no cry for a ‘holy war’. Finally, in its conclusion, the report implies support for the ‘anti-government armed forces’ by making only one direct recommendation solely to the anti-government armed groups, namely, “The Commission recommends that the anti-government armed forces reject extremist elements” (page 24, 202.). This is after the report has made three precise recommendations to the Syrian Government (page 24, 201.).  It infers that all the crimes committed by ‘anti-government armed forces’ can be blamed on ‘extremist elements’, and it also infers that there are ‘moderate elements’ which the Commissioners believe are not guilty of any crimes. (We are not told who these groups target and kill, who they are allied with or who funds them. We are left to conclude that whoever these forces are, they themselves are blameless. Yet, there is reason to believe that the lines between ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ are very blurred on the ground. For example, was the presence of the head of FSA forces in the Latakia countryside in early August a sign he condoned the massacre of hundreds of Alawi villagers which occurred in Latakia the week or so before his visit?)

The conclusions of this analysis could be summed up thus:

The fluid merging of facts with hearsay discredits the COI report.  Its reliance on anonymous ‘interviewees’ whose allegiances and situations are not known discredits it. Its bias toward interviewees who support the ‘anti-government armed forces’ discredits it.

The analysis which follows is not a thorough examination of the COI UN Report.  A detailed response to the report is beyond the resources of AMRIS. However, it is hoped that it encourages serious questioning of all reports presented to the Human Rights Commission by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

(For another critical analysis of a COI UN report on Syria, go to http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article30714.htm )

 

ANALYSIS OF THE 6th COI UN REPORT on SYRIA:

Questions raised by the UN report’s Summary:

How is the Guilt Spread?

The Summary at the beginning of the COI report gives the impression that ‘government and pro-government forces’ are guiltier of war crimes than the ‘anti-government forces’ and newspaper reports of it confirm this.

There are approximately 60 words in the second paragraph, which presents a summary of the (alleged?) crimes of ‘government and pro-government forces’. Repetition is used to boost the word number, so for example, ‘murder, ‘torture’, and ‘rape, are repeated in separate sentences.

In contrast, there are no repetitions in the third paragraph which focuses on the crimes of ‘anti-government armed groups’.  It is much more succinct and has fewer than 30 words.

Interestingly, the next paragraph adds another war crime committed by the ‘anti-government armed groups’. They have ‘recruited and used child soldiers in hostilities’.  Despite its seriousness, this crime is not highlighted.  It is presented in a separate short one-sentence paragraph along with the first mention of ‘Kurdish armed groups’, which serves as a distraction for the reader.  In the body of the report, there is also minimal attention given this crime and no general condemnation of it by the Commission (101 – 110).  Furthermore, the report lists it under, ‘Violation of children’s rights’.  In that section, the list of crimes allegedly committed by the ‘government and pro-government armed forces’ against children outweighs that allegedly committed by the ‘anti-government armed forces’, meaning the recruiting of children for the war can be easily passed over.

The ‘government and pro-government forces’ are accused of committing three crimes not listed as crimes committed by anti-government armed forces, namely enforced disappearance, rape and pillage. This adds to their being perceived as the guiltiest in this conflict, but does it present the reality on the ground for the people of Syria?

On Enforced Disappearance:

According to the U.N. Human Rights Commission definition of ‘enforced disappearance’ only the State or “persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State” can commit the crime of ‘enforced disappearance’.  This could explain why it is not listed as a crime of the ‘anti-government armed forces’.  However, the U.S. and many of its allies recognize the Syrian National Coalition, an external body as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people.    In that case, can armed forces in Syria receiving funding or direction from the SNC commit the crime of ‘enforced disappearance’?  Many people have been ‘kidnapped’ by anti-government armed forces since the beginning of the conflict.  Many of these may have returned home; the bodies of others may have been delivered to the victims’ families, but others have effectively ‘disappeared’, and these include clergymen, journalists and others.   As the SNC is an external body with some powerful backers, accusations that it has been directly linked to and so responsible for any such ‘disappearances’  are not likely to gain traction.

On Rape:

The fact that there are no allegations of rape made against the ‘anti-government armed forces’, which include tens of thousands of foreign fighters, raises questions regarding the selection of interviewees  Did any of the people interviewed present claims against ‘anti-government armed forces’?

