Warning: This site contains images and graphic descriptions of extreme violence and/or its effects. It's not as bad as it could be, but is meant to be shocking. Readers should be 18+ or a mature 17 or so. There is also some foul language occasionally, and potential for general upsetting of comforting conventional wisdom. Please view with discretion.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

On Social Media and "Anti-Rohingya Hate Speech"

March 17, 2018

Yanghee Lee, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, recently said "Facebook has now turned into a beast" for allowing the promotion of violence and/or hate against Muslims in Myanmar (BBC News). The mass-displacement, burning of villages, and man killings alleged last year against the so-called Rohingya (hereafter Rohingya Mulsims) * A soon-to-be released report contained the details leading the commission to raise pressure on the social media giant to better enforce safety.

Before addressing the grave human rights problems UN people and Facebook are struggling with ... some overlooked context before we take one step forward. There's an optional step back afterwards, but I have to briefly take us here again.
* (they speak a dialect of Bengali they call Rohingya, but there are also Hindus, etc. who speak the same dialect but are not the subject of dispute).
The Real Beast in Myanmar
There were many unprovoked massacres of Rohingya civilians alleged, but only one killing of ten men at Inn Din has been proven and admitted and stands as an undeniable violation. These men are claimed as civilians, but the supporting stories contradict each other and they were most likely militants. Other militants, if not the same, had just provoked the local Buddhists by murdering one, then overrunning the area, looting homes as villagers hid in the monastery. Later, after some clashes and the arrest of 10 suspected fighters, some soldiers let the slain farmer's sons strike some blows. The Mullah or religious leader among the captives was beheaded. It was a brutal and illegal act, but a provoked one, and may literally be the only such thing soldiers or Buddhist civilians participated in.  (see here),

Many other alleged killings remain just alleged, lacking not just a government admission but also lacking bodies or other evidence, and often shifting and illogical stories that can hardly all be true. (see some details covered in various posts here and in part 3 of my Indicter series). Several hundred to 1,800 or more civilians were reportedly butchered just the village of Tula Toli on August 30, as supposedly witnessed by some 70+ survivors and witnesses, but with no one filming it, and with clashing details. They even lodged clashing false reports about the real killings at Inn Din. Their Maung Nu massacre happened on two different days, etc. The record is a real mess. A while back I issued a sort of challenge to the media on "fake news" and the Myanmar alleged ethic cleansing. (I mean to do more follow-up, but didn't really expect any response).

Considering truth is hard to know but sometimes discernable upon investigation of the evidence ... there was exactly one proven massacre of clear civilians, and close to 100 of them. And this one that we know happened, this tip of a possible iceberg ... was by Rohingya Islamist militants. Declared infidels, the Hindus were kidnapped from their homes near Kha Maung Seik in the far north, just hours after ARSA attacks overran security forces in the area. Men, women, babies, and elderly alike were marched off and slaughtered with blades and dumped in narrow, deep pits hidden in the brush. 93 of them were either verified as killed or remain missing and presumed dead.

The Muslim militants also spared but kidnapped eight pretty women aged 15-25, whom they converted them by force to Islam and started marrying off to each other. Under this captivity, the women were held briefly at the Kutupalong refugee camp  in Bangladesh, and made to tell false stories under the threat that their children's throats would be slashed if they didn't. But this didn't work very well, and the police were called in soon. The Muslim men in the group fled, and the women, along with 10 children spared along with them, were rescued and eventually sent back to Myanmar. At first chance in the camp and ever since, they've told this story, not the one the Muslims had them say.
That's my reading, stated as fact, like so many others just do. I usually try to avoid it; dealing in likely facts that millions are trained to disagree with, you don't get far just swearing it's true. But here I'll go out on a limb and say that is what happened. For reasons, see my pretty powerful article on this amazing story at the Indicter. The following photo and quote is a good summary, from a detailed report in a government-aligned newspaper, Global New Light of Myanmar (GNLM).

The GNLM report adds that people speaking unknown foreign languages were involved, with one of these co-leading the operation, in which perhaps 500 fighters were involved. They shouted Allahu Akbar and called the massacre their celebration of the feast of Eid al-Adha. Local co-leader "Norulauk" reportedly told the victims before they died the area was now "our territory. … we will murder Buddhists and all of you who worship the statues made of bricks and stones.” But he also made the central error of letting those eight women and ten children to live to eventually report these details of an ethnic cleansing campaign.

Human Rights Watch was watching and had a response on September 27, as half the victims' bodies were found. Their South Asia Director, Meenakshi Ganguly, penned the closest to an HRW statement on this horrific violation, claiming that “no one has been able to independently verify the Burmese government’s most recent allegations,” which amounted to their “playing politics with the dead.” But these women called in their stories from the refugee camp in Bangladesh, telling the authorities where to find the bodies tucked away in three mass graves that seem designed to stay hidden. You don't need independent confirmation of the claim when there's an independent source for it. But HRW had no more to say, being far too busy issuing detailed reports promoting similar claims from the other side.

This isn't the only point but the best introductory one, a rare glimpse allowed by that unusual decision to leave some witnesses alive. In most Islamist false-flag massacres none of the real victims is left alive to tell the truth. Yet the chance for a rare view was happily bypassed by the most "credible" voices. Reading the news, many will have heard of this amazing story either barely or not at all. Isn't that odd? An aborted fake version of the Kha Maung Seik massacre was blamed on Buddhists dressed up to look like ARSA, attacking Muslims and Hindus alike, and was written in on three different days in various sub-versions. That got just as much attention as the true story did, before the whole mess was left unresolved and buried.

Dealing with Sunni extremists, as ARSA and its supporters clearly are, we should expect a lot of deception here, and perhaps no truth underneath it. Myanmar government might literally be telling it like it is, however many voices in the echo chamber here have said otherwise. HRW may never let themselves see it, but the evidence is pretty overwhelming anyway - if there's one "beast" to worry about in Myanmar it's Saudi-style Wahabbi extremist Sunni Islamism.

Every baby is born pure, but some Muslim-born ones go to a Saudi-style school or learn it at home, and wind up joining Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, depending where they live. These often wind up butchering infidels and framing other infidels for it in lies to yet other infidels - information jihad. They might consider everyone who watches any news or any video screen to be an infidel.

