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Monday, February 20, 2017

MSF: Building Images of Proof, Using Video-Word Montage

MSF: Building Images of Proof, Using Video-Word Montage
Adam Larson aka Caustic Logic
February 20, 2017

On February 15, 2016 (a year ago), Medecins San Frontiers (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) lodged complaints that Russian and Syrian airstrikes had destroyed one MSF-supported clinic in Idlib province, and then targeted a second hospital nearby. They claimed as a fact that 25 civilians were killed, and 11 wounded, in these attacks. Previous reports compiled at ACLOS; our coverage of this case was not very complete, and a year later I have no ready debunk.

But, on the anniversary, MSF revisited the issue, bolstered by video analysis by Forensic Architecture. Building Evidence with Images. The video they show can be seen alone on Youtube here. I like visual analysis and, when I have time, verifying it. They use some computerized version of the same thing I've done since 2011 the rough way - field of view, lines of sight, correlating features and geolocating scenes, and even measuring the direction of sunlight to find the time of day. Only rarely does it not pan out - the video usually is filmed where they say, and does show people criminally murdered, etc. geolocations are considered valid until I see otherwise - they're too easy to prove wrong if not. (but not easy enough to bother with right now) 

The problem usually lies with the unproven backstory attached to the video events. It's often like this: "yes, this is where the event that rebels seem to be lying about occurred, and that's the aftermath of it. They probably killed those people, and that's why they've got the bodies in their pickup truck," etc.

Still, this probably deserves a full double-checking of their video analysis work. But I'm swamped. In fact, I may do this with no visuals, to help raise the point that a snazzy visual analysis doesn't always prove the truth behind the appearance. With some thoughts from others, and just one decent review of the videos, I'll also try for a quick review here, for now raising more questions than answers.

What they add, and what questions remain:
Again, having not double-checked their work except to see that it's likely correct and not obviously wrong ... Forensic Analysis adds seemingly valuable analysis to show these blasts happened about when and where they were reported. It adds more than usual in this case, which is probably why they picked it. I've seen some terrible stories fall apart like wet cardboard as soon as I pull them open. In this case, not immediately. But I think the who, how, and why still are open to question.

We should note at the start, as MSF may not have considered, hospitals may include or be near militant targets, and be destroyed or damaged in the course of necessary fighting. If either jet strike is real, was there a legit target in the same area?
Again, the video - here are the major points raised (@=video timestamp)

- 1st attack, at Atibah al-Haboud hospital in Al-Hamidiya 6 km south of Maarat al-Numan (here on Wikimapia). Four strikes total are claimed - the first two at 9:02 and 9:05 am (and the third unexplained)?

- Geo-location from two video angles shows it is the building they call an MSF-supplied clinic that was destroyed and smoking around 9 am ...  from something that happened. They say it was a jet attack. They show video of the scene, that appears like the right time. If that's the real damage they show, it was powerful: I'd guess a car bomb, or a few heavy air-dropped bombs. Or a few larger surface-fired rockets/missiles. Most of the building is collapsed. One outer wall stands partly, but slumping. A corner stairwell-type portion is the only thing of size that really stands.If this really was a MSF-supported hospital, then one of those was destroyed, somehow.

- @2:02 -Around 9:45 (as reported, could be), after rescuers arrived, a strike (or two) seen on two video - one is described 4th Russian strike, and of a terrorist "double-tap" sort that targets rescuers. And they do run, as if the ruins would be hit again, as a jet is heard. @4:15 we hear a loud whoosh and boom, but see nothing, in either of two videos. Fakery would be complicated here - just audio editing would be needed, but also running, coordinated with the blasts, knowing sound effects would be added (we'll fix it in post). This is imaginative, but I don't suspect it's the case. Whatever the first blast was, this seems to be an airstrike.

-The loud blast has a few smaller, follow-on explosions. Are these cluster munitions? (big but few) or is this an ammunition depot exploding, perhaps? This deserves some more analysis by someone who could really offer a good opinion.

- It's not clear if they placed just where this strike was in relation to the hospital. It can be seen in frame, but the blast is somewhere else (see @5:02, sun and hospital ruins to the southeast, blast one km or more to the south). The other video is the same: people at the hospital film the distant plume rising. What was off to the south? About 2 km south, according to Wikimapia (see link above), is a stretch of the M5 highway to Damascus, with an "army checkpoint" (may be militant-run checkpoint now) on one side, and an electrical substation on the other side. There's little else but fields before that or further out. so I guess this strike was about 2 km south of the hospital, which was already in ruins anyway. Not much of a 4th strike on the hospital, and not very effective deliberate targeting of rescuers at the hospital. Still, the charges stand.  