An article on a pro-government website in April 2013 quotes ‘eyewitnesses’ who reported rapes of Christians committed by Jabhat al-Nusra fighters.  Should such accounts be given the same weight as the claims of those anonymous interviewees for this UN study?

The story of Mariam, a young Christian girl raped by at least 15 insurgents in Qusair was published in Agenzia Fides on 2/7/2013.  This demanded investigation.

Mariam was a 15-year-old Christian from Qusair, a city of the governorate in Homs… While her family was able to escape, Mariam was taken and forced into an Islamic marriage …..The commander of the battalion “Jabhat al-Nusra” in Qusair took Mariam, married and raped her. Then he repudiated her. The next day the young woman was forced to marry another Islamic militant. He also raped her and then repudiated her. The same trend was repeated for 15 days, and Mariam was raped by 15 different men. This psychologically destabilized her and made her insane. Mariam, became mentally unstable and was eventually killed.

In April 2013, a period covered by the UN investigation, there were reports of fatwas by extremist clerics condoning the rape of women.  Early in 2013, Sheik Qaradawi, one of the most prominent clerics in the Middle East, condoned the killing of civilians who support the Syrian government. There is evidence that extremist clerics who incite violence in Syria have no regard for the lives of people who do not support the anti-government armed forces.

If a regular army soldier commits rape, it is a crime, without a doubt.  However, in Syria, there are thousands of fighters who support an extremist ideology. They include Takfiris, Salafi jihadists as well as mercenaries from other war zones.  How many of them would believe the rape of women who support the ‘regime’ is not in fact a ‘crime’?  Could this ideology colour the views of any interviewees when reporting on cases of rape?  This is one ‘challenge’ the investigators did not list.

There have been reports of what is termed ‘sexual jihad’ in Syria.  This is when a woman makes herself available for ‘marriage’ to any number of jihadists. For those men and women involved, it would not be classified as rape, but if not rape, at best it is a serious exploitation of impressionable young women and it deserves the attention of UN investigators.  In July, it was reported that women in Ain Tarma, a Damascus suburb allegedly affected by the chemical weapons attack, had been involved in ‘sexual jihad’. A recent report in a Tunisian newspaper details the problems young Tunisian women have encountered after participating in ‘sexual jihad’; many return home pregnant and others have AIDS. Their futures are very uncertain.

In March 2013, a Channel 4 documentary exposed the exploitation and abuse of Syrian women and girls who live in refugee camps: “Syrian women fear sham marriages and rape”.   Yet, this exploitation is not touched on by the COI. Instead, the COI UN report determines that only the Syrian army and ‘pro-government armed forces’ have committed abuses against women based on claims of their interviewees (96 to 100).

Russ Baker, an American investigative journalist, studied the allegations made in 2012 of mass rape being committed by the government forces in Syria.  He traces the sources of claims to Saudi Arabia and the US.  Baker writes,

One of the early and leading claimants for mass rape in Syria is Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a member of the Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of US military interventions in Iraq and Libya. He, along with his friend John McCain, has been in the forefront of pushing for US military participation in support of the uprising against Assad.

By his own account, though, he is often skeptical of the value of inquiries. He by statement or action backed away from inquiries into Hurricane Katrina malfeasance and refused to investigate the murders of civilians by Blackwater in Iraq.

And as Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Lieberman declared: “We like to do legislation,” Lieberman said. “We don’t like investigating … just to see who is at fault.”

Far fewer people who are reading the headlines about Assad being behind mass rapes are likely to read this caveat on the Women Under Siege site:

The thing is, rape is nearly impossible to confirm. …

[Snip]

When documenting rape, as in anything, you have to evaluate your source: Is this coming directly from the woman who was violated? From her cousin? Her cousin’s friend? In the case of Syria, many stories are coming from that cousin’s friend. Or from the cousin’s friend who “heard about” a friend of his brother’s sister…etc. Right now, Syria is a convoluted black hole of second- and third-hand reporting that few conflict zones can rival in recent history.

On Pillage and Looting:

Regarding pillage, in December 2012, an article in The Guardian reported on the looting of the ‘rebels’.

Looting has become a way of life.

“Spoils” have now become the main drive for many units as battalion commanders seek to increase their power.

The fact that there are no reports of the looting and pillage committed by anti-government armed forces again suggests the interviewees were supporters of these forces.  As in Iraq, artefacts are being looted in Syria. There is no reason to assume the looting stopped during this UN inquiry.

On Car Bombs and Terror:

In the Report’s Summary, there is no reference to car bombs and the terror they spread; it is as if they weren’t occurring in Syria and so no one has to be held responsible for them. However, they are mentioned in the body of the report (114) and are placed neatly under a section headed “Undetermined perpetrators”.  In the past,   Jabhat al-Nusra reportedly claimed responsibility for the majority of suicide attacks and car bombs, However, according to the Blog of the Long War Journal, they now choose not to claim responsibility.

At the end of April 2013, a car bomb targeted the Prime Minister, and at least one media report blames ‘rebels’ for it.  Five passers-by were killed. The next day there was another bomb attack in Damascus and 13 people were killed. Again, there was the suggestion in media reports that ‘rebels’ (or ‘terrorists’?)  were responsible, but U.N. investigators appear to want to avoid adding another crime to the list of crimes committed by the ‘anti-government armed forces’.  If the target of the 11 June attack mentioned in the report was a police station, isn’t that sufficient evidence that ‘anti-government armed forces’ were responsible for it?  It occurred in central Damascus and killed 14 people.

In regard to terror, there is little to no suggestion that the ‘anti-government armed forces’ use terror as a tactic of war. This is despite the fact that Jabhat al-Nusra has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its being one of the strongest fighting forces on the ground in Syria. Also despite it being well-known there are al-Qaeda affiliated groups operating in Syria.  Nevertheless, the COI report accuses the ‘government and pro-government forces’ of ‘sewing terror among the civilian population’ (67) and of spreading ‘terror within society’ (74) and no such accusations are levelled against anti-government armed forces.

Even when there is reference to the killing of a Catholic priest (46) the ‘t’ word is not used.  There have been quite a number of priests and imams tortured and killed since the beginning of the crisis, many of them involved in the work of mussalaha (reconciliation).  Two bishops from Aleppo were kidnapped on 22 April 2013 and their fate is still unknown, yet there is no reference to their kidnapping in the UN report.  This writer was informed while on a visit to Beirut and Damascus in May 2013 that there was great pain being felt across the Christian and wider community. The kidnapping of two highly regarded bishops was a sign that anyone could be targeted by the anti-government armed fighters. No one was safe.   This is surely the aim of terrorists?

Syrian news report on bombing in Mazzeh, Damascus, 21 March 2013.  Interview with a Syrian on the scene.

Who were the interviewees?

The findings of the COI report are “based on 258 interviews and other collected evidence”; however, the COI report provides no information about the interviewees. (It is not even clear if there were 258 interviewees or simply 258 separate interviews.) There is no assurance that the UN investigators interviewed a cross-section of the Syrian population. Indeed, after a cursory study of the report, it is fair to conclude that the investigators may have only interviewed supporters and/or members of the various armed groups fighting the government.

There is some but not a lot of evidence of personal testimonies presented by interviewees accusing the government and ‘pro-government forces’ of crimes. For example, in the section detailing ‘enforced disappearance’, there is reference to ‘one interviewee’ who related the story of his brother being arrested (70).  Also, there is reference to a ‘defector’ who ‘cited’ orders he had received when working for the Air Force Intelligence (71).  However, there is no direct claim from an ‘interviewee’ against ‘anti-government armed forces’.  There is reference to torture being committed by the ‘anti-government armed groups’, but the information is not presented by an interviewee. For example, the incident of torture which occurred on July 19 when ‘the Saddam Hussein Battalion beat and tortured a man using the dulah method’ (92) is not a quote from an interviewee, but rather something which is in the public arena and can be sourced easily from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, itself an anti-government webpage.

We do not know whether the interviewees are innocent bystanders or active players in the armed struggle. If they support the militarized opposition and/or the overthrow of the secular state and the setting up of a caliphate in Damascus, what truths would they avoid telling?  Would they lie for a cause?  Or could fear perhaps motivate them to lie?