So ... one should proceed with caution, but hardly anyone vested with "credibility" does so.  That may be because - as in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere, they pick the same enemy states the West already wanted to take out, In a team effort, these regimes are toppled or crippled at every chance. The Islamists get away with their part and even get rewarded, sometimes with a new nation like Kosovo (or Arakan?) created to house them. And so they keep doing it, accelerating greatly in recent years. Just in the last decade millions have died often horrible deaths from this, and others live under inhumane captivity by or control of these poisonous people. If someone could claim control of or steer it, this global network of Sunni extremism would definitely be a "weapon of mass destruction" in itself.

There's no hint the UN's human rights people, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, etc. are on the lookout for this, even ignoring glaring inconsistencies in the stories they lodge, as they maintain a posture of firm belief. That's a serious problem.

And the Islamists with their medieval view use social media to spread their hate, considering it a religious duty. Lee said "I'm afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended." Having seen some of the false-flag Islamist massacres successfully promoted there to demonize their enemies (notably Alawites in Syria), with or without shocking gory images of the Islamists' own work ... she's right but backwards. Islamism is the beast, and  social media is its pet.

Social Media's Role in the Conflict
This one proven massacre of 93 Hindu civilians at Kha Maung Seik was not planned by Buddhists on Facebook. It was planned by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and allied terrorists, in various and mostly unknown ways.

ARSA's supreme leader "AtaUllah" sent orders on August 24, using WhatsApp, to prepare for attacks on security forces. An August 28 order to burn down Buddhist villages was also transmitted this way. (see International Crisis Group's December report). More secret orders like those to carry out massacres of infidels would probably be done by runners or perhaps coded communications, and not publicly on any social network. The Aug. 28 message sounds like the kind of thing they would mainly communicate this way.

WhatsApp at least should be taken to task for letting militants use their service to order illegal attacks on security forces, and incitements to burn villages. I'm not sure if they have been called out for this, or closed the terrorist leader's account or anything... worth checking into. I gather WhatsApp is more hands-off in their approach than the more discussed sites like Facebook.
But these don't seem to come up as an issue in the news articles, as if Rohingya Muslims - as the persecuted ones here - could never have nefarious purposes to use social media. I mean, isn't the only issue here those genocidal Buddhist? So what to do about them?

IF the UN investigators have Facebook messages of Buddhists or others coordinating mob violence attacks on Rohingya muslim civilians, or openly inciting such attacks or issuing threats - that would be evidence of a problem and would justify counter-action. That's direct criminal activity, like ARSA's WhatsApp messages of August 24 and 28 at least. But nothing of the sort from the other side is mentioned so far.

The Washington Post's Annie Gowen heard from non-Muslim refugees in Sittwe in November, who "said they were afraid to return home because they feared the Rohingya insurgents whose attacks on police posts in their villages precipitated the crisis." One was an older Hindu woman whos entire family was butchered. Another was a Buddhist college student who "recalled that one of his best school friends, a Rohingya, stopped speaking to him after the 2012 violence and later left the country. About three months ago, the former friend messaged him ominously on Facebook, “We are going to kill you.” 

This sort of message would be well outside their rules, and may have been punished. (that's around mid-August, maybe before the August 25 ARSA offensive, so not backlash over the following ethnic cleansing allegations. It might be from an insider planning the violence.) It's quite possible there are similar messages, private and public, from the Buddhist side. Make no mistake, Buddhists are humans. The monks might tend to be above the fray, but certain "ultra-nationalist" ones like the infamous Wirathu have taken pretty ugly stances, which by the way are not supported universally among Buddhists. Regular folks caught up in disputes and violence can get ugly, whatever the religion.  The Inn Din massacre shows they can be physically violent, and it would be no surprise if even more would express it just in dangerous words.

But unless someone can show otherwise, some person's opinion has no relevance to someone else's alleged actions.

Or is it Thoughtcrime They're After?
But it's not clear this sort of direct threat or public hazard is what the UN investigators speak of. It could be they're taking "hate speech" more widely as ideas and speech that contribute to feelings against - specifically - Rohingya Muslims. It would seem fair enough to many, considering the alleged genocide they're going through, a special "never again" speech emergency. Such ideas  do complicate the public perception of the moment's championed victims. It would class as thoughtcrime in the totalitarian future of George Orwell's 1984.

There are troubling signs that the UN commission's thinking here is based on such political motivates.  The BBC News report cites Special Rapporteur Yanghee Lee as saying "We know that the ultra-nationalist Buddhists have their own Facebooks and are really inciting a lot of violence and a lot of hatred against the Rohingya or other ethnic minorities." Actually inciting violence would be an issue, but "inciting hatred" ...

That phrase just doesn't sound grammatically correct to me, and sounds politicized and vaguely newspeak. One incites violence, or maybe a panic, or the burning of Buddhist villages (from latin to excite, or stir-up usually, something active). Hatred can incite violence, but might need anger added as a spark. Hate is a longer-term state-of-mind thing, not an episode. I think of it as growing, being taught or learned, etc. Nonetheless, "inciting hatred" is a perceived problem people are tackling lately, as if it's a disease you can get from a single glance, or a fire you'll burst into instantly. (see below). It's a semantical issue. Let's jot get hung up on it.

The UN mission's chairman, Marzuki Darusma is cited by the BBC as explaining "that social media had "substantively contributed to the level of acrimony" amongst the wider public, against Rohingya Muslims." He added "hate speech is certainly, of course, a part of that," but some of it was other kinds of speech that also contribute to acrimony, or ill-will against some people and not others. For some reason this is worth a report and a news conference.

And they don't seem to care that it cut both ways. By the accepted reports 1,800 Muslim civilians were butchered at Tula Toli on August 30. With no provocation whatsoever, soldiers and Buddhist mobs surrounded the villagers on the beach, massacred the men, burned babies alive, raped women after killing their children in front of them, etc. Even Buddhist monks took part in it, as claimed. It's still supported by almost zero reliable evidence, but widely accepted as fact at places like the UN. But it would show some very serious hate from some very non-peaceful people.

