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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

How Terrorists were Given Al-Houla in Response to Their Massacre There

Marking Six Years Since the "Houla Massacre" in Taldou
May 23-24, 2018

Al-Houla: At Last! Liberated, or Lost, Depending...
I've been swamped and bottlenecked lately, but this year especially I must pause and leave that clogged. It's time to mark the 6th anniversary of the infamous Houla Massacre. That event on May 25, 2012, is what caught my attention to start studying events in Syria, inspiring me to suggest a collaborative research website. My ally "CE" set up the wiki-format site A Closer Look On Syria in June, 2012. She and I and Petri Krohn (the first 3 core members) focused on the Houla Massacre heavily, besides other things, and soon developed an unusual mastery of the evidence most people barely knew.

Every year since, I've marked the anniversary in some way, at first with detailed PDF reports in 2013 and 2014 (see last year's commemoration with a summary of the previous ones if curious). Mostly these have repeated the same message in different ways. But year six is different. For the first time since mid-2012, Al-Houla is back under government control, as of about a week ago. Here's the Houla-Rastan pocket as it stood April 18 (Peto Lucem map), at the start of the SAA operation to close it. A month later, the effort was complete. All green is now gone, and all orange lines of contest have fizzled away. The Houla area is the north-south strip at the west edge of this pocket, containing Tal Dahab, Kafr Laha, and Taldou.

Shortcut for news; from ACLOS's well-maintained Syria News feed (and I don't even do any of that! except sometimes - should more):

16 May. Syrian flags are raised in Rastan and Talbiseh after the evacuation process in the east and center of the Rastan pocket has successfully been completed (map). According to later reports, the western part of the pocket around the Houla plains is also already in government hands, which would make the Rastan pocket history. The so-called Houla massacre of May 2012 was the event that led to the creation of this wiki, so seeing that place out of "rebel" hands for the first time in six years certainly is something that inspires our curiosity.

18 May: According to SANA National Flag hoisted over Aqrab town in Hama countryside

19 May: SANA publishes images allegedly showing locals greeting the army in the towns of the Houla plains. Technicians are repairing the former pocket's power grid.

One of the photos:

Not everybody's happy. For example:
تحيا الثورة أنقذوا درعا
@VivaRevolt May 16
Also,another painful aspect of this lost,is that Al-Houla and its villages will go back to Regime control,these villages witnessed the most sectarian-motivated and barbaric massacre ever witnessed,the Houla Massacre,the regime will desecrate the area and begin fabrications

There were worse one, but point taken. Indeed, fresh stories may emerge now. But fabrications about the Houla massacre date back to the event itself, though opinions differ on which set of witnesses was making it up.

May 25: Houla FSA Breaks Into Taldou
Of course I've been trying to fight what I see as the lies since the start. Let's start with one place I was able to bring a little improvement to was at the Houla Massacre Wikipedia article, background section anyway. This had cited Al-Jazeera to explain how Al-Houla was a singular rebel-held Sunni "town" that was attacked by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on May 25, chasing out the FSA defenders prior to the massacre committed by local Alawite "Shabiha." I corrected this part a year or two ago, and now... it remains pretty fair or even unchanged (bolding added here):

Al-Houla is an area mainly comprising three towns named, as given north-to-south in the UN's June report, Tal Addahab, Kafr Laha and Taldou. They report the towns have a combined population of more than 100,000 "of which the majority is Sunni Muslim," but are "ringed by Shia villages to the southeast, and Alawi villages to the southwest and the north."

(adding here: a graphic for that)

Houla was a regular protest hub, even before army defectors formed the Free Syrian Army. The Syrian army had been accused of raiding and killing protesters in the Houla region before. But by May, 2012 FSA or allied rebels were in general control of the area, according to both pro-government (acceptable citation needed) and anti-government sources. Der Spiegel was told over the winter "a unit of the Free Syrian Army took up residence (in Houla) and it has been considered liberated since then" although the state's army still controlled "roads into the town." [29] The UN's investigators only really considered Taldou, the southernmost town in Houla, and found "opposition forces may have been in control of parts of the city, mostly in the north." [26]

According to Al Jazeera's correspondent Hadi al-Abdallah, this FSA control of Houla is why the Syrian Army was unable to enter on May 25, and had to shell it from a distance prior to the massacre.[20] However, the UN's June report noted "Government forces are present in Al-Houla" with "fortified checkpoints" they show on an attached map. This shows only the south end of Taldou, between rebel-held Houla and the Alawi and Shia villages. All the reported massacre sites, also labeled on that map, are in this immediate area of Taldou.[26]
Cited here and below: UN Commission of Inquiry (CoI) reports (June, 2012 interim report - August final report )

So, a twist few people ever learned of; the massacre happened in an area the army already controlled. They wouldn't need to shell it in order to gain access.

I need to add (or re-add?) this important part about the CoI's findings: two of those five security posts were militarily overrun in a FSA/Islamist offensive on May 25. Their first report heard of a protest that came under shelling attack, and decided vaguely: “Either in retaliation, or in a premeditated attack, anti-Government armed groups, including the FSA present in Taldou, fired upon the security forces checkpoints, probably overrunning one or two of them. Several people were killed in these clashes or as a result of the shelling...” This includes some rebel fighters, and some 5 or 6 soldiers at least were killed, with an unclear number of others captured. But the investigators seem to feel the government wound up on top and did the massacre anyway.

Upon review of the evidence, "probably overrunning one or two" posts means almost surely taking out two of them - and this is an "at least" number, not "at most." The CoI “determined that the clocktower checkpoint was overrun at some point” in the day. (p.10) They didn't go into detail, but a witness says he FSA fully neutralized it around 7:00 PM, but the post was distracted by attacks and bypassed earlier, around 2 P.M.. Video of the scene later shows the place scarred with gunfire, with abandoned military vehicles and sandbagged positions. It would have been no small feat to overrun this. But as The map at the end of the CoI's June report says, it was "overrun by anti-gov't forces."

Later videos show some of the fighting in a mysterious, undated "battle to liberate freedom circle," which this central roundabout came to be called after May 25. It seems that battle was on this day, and is the offensive the CoI refers to, and the videos were delayed in their release just to make the date less obvious. 

Further south down Taldou's Main Street is the secured military intelligence headquarters (MIHQ). The map at the end of the UN CoI's June report has this labeled “Military Intelligence Post (likely overrun by anti-gov't forces).”  They acknowledge in the report a “new front line” that was only “north of the (Qaws) checkpoint,” not clearly at MIHQ. In videos, we see burned building, burned military vehicles out front, and anti-Assad graffiti by the day after. It was clearly overrun, and FSA would have access halfway down main street, at least (see map below).

The investigators decided ultimately that this was all a coincidence, but here's the situation as they would put it (my map based on theirs and other info). The northern majority of town was already FSA-held, and by sometime on May 25 the white posts were knocked out, with dependent areas now open to them; Saad Road especially where the bulk of victims lived.

Orange posts, the investigators decided, still blocked their way as possible, shielding the Sayed families. The Water co. base with heavy wepons and elevation, could shell targets anywhere below, but would be a bit too crude to halt foot soldiers running house-to house. Army snipers at the hospital would likely stop rebels from killing anyone on Saad Road, the Commission reasoned.

In fact, the government's continued control of this part of the "rebel-held town" was key to their finding  “reasonable basis to believe that the perpetrators (of the massacre)... were aligned to the Government.”  (p.67) It seemed unlikely anyone else could gain access.

And the army or Shabiha also might have gotten around the suddenly-rebel-controlled majority of town to kill the Abdulrazaq families over on Saad Road. In fact, they must have, presumably on foot across the fields (the creek would be fairly low...). Because after all, who else but the proven killers over on army-controlled Main Street would be going around killing whole families? I hope we can see how poor this reasoning is at inspiring confidence. Most of those relying on the CoI as the final word never even bother to dig into the mechanics like this.

What the UN investigators missed was the evidence that the two other posts on Main Street were also either overrun or circumvented as a consequence of the rebel-initiated conflict of May 25. The one that matters most is the National Hospital, with those snipers helping secure the area. But between video evidence and credible accounts (those in agreement with the video), it seem like someone suddenly changed the management there and set the hospital on fire around sunset on May 25. The best explanation of that is still this 2014 report:

The Battle for the Houla Massacre: the video evidence explained, and the rest re-considered
(I'm open to relevant challenges at this debate spot, or this on-site mirror, or wherever, so long as I'm made aware, I'll check any attempted counter-argument for relevance and accuracy. No takers yet. The challenge has been up for about four years.)