The fluid merging of facts with hearsay in the report discredits it.  Its reliance on anonymous ‘interviewees’ whose allegiances and situations are not known discredits it. Its bias toward interviewees who support the ‘anti-government armed forces’ discredits it.

(The difficulty of establishing the truth in Syria must not lead to unprofessional short-cuts, particularly when millions of lives depend on the truth.  8 years after Rafic Hariri’s assassination, an international tribunal has yet to establish who was responsible for his death.)

There is an example online of a good survey report commissioned by the UN and dated 2002.  It has a check list, whose questions include: ‘Is the sample size large enough for appropriate precision?’ ‘Was the sample representative of the target population, i.e., nobody was left out in the sampling approach?’ ‘Has the survey questionnaire been provided in the report?’ ‘Are conclusions realistic (e.g., a solid interpretation of what the data can provide and what it can’t)?’  Survey team members are listed, as are the people who funded the report.  There are sections in this ‘good survey report’ model titled, “Ethics and Informed Consent”; “Implementation Schedule”; and “Logistics” (see page 17).  It is noted that under “Ethics and Informed Consent”, people are assured that ‘if you decide not to participate in the survey, nothing bad will happen’ (page 42).  All of these sections could be deemed relevant to a report on Syria, yet they are not presented.

If the COI report on Syria does not meet ‘international standards’ expected of U.N. reports, what damage can it cause and who will accept responsibility for that?

Knowing the answers to some if not all of the following questions could reassure readers of the objectivity and professionalism of the report:

  • Were 258 individuals interviewed or were there 258 ‘interviews’?
  • Had the interviewees participated in previous surveys?
  • Who introduced the interviewees to the Commission?
  • Were interviewees only required to report about what they had witnessed?
  • Where were the interviews conducted?  How many were conducted face to face?  How many by Skype or telephone from Geneva?
  • How was it ensured that the interviewees represented people from different socio-economic, educational backgrounds etc.?
  • How many of those interviewed were refugees? Which refugee camps were they in?
  • How many represented Syrians who support the army?
  • How many represented Syrians who support the armed opposition?
  • How were the interviews conducted to ensure discretion, so those surveyed had no reason to fear retribution?
  • What were the ages and gender of the interviewees?
  • How many of them had participated in the fighting? How many had relatives who had?
  • How many had been a victim of anti-government militias? (See interview of Christian refugee at the bottom of this web page on “Socrates and Syria”. Were any Syrians with similar experiences to his family interviewed? )
  • How many had been a victim of the Syrian army or the National Forces?
  • Were there any family or village links between participants?
  • Were members or supporters of the internal opposition interviewed? Although some of their leaders have been political prisoners in Syria, they generally distinguish themselves from the ‘militarized opposition’.  (See interview of representatives of the “Third Current”, an opposition group based in Damascus, at the bottom of this web page on “Socrates and Syria”.  They referenced Haytham Manna, an opposition leader based in Paris who does not support the armed groups. Was he or any of his supporters interviewed? )

Syria has a population of 22 – 23 million.  They range from members of the regular armed forces and the National Defence Forces to jihadists who fight for the establishment of a caliphate in Syria.  Today, strong opinions are held by Syrians and people will have experienced the crisis in many different tragic ways, and see it through very different lenses.  We must be better informed about the possible bias of the interviewees.  We must be better able to ascertain how the loyalties of interviewees might impact on their accounts of events.

IMG_9732 IMG_9733 IMG_9742 IMG_9743 IMG_9834-001

Images from Syrian TV.  Did Commissioners hear the views of people such as these whose relatives were victims of terror in 2013?

FACT, HEARSAY OR DECEPTION? 

The information provided by the interviewees is in most cases presented as factual.  For example, paragraph 102 lists the alleged crimes of ‘government and pro-government forces’ and begins with the sentence, “Children were the victims of executions”.  It is not known who made this claim.  Paragraph 102 refers to events in May and April in two separate locations (Tartus and Homs), so must presumably draw on the claims of different interviewees. The UN investigators tell us nothing about the interviewees to assure us we can trust their witnessing of events and their allegations.  (Note, there is a discrepancy within the UN report. It refers to ‘pro-government forces’ raiding Al-Bayda on 2 May, but on page 31, paragraph 10 of Appendix 2, it is the ‘army’ which surrounds Al-Bayda and ‘government forces’ and ‘soldiers’ involved in fighting in the town.)  It is reported that “On 10 April, in Khirbet Al-Teen (Homs), a Bedouin family was killed. The adults were shot, while the four children had their throat cut…”.   No tentative language is used.  Are we dealing with facts or allegations?  Assuming the killings of innocent civilians in both locations occurred, are other scenarios besides what is presented in the report possible?  Could people including families have been killed because they didn’t support anti-government armed groups in the area?  What happens to people who dare stand up to the armed groups, including Al-Nusra ‘terrorists’, who come into their villages?  Can their murders be used to blame the army? Are their bodies filmed by ‘rebels’ and their deaths blamed on government forces? Can this happen in the fog of war for the purposes of war propaganda?  If so, why isn’t it presented as one possibility by the UN investigators?  (This raises question over all the massacres which the report blames on the ‘government and pro-government forces’ because of the claims of ‘interviewees’. )

In the COI report, there is only one massacre blamed on ‘anti-government armed groups: a massacre in Hatla, Dayr Az-Zawr (17 – 19).  It is well reported in the mainstream media. The UN report does not make it clear if one of its interviewees reported on the massacre or if the information about the killings was sourced from the public arena.

Other questions must be considered in regards to the killings of people.  For example, how many people in Syria have been victims of the conflict between the hundreds of different anti-government armed groups? There are an increasing number of reports of armed battles between various groups. Are ‘government or pro-government forces’ sometimes blamed for killings committed in this fighting? Are bodies filmed and then presented as ‘civilians’ slaughtered by the army? Furthermore, how many people have been slayed in opportunistic circumstances?  In other words, have people been killed by personal enemies who have attributed the murders to players in the wider conflict?  Are some rogue soldiers killing civilians deliberating to implicate the government in war crimes? Anything is possible in war, but these questions are not considered by the investigators. They are not presented as ‘challenges’.  The writers of this report display implicit trust in anonymous sources with an anti-government bias.

DEFINITIONS

Within the Syrian context, the definitions of the following terms could be disputed; therefore, the authors of the report should define them:

Pro-government forces: (What are these?  Are they all under the command of the army or the government? If not, when can the Syrian government reasonably be held responsible for the actions of forces not under their command?)

Anti-government forces: (How many groups do these forces include?  How many include foreign fighters?  Who funds them?  What do they get paid to do?  What are the different ideologies which guide them? What external players do they have links with? How many fly the al-Qaeda flag?  How many follow the orders of the Syrian National Coalition? )

Rebels:  (Is any armed fighter who is prepared to kill a Syrian soldier or policeman classed as a ‘rebel’?  Are foreign fighters in Syria labeled ‘rebels’?  If so, what are they rebelling against?  Can the terms ‘rebels’ and ‘terrorists’ be synonymous?)

Opposition: (Does the report distinguish between the internal opposition groups which do not support the militarized opposition and those groups who do?  What representatives of the internal political opposition were approached for this research?)

Terror, Terrorist:   (What is classified as terror?  What is a ‘terrorist’?)

Civilians:  (Are people who are in civilian clothes but who have taken up arms still referred to as ‘civilians’?)

Field hospital: (Can any room or area where a wounded fighter is being treated be considered a ‘field hospital’? How are such ‘field hospitals’ marked so they are not targeted in battles?)

The Commissioners  avoid describing car bombings as ‘acts of terror’ committed by ‘terrorists’, as you might expect, and they avoid blaming ‘anti-government armed forces’ for them.  Below is a Russian journalist’s report on a car bomb in Damascus on 8 April 2013.

 

WHO CONFIRMS THE CLAIMS OF THE ‘INTERVIEWEES’?

How many of the claims of the interviewees were the UN researchers able to confirm? It is not clear what evidence they had to support the claims.  It is difficult to find evidence that the COI team made a serious effort to present an objective and fair report. Many statements in the report are broad, sweeping accusations based presumably on claims of interviewees but presented as facts without any references. This report is based on the claims of individuals many of whom could be players in the war. There is no assurance that it isn’t.

Major-General Robert Mood was the head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria in mid-2012.  In press interviews, he conceded that he sent reports from on-the-ground investigations in Syria, but they were not made public. In regards to the massacre in Houla, he interviewed people with varying claims and did not come to a conclusion of culpability in the report he sent to UN headquarters. Yet, the UN report on Houla published a couple of months later held the government and pro-government militias responsible. Although Major-General Mood’s team interviewed people in Houla, the final UN report in its summary on page 2 states, ‘Importantly, victims and witnesses inside the country could not be interviewed in person’. Questions similar to those being posed by this critique have been asked about the UN report into Houla. They warrant serious attention.

It would appear that certain people in UN headquarters, in either New York or Geneva, choose the bias of the UN reports on Syria.  This is a concern.  What would encourage the Syrian government to agree to have UN inspectors on the ground if the bias of others a long way from Damascus inevitably determines what is presented in UN reports?

This bias must impact on the reporting of Syria by the mainstream media.  It must determine events on the ground as foreign fighters continue to rush to Syria to ‘save’ Syrian people from a ‘brutal regime’.

It is difficult to see how biased UN reports can lead toward a peaceful settlement of the war in Syria.

WHY NOW?

This UN Report on Syria was distributed on 16 August 2013.  Why did it receive so much attention from the media more than three weeks later?  Was it related to the long lead-up to the UN report into the chemical attack in Damascus and a possible US military strike on Syria?

On Massacres

Since the publication of the 6th COI report on Syria, headlines and articles have highlighted claims about  pro-government forces committing massacres.

The Reuters headline, “Syrian forces responsible for Banias massacres: U.N. report” presents as fact something which is based on hearsay: the claims of anonymous interviewees.

UN investigators did not visit Banias to conduct an investigation, as the headline might imply.  The people who presented those claims may have been in refugee camps in Turkey, in Lebanon, in Jordan.  We are not told.

Regarding an alleged massacre in Banias on 2 May 2013, a paragraph of the UN Report (page 31, paragraph 10) concludes: “Testimonies were consistent that members of the National Defence Forces were actively involved in the raids and in many cases leading them.”

The report does not tell us if the people presenting these testimonies were innocent bystanders or people involved in armed conflict.   We do not know if relatives of members of anti-government forces provided them.  Furthermore, we do not know if the UN investigators made any effort to hear counter claims.

A report by Sam Dagher, a journalist for the Wall Street Journal who works from Beirut and Damascus, writes this about the massacre in Bayda,

The events of the next few hours are disputed. Some residents who described themselves as regime opponents said the rebels fled immediately. But Mr. Bayasi, the selectman, said that before rebels left, they executed several residents they viewed as regime appeasers. Those killed, he said, included his cousin, Omar Bayasi, an imam who had been a member of a government-sponsored reconciliation committee in Tartus province, as well as the cousin’s wife and son.

According to the COI report,

Government forces with the support of the National Defence Froces operated freely throughout the day on 2 May in and around the village. There were no reported deceased pro-Government forces.

However, Sam Dagher wrote in his report,

The latest hostilities began early May 2, when government security forces went to Bayda to seize the arms cache allegedly cited by Mr. Othman. When the regime forces got there, rebel soldiers ambushed them at the village entrance—killing nine soldiers, including officers, according to local officials.

The website “A Closer Look on Syria” examines in some detail and with reference to varying points of view the massacre in Bayda.  It looks at the victims of the massacre.

One clue to the exact nature of the supposed anti-Sunni genocide is how a certain Sunni family was singled out, with a reported 36 members of all ages killed. [4] This was headed by sheikh Omar Biassi/Biyasi/Bayyasi, 62, the imam of al-Bayda’s main mosque. He was a government loyalist, most agree, a rejector of the violent uprising, a member of the National Reconciliation Commission, and “a known advocate of interfaith dialogue and national unity.” [5] One month before the massacres, an Omar Biassi posted a comment calling for all “traitors” to be killed if necessary, to restore stability. At least one source says his last act was trying to negotiate with rebels for the release of the captured soldiers/Shabiha from the early clashes…..

