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.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Painting Vs. Reality in Syria Crisis Response

Assad Files 2018, Part 3
September 10, 2018
updates Sept. 28, Oct. 13

Note, October 13: a better, more readable version at 21st Century Wire, that more fully explains the context and implications. with the help of Patrick Henningsen, who added a few points, provided the space, and has promoted it as the important find it is.
In Assad Files 2018 part 2, we looked at three more documents shared in a recent channel 4 program, that offered further insights into how banal and non-criminal Syria's prison system really operated back in 2012-13, amidst this horrendous crisis and endless cartoonish allegations. In summary, we learned of these orders suggesting the "Caesar photo" victims probably died somewhere less normal:

Now we go further back to the allegedly brutal response to peaceful protests that sparked armed resistance ...

August 5, 2011 Crisis Cell Meeting: A Picture Was Painted
I'll start with a re-write of some points raised back in 2016, in my first analysis of the so-called "Assad Files," building off of an ambitious piece of propaganda by Ben Taub at the New Yorker.

Assessing the "Linchpin" of the CIJA Case
In the article, Taub paints fairly benign statements from government officials as deeply ominous - suggesting this is about what the guys informing him (the CIJA [committee for international justice and accountability]) are also doing. These quotes can seem that way - with lights from below on either side and the background dimmed. For example, Taub explains, there was a crucial meeting of the Central Crisis Management Cell in Damascus on August 5, 2011, worried about “the laxness in handling the crisis,” which was getting bigger.

Aug. 1, Hama: a bit of that "crisis" they talk about
It's not mentioned here (dimmed background), but this was just a few days after militants overran parts of Hama city on July 31. They killed dozens of policemen and soldiers, dumping some in the river early on August 1, throats sliced, cursing the dead "soldiers" and shouting Allahu Akbar. One man asks people not to film, but at least 3 do, and the one vide was published. An opposition activist confirmed this incident to CNN, warning there were Al-Qaeda elements involved after returning from the fight in Iraq, and it might turn their rebellion ugly (or might already have, depending).

Already back in early June, 2011, there was a massacre by the "Free Syrian Army" in Jisr al-Shughour, claiming the lives of around 120 security members and an unknown number of civilians. Theories were floated that this was a regime crime against those who "refused to shoot protesters," perhaps involving Hezbollah extremists… but it wasn't as clear on that as Hama a couple months later.

Hama is the city most-associated with alleged regime massacres by the president's father Hafez Al-Assad, and was recently inspected by US ambassador Robert Ford in early July and found to be totally militant-free. So we can be pretty clear who's responsible for the deaths of July 31: 24 members of the security forces, and around 80 men and older boys, allegedly all civilian. The 80 almost has to include some fighters killed in their ambitious coordinated attacks on different areas. That toll also might also include civilians killed by Islamists for their support to the government, or just at random in order to blame the government for the biggest death toll possible. It might also include innocents killed by the government, but their motive remains unclear...

Over 100 dead in a day was a minor milestone in the public mind. That third digit was more in the interest of the opposition seeking help than in the government trying to prevent that. Because as it was reported and widely accepted, the Syrian government killed over 100 "people" in Hama that day in an unprovoked massacre, crushing the protests with snipers and tanks in a senseless, one-sided slaughter. It seems the events of July 31 left president Obama "appalled," and seeing the "true nature" of the "Assad regime," starting a process that led to the statements of August 18 demanding the Syrian president step down in some unclear "transition." (NYT)

This would the standard toxic situation over the following years. Naturally, authorities hoped to shut it down as early as possible. "[S]o as to speed up putting an end to the crisis,” the intercepted dispatches say, authorities hatched a unified plan that night, and in fact, Taub writes:
"This policy became the linchpin of the CIJA’s case against officials in the Syrian regime. ... For the CIJA, identifying suspects was easy, Wiley said, because “their names are all over those documents.”
So let's take a look at what they were able to get out of this August 5 centerpiece. as Taub writes, the idea was "to target specific categories of people." "First," it was "protest organizers and “those who tarnish the image of Syria in foreign media.”" Next and finally, it was whoever else, if anyone; Taub doesn't specify any other target types. Here's just how he wrote it:
Emma Reynolds wrote for news.com.au about this in a similar vein, citing Taub:
By August 2011, Syria’s shadowy Central Crisis Management Cell revealed that they were concerned about “laxness” and poor coordination from the authorities dealing with insubordinates. They arranged for regular raids on opposition activists and critics of Syria in foreign media. Their coordination messages paint a clear picture of how orders for what happened to people like Mazen al-Hamada came all the way from the top.
Al-Hamada was one such activist, arrested while smuggling baby formula to a woman in Damascus in March 2012 and bundled into a car....

They weren't going after any armed groups or anyone else, just people struggling for freedom or smuggling food. Dissent, humanity: shut-down. Militants: ignored? Non-existent?