With flawed reasoning (as explained throughout my report, and sharply summarized on p 56/57), the CoI decided the army held this area on Main Street the FSA never quite got to. They half-acknowledge the FSA had control up to the MIHQ, and after that, the nearby mobile post at the qaws (arches) "demarcated the new front line between the opposition and Government forces." (p.66)

This post seems to usually consist of a pickup truck with soldiers in it parked on the side of the street at the arches marking the old city entrance. It's not even clear if it was manned 24/7. Mobile “front lines” are problematic, having the option to simply move out of the way if it became clear they couldn't hold their position. the CoI had acknowledged on its map "Qaws (mobile - maybe further south)." That is, for all they know, the soldiers may have pulled back some distance under the assault. They could retreat about 120 meters and take a new position at the Sayed family's front door, or further yet. No alleged witnesses say what happened here; these soldiers may have retreated at some point, could be among those killed or captured, or they may have held out. Then, perhaps they halted any advance to the south, or perhaps they were circumvented.  

But here's some evidence the arches were gotten through or around, one way or another; the National Hospital seems to be at least partly on fire by sunset. Something on that line of sight is billowing black smoke, apparently just for a few moments so far. It does seem the qaws post is active at this time, however, and shooting back at the FSA attackers (see below).

Ambassador Jaafari at least reported the terrorists had attacked and burned the hospital in their offensive (see here 5:00, but confused about "another village" - other witnesses report the hospital's burning and perhaps a massacre there, or at least the killing of a soldier believed to be a non-Sunni. A SANA animation ACLOS looked at showed attackers driving down the hill from the east, apparently as the Water Co. base on the hill was distracted, and it was they who attacked the hospital, entirely south of the arches post.

Anyway, the army post at the hospital apparently didn't hold. The massacre site across the street would be just as wide open. Here, a government-supporting former policeman Muawiya al-Sayed lived. He was killed alongside his adult son and 8-year-old daughter. The son was an army soldier on leave with a broken leg. The killers gouged his eyes out. (it's alleged the Shabiha targetde these al-Sayeds just for being Sunnis and the father's extremely Sunni name. There is backstory to why Shia dislike the name Muawiya, but as a reason the massacre a loyal family, it really pales. 

Some alleged army shelling was shown on video, but it's mostly vague, and could be part of the FSA offensive. The only time we can see where any of the shelling is coming from, it's clearly that. This guy in the activist crowd carries an RPG launcher, and goes ignored as he fires 3+ shells, very loudly, at something off-frame.  (analysis video) ... all in an area of free rebel access on northern Saad Road (B on the map above), south of the overrun clocktower post (just now liberated "freedom circle"). It's about 6:15 pm by solar angles, claimed as May 25 and posted that day as evidence of the massacre, and widely-cited as such. It was maybe the best video of the "shelling" they published at the time.

Activists here ignore the man firing weapons as they load the bodies of four men into a van that drives south; the Abdulrazaq family was being slaughtered a ways south on this unprotected street around then or earlier, and those same 4 bodies are shown later amongst the Abdulrazaq family victims. This all proves mobile opposition access in this whole area, something the UN's CoI dithered over and finally decided against. 

Some bullets can be seen flying from the mobile post near the arches at sunset. But these come in response to protesters with AK-47s firing at them from behind this corner. it's 170 meters north of the Qaws, and just down and across the street from MIHQ, which is clearly no threat to the gunmen (that is, it's been overrun). This is the same video where we can see the hospital burning further south behind the qaws. So either they were gotten around, or this is a staged scene where rebels shoot at each other to fake such resistance. (this is also a June-posted video, but again, it's from the "freedom circle" battle.)  

But it could be the soldiers at the qaws held out, or this truck was intentionally left intact as a security post. If it were just distracted with defense, as they would be per that video, some other guys could have snuck on foot far around it, moving south. Armed with guns and knives, they could easily overcome the defenses at the Al-Sayed family homes and slaughter the people.

They might leave the bodies if they came on foot, but it seems likely attackers in vehicles were in the area, assaulting the hospital at least. Maybe they would opt to leave the bodies anyway, as proof the government had control, and must have done it. Whatever the reason, while rebels did recover most bodies, at the Abdulrazaq sites and other scattered locales, the Al-Sayeds were left behind and filmed by SANA in the morning as victims of the terrorist massacre (at right, two head-shot sons of Aref al-Sayed, - brothers, allegedly, of fake miracle survivor Ali al-Sayed - UNSMIS investigators sided with the opposition claims, helped some activists claiming to be family load these 7 bodies in the morning and take them to the anonymous mass grave in the north of Taldou).