- In later videos, there is better jet evidence than usual here, both audio and visual. It's not quite proven to me, but maybe close enough to agree on the point ...

@2:37 2 videos show strike on national hospital in the north of Maarat al-Numan, as soon as Atibah's director arrived, having left his ruined clinic around 11. Two cameras captured twin blasts near the hospital, and one view easily sets the time at about solar noon (MSF got 11:55 am) Lines of sight seem good. One view is clear, as MSF's analysis is, that the hospital itself wasn't hit.
@3:09 area indicated - not exact, but almost surely one hit was on the hospital grounds, a ways southeast of the main building, and the other hit a bit to the south, outside the grounds. There's little there but the road to the hospital and one small shack nearby - no likely militant bases or facilities there. 

@6:00 - a jet-shaped blur is seen for a few frames at the attack time. They think it's possibly a Mig-23, which only Syria uses, but that's extremely vague - it could be almost any jet from the pixels seen. And the pixels could be real, or added. It even seems to show payload dropping over the hospital. This seems almost too-good, but it doesn't look obviously fake, and I usually presume no CGI is used. But it is possible.This and the added jet noise would be to obscure the reality of an incoming surface rocket. But I'm leaning to this being real. 

- The lack of close-up of damage or specific claims of damage suggest MSF acknowledges the National Hospital was only "targeted," or hit near. If their work is correct, they show areas near the hospital were hit. So "another hospital that was targeted later the same day," but it was targeted poorly. Or maybe it didn't seem as expendable to the false-flaggers. Or ... The MSF-connected hospital director had just arrived, others may be following - was this perhaps a legitimate terrorist target of the mobile kind?

- unverified claims of Russian and Syrian jets taking off shortly before each attack (a rebel "observatory" claims to watch takeoffs, and might) @3:55 - Opp. sources claim they saw Russian jets take off from Hamayman airport, and carry out the first strike and watched a Syrian jet take off from Hama and hit the national hospital. It's not clear to me they really did, but perhaps. Do they have radar to follow it? Or is it just presumed (takeoff, then blast = hit by that jet)? Because it might be a false-flag rocket attack instead, timed to line up with a jet sortie, real or fabricated. But maybe those are the jets that did these strikes. Were they engaged in criminal operations, or in legitimate ones?

So the claims line up with real-world explosions, but the actual story makes as little sense as usual and remains open to question. Just to be evil and deny medical care to innocent civilians, whom Russia and Syria are constantly bombing, the Russians blow up a hospital, bomb it some more but miss by 2km, and have their Syrian lackeys blow up the replacement hospital ... but miss by a bit, twice. And good enough - they can get some fresh charges out of it and they're happy, right?

Each piece of jet attack evidence here could have one of these explanations:
- real air strikes against valid target that were near or in these places
- real strike, illegitimate target, by cited jet (Syrian / Russian)
- real strike, illegitimate target, by false flag jet (US-Coalition)
- recon or unrelated flight, synchronized with attack
- audio forgery, synchronized with attack
- video forgery, synchronized with attack
- whole attack video faked (sound and smoke plumes all edited in - why not, for logical fullness, let's list that)

I lean to one of the real jet options. Is it possible these were false-flag jets? Not likely, I should think, this far into Syria. However, that's been alleged in Russia: Sputnik, February 16, 2016 "Airstrikes on a hospital affiliated with Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF), and a children’s hospital in Syria were carried out by aircraft departing the US Incirlik Airbase in Turkey, a member of the Russian upper house’s Committee on International Policy said Tuesday." The same accusation was lodged, regarding February 11 allegations in Aleppo.

But that needs a grain of salt, with the counter-claims for takeoff, including Russian jets, and neither version proven that I know of. It wouldn't look good, of course, if Russian sources (but not the MoD) denied their jets were there, if they actually were. Still, maybe they were and maybe it's still not criminal anyway - maybe some fool decided to deny it, instead of explaining. No one else has backed up these claims, that I know of.

So there's a strong counter-accusation, but I suspect, more than likely, these are Russian-Syrian attacks, against either legitimate or illegitimate targets. Probably legitimate, in my view, but the question seems an open one. MSF seems to think it's not. I'm curious why, because the evidence they present isn't adequate to consider the case closed.

Other Clues: The Victims
@1:47 - sounds like there was shift change at the hospital (?) at the time of attack (9 am, almost on the hour, as reported). So they had no current (?) patient count. So the "White Helmets" "civil defense" rescuers didn't know how many hey were digging for.

