Saturday, 16 February 2013

Whose Hand over Hasawiya?


On January 15 2013 a massacre was carried out on the small Syrian farming community of Hasawiya, located on the outskirts of Homs. Opposition sources place the total number of deaths at 105 - many of them women and children - and allege that they were carried out by regime gangs - known as Shabiha - who invaded the village along with Syrian military forces. A different version of events has been offered by the regime, which claims that the killing was done by armed rebel forces, specifically the jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. This version was offered to visiting western journalists and backed up by the testimony of several men who were presented as survivors of  the massacre.
One visiting reporter and analysts who accepted the evidence which was presented to him took the view that this contradictory information made it impossible to determine who the real authors of this atrocity were.
I have reviewed as much of the available information as possible, with the assistance of Syrian oppositionists inside and outside the country, and come to a different conclusion. In my view the regime account fails to pass basic tests of credibility and coherence, and was presented in a  highly prejudicial setting. The opposition account is far stronger on all counts - logic, coherence, and consistency with the known facts.
My conclusion is that that it is beyond reasonable doubt that this was a crime perpetrated by the regime - executed by their Shabiha, most probably working in association with the Syrian army.
This is one of the most serious war crimes to have been perpetrated in Syria during the current conflict, and it is therefore to be hoped that the United Nations will carry out the sort of detailed investigation  that it did over the very similar Houla massacre of June 2012, in order to establish a definitive account of the events.


Review and Analysis of the Evidence  

On January 15 2013, bands of armed men invaded the small Syrian village of Basatin al-Hasawiya and proceeded to carry out a mass slaughter of men women and children, burning the bodies once they were finished. On these facts there is broad agreement. But on everything else there are two conflicting accounts.