My suspicion then was the parts about demonstrations were really in there, but alongside the real worries about militants running amok, and the two classes might even be linked in a way that makes sense. That's totally not what the memos said, according to the CIJA via Ben Taub and the New Yorker. But I never did trust those assurances.

What They Were Saying the Next Day
We've still never been allowed a view of any original documents from that August 5 meeting of the Central Crisis Management Cell (CCMC). But now we can see a memo dated the next day and referring to the CCMC meeting in question. Demonstrators, foreign media, wanted persons, clearing and holding areas, and then explanation of the regional investigative committees are all included - and so are all the surrounding parts left out of the painting shown to millions back in 2016. Thanks to an online video from Spanish paper El País, we can see the whole page translated to English, and the Arabic original to a lesser degree, and do some comparison.

Building the case against Assad’s regime
El País, June 15, 2018
This is apparently a September fax of an August 18 (forwarding?) of an August 6 memo, discussing the previous day's crisis cell meeting. It was directed, on the 6th, to regional Ba'ath party branches in the governorate of Hama (listed first), and also of rural Damascus, Deir Ezzor, Homs, Idlib, and Daraa (in that order) - the places the Islamist insurgency had taken root at the time. It also tried hard in Baniyas, but was contained already. Aleppo remained mostly peaceful at this time. But the first one listed here is Hama, which had witnessed the massacre of soldiers and police a week earlier.

Yellow highlighted by El País, about the same points early shared all alone. The red underlining added by me shows important points they left out in that process.

The relevant paragraph (middle, with highlighting) does mention demonstrations and demonstrators 4 times - at least per the provided translation. But this memo also mentions - as I suspected - "armed gangs" that cause "human and material losses" by vandalism, looting, pillaging, attacking state institutions, and "killing and terrorizing citizens." This all required so-called "security operations" that were expected to incur "losses," perhaps related to the weapons they hoped to seize some of.

They also decided some soldiers had a way of losing their weapons to the militants, or being "reluctant" to fully face the "armed groups." These might even be sympathizers, people willing to defect, sabotage things, or kill their fellow soldiers. This is probably the "laxness" referred to in Taub's painted version, but there seems to be a bit more we still can't see.

Arrest THEM = people wanted for violent offenses. "Especially those" is a subset of THEM, so violent offenders who also incite demonstrations, etc. However much sense that makes, it's what this translation says. The wording is odd, and raises questions about the translation, which we'll return to shortly. But it does not say go after people who just organize peaceful protests or just talk smack about Damascus.

"Clean every sector of those wanted persons" starts the next paragraph by referring to the same - violent militants, and "especially" those organizing demonstrations and smear campaigns as well.

So the earlier presentation cut all the red parts above, in their selective quotation of the yellow, just as I suspected. Officials were worried about the militants like they should have been, and it was the main issue. But tt didn't come through in the painted picture of a calm crackdown on peaceful dissent, inviting outsiders to arm the emergent "Free Syrian Army" to "defend the protesters."

2 More Docs, More on the Violent Demonstrators
A total of three documents at least are partly shown in the El País video: the other two have dates and document numbers redacted (why?), but may be contemporaneous supporting documents.

One is an undated request for information, from interrogations and potentially involving torture. Methods aren't explained, but they sought more information from "detainees who incited demonstrations" and also those "who had contacts with foreign bodies," perhaps including "plotters" and/or "bodies which took part in funding and arming demonstrators." Here again, the kind of "demonstrations" they're concerned with involve weapons. They also wondered about the "volume of funding and armaments" going to those "demonstrators" and their origins. So they mean weapons supply, not "arming them with knowledge" or something.

The other shared document is an undated arrest warrant, directed to local commanders in Daraa governorate, asking for the arrest of six people (names removed), as soon as possible. This adds nothing - it's the reason they were wanted that matters. Are they armed militants, or demonstrators and image tarnishers? Above, and left out of news stories, the people were wanted for the crimes of vandalism, killing, and assault on the citizenry and government institutions, and some of THOSE were "especially" wanted for additional media-type activities. Are these 6 just regular wanted, or "especially" so?

And even that question doesn't matter totally;
demonstrations, propaganda, media and "human rights NGO" contacts, and weapons and sectarian mayhem, are all seen with good reason as part of a unified package, a coordinated attack on their country seeking a repeat of the Iraq and Libya regime-change scenarios. Unauthorized demonstrations, at which unauthorized gunmen shoot people and blame the government, was a serious problem. All aspect of such a machine would need shut down.

The Local Coordinating Committees (LCC) is named. Publicly, they organize, promote, track peaceful street protests, but they also work with military groups and disseminate their reports, and had nearly every martyr of regime brutality reported with video of the body, as if they had a direct line with the angel of death. The Syrian authorities will have rightly pegged the LCC as organizing both military and propaganda activities. Such people were tarnishing the image of Syria, by committing crimes - often hideous ones -that were being video-recorded and blamed on Syria with great frequency and alarming success.

The main translation issue is with what the LCC organize: protests as implied, or a more vague type of "events." See below.

There's no mention of arresting baby food smugglers like Mazen Hamada, and no order to implement a baby food embargo in the first place. And still nowhere have we seen any orders to enforce the inhumane conditions on detainees Hamada and others describe, or to systematically exterminate thousands of them, as the "Caesar photos" claim to show.

Translation Issues?
I don't usually presume translation issues without a specific reason - it's quite possible, but the main issue seems to be what's edited out - redacted or just not shared. I found one Arabic translator so far on Twitter with time to help.

First, a minor issue: a partial view of undated request is visible enough
"the detainees who incited demonstrations and had contacts with ... plotters, and bodies which took part in funding..." In the translation, the "and" becomes an "or" for a more inclusive reading of who's "especially" wanted.  But either way, it's the class of crimes they were detained over, and information was sought.

More importantly, we get some decent views of the (ostensible) Arabic original of that August 18 fax of the August 6 memo. Below is a full-page view, but small and, as it happens, the important paragraph in the middle is underneath the animated titling for "ARREST WARRANTS." That paragraph is also shown scrolling by larger in such a way all 8 lines can be taken and reassembled (below). 

An "Arab Ba'ath Communist Party" is mentioned at the top - as Amin251 explains, should be Socialist
"الاشتراكي = Socialist. "Communist"  would be written "شيوعي " The name of Syria's ruling party is Ba'ath Arab Socialist, and that's who the memos and translators refer to, so there's no real contention, and it's not a directly important issue. It might show a right-wing bias on the part of the translator, inserting "socialist = commie tyrant" messages in the translation. That might lead to further distortions, but hopefully we can see these directly. 

With tips from Amin and my own careful looking... here are the words in play for those odd instances of "demonstrations."

phonetic: almuzaharat:
The usual word for public demonstrations (plural). Also translates like manifestation, display, etc. It does similar in English. It appears zero times in the memo. The singular form is about the same, doesn't appear either.

مظاهرة الاحتجاج
ph: muzaharat alaihtijaj
A phrase for protest demonstration (singular - plural is barely different). This also doesn't appear (that I caught)

ph: almutazahirin
The usual word for demonstrators and/or protesters, ones who participate in the above. This appears where it should, being translated as "demonstrators." Good there.

tazahar - to demonstrate. this appears twice, suggesting a bit of paraphrasing for 2 instances (rather than "demonstrations" it says "?? demonstrate(ing/ed)." I'll see about the exact wording for each, if possible 

with one loose quote-mark attached, Google Translate gives "demonstrations" with alternates readings: feint, simulation, pretense. Hmmm. With the quote mark cut, it's just "events" and no hints provided. Amin251 notes the usual word for "events" in a general, and maybe military sense, is:
الأحداث (al'ahdath).
But this word doesn't seem to appear. This other word is unusual, but apparently valid, maybe a regional thing, or personal choice of the author. Its exact meaning here isn't totally clear, but the context involves weapons, death, and crisis. It happens to look like the usual word for demonstrations, and it can also mean the same thing. In context of the other words, it likely does, but perhaps not...

Here's where these words appear in the paragraph. Translated paragraph repeated below for comparison.

So far, it appears the translation is ok, despite the appearance. But I still have questions about the wording around the 2 cases of demonstrate, and the LCC's "events", the "especially those..." part, and how the whole run-on sentence here suggests lumping that might be inaccurate (and/or issues, etc.).

Such things can tweak the wording to support the reading you want. But mainly, the only way to make this document fit the agenda of the day is to just quote the parts about "demonstrations" and pretend there was no talk of militants at all. Every nation has a right to defend itself from armed insurgency, and the point of this exercise is to prove the Syrian state was way past its rights and had to know that. So the CIJA just cut the parts that disprove their case before they offer a couple stray lines they like as supposed proof. Clearly showing it with minor redactions isn't a good idea (see my effort below). The best plan they took was to present just the yellow lines and pretend that's all that mattered.

Follow-Up (Sept. 28)
This point deserves some. I finally asked the author, after noticing he is on Twitter, and how he won the Pulitzer Center's RFK prize for journalism in 2017 for this work "chronicling a team of international investigators who smuggled secret Assad regime files documenting torture and other war crimes out of Syria." It was a dramatic read, but too bad it relies on a dubious alleged witness and grossly mischaracterized documents.

So I asked him "any idea how the red-underlined parts here went missing in your article's version of this "linchpin"? It seems to be a plan to stop "armed groups" killing people." (follow-on tweet to correct to "armed gangs.") No response expected, but expectations can be interestingly dashed.

Update, October 13: Even with another nudge added, I still received no response prior to drafting the 21st Century Wire version of this story, where I conclude: "I asked Ben Taub about the details missing in his article, but so far he has not responded. It’s not clear if he or – more likely – the CIJA made the decision to delete the militants and distort this evidence. But someone did."

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