It's not clear why, but the video takes a moment to explain this. They could just dig for whoever, or use the last known count if they must have a good guess. But maybe they presumed there was no one and didn't dig, and that's why so many died? No, they're seen digging a bit, before they pull back. Did they stop then, since it was thought empty, and the danger was so high? That's Russian danger, terrifying even at 2 kilometers' distance. Who could blame them?

And so, perhaps, the unfortunate, randomly selected victims of Russian bombing mostly just died ... right under that rubble. Right? (recalling the other one was never hit, all fatalities should be here). How did MSF ever know 25 civilians were killed, and 11 wounded? The number is usually just handed in by local, Islamist-affiliated activists, and accepted with no questions. I'm pretty sure they don't know and can't verify who died how. I probably have a much better guess than they do.

Checking the VDC database, as I usually do, the victims are suspiciously similar to the usual for shelling anywhere, but a bit different. The note "Due to Russian air forces shelling of Doctors Without Boarders' hospital" appears with 16 killed on 2-15. Using just "doctors" in the notes, and given five days to find everyone, gives 22 total . All civilian. not a single militant killed, according to this. (in fact, no Idlib rebels killed by bombing at all 2-15,  nor from anywhere else but killed in the whole province.You can hardly hit zero rebels unless you're aiming for zero rebels. This was all about killing civilians! Illogical, sure, but a serious war crime!
- 16 men, 4 women, 1 boy, 1 girl
- named some mix of al-Staif and al-Ghajar = 5: 4 men and the boy (age unknown), from Al-Tih town (likely Al-Tah on Wikimapia)
- named Raheel = 3 men, from unclear, Idlib
- named al-Jadoe = 3 men, from Jarjanaz
- named al-Hallak, al-Nisr, Qeetaz, Azouz, al-Sahawaf, Khateeb = 1 man each (Qeetaz appeared among the earliest chlorine victims, from Maarat al-Numan, but with some confusion - see here - and a wife with husband's name, suggesting Christian, or just modern Muslim)
- named Hasan, Hamra, Dashash, al-Sawas = 1 woman each (poss. wives of other named men)
- unidentified = the girl, but aged 12 (a guess?)
- Mr. Azouz and the girl (likely named Azouz) are from Helbeh village, the others are from Kafrenbil, Khan Sheikhoun, Maarat Numan, others (as listed)

Some family lumping from patients and visiting family is likely enough, but these could also be unrelated hostages that were killed off. Lots of men there to support a male patient with al-Staif al-Ghajar group. What this might suggest is hostages, mostly men, but one complete family, another husband and wife, etc. They would likely of banned minority groups (mostly Alawi, but some Christians), and maybe a Sunni family related to an army officer or high official. Maybe if demands weren't met, they might put the captives in the hospital/militant base they suspected would be bombed, or put them there and bombed it themselves, or killed the people somewhere else and just blamed it on the hospital strike.

Or maybe, as MSF seem to take as the only option, all these people were getting innocent treatment there when the Russians blew the hospital up. I'm not in the same business some are of just ruling things out. 


  1. Adding by comment on the location of the 9:45 "4th Russian strike on the hospital." I was able to see where each video was filmed from, and that the big plume is to the south-southwest. The army checkpoints/bases - there are actually 4 of them (old labels, may or may not be irrelevant now) - are clustered right on the highway, all basically due south. I think those are out as what got hit, but maybe the westernmost could fit - "army terrain" in the north of Basidah. - distance maybe isn't clear - is that a kilometer or more, or is it one km less? Lines of sight that I drew (estimate) converged way closer, near a small building about 6-700 meters southwest of the hospital. There are a few possible targets in this span, including that place, another about 1.5 km, the electric substation, 2 km out. Nothing of note closer than 6-70 meters.

    This attacks is described, loosely, as "9:45 am strike on the MSF hospital and its surroundings." And/or might have been more accurate, but that sounds vague. It's just or, and "surroundings" is defined loosely.

    - first and second strike: unseen, a car bomb for all we know. Black smoke rises... (not necessarily suspicious - often a first surprise attack doesn't get documented as it happens)
    - fourth (or 3rd and 4th?) hit probably 1km or more to the south-southwest, clearly aiming for something else
    - the two hits near the National hospital probably didn't target the hospital itself, though they did hit closer than 1km from it.
    - there's no video evidence for airstrikes that actually hit a hospital
    - All alleged 25 victims would have died in the portion of this alleged multi-part attack rebels don't have video for. MSF is taking their word for that part.

    1. Taken as a string of comments to Youtube (and screen grab saved in case they're pulled) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H9LvS53o-G0


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