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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Douma Market Attack: One Month Investigation Review

Douma Market Attack: One-Month Investigation Review
September 16, 2015
last update October 12

The Record on "Silence" and Truth
It was one month ago now in the Damascus suburb of Douma that, activists say, a Syrian Arab Air Force  fighter jet deliberately fired missiles into three crowded vegetable markets at mid-day. The strike reportedly killed at least 112 civilians and wounded hundreds, without hitting a single rebel fighter.

It was a popular theme on Twitter, some using the hashtag #Douma_Exterminated, that the crime was being ignored by the world at large (see mash-up below). Some commentators said the same, like the one at Middle East Monitor who said that "Assad’s regime committed its crime in light of complete international silence," which applies to all of "Al-Assad’s massacres against Syria’s land and people." Another, at Daily Sabah, lamented "the deafening silence of the world over the massacres is growing every day and slaughters in Syria hardly become news unless their perpetrator is ISIS." 

But of course that attack was pretty big news; anti-government activists, political and UN leaders, and the mainstream media all spoke up - in fact, unusually loudly - about this supposedly obvious fighter jet massacre. Public protests and candlelight vigils were held around the world to highlight the horrors of Douma. Human Rights Watch HRW) used the furor to call for an arms embargo on Syria, and underlined the point with a same-day missive comparing it to a market attack in Bosnia almost exactly 20 years earlier that triggered a NATO air war.

Crime writer Robert Lewis, who also latched onto the Bosnia angle, is in fact more on the mark to say  "the “international community”, as the West and its satellites are fond of calling themselves, was quick to voice its outrage, as it has been throughout its five year campaign for Syrian regime change." He cites a few prominent examples as reminders; the market attack "underscore that the Assad regime has lost legitimacy," one typical comment says, and must surrender to some ill-defined "transition."

It's clear that by "silent" the activists here meant "the world" was not yet bombing Syria to "stop Assad bombing his people." That's not silent, it's inactive. Or more accurately, the West and its allies are not as decisively involved as they were in, say, Libya, to stop the supposed killing of protesters. That's not semantics, just the rules that keep language meaningful. But these are increasingly optional in a world wracked by the well-intentioned wars and humanitarian instability driving waves of refugees around the world.

Also optional, at least in the case of this alleged market attack, is any effort to investigate the claims and establish the actual truth. None of those pillars of the "international community," so quick to blame Syria's government, has conducted or called for a proper investigation. Instead, they have seemingly agreed to already know just what happened. There is, in fact, a deafening silence from "the world" over the details of the attack. 

Nonetheless, some have been engaging in unofficial investigations from open sources. Eric Draister's early article The Douma Market Attack: a Fabricated Pretext for Intervention? (Counterpunch, August 21) was clearly hungered for and widely-read. For myself and some others, this has become another serious project now getting some useful results. This article is an attempted summary of our findings at one month in, relating points explained in Monitor posts linked here and at the masterlist, or at A Closer Look On Syria's subject page and talk page. It's hoped this will help clarify some details. For example, perhaps the biggest limitation Draister's article and others in a similar vein was the overriding suggestion there was no massacre, and the victims were rebel fighters killed in action. Those who latched onto this notion have naturally failed to raise any alarm bells over the laundered rebel massacre of civilians this might well be.

Attack Locations

The incident is now fairly well mapped. A photo, at right, shows four plumes of smoke and dust rising from four impacts, like activists reported to Human Rights Watch. This photo and a later video still of this same defined area establish the field of view. Here the plume origins line up fairly well with three impact areas that have been geolocated: the large el-Hal market, an intersection just west of that, and another market 250 meters west of el-Hal at a park (I call it "park market" though it seems mostly in the street itself). The graphic below shows where they are, mapped pretty exactly with locale details for video comparison. (see also video overview) From the mapping, the right-hand plume must be from a fourth, unplaced impact site to the east of the others (reportedly a third market was hit; pink dot, see below.)