“Reports emerging from Hasawiya of an extremely appalling massacre committed against 13 families according to eyewitnesses. The village is about 5 kilometres north of Homs city centre. Hasawiya’s families are well-known for being farmers; the village has a population of about 1,500 civilians and recently had more families settling in from disaster-stricken and invaded districts. The village includes Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites, but the massacre is  purely driven by sectarianism since all the families massacred are Sunni families.
On Tuesday, 15 January, the regime's military security forces entered the village at 12:00 p.m. and arbitrarily arrested a number of men, amongst them martyr Abdul Haseeb Deyab, Imam of Al Tayyar mosque in Hasawiya. At 1:00 p.m., some of the detainees got released. At 2:00 p.m., 2 buses (well-known by civilians for being used to drive Shabiha), 4 other security force buses, and 2 armoured vehicles arrived and parked near Al Boushi factory for ceramics.
“Some young men were extrajudicially executed in these houses then burnt in the house of Abu Mashhour Shehab Deyab. They then moved into Al Ghaloul orchards and executed all the men, women, and children found there from Al Ghaloul family. Third place was Al Deyab farmlands, where they also executed the whole family and burnt their corpses. Their last place was the farmlands beside Al Deyab farmlands, where they killed more than 17 members of Al Mahbani family.
105 martyrs have been documented as executed from all these families (the names of the dead are then provided)
Other reports described this as beginning with a raid on the village and a search for weapons. One oppositionist was reported by Reuters as saying: “the rebel Free Syrian Army occasionally entered the farmland of Basatin al-Hasawiya to attack a nearby military academy. “
Two western TV crews visited the village in the days following the killings, but their reports, far from clarifying the picture, helped give rise to two conflicting accounts of the Hasawiya events. I will refer to the contrasting account that emerged at this point in time as the “regime narrative” - but this is not a single systematic account of the events, but has to be assembled from a number of pieces of information and testimony delivered to the visiting western journalists. See:
·         Bill Neely’s report for ITN: (17 January)
·         Lyse Doucet’s Report for the BBC: (18 January)
Two days after the killings, ITN journalist Bill Neely, entered the village with a Syrian army escort. As he arrived some men appeared, apparently from hiding, and offered an account of what had transpired that sharply differed from the opposition version. Neely and his interpreter conducted an interview with 6 men, two of whom took him into nearby buildings and showed him blood-stained sites where the killings had taken place and offered details of what had happened. Neely stated that he did not himself see any bodies because they had already been cleaned up by the Syrian army in the area he was permitted to visit, (The army refused access to the rest of the village on the grounds that snipers were still active.)
(The ITN report includes what looks like an interview with a woman in her home; but on closer inspection this turns out to be a brief clip from an opposition video that has been edited into the report. See below for more details.)
According to the men – or at least the three of them who spoke during the interview – the killings had been carried out by a group of “armed men” who had arrived in the village dressed in black and with headbands inscribed “Allahu Akhbar”. One of the witnesses said they were from the jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra (JN). Neely was told that they had demanded access to the roofs of houses in order to carry out an operation against the nearby Intelligence building, and when they were refused began systematic killings in retaliation. According to these informants the death toll was around 30.
Neely also interviewed the commander of the military detachment in the village and had earlier spoken to the Governor of Homs, both of whom asserted that there had been no deliberate killing of civilians by the Army. The Governor placed the total number of deaths as 8 civilians (four women and four children) plus an unspecified number of rebel fighters. He blamed the civilian deaths on “al Qaeda” (presumably referring to JN)
The ITN report included the names of 3 families who the informants named as victims;: these seem to correspond to names in the opposition account.
The following day Lyse Doucet of the BBC was able to enter the village, also under army escort. She managed to persuade the army to let her visit a more remote set of houses outside the village centre, where she discovered some burned corpses that the army had not removed. The army officer accompanying her provided further details of the official version of what had happened, stating that some 200 rebel fighters had come to the village across the surrounding fields (from what direction is unclear).
Doucet reported that several people she spoke to in the village in the presence of the army produced a similar account to Neely’s informants. However she also managed to talk to one woman out of earshot of the army and recorded a very different account: “one woman, who spoke to us off-camera, out of earshot of our minders, told us soldiers were there that day, and that some had apologised that others acted without orders".
Both teams of journalists stated that they were only reporting what they had been told and had no way of choosing between the conflicting accounts.
In the following days, James Miller for EIA World View reviewed the available evidence and gathered some further information from Neely. His conclusion was pretty much the same as the journalists – there was not sufficient evidence to decide between the alternate accounts. A similar stance was taken by acloserlookonsyria.
I have re-revisited all the available information I can identify, with the assistance of some Syrian opposition sympathisers, one of whom has visited Hasawiya. In my view it is possible to compare the veracity of the two accounts with considerably greater precision by looking closely at several factors: the conditions under which interviews were conducted; the logic of the accounts provided; and the context in which the alleged events took place.
Background: The location
Hasawiya is located on the northern fringes of Homs, and on the banks of the Orontes river. There is some uncertainty about its physical disposition in relation to the contending military forces in the area. According to one account (ITN) it is divided into two parts by the river, with one side controlled by the Syrian army and the other by the FSA, and has been used by rebel forces as a staging post for attacks on the nearby Military Intelligence building. Lyse Doucet has described it as: “just around the corner” from a nearby Syrian army base. A Syrian oppositionist with local knowledge has told me that the whole area is firmly under army control. A news report from al-Arabiya supports this latter view with detailed information:
“The village lies within a fortified security square, with Air Force Intelligence to the south, 800 metres from the village; the industrial estate to the east, currently used as a military base; to the north-east is a big military checkpoint; to the west are the military academies, the main source for shelling Homs & its countryside.”
Collating various sources of information, this seems to be an accurate description, and I have mapped the key features here.  Scrutinising the Google satellite images with these facts in mind, a number of things arise:
The bulk of the built-up portion of the village, and the areas where the killings seem to have taken place, are on the west bank of the Orontes river; on the other side there appear to be only fields/orchards and some dispersed buildings; this area is also linked by road to the army’s checkpoint at Dik al Jin.
The Army intelligence building is about 1.25km (or 0.8 miles) away from the Hasawiya fields – beyond the effective range of small arms or rocket propelled grenades. Moreover there is a major road and a large built up area interposed between the fields and the Intelligence building. It is therefore unlikely that the latter could have been effectively targeted from Hasawiya.
However  if , as the al-Arabiya report (supported by other sources) states, the adjoining built up area (the al-Sinaa industrial estate) has been turned into a military base, then that is much closer and could have been targeted from nearby Hasawiya fields. However that would place Hasawiya quite literally “around the corner” from the a military base
The most likely hypothesis would seem to be that west-bank Hasawiya was not FSA controlled but at most contested territory, with the FSA making occasional use of its fields to the west to attack not the Intelligence building, but either the military base in the former industrial estate to the East or the Military academy to the West (as an opposition source has claimed). If the target was the Military Academy then the regime narrative breaks down completely, as the nearest fields to that zone are on the other side of the river and away from the area where the killings took  place (see map); so to be consistent the regime account must be claiming that the target was the military base on the industrial estate, although that leaves unexplained the desire of the rebel fighters to gain access to village roofs, since the fields would get them far closer to their objective.
The setting of the ITN interview
A close review of the ITN news story shows the following: Throughout the interviews uniformed Syrian military are clearly visible in close proximity: an armoured personnel carrier is the backdrop to the interviews, and when they are is taken into houses there are uniformed personnel visible in every shot.
However there is a much more definitive indication of the extent to which these interviews were being monitored. Throughout the interview sequence there is a “seventh man” clearly visible on the edge of the group: he is not in army uniform but he is wearing a dark tunic, with epaulettes and breast and arm badges that look as if they are air force (suggesting he is Air force Intelligence) See the figure on the right in the two pictures below: