Hmmmm...anything suspicious about the scene ? Oh, you don't see it ?! All right, we'll get back to it.
We in the West are bombarded daily with information and visual images from war-torn Syria which are to testify to acts of extreme brutality of the regime on its peaceable people. Ok, they are not peaceable now but that is a detail lost in the increasingly disjointed narrative. It is just that in the beginning, no-one could say in clear conscience that the Syrian security's response to the initial spontaneous, non-violent street protests aginst the Assad regime was measured or justifiable. The sorties by the network of spies and paramilitary assassins working for the regime, dubbed shabihah (or 'ghost' to stress its covert, sinister character) were real and had the single purpose to intimidate the public voice of opposition. That the army, called to disperse larger demonstrations, fired on people in the streets (on orders to keep the casualties low, as has been credibly reported by defectors) also will not be doubted except by the pro-Assad spin doctors. The West was quite right in denouncing Assad and support the political opposition against him.
However, all has changed with the emergence of an foreign-sponsored and financed armed rebellion in Syria. It was an extremely dubious card to play for a number of reasons. First, the Syrian Army is a much more cohesive force than Ghadafi's and despite the exaggerated media reports of defections (eg. claimining one thousand officers in a camp on the Turkish side of the border), it remains a largely a force loyal to the regime. Second, the political landscape is much more favourable to Assad at the moment than anyone else and he clearly is the preferred choice of a large segment of the population. This is not because he is particularly popular but because most Syrians prefer the devil they know to the mayhem and destruction of civil order (however imperfect) that this war surely delivers day in and day out. Ironically, despite the recent defections, Assad's position may have been consolidated to a degree by the fighting, as large segments of population who actually despise his regime see in his army the only protection they have against the lawlessness the sectarian warfare foists on Syria from the outside by the Saudis, Qatar, the US and its allies. The view of the rebellion as a Zionist conspiracy, orchestrated by the US and Israel to break up Syria into sectarian cantons in permanent war with each other prevails as the most popular rendering of the conflict inside the country. The third element conspiring against the conspirators, is the existing infrastructure which provides social and administrative services. The public service workforce remains loyal to Assad since he provides livelihood. A very potent incentive, which puts all other considerations in perspective. This is why reports now abound that the opposition forces are systematically destroying existing facilities (and sometimes their personnel) and trying to supplant them by their own version of humanitarian aid financed from abroad.
The Free Syrian Army looks like a bad joke. It was claimed in the early days of its puported existence (eg. as on this report by al Jazeera) that it was an exclusively Syrian fighting corps composed from Syrian Army deserters. Again, as in the picture on top this post, such factoid is belied by the rebels themselves. The cri de guerre 'Allahu akhbar' featured in nearly all videos showing FSA's succesful hits or demolition jobs blows the cover. That the jihadi trademark should have been so quickly adopted by the Syrian patriots and freedom fighters is strange, especially since the same 'God-is-great' oath is vocalized also by rag-tag gangs of degenerate homicidal maniacs when killing and mutilating their captives. So, I for one, am not at all surprised when John Rosenthal questions the reality of an organized force called the FSA. It appears to be a political and media fantasy. Yes, sure, there are defectors from the Syrian army, but the stockpiles of Russian-made weapons in Turkey for the rebels (supplied by the Saudis) are a big hint that it is not what it seems but what it can be made to look like.
The Nun from the Borderland
Among those who would not be marching to Hillary Clinton's and Bill Hague's drumbeat, towers one tough Melkite nun. Her name is Agnès-Mariam de la Croix, and she is the Mother Superior of a convent at Qara, on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border. She lives now in Beirut, saying she is the target of wrath of both sides in the conflict. Agnès-Mariam has incurred the wrath of the western media because she accuses western journalists of distorting the facts of the conflict, exaggerating Assad's misdeeds in lapping up naively provocations staged by the rebels, and ignoring the mounting evidence of their large scale intimidations of the population at large, and despicable acts of blood-curdling terrorism. This of course makes Mother Superior a very unwelcome witness. As anyone who disagrees with the project of immediate removing Assad regardless of human and material costs, she has become the object of a media jihad, and stands accused of crimes ranging from acting as a blowhorn for the regime to being a murderous conspirator on its behalf. She is better known in France, as she conducts most of her interviews in French (though she speaks her mind fluently also in in English and Arabic). The vitriol of the French mass media against her is a thing to behold. She has been dubbed chabiha médiatique (media shabihah), and her known anti-Assad stance dismissed as a part of her cover. She wrote an open letter to al-Assad expressing her dismay at the mistreatment of people in Syria's hospitals and detention without legal process (i.e. a Syrian Guantanamo). She claims she holds no brief for al-Assad, and calls his pre-insurrectionist regme totalitarian. She admires Ghandi and Nelson Mandela. Clearly, she could be a secret agent from a conspiracy satire of Ivan Vyskočil, whose cover is so secret she herself is not allowed to know she is an agent.