Whether you accept the conclusions of the contributors to this webpage or not, their analysis illustrates how difficult it is to draw conclusions about the crimes committed in Bayda (or in any other site of a massacre in Syria) without reference to many viewpoints. Yet, the COI report draws its conclusions based on testimonies which accuse only the ‘government and pro-government armed forces’ of the brutal killing of civilians, so from just one viewpoint.  This serious flaw is evident throughout the report.

The fact that reports of events in Syria are almost invariably going to be disputed by even those who witness them or are active players is hardly conceded by this COI UN Report. (NB: The COI Report does not assure readers that the people who reported on the massacres to the Commission were actual witnesses or people who were recounting the hearsay of others.)

Like Major-General Robert Mood, Alex Thomas, a Channel Four journalist who has reported from Damascus and travelled widely in Syria, has sought differing accounts to evaluate the truth of claims about massacres in Syria. In his article, “Was there a massacre in the Syrian town of Aqrab” (December 2012), he presents alternative accounts to those on ‘rebel propaganda websites’.

The UN investigators did not travel to Syria to search for different accounts.  They blame the Syrian government for their not being able to carry out their investigations in Syria. But would they have sought in good faith an alternative narrative in Syria to that presented by supporters of the ‘anti-government armed forces’ outside Syria?  This critical examination of their report suggests not.

In the Reuters article that references the UN report, Reuters reporter Stephanie Nebehay from Geneva writes: “..a Syrian intelligence officer, speaking to Reuters anonymously, acknowledged that the perpetrators were government loyalists, including some from the surrounding Alawite villages.”   Who introduced Stephanie to this officer?  How reliable is he?  What are his loyalties?  Again, the claims of an anonymous person are being presented to millions of people across the world, dependent on the media to tell them the story of Syria.

The case against the Syrian government and its army depends so much on hearsay.  Not only is this very concerning, but what is deeply disturbing, and even diabolical, is how this can lead journalists, commentators and politicians to creep into the language of sectarianism.  The Reuters reporter repeats an unsubstantiated claim of an ‘intelligence officer’ who implicates Alawite villages in the massacre in Banias.   This is fuel for an ugly sectarian conflict which the vast majority of Syrian people have worked hard to avoid.

One report in Reuters quoting one anonymous source and one UN report relying on the hearsay of perhaps 258 anonymous people make the work of Mussalaha (reconciliation) in Syria exceedingly difficult.   Such reports can be referenced by extremist clerics outside Syria who are calling for a jihad and those who look for any excuse to justify the killing of civilians who support the government and ‘infidels’.  They do not provide a better understanding of the situation in Syria.  Instead, they provide references for those who actively support war and genocide.

The Use of Chemical Weapons by the ‘Rebels’; The Commissioners:

The current COI Commissioners are listed as:
Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (Chairperson) (Brazil), Chair
Karen Koning AbuZayd (United States)
Carla del Ponte (Switzerland)
Vitit Muntarbhorn (Thailand)

In May 2013 in an interview on Swiss TV, Carla del Ponte went out on a limb.  The COI Commissioner told Swiss TV that testimony from victims suggested rebels in Syria have used the nerve agent, sarin. She said there were “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof” of that.

Except for their authorised biographies, we know very little about the COI commissioners and nothing about their allegiances. However, at least one of them is prepared to go public with the tentative findings of the Commission related to chemical weapons. Why wasn’t this included in this 6th report? Also, why isn’t the tentative language of Ms del Ponte reflected more in the report?

Conclusion:

This critique is not nearly as comprehensive as it should be.  Much more time is needed to cover all aspects of the 6th COI on Syria UN report.  However, it is hoped it encourages serious critical analysis of all COI reports on Syria.

In 1989, the then young Human Rights Watch published a report on war crimes committed in the conflict between the contras (the rebels) and the Nicaraguan government. Like the ‘rebel’ groups in Syria, the contras were supported by foreign countries, particularly the United States. The HRW report was very critical of the Reagan administration.

Under the Reagan administration, U.S. policy toward Nicaragua’s Sandinista government was marked by constant hostility. This hostility yielded, among other things, an inordinate amount of publicity about human rights issues. Almost invariably, U.S. pronouncements on human rights exaggerated and distorted the real human rights violations of the Sandinista regime, and exculpated those of the U.S.-supported insurgents, known as the contras.