Standing Up for Rebel-Held Al-Houla

In a news video for ITV/CNN (YouTube) Alex Thomson reports from Taldou with Syrian troops, apparently on May 27, at spots on Main Street that were government-secured on the 24th. Now, as Thomson notes, they SAA are here but not in control, and are in fact "very scared." They get pinned down under sniper fire, taking cover as they can. One had been shot and carried away; we're shown his fresh blood on the pavement. An old man recently executed by somebody is shown, mostly covered with a blanket. Two frames at right: first moving in behind a tank, well south of the arches (visible up the street), later from the burned-out APCs at MIHQ (see map above)

This is the Syrian Army clawing to re-gain control of Taldou. All signs suggest they lost control on 25 May. But as we know, the world community was told a different story at the time.

Al-Jazeera first reported on at least 90 killed in "Houla, a town ... after government forces tried to break into the town." But later we'd learn the army was already in control of the killing sites, that control in fact being central to the UN investigators. In fact it was the FSA that tried to break in. BBC news reported "according to activists and eyewitnesses interviewed by the BBC, other media and human rights groups, army shelling paved the way for a concerted ground attack by the shabiha." The way didn't need paved. It was nice and smooth already. All the violence of that day just made the pavement in their controlled area covered in rubble, and partially rebel-held.

The UN Security Council seemed to be missing some details as well, declaring the massacre "involved a series of government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood" and they "again demanded that President Bashar al-Assad withdraw heavy weapons from Syrian towns." (VoA News) The massacre part was less uniformly condemned; Russia and China seemed to think the FSA or allies had perhaps done it, despite the government shelling. Western and allied nations were clear the shelling proved government guilt for itself and anything that followed. US "Ambassador" Robert Ford called the massacre "the most unambiguous indictment of the regime to date," based mainly on its coming "after the vicious assault involving tanks and artillery – weapons that only the regime possesses."

But the UN CoI's consulted experts felt the damage looked like "heavy mortars, heavy machine guns or light artillery," with nothing about heavy artillery or tanks or Scud missiles. Larger mortars, RPGs, and maybe heavy anti-aircraft guns mounted on trucks, which attacking rebels would likely have, reportedly had, or were seen using, could explain all of the heaviest damage seen. 

My first Houla debunk was of a desperate effort by the BBC to prove heavy artillery was involved. It was this easy:

Nothing about the damage proves it was something only the government had at the time. It's down to verbal claims and considerations of motive, etc. 

And what apparently was unclear to the Security Council, Russians included, is the "residential neighborhood" that mattered was under government control to start with. Why would they shell their own wards, at the same time as a rebel offensive on that same area, which the Security Council seemingly ignored? There's still no good answer to this question. And much of that damage was to security posts which they ... must have shelled on accident? 

So ... the world tells Syria Houla is hands-off - leave that FSA-held Sunni village alone. As they moved to underwrite their permanent lease, they didn't seem to realize the Islamist fighters had just seized that last bloody part of Houla. Those in charge of Taldou were best placed to launch the massacre there. Did they realize how likely it was they were rewarding the perpetrators, rather than holding them to account as they insisted was their main goal?

Syria could have ignored these insane demands, but it was maybe too big a pain anyway to reclaim and hold even half of Taldou, so long as Houla in general was run by the terrorists. So the government let it go. The exact details are still unclear to me - maybe they re-claimed the hospital, etc. I'm sure the hilltop "Water co." base remained, along with checkpoints forming a ring around southern Taldou, still protecting the Alawi and Shia villages from raids by the Sunni extremists running wild over Houla.

In December, 2012, Houla rebels broke the northerm cordon, and conquered Aqrab, adding that to their holdings, and cleansing the town's Alawite district with warning and then a massacre, a mass-kidnapping of 500 remaining civilians, and perhaps another massacre of many of these, which rebels blamed weakly on Shabiha and the army (ACLOS: Aqrab Massacre). Alex Thomson came back to the area to report for Channel 4 News, and he was not convinced by the story the Houla rebels told. Either way, the army was gone and the FSA in charge, and so it became 'hands off the Sunni rebel town of Aqrab' as well, but this time with no massacre verified to condemn anyone over.

