Throughout the Syrian conflict, Western media sources have accepted bait provided by Bashar al-Assad's most prodigious propagandists, who regularly weave tales of anti-Assad, al-Qaeda-style groups' expelling or murdering members of minority groups. These claims touch on issues that play well for Bashar Assad's regime, especially the claim that without the regime, the country will turn into Iraq.
The outcome of Assad's removal, assuming that Syria or even its Sunni heartland can hold together, may well be a new Sunni Islamist regime. However, this does not excuse the regime's attempts to disseminate patent falsehoods.
In a post on National Review Online, John Rosenthal quotes a June 7 article from a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), that discusses the recent massacre in Houla. Rosenthal also cites an article written by Mother Agnès-Mariam de la-Croix, of the St. James Monastery in Syria, regarding a massacre of 50 that took place in Homs in March.
The line immediately presented by the Syrian regime regarding the Houla massacre was that anti-Assad "armed terrorists" carried it out. This is the same line the regime took regarding Homs. Now, FAZ alleges that not only did opposition-group members carry out the Houla massacre, but the victims were principally Alawites — that is, part of Assad's religious sect — along with some Sunni families that had converted to Shiism.
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. Often, the many propaganda purveyors with a direct interest in defending Assad have engaged in a circular routine of feeding one another details. In turn, these narratives find their way into legitimate outlets.
For example, in March, Agenzia Fides, an official Vatican publication, republished (almost verbatim) material provided by the Syrian propaganda website "Syria Truth." The article claimed that jihadists had expelled Christians from Homs. This information eventually found its way into outlets such as the Los Angeles Times. When we demonstrated the dubious veracity of these claims, Syria Truth went ballistic. A subsequent McClatchy article corroborated our refutation.
In the fog surrounding the Houla massacre, there seems to be more seepage of hazy data into mainstream outlets.
A June 5 article by Thierry Meyssan argued the same point as the FAZ article: namely, that the massacre arose in the context of a nearby rebel offensive against the Syrian army, and that some of the victims were Sunni families that had converted to Shiism. Meyssan is a well-known French 9/11 conspiracy theorist who believes that the Beslan Massacre in Russia — an action in which Chechen and Ingush jihadists killed hundreds of Russian schoolchildren — was actually planned and directed by the CIA and the U.S. government.
In turn, Meyssan cited Mother Agnes's affiliated outlet Vox Clamantis, which on May 26 issued a press release claiming that the Syrian army was not in the vicinity of Houla and did not bombard the area. The outlet then offered the purported testimony of an anonymous eyewitness from Kfar Laha, a town in the vicinity of Houla.
This supposed eyewitness claimed that on the night of the massacre, armed rebels first entered into a hospital at around 8 p.m., murdered all those inside, removed the corpses, and then burned the hospital. Next, the rebels entered Tal Daw at around 10 p.m.and proceeded to massacre some Alawite families. Then, all the corpses were gathered and taken to a mosque in Houla to show to the U.N. observers and create the impression of a massacre perpetrated by the Syrian army.
Like Nizar Nayouf of Syria Truth, Mother Agnès-Mariam often assumes the slick veneer of a moderate; she even wrote an open letter to Assad about the condition of people affected by the fighting in Syrian hospitals. It's hard not to conclude that Mother Agnès-Mariam is little more than another Assad propagandist using her religious credentials to push a particular narrative.
According to the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier, Agnès-Mariam was "comfortable among [Assad's] security services," and she told their reporter it was hoped he could "dismantle the propaganda of Western media."Thierry Meyssan also conducted a revealing interview with Mother Agnès-Mariam about Middle Eastern Christians. During the interview, the mother superior repeated the typically farcical Assad line that the dictator was truly trying to "reform."
Agnès-Mariam told Meyssan that she "deplored the fact that the so-called opponents didn't accept President Bashar Al-Assad's invitation to debate with him the series of reforms which he is in the process of carrying out."(Of course, it would be of no consequence to the sister (who never recanted her earlier statements) that in leaked private e-mails Assad told his wife, "We are going to adopt [a plan that left him in power] instead of the rubbish laws of parties, elections, media [i.e., actual democratic reforms].")
Mother Superior Agnès-Mariam continued by claiming that the opposition was just a puppet in a conspiracy guided by foreign powers. She also proffered the Assad narrative of Arabism, arguing that Middle Eastern Christians are truly Arabs. Many Middle Eastern Christians (including Eastern Catholics such as the Chaldeans and Maronites) have not adopted the Arab identity, but Arabism is part and parcel to Assad's own ideology.