The HRW report also slammed the Bush administration.

The policy of keeping the contras alive, through so-called “humanitarian” or non-lethal aid, sustains a force that has shown itself incapable of operating without consistently committing gross abuses in violation of the laws of war. The policy also has placed in jeopardy the holding of elections by encouraging contra attacks on the electoral process. Thus, while the Bush administration proclaims its support for human rights and free and fair elections in Nicaragua, it persists in sabotaging both.

(Interestingly, Prince Bandar Bin Sultan from Saudi Arabia, a strong supporter of anti-government groups in Syria, helped fund the contras in Nicaragua.)

In regards to the current conflict in Syria, the questions must continue.  When it comes to war and peace, there must be a commitment to a search for the truth, and there must be unwavering efforts for peace and reconciliation.  There should be no sacred cows.  No organization or country should impede efforts for peace and the prevention of conflict.

Susan Dirgham

National Coordinator of “Australians for Mussalaha (Reconciliation) in Syria”

25 September 2013

For a critique of the more recent COI report on the chemical attack at Ghouta, Damascus, I recommend an article by Ms Sharmine Narwani, an analyst and journalist based in Beirut:

Questions Plague UN Syria Report. Who was behind the East Ghouta Chemical Weapons Attack?

THE Summary OF THE COI REPORT (page 1)

The Syrian Arab Republic is a battlefield. Its cities and towns suffer relentless shelling and sieges. Massacres are perpetrated with impunity. An untold number of Syrians have disappeared. The present report covers investigations conducted from 15 May to 15 July 2013. Its findings are based on 258 interviews and other collected evidence.

Government and pro-government forces have continued to conduct widespread attacks on the civilian population, committing murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance as crimes against humanity. They have laid siege to neighbourhoods and subjected them to indiscriminate shelling. Government forces have committed gross violations of human rights and the war crimes of torture, hostage-taking, murder, execution without due process, rape, attacking protected objects and pillage.

Anti-government armed groups have committed war crimes, including murder, execution without due process, torture, hostage-taking and attacking protected objects. They have besieged and indiscriminately shelled civilian neighbourhoods

Anti-government and Kurdish armed groups have recruited and used child soldiers in hostilities.

 The perpetrators of these violations and crimes, on all sides, act in defiance of international law. They do not fear accountability. Referral to justice is imperative.

There is no military solution to this conflict. Those who supply arms create but an illusion of victory. A political solution founded upon tenets of the Geneva communiqué is the only path to peace.

IMG_1004

Nobel Peace Laureate Mairead Maguire led a delegation of peace activists to Syria in May 2013.  In Ms Maguire’s report on that visit, she refers to this meeting in a hospital with an imam who had been tortured and had one ear cut off because he had refused to support the ‘rebels’.

I am Shabiha

This photo was taken in May 2013 in Damascus. This young boy had just been blessed by two church leaders who noticed him in the old city.  His family story is tragic and well-known in Damascus.  It was presented in NYT in June 2012.

A young boy rallies government supporters.

Armed men killed two teenage brothers, Murhaf, 19, and Yazan, 15, from the Shamiyeh family in a raid on their father’s house in the countryside around Damascus in June, the state-owned SANA news agency said. Pro-Assad activists online connected their deaths to a months-old video of a rally featuring a young boy, identified as Rayan and said to be their younger brother. “I am a shabiha,” says the boy, referring to the pro-government militia accused by the opposition of carrying out deadly attacks on civilians.

IMG_0987

The mother of Sari Saoud with the author in Damascus, May 2013.  Sari was a young boy targeted by rebels/opposition/terrorists/armed men in November 2011.  According to reports, pressure from Islamists forced tens of thousands of Christians to flee the city of Homs in 2012.   Those most probably implicated in Sari’s shooting filmed his mother weeping over her son’s body and sent the film to Al-Jazeera, which claimed army soldiers had killed him.   There is no evidence in the COI report that people such as Sari’s mother or the tens of thousands of Christians forced to flee Homs have ever been interviewed by the Commissioners of Inquiry for the UN.

Sari’s mother tells the story of her son’s murder for Syrian TV.


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