It is not, of course, that Agnès-Mariam's viewpoint is unassailable. Her political stance is markedly anti-Israel, something given by her conscious Arab identity. (I have known several Syrian Christians personally and this seems a common trait). Her father was a Palestinian. The politics she subscribes to on the Israel-Palestinian strife (a shade off the official Vatican line), sometimes leave her in the company of dubious propagandists. Chief among them, Thierry Meyssan of the Voltaire Network, has made a name for himself as a 9/11 and a Beslan massacre truther. This naturally calls for caution in appraising her facts, but it does not invalidate them by the mere finding that conspiracy theorists find comfort in them.
For example, her charge that the Houla massacre was the work of the rebels, is not as easily refuted as some of the sophisticates (e.g Jawad al-Tamini and Philip Smyth in the conservative National Review) convinced themselves. In contrast to the UN report which implicated the Syrian Army in the gruesome killing of 108 men, women and children, there are at least two versions of events which indict the armed groups that are referred to as the Free Syrian Army. The earlier one, by Reiner Hermann in Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), identified the victims as families of minority Alawites, that recently converted. The incident occured when a Syrian Army checkpoint was overrun by a group of armed men who then went to the village outskirts and began a slaughter of the local minority loyal to Assad. Another German paper, Berliner Morgenpost, offered a variant scenario originating with a witness in Agnès-Mariam's Qara compound. The overrun of the government positions by the rebels, coincided with the FAZ account but the victims were apparently Sunnis known to be Assad loyalists.
I am not committed to a definite viewpoint on Houla, in the absence of a politically impartial forensic study of the incident. But I tend to discount the official, UN ratified version. Here are my observations:
1) The area was not controlled by the regime forces at the time of the massacre or immediately after. It is difficult to imagine that in light of such monstrous attack on humanity, the perps simply turned around and ceded the ground to hostile forces without a fight. There is no credible narrative of expulsion of the perpetrators from the area of the massacre. The elaborate staging of the display of the dead bodies and their organized burial also bespeaks of the absence of a combat zone in which an opposite side has just perpetrated heinous acts of barbarism.
2) Anyone on either side of the conflict would have instantly recognized the propaganda effect of dozens of massacred non-combatants. It is therefore hard to credit that in effect no mind was paid by the perpetrators to hiding or removing the evidence of the atrocity, when ceding the area to their enemies.
3) Many of the bodies were mutilated. While there exists no clear evidence that the regime armed forces or even its militias use this kind of intimidation 'technique', this killing style has been the hallmark for at least some of the opposition jihadi fighters.
Of the two Houla counter-narratives, the identity of the victims as Sunnis strikes me as more probable. For the overthrow of Assad to be successful, the opposition forces are crucially dependent on consolidating support and eliminating opposition among their co-religionists. Note that the spiritual leader of Syria's Sunni majority, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Hassoun is a staunch supporter if not of al-Assad then at least of non-violent transition from his rule. His son Saria was assassinated by unknown gunmen near Idlib in the fall of last year.
What seems clear is that the attempts to discredit Mother Agnès-Mariam, whether they are stupid or sophisticated (a rather crude attemp could be found here - note the dismissive hand-waving of the interviewer.) have one thing in common. They are motivated by the Orwellian dichotomy of us (four legs good) versus them (two legs bad), which makes one impervious to reason and makes it impossible to find a solution to the Syrian crisis before making ordinary people suffer far more than is necessary.
The picture at the top of the post speaks to this mentality. Its authors just do not have the wherewithal to see the absurdity of the picture they present: a set of undamaged sofa cushions in a bombed-out building floating above walls and floors crumbled in the explosion. Surely, someone brought the cushions later and put them on top the spalled masonry to make the point that the building was a civilian dwelling hit by al-Assad's Air Force. Surely, the scene was staged with the intent of the owners to reclaim the cushions later for their regular use. But I suppose this would be too hard to see for someone on a warpath.