But after this, that's about how it was until the recent liberation of the area nearly six years later. The danger was contained to a certain area - one this danger had no right to, but which outside powers conspired to help it secure.

Re-Considering Who Were the Original Fabricators
Most of what the world thought it knew about the Houla Massacre came from opposition-supplied alleged witnesses and miracle survivors - an awful lot of them, with often silly stories full of conflicting details. There was always another class of witnesses that denied that story in some detail, but they were telling fabrications, most people decided. These spoke on SANA news, to Abkhazian ANNA News and the late Marat Musin, to UNSMIS monitors, and to other media, investigators, and activists (overview at ACLOS).

These people all claimed Taldou was largely secured by the government up to that day, and had been mostly peaceful until it came under attack that afternoon by heavily-armed "terrorists". These forces included some 6-800 men from Houla, Rastan, and further off, even from overseas. The FSA' notorious Farouq Brigade was specified as involved, and many believed Al-Qaeda's nascent Al-Nusra Front was too. Syria's UN representative Dr. Bashar al-Jaafari called it “a full-fledged military operation planned in advance,” coming in waves over nine hours, blazing through with “pickup cars loaded with heavy weapons […] the Libyan way you saw a couple months ago.” 

A pro-government witness - "Arifah" as we at ACLOS dubbed her (top) - told SANA via ANNA how terrorists fired on the clocktower (aka roundabout) army post and/or Baath Party headquarters in central Taldou (see map above).  She says this started around 1 or 2 pm and ran for a while. They fired from the northwest - with a mortar and then heavy machine guns, in what seems a distraction to allow terrorists to move down Saad road. (note: she doesn't seem to have witnessed all this personally, but is mixing what little she saw with things she learned - or was told to say, whatever).

Below her is a scene from a video of Arabad Bin Souriyeh battalion fighters, firing a larger caliber machine gun (not quite the "heavy" the CoI referred to)  southeast, towards just those targets from a nearby alley to the northwest (clearly geo-located). It's about 1:25 pm by sunlight angles. The one firing here takes return fire from the army, hitting him in the belly, and he's carried away. (see 2014 report, exhibit A.3 and Note: times given in the 2014 report were calculated wrong, given as one hour ahead, so this is said to be 2:25 pm. Apologies.)

This video was posted weeks later, but is described as from the battalion's "battle to liberate freedom circle" (the roundabout army post). So it's almost certainly May 25, the only known time that was "liberated." (see 2014 report, the June Videos issue.) And if this is another day, it's one where just what "Arifah" describes unfolded at the same time of the day. And she didn't fit her story to the video - it was first posted June 23, and the ANNA News interviews were published June 3. 

Collectively, these other class of witnesses have claimed the victorious terrorists killed Sunnis who supported the government, and more yet who had converted to Shia Islam. Then they snatched away the bodies to make videos using them as evidence for false claims. This was all shrugged off of course. We all just knew what happened in the Sunni village of Houla - the guys with the bodies had explained it all. Ambassadors were expelled, sanctions placed, and aid to the protesters increased over the story they told about the Army invasion of the Sunni town of al-Houla.

But it turns out logic, the video record, etc. agrees with SANA/ANNA witnesses, who described the day's fighting fairly well, whereas those reporting a Shabiha massacre don't mention the "freedom circle" battle at all - just unprovoked army shelling seemingly swapped in to replace it. The others explain, with some claimed evidence, that the terrorists just coached their family members to play witnesses to the foreign media. This can hardly ever be proven, but in fact that sounds exactly right, having analyzed what several dozen miracle survivors say. Some of them can't even keep a straight face as they tell their story, and others might be grinning like mad under their Islamist veils.

For Ali (3rd row left and right), wow ... see "Fight for us" and other things Ali said. He was and remains the star witness for the whole thing. He can remember a LIST of his alleged family member's names, but not WHO each name attaches to (father, brother, and uncles). He has a lot of other continuity mistakes between the too-many "testimony" sessions he was booked for. But that one really sunk it for me on first sight in June, 2012, just digging a bit and using common sense. 

This FSA guy gives two completely different stories, one where he's not FSA but was innocently near the crime scene, and another where he's FSA but was fa from the scene - other FSA guys who were there gave him all these details he heard. Except the Shabiha walking back to Foulah part, which he and everyone watched - but which no one filmed.  Both accounts were given to Der Spiegel, for the same report. see here.

That's enough for now, right?

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