True or not, might this kind of claim getting repeated all over not lead to bad feelings - and even unjust and poorly-aimed violence - against Buddhists, these satanic butchers claiming a religion of peace?

I didn't find many examples of actual violence against Buddhists outside of the battle zone itself, but I didn't have time to dig far. In Bangladesh, Mizzima.com reported in mid-September, "there have been some minor incidents targeting the Buddhist community" and authorities were stepping up security around their temples, fearing violence by radical Muslims in "revenge" for events in Myanmar. It was a real concern, and the information riling them up came largely by social media. It's been worse in the past; violent attacks by Muslims in Malaysa killed several Burmese Buddhist guest workers in 2013-14 over similar but much tamer allegations at the time, leading the rest to quit work and go back home in fear. (Heizman)

This year it seems oddly restrained and the issue is not so much violent but other possibly unfair backlash; protest, sanctions tarnished image for Myanmar's Buddhist community, and susceptibility to believing more of the same kind of accusations next time around. There's now more yet acrimony against Buddhists from Muslims and from the broader public. It's based on things they've heard and keep hearing, repeated with no skepticism on social media, in the mainstream news, and even by world leaders and UN officials.

These stories must be told in order to even be considered. But from there they should be considered - critically - which they aren't. And true or not, logical or physically possible or not, they most definitely add to vengeful attitudes against Buddhists. They even - dare I say it? - "incite hatred" against them. (having dared to say it, it still sounds stupid. This is clearly teaching hatred (or at least ... disdain, disrespect) by repetition, not inciting it like one would a fistfight).

But the UN mission doesn't seem worried about that trend even as they add to the list of villainy: the Burmese Buddhists try to deny their crimes and spread their hate to the wider world using the Internet. Is it really even-handed universal justice these activists are after?

Otherwise, this could be a political exercise operating under a thin pretense. If so, the consideration at heart would probably be just this: all this talk - especially the true and/or convincing talk - is complicating  their desired picture. It portrays deceptive jihadist mass-murderers where the Western-led "world community" shows more persecuted innocents in need of salvation. All these carefully lodged and accepted ethnic cleansing claims need a clear bad guy, and it has to be the government targeted for sanctions or worse in another regime-change type of campaign.*

* ("crazy thoughts" side-note: This is apparently how the "world community" closes down competitors and eventually absorbs more member states, so as to more resemble the actual entire world, all finally working on one agreed script. This is supposed to ensure peace at last, but war is too profitable and would continue, against member states accused of increasingly petty violations of their membership agreements, etc. So I advise nations and people - don't give in to this possible future. Unipolar power achieved by force and deception is not the way to go.)

How The UN Folks Identified the Problem with Social Media
The UN investigators cite some evidence to explain the problem with hate speech in Myanmar. Just what all that is remains unclear until the report comes out, but the BBC repost says "The interim report is based on more than 600 interviews with human rights abuse victims and witnesses" and other things like "satellite imagery, photographs and video footage taken within Myanmar."

So they again found that a bunch of places really were burned, saw the same weak video evidence and heard strong verbal claims already repeated so widely. They found that "some were burned alive in their homes" etc. etc.  They will hear about the Tula Toli rape huts with, and the carted-away bodies from Maung Nu everyone saw but no one filmed, etc.. They will take the chance to remind us once again of all that and how they totally believe the stories behind it, and totally blame the government and the local Buddhists for a campaign of unprovoked ethnic cleansing against innocent Muslims. Reasonably, in that light, they'll demand accountability. Again, according to my analysis, it's all likely bogus.

And now they can add that the people they blame - Burmese Buddhists, in general - use Facebook to express their dislike of the target group. Surely they can cite some posts including racial slurs, some expressed views in favor of locking the "Bangalis" out, or even a few personal opinions that the "kalar" should all be killed, or even a few direct death threats.

The investigators will probably not be able to show a link from those posts or people to any of the alleged violence and torching of villages last year. It's probably a bunch of lumping-together and blaming the whole community for a spirit thought to underpin all that. And it's partly a show of trying to help the Buddhists become less genocidal, a humanistic but condescending gesture - in lieu of harder options they're also pursuing.

With probably zero relevant connections discovered, Lee and Darusma and the rest the would have us believe somewhere in there is a serious problem contributing to real ethnic cleansing, and Facebook especially needs to solve it by silencing more content than it already is. Well I'm surely not convinced. It seems more like they're acting instead on the political course described above. If so, one can only hope Facebook refuses to play along and sticks to a spirit of fairness and truth.

What Facebook is Doing and What We Could Do
Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and other social media sites and platforms are private property, allowed to run as the owners see fit. But they've also become so prevalent that they seem like public spaces. All the social media sites agree in embracing the same basic values you'd hope to find there - free speech, public safety, other things in various order. But it's a little ambiguous what to expect or try and demand from them in this regard.

The BBC report notes the chairman of the UN mission, Marzuki Darusma saying "As far as the Myanmar situation is concerned, social media is Facebook and Facebook is social media." So in some minds, they're tackling the issue across social media. The report continues:
Facebook has said there is "no place for hate speech" on its platform.
"We take this incredibly seriously and have worked with experts in Myanmar for several years to develop safety resources and counter-speech campaigns," a Facebook spokeswoman told the BBC.
"This work includes a dedicated Safety Page for Myanmar, a locally illustrated version of our Community Standards, and regular training sessions for civil society and local community groups across the country.
"Of course, there is always more we can do and we will continue to work with local experts to help keep our community safe."
"Safety" sounds good, but "counter-speech campaigns" ...

Sounds aside, this may be an example: "Last July, (Facebook) gave the example of policing use of the word "kalar", which it said could be used both innocuously and as a slur against Muslims." They had some problems sorting out which was which, but think they have it right now and only remove the slur instances. I guess because it refers to the darker skin color of Rohingya Mulsims "kalar" is seen as akin to "nigger" over here. I don't know ...

One hopes they aren't blocking use of Bengali, another preferred term for people who reject the term Rohingya, which was invented to lay claim to the land (from Rakhine, aka Rohan).  I'm using that for shorthand but ...  Are we forcing people to use the name the Bengali Muslims insist on being called and grant them a victory in their campaign? That sounds political.