Masses of produce, food carts, and stalls are seen in two damaged areas, and flipped vehicles and building debris are seen at the other. So we can say markets were hit by something, not just some rebel base nearby, as some intervention critics have speculated.

Draister's report cited just one video, at the el-Hal market, showing dead bodies in situ. But at least one other unplaced video is more convincing, showing a mangled boy, some wounded, and partial remains. But still, we have a similar picture; at least a handful of dead and some wounded - mostly younger men and older boys - seen at each spot. We know now there were multiple spots, and there were probably many more wounded and more killed between the sites. But it doesn't seem that any sizable buildings collapsed here, and with open-air victims alone it still seems doubtful it was anything close to the claimed 550 injured and 112+ dead.

Attack Time: After the Victims had Died!
All later accounts agree on the vague attack time of mid-day, or around noon. HRW heard from several sources, and all they had to go on was "about noon." But  by initial Twitter messages, there's no sign of awareness before 1:27 PM, suggesting it happened shortly before that. By the visuals cited, attack time isn't precise but around 1:00 at the earliest, maybe as late as 1:30. A best overall estimate, pending better clues, is 1:15-1:25 pm.

That time matters in context; consider how in the rebel narrative, attack victims had to be injured by those blasts, die from their injuries, stop bleeding and dry out, be collected, declared dead, and transported to one site prior to being photographed at that site. At right is an early photo by Douma's Syrian Civil Defense of the gathered bodies of around 40 men and boys. This was not published until 2:23 pm, but the best reading of the sunlight angle says the photo was taken in or near the span between 1:30 and 1:45 pm - or about 5 to 30 minutes after the estimated attack. (see here for explanation, analysis being revised as needed)

The implied process occurring in that time frame is simply not plausible. Those who were actually killed in the blast were obviously killed at that time. But this significant portion, at least, is not included in that. This could stand some double-checking and refinement, but it appears to be a smoking gun to prove that the victims were already dead, from something else, before the cover-story rockets were even fired.

Jet Evidence and Attack Details 
Relevant to the bulk of the dead or not, there were mid-day blasts at the markets. A Mig jet attack was claimed and widely accepted as the cause, but supporting evidence remains entirely absent. It seems no one at all filmed the jet before, during, or after its purported attack, and there's no contrail video. As far as I've seen, no one has shown or even claimed any jet-connected munition debris. And as noted, all sources in fact agree to not even specify the real attack time. 

One thing they can rely on is an alleged market attack in Ariha, Idlib province, with supposed proof. It was almost two weeks before the Douma massacre, on August 3, when a Mig allegedly fired into the public market at mid-day, then crashed into the market, without even being shot down. That sounds like an alleged suicide attack, another and expensive way for "Assad" to argue for a "no fly zone," illogical but proven by jet wreckage - possibly weathered (planted) - and with holes in it anyway, that was shown to the media at the site (see here).

Activists report that thermobaric or fuel-air explosive (FAE) weapons ("vacuum missiles") were used in Douma/ This appears consistent to us; tall, fast-rising plumes quickly cooled and started drifting west. A tall tree was left smoldering (see photo below, green box) They left apparent blast areas 30-40 meters wide, which can help deduce the weapon volume, and tell if it's even plausible that a jet fired any of the four.

Interestingly, there's an apparent arc of attack in the three impacts, as mapped above and again at right. Arcs of attack refer to surface warfare; it would be unusual for fighter jet hits taken on different swoops to wind up with such a pattern. That arc might suggest a surface rocket firing position to the south-southwest, range unknown.

The distances between the three placed impacts are roughly equal, and the plume photo suggests all four are equally spaced. Considering that and the pattern of the other three, the unplaced fourth hit will likely be in the same arc as well, so about 120 meters east-southeast of the last one (hence the pink dot continuing the arc, as shown). What's there seems like it could be a square version al el-Hal market, as shown above. Here, red is known and pink unknown, with lines suggesting possible angles for each impact (that depends on distance to the convergence point, and vice-versa - these impacts are worth more study).

Note 9/24: Petri found the video of impact 4, at a large steel-framed building just like the one at the pink dot, more in the middle of its roof.  See comments.

The one impact that, so far, can be read clearly for direction clues is the furthest west, and would be from the most southern direction. The impact dynamics at the park market clearly suggest it was fired from just barely west of due south, about 182.5 degrees. That line points to Mesraba outskirts or Beit Sawa (2.5-4 km out). The incoming angle may be fairly steep (not a massive forward trajectory), so fired from relatively near.

(Note 10/12: For more detail, see ACLOS: arc of attack? and/or Mapping the Arc of Attack)

Victims Analysis: Still Too Many Men
The ostensibly civilian victims is what the high-profile protests were all about; Assad's jets killed more than 100 civilians. And that included women and children - but just barely, like a token number. As Draister and others (like SyrPer, myself) noted in the first days was how opposition lists showed the attack killed, almost exclusively, adult males.

This has to be refined, slightly. First, by comparing lists, we've established perhaps 125 listed victims, with others left off. For example, there are still zero girls listed, to the four so far seen dead in images. There are at least 12-16 boys total between lists and images, mostly older boys, with at least two wrongly listed as men. And so there are about 20 children total, and 3 women as listed, but primarily the alleged jet attack killed about 100-115 adult males. The second-biggest segment - older boys - are also men by Islamist reckoning, which now prevails in Douma.

Douma's local council reported, as HRW passed on, "that the August 16 attacks killed a total of 112 and injured 550 civilians, 40 percent of them children, as well as 8 women." 8 wounded plus 3 dead equals 11 women effected, out of 662 total, at a total of 3 vegetable markets.  This remains unnatural and begs for an explanation that hasn't been clearly offered.

However we should note that, whatever caused this imbalance, it's not special to this case, but standard across all warplane shelling and all market attack deaths. The August 3 suicide attack mentioned above killed 34 men, 2 boys, and no females by VDC records. By the same, out of nearly 1,000 civilian market attack fatalities, 92% are male, and of those about 89% are adult (see here).

This aspect of the August 16 attack has been a core mystery and cause for question, and deserves some careful thought. Four strike areas means more room for victims - perhaps enough room that the numbers claimed make sense. Another thought that's logical, if not necessarily true: in a strained medical system, saving the lives of children might be top priority, and with some 400 or more men injured or dead, they tended to die untreated. 

But these points seem inadequate to explain the issue away. And further, if only 11 women were effected at all, it's logical that just as few girls were, and the imbalance came before the clinic. In that case, we have 3 kinds of reasons:
1) Only men and older boys - but not rebel fighters - do the market shopping. Mostly.
2) The excess of men are from a large batch of rebel fighters killed in combat or bombing raids, and perhaps laundered by inclusion with a smaller event at the markets.
3) the excess men as well as the boys, females, anyone not killed in the rocket attack were culled hostages, possibly religious enemies, with females "spared" (kept as chattel), names made up with mass grave erasure, "Assad" blamed and a "no-fly zone" called for.

Victim Analysis: Massacre Clues
As mentioned above, it seems at least 40 victims were already dead before the alleged jet attack even occurred. The clear alternative is those with the false cover story, or allies of theirs, had in fact killed these people for unknown reasons. There are some strong supporting clues pointing the same way.

As noticed early on, at least 95 and perhaps all of the victims were buried in mass graves, instead of the usual family-managed individual burial. Activists said they had to forgo regular burial and somehow even prayers, on account of government snipers who apparently shot at individual funerals and people praying (?). Yet they managed to dig one grave deep enough to easily bury a bus in. As Eric Draiter noted "a real investigation into this incident would probe into the use of mass graves for the purposes of hiding key information, namely the identities of those killed." It seems likely the victims were captives, with family either captured as well or otherwise afraid or unable to reclaim the body.

In such a situation, the provided victim names are questionable. However, it's odd how in alleged market attacks in Douma, several family names keep resurfacing, as often happens in other cases that seem to be laundered rebel massacres.

Consider the unusual case of the al-Tout family, with only 26 "martyrs" of this name listed as killed in the whole war, all but one from Douma. Yet among those are a boy and girl killed in a June 30 alleged market attack, and then in the August 16 attack, a man and a boy listed as a man died. The boy, Khaled al-Tout, is shown at right; he has a badly burned face, and was left exuding mucous, likely from the flammable material. Then 3 more al-Tout children and no adults died on August 30 - a boy and 2 girls, "due to the shelling." Considering how sharply that differs from the usual man-heavy pattern, this acute deviation must have some reason.

Images of the day's dead seem to show a disturbing segregation of death types beyond the means of a fighter jet's missile (see Victim Analysis and sub-posts). Men and older boys appear roughed-up, peppered by shrapnel or bullets, and are often smoke-stained - so they look like possible shelling victims, but with light and seemingly non-fatal damage. Some seen on video may have suspect throat injuries.

Many men have had their faces lightly burned and many have had their pants pulled down (see image above). Some boys have their faces burned even worse than the men (Khaled, above, unidentified, below), but their pants stayed up. Between these signs we have evidence for possible torture, attempts to conceal identities, disrespect to the dead, and age differentiation.

Note 9/24: The thermobaric/FAE possibility still needs considered carefully. It kills differently from regular shelling, and involves flammables, but may not fit what we see.  Goal for two-month update. 

Women are less clear; only one of the three is seen, with nothing visible but for an intact face, and some kind of bloody upper body injury. Three girls and a younger boy seen in different photos and claimed as victims do not look at all like dusty and tattered shelling victims, but all seemingly died from acute head injuries, in at least one case consistent with a massive blow from a sword.

One special case may provide a picture window into a chilling aspect of what really happened that day in Douma. A lightly-circulated photo shows a surviving victim of some August 16  "massacre" there. However, the image is clear (but explained here anyway) this preteen boy is no bombing victim. As shown in the crop here, his face is discretely burned raw. Left off is how his body was pulled violently and came apart slightly at the knees and totally at the elbows, with no other marks in between these horrifying signs of seemingly deliberate torture. He was most likely tied between two trucks that drove opposite ways and pulled him apart. And then they burned his face worse than anyone's, but he didn't even die just yet.

"The World" Expresses "Horror"
As one report from the day after the massacre put it, "UN officials, including peace envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura, expressed horror at air strikes" on Douma's markets. "Horror" is always quoted, but no one shows just who used that word. But Mistura and the other officials cited didn't even know the half of the hell that is Douma, where everyone is said to love the occupying Army of Islam and its al-Qaeda allies. In fact, their supporters say, that's why Assad bombed the markets. It was a jet attack on Islamism itself, they would argue, that tore men away from families and tore the arms away from the one boy, that spared females, burned faces, and caused most of its deaths before even being launched.

These are some of the mysterious plagues the people of Douma live under as "the world" continues pushing for regime change in Syria. But the only thing Mistura and his ilk mention just has to further that same goal; "killing almost one hundred of its own citizens by a government is unacceptable in any circumstances," as we can see even if it's untrue. In saying this, he helped absolve the largely foreign - but non-governmental - terrorists that are most likely responsible.

Presumably, he did that unknowingly. How much else do these officials do in this presumably unknowing manner? And what role has that had in contributing to the often-horrifying death of hundreds of thousands of people since the regime change campaign began over four years ago?


  1. This video seems to show that the fourth blast site was in the steel framed warehouse, right next to you pink dot.

    مجازر مدينة دوما اليوم مؤلم جدا 16-8-2015 براء عبد الرحمن

    1. Great find! I actually saw that before but forgot about it. This must be the spot, as I was guessing from its size and market compatibility. Here it's seen from I guess the southeast face. Not enough clues to call the place in itself, but given that's the kind of place where the fourth hit must be ... and nothing I see to call firing direction. I'll be double-checking, and looking into el-Hal.


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