Going back to Meyssan's June 5 article, the conspiracy theorist cites a May 31 TV report from a Russian news channel known as Vesti24. In a report reprinted on Meyssan's site, Vesti24's Marat Musin follows the pro-Assad line, which should come as no surprise given Musin's past reports on Homs, which promoted claims that French military officers are present in Syria assisting the rebels. Thus, based on interviews with "law enforcement officials" and Syrian army soldiers, Musin advances the claim that the victims were loyalist civilians — Sunni families who had converted to Shiism — and portrays the entire affair as a "provocation" by the opposition designed to trigger an intervention by NATO countries, which according to him "directly threaten to bomb Syria."
Though this review of the evidence might seem tedious, it should now be apparent that FAZ is not reporting a new theory: Rather, the outlet is simply recycling dubious claims coming from pro-Assad propagandists and conspiracy theorists.
The claims made by Meyssan et al. are not ignored by the mainstream media because the media want a narrative of a heroic, popular, democratic uprising against a brutal regime. Indeed, legitimate reports on gross human-rights abuses by rebel forces and members of the opposition have been widely documented and circulated by non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and prominent publications such as Der Spiegel. Instead, the claims of Meyssan and his ilk are ignored because they have no basis in reality.
Accurate reporting in Syria is difficult, and has been made more so by the widespread violence. And despite the existence of legitimate data furnished by Syrian citizens, there is a cottage industry of nonsensical reports presented specifically to alter the perceptions of observers. Autocratic regimes retain their own propagandists and have a cordon of "useful idiots" disseminating the former's data for their own reasons; Syria is no different. Damascus has its "Baghdad Bobs"; they've just been taken more seriously. As the West sits on its hands to see what may become of Syria, analysts must be circumspect in assessing the situation.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region.
Note (20 August 2016): More than 4 years later, this article is partly the subject of a piece by far-left blogger Richard Silverstein purporting to profile journalist Michael Weiss. Part of the article covers this controversy surrounding Rosenthal's pushing of claims that the massacre in Houla was actually perpetrated by rebel forces.
For the record, it is certainly true that Weiss suggested writing the above piece as a rebuttal to Rosenthal in National Review, but I had already had my suspicions regarding the Rosenthal article before he made the suggestion. Silverstein's polemic additionally suggests a conspiracy to bar Rosenthal from publishing his work and sabotage his career in that National Review eventually stopped publishing Rosenthal's work.
Assuming it is true Weiss suggested to National Review not to publish Rosenthal's work, there is nothing wrong with that in itself. The fact is that Rosenthal's articles on the Houla massacre were poorly sourced and ideologically driven, to say the least, and the UN subsequently blamed regime forces for the massacre.The issue is not about which side one supports, but rather verifying events on the ground. In the end, an outlet can determine for itself whether to publish work based on its merits and deficiencies: no concept of 'free speech' leads to an automatic right to publish in an outlet.
To give an analogy, those who deny the scientific consensus on anthropogenic-induced climate change tend to be given disproportionate media coverage that gives a false impression of the degree of consensus. Though their arguments have long been discredited as unscientific, the denialists are often given space to air their views as though there is still hot debate on whether anthropogenic-induced climate change is actually happening. To suggest that outlets should deny this space to denialists is not sinister or about suppressing legitimate dissent. The same applies for Rosenthal and his attempts as part of an ideological agenda to push dubious information as legitimate debate on the Houla massacre.
On a separate note, I can confirm that Silverstein approached me as part of his research for his profile. The questioning involved some rather strange lines of inquiry, such as whether Weiss supported the supposed Israeli alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra (now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) in the south of Syria. Here, it is worth mentioning that no hard evidence supports such an idea. Besides the fact that Jabhat Fatah al-Sham sees an Islamic emirate in Syria as a gateway to reviving the Caliphate and retaking Jerusalem, there would be no point in such an alliance as the group is much weaker in the south than it used to be, partly because of prolonged heavy infighting with the Islamic State-linked group Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Waleed. Moreover, there is a Druze lobby in Israel that means there is an Israeli commitment not to let the village of Hadr in Quneitra, just opposite Majdal Shams, to fall to the rebels, even though there are concerns of Hezbollah using the town as part of building a 'Golan front'against Israel. What is true though is that Israel has provided medical treatment for more complex cases of injuries among the rebels etc. as part of extracting intelligence on the situation in the south, with provision of humanitarian aid to actors not deemed a threat to border security. It may be the case then that denunciations of the Israeli 'enemy' by southern FSA factions and local councils may be coordinated with Israel.