The mentioned "inciting hatred" - not even violence - was the cause for Facebook just now banning the right-wing Britain First party, now disbanded in the UK. Its leaders were already kicked of Twitter and in physical jail (not "FB jail") for harassment. Specifically, they had agitated against Muslims too, so they're bound to have made some good points then, but maybe not in the right way, etc. (NBC News) Facebook's official statement on this is worth considering as a precedent:

"We are an open platform for all ideas, and political speech goes to the heart of free expression," said Facebook in a statement. "But political views can and should be expressed without hate. People can express robust and controversial opinions without needing to denigrate others on the basis of who they are."

This is the spirt of the policy (spelled out in more detail somewhere) that you should be able to follow and still speak your mind. It sounds reasonable enough...

They'll have rules. We can't demand anything, but would be reasonable to insist the rules allow fair self-expression. This should be the case, unless Facebook or the others have ulterior motives hiding under their public words. And it should not be like targeted sanctions against the "racist bad guy" social media users in this special and likely fake crisis. It should be applied evenly to both sides. Sometimes at least it is. I've seen haters against the Buddhists peddling false evidence and spouting blood libel get their posts removed and entire accounts banned (on Twitter at least). But broadly so far, everyone  can still speak their mind, within limits on a private platform, etc.

For those users worried about their voices being silenced in this effort ... it might be, depending, through no fault of your own. But it becomes more likely if you go against the spirit-grain they're hoping to achieve. So here's some advice that should allow you to carry on within the spirit of Facebook's policy and probably just about everywhere else. (This is my own version, which I follow and find works so far to keep me out of most trouble.

* Basically, think of yourself as a global citizen with some responsibility for the content of the global discussion. Even if you're there casually or drunk or whatever ... if possible, be professional. Which, in context, means things like these:
* If you're trying to educate people about what you think are the facts, take care about those supposed facts. Try to be skeptical even if you like what it says. Verify when possible, check for alternate views. If you want your word to be kind of like news, try to keep it from being fake.
* Try to maintain a humanist attitude even as you deal with issues of serious inhumanity.
* Avoid speaking from hate like you would (I hope) avoid spanking a child in anger.
* Speak from anger only with great care.
* Try to attack the problems with the people and not the people, even if all they seem to have is problems (what they do, not who they are...)
* Be careful about who among the Muslims you're talking about - the babies at least, and even many of the men have no blood on their hands - avoid sloppy thinking and conflation. (see further notes below) *
* Don't threaten to kill people or things like that

But for those trying to deal with this ... As I've suggested, emphasize how very many Muslims in Rakhine state did NOT take part in the crisis last year, did not burn their villages, run off and spout false stories, and have not participated in murders and other violence. Some were killed for this moderation by the other Muslims who insist on violent crisis and an Arakan solution. These loyal Muslims at the very least deserve better than being lumped together with terrorists in a kind of "Muslims are evil" attitude.

Getting philosophical here... underneath it all, even the ARSA terrorists killing their neighbors  are as "not really good or bad" as everyone. If they must be killed or violently stopped - and that is frequently the case - so be it. But this is sad. They were all born blameless babies at one point.
I've always maintained such an attitude and so far I've never been kicked out of anywhere. (I also haven't quite reached a threat profile where you're more likely to be info-assassinated).

* (further notes on "who among them") That last is a tricky issue, especially sharp here - in how militant poisoned Muslims tend to pop out of partly innocent communities. The other side could stand to understand this, but hardly anyone outside of Myanmar is telling them, so they largely just don't realize.  In Myanmar as elsewhere, they hide among the community. Much of the community conceals them willingly. Others ... don't dare defy that trend. The nasty ones, with the actions no one could blame your for hating - they keep coming out and killing others, infidels, year after year. Their education tells them this is okay and encouraged. All they needs is a few guns, a couple of crude IEDs, and some swords and sticks to overrun a village or a security post or both. Then they melt back in and claim repression, causing problems for the government.

This will be tricky stuff for anyone to know and sort out who's who and decide how to deal with it. Simply tolerating it as the cost of a multicultural society imposed on them by ling-term squatters who claim the land as their own. There will be a strong and natural tendency to want that whole community gone to somewhere Muslim or Bengali. Some will be happy at seeing them flee and hoping they stay gone, and wish the government HAD really chased them away as alleged. Few people in the world can understand the kind of frustration they're dealing with.

BBC and the rest ask why do Buddhists hate Muslims over there? They answer: because they have a different religion  and the Buddhists think they don't belong. Uh, no ... they hate them collectively because the Muslim Bengali communities are so riddled with total assholes no one should have to deal with, and they're tired of just being scared of them. That thinking isn't the most laudable, but it's understandable. Following on that, many people want the Rohingya Muslims gone, mostly because they hate and fear them, and also... because they don't belong in the first place (or so runs their thinking). It's clearly the more important part of that picture that's generally left out or de-emphasized.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Alleged CW Attack in Harasta, Nov. 18, 2017

March 12, 2018
(rough, incomplete)

I was slow to look at this, but there have been allegations of new sarin use in Syria, specifically in the East Ghouta theater, at least last November. It was apparently these allegations SecDef Mattis referred to as lacking in evidence (my post on the subject). From what I see, if the reported details are at all correct, this is another of the many attacks in Syria using impure sarin, fielded by opposition forces to blame the government.

This time they hit their own fighters if so (ones with Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya), but the use seems very limited, and apparently no one died or even came close to it. When the cartoon villain "Assad regime" regime gasses civilians, they drop sarin from a jet and a hundred die. When they attack fighters, as is the case here they lob a mortar or artillery shell or grenade and a few guys are sickened. Strange, that.

There are no news reports I could find, but some tweets mentioned it at the time:

@ArshiMisha 18 Nov 2017
Several suffocation cases among civilians &Rebels aftermath Assad Regime used chemical weapons on #Harasta,Medical sources confirmed that among the casualties:Severe respiratory failure, vomiting, eyes irritation &heart acceleration
#EasternGhouta_Nov 18
Gas attack by govt. forces against fighters on the frontlines in Harasta confirmed by medical staff. 37 injured. Undetermined chemical. Symptoms include vomiting, dyspnea, and pinpoint pupils. Eastern Ghouta 

Scott Lucas of EA Worldview was looking into it, hushing a troll to make time, but I didn't see any resultant report.

A later UN CoI report, A/HRC/37/72, Feb. 1,  addresses the claims, finding the government probably gassed the rebels a little with an organophosphate, perhaps sarin.
They accuse the government of "using chlorine against Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters in Ayn Tarma, Zamalka, and Jowbar (Damascus)  in early July (see A/HRC/36/55, para. 71)," as a  precedent for "the use of chemical weapons against Ahrar al-Sham fighters in Harasta."

In the early morning hours of 18 November, a number of weapons fell on the Harasta frontline. Minutes later, 25 fighters suffered from a combination of symptoms including blurred vision, unconsciousness, contracted pupils, shortness of breath, nasal secretions, vomiting, and headaches. Two other fighters who went to the rescue reported experiencing similar symptoms.
Victims were taken to a medical point where their clothes were removed, they were washed with water, and given oxygen, atropine, and pralidoxime. There were no fatalities. Most of the fighters were released from the medical point within 24 hours, though some reported suffering from symptoms up to three days later.
The symptoms reported and treatments described are consistent with a small-scale chemical attack involving an organo-phosphorous pesticide.

They conclude it was a small-scale attack from the small number of affected people, the moderate symptoms andquick recovery. They surmise "a small dose of chemical agent was released on the Harasta frontline."

15. The information available is insufficient to establish the weapons delivery system. Some victims said they did not see the weapon that caused the explosion, which released white smoke, and others said it was caused by an artillery shell. Second-hand information suggesting the agent originated from a hand-grenade, which would be an extremely unlikely delivery system, was denied by victims.

The first sarin reports accepted by the CoI in 2013 in fact centered on white smoke from hand grenades, dropped by regime force from a helicopter. I guess sarin hand grenades make less sense without a helicopter context?

While they disagreed on the method, which is familiar, "Interviewees consistently said they believed the weapon originated from Government forces positions." Well that must be it. If some rebels had tossed the shell, they would surely tell us that, but they *freely admit* it was the government side, using something that put out white smoke. "It is therefore concluded that there are reasonable grounds to believe that Government forces used chemical weapons in Harasta on 18 November." Doot-dee-doo. That's some impressive detective work.

The described symptoms are consistent with a nerve agent. White smoke is mentioned, perhaps pale yellow rounded off, and hand grenades are mentioned then retracted. No foul smell is mentioned here, nor any caustic effects, but these tend to appear with sarin cases, both verified as involving sarin and not verified. My analysis of all reported cases finds it's impure stuff said to smell foul, strange, rotten, hard to place. It's yellow/orange to light yellow to white, as described, and is an irritant (burns the eyes and airways on contact like pure sarin wouldn't).

"Syrians for Truth and Justice" (STJ) issued a report on the incident shortly afterwards, compiling some short interviews, a video, some statements and a photo, into the only English-language source of any value I could find. The photo shows a man with green eyes displaying miosis - constricted pupils. His eye is also quite red and irritated. This is likely genuine, or not light-triggered constriction - only indirect light is used.

On Saturday morning, 18 November 2017, the Syrian regular forces launched a grenade attack loaded with a toxic gas believed to be one of the organophosphorus compounds according to the testimonies obtained by Syrians for Truth and Justice/STJ, the attack targeted groups of fighters of Ahrar al-sham al-Islamiyya Movement on the Military Vehicle Management Front in Harasta. The attack resulted in the wounding 39 combatants being light and medium, as many eyewitnesses have confirmed to a STJ reporter.
"At first, we thought chlorine is the gas used in the attack," two medics told them, based apparently on eye irritation and breathing problems, with no one mentioning a chlorine-like smell. but several hours later, several cases, about 15 injured, came back due to the worsening of
the symptoms....11 of them were placed into the intensive care unit
 clinical eye symptoms (conjunctiva redness, pin-eye pupils, watery eyes) and respiratory and neurological symptoms;
eye-pin pupils with a blurred vision, as well as chest symptoms such as a excess detachments in the bronchial tubes  and excessive salivation, as well as neurological symptoms represented by irritation, muscle weakness and muscle spasms"
"obvious respiratory and neurological symptoms of irritation, restlessness and convulsions with an absence of consciousness and symptoms of the eye, particularly the constricted pupils and pin-eye pupils,"
symptoms are "similar to that exposure of Sarin gas, but organophosphorus compounds have a stench that does not exist in Sarin gas.” It does in Syria. It's impure stuff said to smell foul, strange, rotten, hard to place.

video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYSAQ90q4Kg
one man with a red face wiggles as if restless. He's not a serious sarin patient if at all. These will be more paralyzed than fidgety, and more pale/blue than red. At least 4 peoples' eyes are shown in miosis and suffering some redness and watering. One set of eyes is brown, the rest green or hazel, as usual for almost every miosis case ever shown in Syria. It's made me wonder if they had fake miosis contacts made, all in green ... but never mind this. These eyes water more like they're just irritated than like sarin-effected eyes that would pour tears uncontrollably.

So the visuals are far from convincing, but by things said that could be true anyway, this fits the profile of alleged sarin attacks over the last 5+ years.

Side-note: two days earlier in Harasta, there was another alleged chlorine attack, sickening 4 journalists in Harasta besides whoever else (unspecified). A video of one reporter gasping appears like genuine symptoms, including eye irritation, etc.
The STJ report notes on the 16th "the Syrian regular forces threw mortar shells loaded with poisonous gas, believed to be chlorine gas," targeting Ahrar al-Sham fighters storming a Military Vehicle base in Harasta. The journalists affected are named as:
Mohammed al-Qaseer, Orient TV cameraman.
Mazen ash-Shami, director of Qasioun Office.
Mohammed al-Jazaeri, director of al-Jazira Office.
Diyaa ash-Shami, Step News Agency reporter.
Abedl Monaem Isa, a photographer.
"It is worth mentioning that this attack came hours after Russia vetoed a draft resolution submitted by the US to the Council security, which called for the extension of the work of the Joint United Nations Commission of Inquiry and the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons/OPCW."

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Khalifa Haftar: A true leader of Libya

Guest post by Adel Karim
March 8, 2017

(This is a submitted article, reflecting the author's opinion).

In the run-up to the presidential elections the internal situation in Libya is getting sharper.
This situation has affected not only ordinary people, but the separated Libyan tribes and communities. Many of them began to realize that their choice will determine the whole country's future.

Thus, many tribal leaders and Libyans believe that Khalifa Haftar is currently the only person able to reunify the country, and provide its stability and security. He is considered to be a man who will return peace and prosperity to the country.

Representatives of the Supreme Council of the Libyan Tribes and Cities believe that the current situation in Libya is affected by controlled chaos aimed at prolonging the political and economic crisis.

Analysts estimate that such an opinion reflects the nation's mood. According to different sources, more and more Libyans support the LNA's leader Khalifa Haftar's policy. It is also evidenced by his increasing international influence.

At the talks held on July 25 in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron held a meeting between Libya's UN-backed Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. The negotiations led to the road map that was formulated to settle the Libyan crisis and to the truce agreement between the parties. It was also stressed by Macron at the press conference.

Besides, last December supporters of Khalifa Haftar held demonstrations in Benghazi, Tobruk and Tripoli calling on him to take charge of the country. A lot of Libyans believe that the Government of National Accord headed by Fayez al-Sarraj is no longer legitimate. They condemn Sarraj's policy that led to the uprising of many fragmented factions controlled by foreign countries like Turkey or Qatar. 

Libyan tribes share the same point of view. Their leaders are reportedly showing greater support for Haftar due to their belief that he can be the one to stop the terror in the country and deal with extremist groups that make obstacles on the way of government's restoration.

Apparently, Libyans are divided between two political forces. However, more and more people realize that their vote will determine the country's fate. That's why they are ready to put away all the disagreements of the past and unify under one common goal.

Monday, March 5, 2018

More on the Khan Sheikhoun Radar Track

March 5, 2018

One of my sources tipped me to some interesting points regarding the Khan Sheikhoun CW incident and investigation that I had overlooked, spurring me to do some visual analysis on the alleged radar flight tack that I couldn't do previously. Betweeb it all, I find new reasons to doubt bot this evidence, and also my own reading of it so far.

This has been one of two most-central and oft-repeated points in my own case, the "smoking gun" points, more or less:
1) radar (and some other evidence) shows the jets never flew over the city, so could not have dropped any bombs there.
2) the wind needed to spread any sarin blew exactly opposite of the direction people were allegedly affected (see explainer).

I put this one first in writing because it was easier to see and explain (as it turns out, a little too easy) But I always knew the radar part had a limited basis that could be erroneous, whereas the wind aspect always had an undeniable depth of proof in my mind. Now the radar issue can be shown - belatedly - to involve error and confusion and is now demoted. At least temporarily, I consider there to be only one clear leading point in the wrong wind, with many strong supports, probably still including this one...

That revision is worth explaining for anyone interested in these issues, and so this post. First, some background that almost deserves its own post, but helps put all this in context anyway.

The "Jeff" Flight Track Graphic: How it Came to Be
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesperson, gave a statement on April 6th to announce the missile attack on Shayrat airfield that morning and the reasoning for it. He notes the targeted base "was used to store chemical weapons and Syrian air forces," but not that the attack was launched from there, despite the presumable availablility of radar data. Was that just an oversight, or did it reflect a lack of evidence for that - or even the presence of proof against it - at that time?

That night, apparently, a graphic was prepared to accompany the more explicit claim aired the next day. This is the image I've been citing, wrongly as from the White House report, and/or from that press conference. It came separately from and later than both, with a manner of entry worth a brief consideration.

I haven't found a proper defense department publication of this image, even on their social media accounts. An April 7 DoD article adds "an official said there is "high confidence" the airfield is where the Syrian regime’s aircraft took off for the April 4 attack." It shows base damage, but not the flight track. No other article I found on the DoD website features it.

All April 7 media reports showing the map just say it was released, giving no original source except other media reports. ABC News (1 2) - BBC - LA Times Maybe it was sent to several media outfits directly, or directly to ABC news, whose report adds a comment from the same Capt. Davis: "Officials decided to declassify the photo to prove that Syria's Shayrat air base was linked to the chemical attack, Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesperson said Thursday night." That should be after and apart from the press conference. Further, ABC's image, perhaps alone, contains relevant exif metadata:

title: ht-released-flight-track-jc-170406
Authors: Jeff
Created: 4/6/2017 11:46 PM (time presumably local)

And probably the earliest publication of the flight track is in an ABC News tweet from 8:52 PM (California time) on 6 Apr 2017. This shows the image in hand at 11:52 east coast time, some 11 hours before their next-day article, but just 6 minutes after image creation.

So creator "Jeff" is presumably the same Capt. Davis, lodging comments that night, through someone at ABC. It's not clear why a spokesman would be tasked with graphics preparation at night. The use of first name suggests a home computer was used, not one at the Pentagon, which would be interesting. As I gather, Jeff Davis isn't just any spokesperson, but the overall director of media operations for the pentagon. Someone that senior shouldn't normally sit up late preparing graphics on his own computer, when there should be many people under him with much better technical skills in that kind of thing.

This seems to be outside normal channels, maybe avoiding the usual audit trail and oversight. It's worth wondering if that chance was taken to alter the data. If there were a discrepancy to cover, it would seem to be the excessive distance issue (see analysis below). If so, it might be best to just insist the jets were over/near/around/over the town, and never show the proof. No one would probably rake them over any coals about it. Trying to show the problematic evidence altered to look like positive proof sounds tricky and dangerous.

But if the jet was 5km or more from the town as some evidence suggests, perhaps the map was altered to fudge it north and then shown. As it is, it wasn't by enough to really work, but ... but why then? Hm. Maybe they would decided to show something fake instead of nothing, just to placate the public with some hopefully indecipherable pixels.

Maybe it's not fake and Davis, or someone through him, released this unnecessarily to show the problem, as per a whistleblower? This and other options might make sense, depending on the personnel involved, a lot of unknowns, and the real-world validity of these radar tracks. Mainly, let's stick to the content of the image and what we can learn from and about that. 

What It Seemed to Show
As the ABC report notes "The flight path appears to have taken a northerly track from the Shayrat airbase near Homs towards Khan Shaykhun in the Idlib province. According to the graphic released by the Pentagon, the plane appears to have circled the area around Khan Shaykhun and the area between the two cities multiple times."

As I've repeated, it appears to pass "around" Khan Sheikhoun but not over it as required. The opposition story has two jets or at least two passes, one dropping conventional bombs, the other sarin (disputed: one or two jets, order of drops, number of chemical bombs and whether they also contained chlorine). The distance to sarin crater is around 3km, only about 1 km from the edge of town. There's no way a gravity bomb would drift that far from straight down, off to the left. Out ahead to the east, with the jet's trajectory, maybe. But not kilometers north. Here again is how I've been showing it - red line fudged a bit north from my imprecise reading, to be fair (in fact it might pass this close or closer, by the graphic).

This issues was largely ignored until the UN-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) final report last year (see here for copies and notes and here and here for my reviews). Based on the "Jeff" graphic and "another aerial map" they were shown by someone, the report declared roughly what I did, but even more so: 
"The Mechanism had access to another aerial map depicting the path of an aircraft alleged to have been in the airspace around Khan Shaykhun between approximately 0644 and 0651 hours on 4 April 2017. The aircraft was depicted as flying in a circular loop pattern in the vicinity of Kafr Zayta and north-east of Khan Shaykhun. The map indicated that the closest to Khan Shaykhun that the aircraft had flown had been approximately 5 km away." (Annex II, point 28)

That seemed like the same but rounded up - the tracks loop to the northeast of Khan Sheikhoun after passing right over Kafr Zita to the south (see composite views below), never coming closer than 3 km from the sarin crater, and just about along the town's outer edge. They saw it as even further out, which should be fatal to the case, but they had an expert vaguely make it sound plausible (as my reviews explain, the effort clearly fails and they're caught in a lame dodge). 

So I had a visual and then this confirmation of a serious problem. But now that I look closer at the visual part...

Analysis Basics 
I didn't realize there were free programs comparable to Photoshop, which had on an old computer, but finally downloading the useful graphics program GIMP 2, I can finally layer images again and do a proper analysis. Now, nearly a year after the event that's still so murky, and after no one else I know of has done this kind of analysis (some like Bellingcat's Triebert have done overlay comparisons but little analysis).

To line up the flight path with reliable satellite imagery, I compared the roads, city outlines for Homs and Hama, and town placements for Khan Sheikhoun and Al-Latamneh (everything given on the DoD map). I used GIMP 2 with the flight tack on top (varying opacity) and an underlying layer from Google Earth. Here is the analysis for the starting portion at Shayrat airfield, with roads partially painted in manually (I forgot to turn that on), Homs city outline painted roughly in black. 

A marked horizontal stretching was evident, apparently on the map and the radar track as if both were layered into one image that was then stretched. (see how the returns change from oval to circle with the adjustment). This was pretty clear from the start, with even the lettering being stretched in the "Jeff" graphic. For what it's worth, here is just the flight track part, roughly corrected (no comparison here, just narrowing it 'til the dots look circular)

As for the radar returns (red dots) - it's hard in spots to make out which dots connect into a flight path, and in some spots it's hard to see how it could connect to anything. This might be an unprofessional mess in fact - I'm not expert enough to say.

There's also irregular spacing of returns, some far apart and others lumped together. They should be pretty regular, barring speed changes. I don't know if maybe distance or weather, etc. cause some returns not to come back or come back a little scrambled. This could also mean - for example - the path was re-traced by hand, with the creator placing dots with mouse clicks and doing it irregularly. But why re-trace the map instead of showing the original he traced off of? This remains an area of question.

Identifying the Starting Offset

The main thing, however, is the  starting offset at Shayrat base - the one concrete problem with the map line-up I can identify so far. It might be the only one ever;  this is the only spot where we can put the jets and the ground together somewhat reliably, and we can see they aren't lined up right.

This shouldn't even show the jets on the runways, let alone back before them, almost on the highway. They should appear only after takeoff, upon reaching the right altitude to reflect radar impulses. How far out isn't certain, but perhaps in the white circle here, as they clearly depart E-SE. In fact between the first returns is a short line each along the same line as each runway - maybe a bit of each jet's takeoff, crossing over each other. The dots here are closer together, I propose because the jets were using much of their speed to climb, before they leveled out and started moving further across the map. (note: the extra shape muddled in here - either a plane or a square cross, happens to line up with my white circle, but according to the returns, it's just some spot a ways east of the airport...)

I measure the offset between first return where it is vs. about where it should be at 7.1 km, 103 heading to correct. Again that's inexact, but probably close to right. I may update this if I ever get a more useful (expert) opinion on where the white circle should really be.

That seems quite interesting ... but what it means is a bit of a headache.

What That Was Hiding
I did the same layering and stretching for the area in question near Khan Sheikhoun, getting this similar result. Labeled cities KS and Latamneh here boxed in black. Highways painted on their own layer this time (I traced highway from Maardes not highlighted on Google Earth - it matches until I veer off tracing another road). Some town labels added for reference. 4 returns closest to KS are marked in red on the right-hand view.

Reading the nearest flight path: This was never done fully, and even now I can only make out three returns (B, C, D as labeled at right) forming a clear, gently curving flight path just southwest of Khan Sheikhoun, but from there - the east end could connect to either of the two dots boxed in lime green (one of which is point E) and branch off how it does - it's little matter. Considering our correction to the east, the west side matters more, and there's more variation between the points that could be A, with a possible missing return on the way to point B. Presuming a continuous motion, either aqua green line might fit, the northern one perhaps better. It might possiblt connect to one of the dots further south, but that implies an unlikely maneuver.

