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Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ter Malla Massacre: Al Qaeda or Russia-Syria Bombing?

Ter Malla Massacre: Al Qaeda or Russia-Syria Bombing?
October 17, 2015
last edits November 1

Note November 1: the core "massacre" part this - 48+ members of an extended family killed in a home or bomb shelter - was not, by reports, in Teir Maela/Ter Malla but in neighboring Ghanto. But a smaller number of civilians were also reportedly killed there the same day by Russian bombs, and the collective area toll (reported as at least 70) is here considered together as related.

Lately in Syria, claims of deliberate up-close massacres of civilians have ebbed - an issue I'll address the causes for elsewhere. In the place of claims like the Houla Massacre by Shabiha militiamen, we now have alleged air attacks by Syrian military forces (artillery, rockets/missiles, jets, helicopters, with or without "barrel bombs") and lately by Russian military jets.

There are a huge volume of such claims, and I've only seriously examined a couple, usually the ones with larger death tolls and media coverage/condemnation. For example, two months ago, I started looking at the Douma Market Attack, allegedly by regime fighter jet. Within a month I had surprisingly solid clues pointing to a rebel massacre underlying the false claims (attack pattern suggests local surface rockets, many victims were apparently dead before those rockets landed, and more - see review). That's newsworthy info, but clearly not fit to the rapid news cycle, where people care about a claim for a couple of days - collectively (most people's shift in that is minutes long).

So, nothing solid yet to report on the Ter Malla massacre of 70+ civilians - which is already a couple days ago. They were allegedly killed by Russian jet attack and/or army shelling, in an ongoing offensive there. But I can start a post and point to a good start on coverage over at A Closer Look On Syria which will grow as possible. 

Competing Claims
And the rebel massacre blame can start early here anyway. Until I can discern my own clues, I'll pass on what the blamed Syrian military says happened:

SANA report, via Global Research:
Terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra perpetrated a massacre in Teirmaal village in Homs northern countryside on Thursday. A military source told SANA that terrorists committed their crime at 7:00 am in synchronization of the army operations in the area, adding that the act aimed at accusing the Syrian Army and the Russian air force of targeting civilians. "The Syrian Ministry of Defense stresses that the Syrian Army and the Russian air force do not target civilian-populated areas and holds Jabhat al-Nusra and its associates full responsibility for such crimes,” the source said.
Russia categorically denies it bombs civilian-populated areas, and surely has denied or will deny the claim. Syrian official sources seem to acknowledge attacking the area with atillery and then ground forces invasion of some areas, all with Russian Air Force backing. And they acknowledge that civilians were massacred around there at the same time, but specifically claim that terrorists did it to frame them. Details (like death toll and victim types, how they claim to have learned about the massacre, etc.) are still scarce, but precedent, from Houla to Douma, suggests that's most likely true.

Opposition sources blame the Syrian/Russian military offensive in slightly different ways, but mainly the Russian bombing that's the issue of the day to highlight at every chance. The SOHR reports it was a Russian jet attack that killed at least 60 people, of whom 17 were rebels and 30 were women and children. As CNN reported, the SOHR cited "local residents" who told them "the strikes were by Russian forces because the sound of the planes was different from the sound made by Syrian air force planes, and the Russians fly much higher." Their competitors in the VDC blame Russian bombing of a shelter and/or area near a bakery, and list at least 71 victims, including just one acknowledged as a rebel fighter.

The 70 civilians VDC lists are: 32 men, 13 women, 13 boys, and 12 girls. This is an unusually gender-balanced grouping. The most balanced (total) death was visited on the core family; VDC has 35 victims listed with family name Assaf ( عساف ). These are: 10 men, 7 women, 8 boys, and 10 girls (of 12 total). (most of those women will be adult daughters - mothers/wives will have "maiden names," so it's probably higher - and some adult women might be married to other victims, making it higher yet...).

Gender and Age of Victims
A version told to Ziad Fadel at Syrian Perspective clashes with the opposirtion details I'm inclined to believe, but otherwise is consistent with SANA's source. A photo is even provided, although it's not clear if it's from the incident or just to illustrate. (I've got a comment in asking for more info). As he explained:

Tayr-ma’la Village:  Horrific massacre by American-supported rat terrorists of Nusra/Alqaeda against the people of this village.  When the terrorists knew their time was over in this village, they gathered 40 men and shot them all in a line at 7:00 a.m..  Their accusations were that these people were unwilling to fight alongside terrorism.  Some were accused of collaborating with the government.  Don’t believe any of the nonsense about Russian bombers and Syrian Army artillery being at fault. Those two forces do not miraculously kill only males between the ages of 16 and 40.
But this time, the only other concrete allegation of gender breakdown is not almost all men like we all noticed in the Douma case, but a pretty non-miraculous spread. There are still more men than normal, but if 17 are rebel fighters as SOHR heard, the civilian remainder is 16 men, 13 women, 13 boys, 12 girls.  

As established looking into records for "warplane shelling" civilian deaths, especially involving markets, they tend to be high-majority of men. This case stands out as quite different. What else is different? Impending doom on a scale not usually seen; rebel forces there are being seriously squeezed, and might be getting annihilated as I type. They won't have the luxury here of taking the females away as prizes, or the younger boys to be re-educated as Salafist fighters, or any such thing. All they have has to be used up, or left to be rescued. And who want s to go to all the work of rounding up enemy civilian families and taking "care" of them for x weeks, just to let them get rescued in the end? So ... perhaps this is why they just killed everyone in the batch.
Core Massacre: An Extended Family

Al-Jazeera heard from their "reporter" Jalal Abu Suleiman, a rebel propagandist who helped launder the Houla Massacre back in 2012, Russian jets were to blame, and...
... one of the raids struck a place of refuge for civilians in the town of al-Ghantu, "killing 37 people - all from the al-Assaf family".
They say just one family was exclusively there - or exclusively enough that no one else died. This sounds like a personal shelter, likely a basement in a home and not a proper bomb shelter.

The same Al-Jazeera running that on Thursday the 15th reported three days later on another strike, on Saturday the 17th which, according to "activists," killed yet another 48 civilians from a single family, again in a bomb shelter.
The bomb shelter where the family was hiding was hit by a rocket on Saturday, activists told Al Jazeera on Sunday. Rescue teams spent over 10 hours trying to recover the bodies of the victims, Al Jazeera was told.
Abu Abbas, a survivor, said the majority of the casualties were children. "The eldest of the victims is a 70-year-old woman; the youngest was a one-month-old child," Abu Abbas said. "They were not terrorists as [Russian President Vladimir] Putin said."
(dead children are "not terrorists" ... throughout this conflict, rebels/"activists" have described the child victims of their own terrorist massacres in just this way.)
The stricken family isn't named, but people swear to the details. The problem with this ten-hours of digging on Saturday is no one else reported any reason. The SOHR's first report said of Talbliseh-area bombing only "The Russian warplanes re-struck the outskirts ... no information about casualties," amid area clashes that did take lives on both sides. A next-day SOHR report speaks to some deaths; "the 4 civilians who were killed yesterday in the airstrikes carried out by warplanes, believed to be the Russian’s, on the town of al- Ghanto are the medial (staff) in the town." The entire staff or part of it? That sounds perfectly Russia of them, of course. Still no word about a family of 48 killed.

VDC query: all Homs martyrs killed by "warplane shelling" October 17 and 18 = 4. On the 17th, only one woman killed in Palmyra (distant) is listed. Three civilian men died in the right area but, it says, only on the 18th. One is specified as delayed: died "due to his wounds." All; mentioned late/died late/listed late. That might be a clue.

What seemed like the best support, by the headline, helps explain what's going on: Asharq al-Arabi (Arabic, auto-translated with repairs) proclaims "Russian occupation commits a massacre in Homs 17-10-2015" and claims a massacre of 43 members of a family. But despite the headline, by this it seems they refer to the events of the 15th.
Details of the massacre at the shelter by Russian warplanes missiles in rural Homs ... Documented field hospitals in the countryside North of Homs governorate, killing forty-three people from the same family in the town of alghanto North of Homs countryside. By targeting Russian warplanes with missiles on Thursday, features vacuum bombing ... sophisticated missiles capable of penetrating a consecutive large fortifications, causing severe damage. ...
According to sources on the ground have seen bombing that the first missile destroyed the two-story building with the second missile destroyed the bunker beneath the building. ... This, if anything, it shows already and the determination to implement the massacre, the sanctuary is known to all that the place where civilians congregate, especially women and children, at the time of the bombardment aviation and throw explosive barrels ... The recording showed the media bulletin photographer Imran Ali, a certificate for a survivor of the massacre, which killed a large number of family members inside the sanctuary.
What got al Jazeera or their activists mixed-up about the day is a small mystery, but otherwise it's clear. While measurements for the shelter are given, the family name is not. But a single family dying in large numbers, in a shelter in al-Ghanto on Thursday the 15th, makes it fairly clear they now say 43 or even 48 members of this one "Assaf" family died in that shelter. It adds detail.

One VDC sub-grouping helps explain it more: these 43 entries - a solid majority of the dead - share the note: "A massacre of a number of families due to Russian warplanes targeted a shelter in Ghantto town." These are the 35 Assafs and the 6 Steifs (plus 2 others). Of course the family was once numbered as 43. New information added suggests five were missing, and all these 48 people were part of one extended family, not "several families." And this was a proper reinforced bomb shelter they were in, somehow accorded to just one family among those in need - luckily for the others.

No, this doesn't smell right. Entire families get singled out in other ways, like by terrorists sending a signal to other local families as they face their toughest fight yet and seek new recruits. I think Ziad's sources' explanation is pretty likely, but it wasn't 40 men killed but rather 40+ members of a family whose men refused to fight their countrymen alongside al-Nusra.

