The Corner

The Houla Massacre Redux

In their “Assad’s Houla Propaganda,” responding to my recent NRO post on the Houla massacre, Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth pull a sort of bait and switch. They start out as if they are going to challenge the credibility of Rainer Hermann’s report in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), which attributes the massacre to anti-Assad Sunni militants and identifies the victims as predominantly Alawis and Shia. But they then proceed to spend the bulk of their post attacking the credibility of Mother Agnès-Mariam de la Croix of the St. James Monastery in Qara, Syria.

As I mentioned at the end of my post, the account of the massacre in the FAZ echoes accounts being circulated by the monastery. Monastery officials claim, incidentally, to have had contact with many refugees from the Houla region and not just the single “supposed eyewitness” invoked by Al-Tamimi and Smyth. As I also mentioned, Mother Agnès-Mariam has previously warned of rebel massacres’ being repackaged in media reports as massacres committed by the regime.

I was aware in mentioning this that Mother Agnès-Mariam had given an interview to the website of Thierry Meyssan, the French writer who gained notoriety in the aftermath of 9/11 for his abstruse conspiracy theories about the attacks. I was also aware that this ephemeral connection would provide fodder for the defenders and publicists of the rebellion to taint Mother Agnès-Mariam with guilt by association. I was aware of this because the French-language Web is already rife with such ad hominem “refutations” of her reports. Never mind the content of the reports, which are highly detailed and show a degree of local knowledge that is extremely rare for Western observers. Never mind either that other persons who have spent time at the monastery — notably, the Belgian priest Father Daniel Maes — have issued similar warnings.

Perhaps Mother Agnès-Mariam ought, after all, to have refused Meyssan’s interview. But in a French media landscape as bereft of any semblance of balanced reporting on the Syria crisis as the American one, I can assure Al-Tamimi and Smyth that she will not have received many such requests.

Al-Tamimi and Smyth write that “it’s hard not to conclude that Mother Agnès-Mariam is little more than another Assad propagandist.” But they offer no evidence for this claim — other than the “evidence” that her assessments of the Syrian situation sometimes correspond with those of the Syrian government. Moreover, they fail to address an obvious question: Why in the world would Catholic priests and nuns want or need to serve as “Assad propagandists”? Is not the more simple and obvious explanation for their reports that religious minorities are in fact being threatened and persecuted in rebel-controlled territories and that as Christian missionaries they are bound to be concerned by this?

#more#In any case, what do Al-Tamimi and Smyth’s ad hominem observations on Mother Agnès-Mariam have to do with Hermann and the FAZ report? The answer is: Nothing. Al-Tamimi and Smyth suggest otherwise, writing, “One might be tempted to think that FAZ has got hold of a real scoop, but the truth is that these allegations have their origins on outlandish conspiracy websites.”

The notion that the Frankfurter Allgemeine would publish such a report based on information gleaned from “outlandish conspiracy websites” is, frankly, laughable. As noted in my post, Hermann’s report, which was filed from Damascus, cites local opposition figures. Hermann adds that his sources declined to have their names appear in print out of fear of reprisals: reprisals, that is, from other — notably, armed — parts of the opposition. Do Al-Tamimi and Smyth mean to suggest that Hermann is lying about his sources?

As concerns the risks incurred by his sources, Hermann wrote, more specifically, “recently, opposition figures who reject the use of violence have been murdered or at least threatened.” Earlier this month, Hermann reported the following about one such case, that of the Damascus-based doctor Adnan Wahbi:

Wahbi was a member of the National Coordination Committee, an opposition party. He treated wounded rebels in his clinic. After he had called for all sides to lay down their weapons, however, he was killed by a gunshot to the head.

There have, moreover, been other reports of politically motivated assassinations carried out by rebel forces. Earlier this week, for instance, Hermann published an interview with Badreddin Hassoun, the Grand Mufti of Syria. Hermann himself describes the Mufti as being “close” to Assad; and the Mufti’s words make clear that he endorses the secularism of Assad’s Baathist regime — and, by the by, rejects the religious extremism that characterizes a large part of the armed opposition. According to Hermann, Hassoun has been the target of death threats as a result, and in October of last year, his son Sariya was murdered.

Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Hermann’s sources would request anonymity. Or do Al-Tamimi and Smyth believe that Hermann is in this respect too a dupe of regime “propaganda”?

Al-Tamimi and Smyth note, with scare quotes, that the Syrian government itself has attributed the Houla massacre to “armed terrorists,” as if the mere fact that the government has said it disqualifies the claim. In so doing, they follow what has become the standard practice in the Western media, which dismiss Syrian-government claims out of hand, while frequently relying on none other than the opposition — or, more precisely, that part of it that has embraced armed struggle and called for outside intervention — as their virtually exclusive source for supposed Syrian news. By proceeding in the manner described, Western media — perhaps not coincidentally, like their governments — have quite obviously abandoned impartiality and taken sides in the conflict.

It is undoubtedly the same modus operandi that gave rise to the initial, improbably swift “certainty” about the massacre. The UN observer mission would eventually arrive in Houla to confirm the horrific nature of the victims’ wounds. It did not, however, establish the circumstances under which they were incurred. A glance at the initial Western media reports leaves no doubt just who was the source for the attribution of Syrian-government responsibility: unnamed “opposition groups” and local “activists.” (Moreover, as the Dutch Middle East expert Martin Janssen has pointed out, the UN Human Rights Council, which appears to have lent credence to the initial reports, has admitted to likewise consulting opposition groups as its sources.)

But what do Al-Tamimi and Smyth make of the abundant evidence that al-Qaeda and kindred Salafi terror groups are in fact heavily involved in the armed opposition? When has al-Qaeda not made a habit of slaughtering not only Christians, but also those whom they regard as Muslim “heretics,” such as the Shia and the Alawi?

What do Al-Tamimi and Smyth make of the string of suicide bombings in Damascus, in Aleppo, and elsewhere in Syria — attacks that even U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has admitted bear all the hallmarks of al-Qaeda? Perhaps Al-Tamimi and Smyth believe, in the style of Thierry Meyssan’s 9/11 theories, that these attacks were orchestrated by the regime itself. But what do they make, then, of the video evidence showing rebel brigades or supporters of the rebellion proudly posing with al-Qaeda’s notorious black flag: the very flag made famous by terror master Abu Musab al-Zarqawi while targeting American troops, local “collaborators,” and Shia in neighboring Iraq? Do they believe that these are all fakes cleverly fabricated by regime “propagandists?”

What do they make, for instance, of this mind-boggling video shot in Hraytan, a suburb of Aleppo, in late January? Al-Tamimi and Smyth will undoubtedly find it suspect that the clip was reposted by a pro-government, anti-rebellion website. But, as demonstrated in my article here, it was in fact originally posted by an apparent supporter of the rebellion.

Rainer Hermann’s FAZ report need not be regarded as the last word on the Houla massacre. But in order to conjure away all the evidence that renders Hermann’s report credible, it is in fact Al-Tamimi and Smyth who must resort to abstruse conspiracy theorizing.

— John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic security issues. You can follow his work at or on Facebook.


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