The path curving more from the north looks better and has the added feature of putting the jet right over the sarin crater, once corrected. This graphic explains it all:

Additional issues may exist, but would be harder or impossible to tease out without anything further to compare them to. For example even this adjusted set of returns might be stretched, skewed, scrambled, or possibly even made up, besides perhaps genuine and naturally imperfect. But if this offset is the only issue, ironically, the jet's pass over the release point is made to look like a pass south of town, making that a false lead after all. This obviously needs to be noted.

Is it Incorrect Even After Correction?
It's fairly possible there's a real discrepancy underneath this, as the JIM seems to have found, that was "corrected" to put the jet over the crater. If so, it seems this fix was obscured with another distortion, that offset creating the appearance of about the same obvious problem - the jet seems too distant. But this version of that problem falls apart on analysis of the offset. We might take that as the only alteration, but it could be a clever sort of bait-and-switch trick to obscure the real forgery. One effect it's had, intentionally or not, is to trick some (like me) into promoting this flight path, only to have it show what they want us to see in the end. 

The JIM's basis for calling 5km is more crucial now, and I don't trust them. Maybe they saw another map with the same basic issue, and just measured the apparent distance like I did, rounding up. That's not in their immediate apparent interest, nor in the DoD's to show it to them. Presumably, the JIM would have done everything possible to minimize the distance, so if they say 5 km from the town, it's most likely 5 km from the edge of town, and they're most likely rounding down, not up. That would mean the other map we've seen was different - which they didn't note. 

There are some reasons they might be erred in that conclusion, but let's consider they might have seen better data and read it right. Again, here's what they describe: "a circular loop pattern in the vicinity of Kafr Zayta and north-east of Khan Shaykhun," never passing closer than "approximately 5 km away." That's from the city, apparently, and not from the sarin crater. That sounds just like the non-adjusted track I've been citing, but corrected to be even further out. Below: closest passes in thick purple, other confused possible paths (area of other returns) in lighter lines - then that with transparency, overlaid with a green version shifted to fit the JIM description. In fact a shift of 5.3 km to the S-SE gives the best fit for 5 km out on all sides - and pretty much the only fit. It can't be further out and still loop "northeast" at all. Therefore, it's most likely this is about what they meant.

Now, that's just based on a description of a set of paths that might look different, but taking that as a reasonable basis for an implied JIM reading ... here is a conceptual graphic showing how their implied plots (as read by me, above), compared with what the DoD "Jeff" graphic seemed to show,  and what it shows after correcting the obvious offset (what the DoD wanted us to see in the end?). A triangle of given/read/decoded versions of each data point with the truth likely somewhere in the middle, probably closer to the south end. Each black line is the right difference between each red dot (right heading, proportional km scale, drawn from measured points on a map). 

So in my complex thoughts above, the original plots (southern dot) would be first be shifted northeast ~6.5 km to red dot "corr. for offset." That puts the jet over the sarin crater at one point. Then the offset in the "Jeff" graphic shifted it all in appearance ~7km to the W-NW, making it seem to not line up, perhaps as bait to get us swallowing the hook of that first alteration. 

In Review

If the 5km measure is closer, there must be another error in this version, like the flight track rotated a bit, skewed, etc. The other unseen track is preferable, but not gospel either and of course - it's unseen. So the JIM's unverifiable call becomes the best argument as to distance, with supports but no certainty. I don't like having to trust them for anything.

The point is weakened somewhat, but remains strong anyway. Many things agree in suggesting a proximity problem we just can't prove or quantify. We also have the Syrian pilot in the same JIM report swearing to a distance of 7-9 km (from what?), suggesting 5km (from town's edge?) was rounded down. But if the above is correct, he probably passed about 5 km from town twice. Maybe he was rounding up? Maybe he was the other pilot? One of the two had been later shot down by foreign-backed Islamists and went missing before the JIM could interview him.

So the case remains, but it doesn't wrap up neatly. And who "outside the choir" would believe the pilot, and who should trust the JIM?

I open the floor for thoughts on how to consider all this, but for the moment I'll be making no more calls to simply "look at the radar track it's south of town!" because that picture actually seems to show it over the sarin spot. Wind direction is undoubtedly strong point #1 now. I'm not sure if this issue is even #2, but maybe things will clarify in time.

The situation isn't clear at this point, but the possibility is raised the radar does show one jet passing over the alleged sarin impact crater and that, despite what the JIM thought, this is even correct. I rather doubt this, but it can't be ruled out. For those inclined to leap there, and those willing to consider the possibility ... That certainly doesn't mean the government dropped sarin gas and killed people. Consider the following points that would remain standing: 

- There's no sign at all of the second jet pass claimed by all witnesses. Is it the sarin bomb run or the conventional bomb run with no radar track remotely near the town?
- The opposition story still has enough problems (like the exact wrong wind direction) to possibly be true.
- The government still had less than zero motive and probably no sarin, while Islamists had all the motive and have never even been asked to give up their supplies of sarin.
- the victims still seem to be hostages gassed in a managed massacre (primarily not with sarin).
- etc.

A contact recently suggested "I now think the story about smoke from an airstrike on chemical stores was a deliberate feed of disinformation via a source trusted by investigative journalists like Hersh and Porter, helping to divert people from asking the right questions." I note it can't be true and had that effect, so agreed. In fact, it helps cement the idea that a jet was over town and attacking stuff. That's an important point, supported by such false stories being disseminated, and also by this seeded image of dubious reliability.

Where was the sarin at Shayrat? From the cited April 7 DoD article:  "The two senior military officials who spoke to reporters at the briefing said the Shayrat Airfield in Homs governate in Syria that was targeted by the U.S. strike has a "history" of having chemical weapons stored there. ... The U.S. was not tracking the airfield as an active chemical site, an official said, but the military did take precautions not to hit anything that could possibly lead to the inadvertent release of chemical munitions or chemical substances." 

Does this suggest they already knew where the CW were and weren't? Like - not on the base at all as far as they actually knew? Investigators first refused to visit Shayrat to look into these sarin claims, saying it would be hard to know where to look to prove or disprove the claims. Later they did go, but found no sign of sarin, not that they knew for sure where to look - or to not bomb... so ... ?