Added Nov. 1: CNN reported October 25 that "The deadliest airstrike in Homs was reported to have hit a house in the village of Ghantou, killing 46 members of an extended family, the rights group said, citing first responders and local activists." House, proper bomb shelter, rebel-run basement "shelter" for "displaced people" - that's disputed. But a single, large, extended family was stuffed in there before it was blown up. And a later "we don't have a pre-set number" count says it was 48, not 46, and it might be higher yet. (The VDC, however, still has just the 43 Assaf-Steif family members two weeks later).

Related Deaths
CNN reports besides the one that killed the Assafs in Ghanto, "Another airstrike hit near a bakery in the town of Ter Maaleh, reportedly killing 13 civilians and a local commander of the opposition Free Syrian Army, according to witnesses cited by Human Rights Watch."

VDC has 6 people with the notes "As a result of a massacre by the Russian warplanes shelling targeted crowd of civilians near a bakery." An apparent father and teenage son, a possible wife/mother (different, possibly maiden name), two other adult males, and one rebel - Raed al-Akash, "defected captain." As with Iyad al-Deik in Rastan two weeks earlier, the commander apparently died without any of his fighters, instead dying alongside mostly unrelated civilians. This time, picked out in the middle of a crowd near a bakery.  

VDC lists another 12 with the general note "Due to Russian air forces shelling of the town." 11 civilian men and one girl from 6 families. Outside that Assaf-Steif shelter, the usual pattern of mostly-men seems to hold in this rebel town.
Blast Video Analysis
forthcoming, perhaps. Many videos claim to show jet strikes nearby. Places and times, etc. would be handy to know, could be found out, but hardly seems worth it at the moment. Chances are, these are jet strikes by whoever. We don't know where the alleged shelter was to compare if any of these is centered right there. So far it seems all we can do is question whether or not any of these is related to the dead civilians.

Victim Video Analysis
So far, even doing an Arabic Youtube search including martyr, just one video shows two adult male victims of this massacre. And they aren't the clearest support of the rebel story here.
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HwnYYoupnRo شام ريف حمص الغنطو مجزرة بشعة يرتكبها طيران العدو الروسي في البلدة 15 10 2015 تحذير الفيديو قاسي (Cham Homs Al-Ghantu ugly massacre committed by Russian aviation enemy in the town 1510 2015 Video harsh warning 18+
In an edge-of-town sort of area with fields and some homes, we see one wounded man in a truck with another person, and some bombing damage to a couple of buildings, a vehicle, unclear - not necessarily fresh damage (no dust or smoke seen rising). Then we see two dead men on the ground some meters away. Did the blast just fling both of them here? It's possible.

Another body is shown being dug up from under rubble and mainly dirt, but these first two need analysis.  They share some combination of mangled, blackened, and naked or close to it. These may be old bodies starting to decay. One may have been executed with a sword or other bladed weapon.

1) One is fully naked, blown out of his clothes we guess (gonads apparently intact, barely visible one frame), and completely black. Grimace of pain, blood from nose. Crew-cut blonde hair? Appears fit, fighting age. Strange injuries: deep pit damage to left shoulder and right elbow joint, small wounds all over, chin and torso. Two larger gray circles on his belly are puzzling. black could be surface charring - but may be under/inside the skin, not on the surface - that means decay. But apparent lack of body hair is more consistent with burning, and there's little other sign of decay - or of fresh blood for that matter. Freshness: unclear. Skin has yellow patches (dirt?) on the abdomen, odd splotches and streaks of darker black. Such varied injuries could be from shelling, where random things happen, or might suggest deliberate torture before death.

2)  Middle-aged, balding, mostly covered with a blanket - right leg in twisted tatters, chest/torso blown/torn apart on the left armpit area, face intact but one discrete head wound, a clean slice arcing along the upper left side from forehead to temple. Clothing, just one scrap of a shirt on his upper body, lower not seen clearly. He seems half-burnt, compared to the other, or half black.Right half corresponds to smoke/fire with a sleeveless shirt protecting his chest, but the other side, around the chest wound, appears more internal black - decay. This wound also stopped bleeding long ago, may even have been washed off once before bleeding a bit more, and is now just wet enough some grass sticks to it. The head slice might be fresher, redder. Was he somehow blasted this way, left manged and decaying yet alive, until the Islamists got close enough to finish him off? Arguing against that; this isn't an area where they're on the offensive here but on the defensive.

There can be no room for decay in the rebel story. This has the fatal bombs falling, when everyone agrees bombs were falling, early that morning (6 am is cited, not sure if everyone agrees on the exact time). The video was uploaded, at least to Youtube, only by Shaam News Network, on the 15th. Sunlight says mid-morning or early afternoon, depending. The uploader's first tweet allows either, coming only at 3:11 pm in Syria (5:11 am in California). 

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