Dissecting U.S. Mainstream Media Reports on the Houla Massacre

The BBC ran this photo claiming it showed victims of the massacre in Houla when in fact the image was taken in Iraq in 2003.

The BBC ran this photo claiming it showed victims of the massacre in Houla when in fact the image was taken in Iraq in 2003.

I wrote on Tuesday about how the Syrian government is being blamed for the May 25 massacre in Houla despite a great deal of uncertainty about what actually occurred and the possibility that U.S.-backed rebel forces or terrorist groups may have been responsible for most of the murders. I also commented on how the Western media is engaged in its usual propaganda accounts and how attack would be used as a pretext and cited in demands for another “humanitarian” military intervention.

The media continues to mislead. The New York Times reported on Tuesday:

The United States joined with 10 nations to expel top Syrian diplomats on Tuesday, increasing international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad. In Damascus, the United Nations envoy said the uprising had reached “a tipping point” after a massacre of more than 100 villagers, nearly half of them children.

In his remarks, Kofi Annan, the envoy for the United Nations and the Arab League, was dismissive of the Syrian government refrain that outsiders were responsible for the bloodshed.

And yet, further into the article, the Times noted that (emphasis added):

The United Nations Security Council condemned Syria at an emergency meeting on Sunday, blaming it at least partly for the Houla massacre, saying it shelled civilian neighborhoods with heavy artillery.

Obviously, the implication is that anti-regime forces may also have been responsible for the massacre, and yet further into the article, it provided the quote of what Annan actually said, which was

“Pointing fingers always at outsiders, yes, they are involved. But there are measures that we can also take at home, the government can take, to really try to end the situation.”

So the Times took Annan’s acknowledgment that the “yes,” outsiders “are involved” and turned that into a dismissal of the Syrian government’s claims of outside involvement.

The Times continued:

Despite the tough talk, there remained little support for any manner of armed intervention…. At the White House, the spokesman Jay Carney said that military intervention was not the right course of action at this time because it would provoke wider carnage and chaos.

Nowhere did the article mention that there is already outside intervention in the conflict, with the U.S. supplying communications equipment and coordinating the flow of arms provided by NATO and its regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to rebel forces (as I discussed in my report on the massacre).

The article quoted Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad blaming the failure of Annan’s cease-fire plan on rebel forces, saying that “there is a decision by the armed groups and the opposition not to implement Annan’s plan and to make it fail.” The Times then commented (emphasis added):

Syria maintained its standard line even as the United Nations revealed new details about the massacre that pointed blame at the government.

In Geneva, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights announced that most of the victims were summarily executed in their homes.

The initial finding by United Nations monitors corroborated by other sources showed that tank and artillery fire accounted for fewer than 20 of the 108 people confirmed dead in the Houla region, said Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations human rights commissioner. Most of the rest were shot or stabbed, he said, adding, “At this point it looks like entire families were shot in their houses.”

Witnesses to the massacre, including a survivor who was wounded and left for dead, said most of the killing was conducted by pro-government militiamen, Mr. Colville said, adding that they sometimes appeared to operate in concert with government security forces. Witness accounts described how some militiamen went through houses chanting, “Shabiha for you, Assad,” Mr. Colville said in an interview, using a term for pro-government thugs.

Speaking in New York, Hervé Ladsous, the head of global peacekeeping operations for the United Nations, dismissed accusations about “third parties” being involved in the killings — a Syrian government line hinting at terrorists. He said suspicion “probably points the way to the shabihas.”

The Times omitted from this account the fact that Colville also said that more investigation was needed to determine who was responsible for the murders:

“It is extremely important that we get to the bottom of exactly what happened. When you have this kind of crime, ideally you would have forensic investigations. In current circumstances it’s obviously not going to be that easy.”

And the Times truncated the quote from Ladsous in order to omit the caveat he had offered. Ladsous had pointed out that the government was responsible for killing some of the victims with artillery fire, then added (emphasis added):

“But there are also victims from individual weapons, victims from knife wounds and that of course is less clear but probably points the way to the (pro-Assad) shabbihas, the local militia.”

Karen AbuZayd, a U.N. human rights investigator, also urged further investigation before assigning blame, saying with regard to the Houla massacre:

“This is certainly something new and that is why the perpetrators need to be further investigated before blame is assigned.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has pointed out that the Houla area “is under the control of opposition fighters”, and the Times acknowledges that it is “the Free Syrian Army [FSA] that controls Houla”, but quotes an FSA commander claiming that a gang of regime loyalists murdered the Houla residents as a response to the killing of a military commander, Hussein al-Deib, by rebel forces.

A Times editorial the same day admitted that “there is some uncertainty about what happened”, but stated:

Syrian officials blamed “terrorists” for the attacks. We assign far more credibility to villagers who told United Nations monitors that “shabiha,” or government thugs associated with Mr. Assad’s Alawite sect, committed at least some of the killings by shooting people — including entire families — at close range.

But why is it less credible that terrorists may have committed the atrocity? When a car bomb targeted a military complex in Dair Alzour earlier last month, damaging homes as well as government buildings and killing civilians as well as military guards, the Los Angeles Times commented how it came “amid growing fears that al-Qaeda might be behind some of the attacks in the country.” The L.A. Times noted:

The latest bombing in the Syrian conflict, which has seen an increasing use of large explosives in recent months, came two days after United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon blamed al-Qaida for the attack in Damascus on May 10, which involved two suicide car bombings that killed 55 people.

Going back to Annan’s comment that, yes, outside elements are involved in the conflict, a spokesman for the U.N. special envoy said,

“[Annan] has also said that there is a third element that appeared on the ground in Syria, which is worrying.”

The BBC commented last month that

It is one of the small ironies of the Syrian uprising that the US and al-Qaeda are on the same side here.

And as I pointed out in my earlier report,

Back in February, Secretary Clinton cautioned against arming rebel forces. “We really don’t know who it is that would be armed,” she said. “Are we supporting al-Qaeda in Syria?” she asked hypothetically. Such concerns seem to have lost the day as the U.S. has openly sided with al Qaeda in providing material support for the rebels.

Who were the “witnesses” who claimed shabbihas were responsible? How many such witnesses are there? Are they credible? Are they surviving friends and family? Are they members of the FSA or otherwise associated with anti-regime forces? And if such accounts are credible, isn’t it a bit suspect that the murderers would declare to their victims and witnesses who they were? If those responsible really did cry “Shabiha for you, Assad” as they massacred women and children, isn’t it just as possible that they were terrorists working against the regime and doing so as a false flag operation to foment sectarian violence and provoke others to join the rebel forces? Could witnesses be describing the murderers as “shabiha” simply because they were “heavily armed men dressed in black”?

According to the initial report of the Syrian government’s own investigation into the massacre,

all the victims belonged to peaceful families who wouldn’t stand up to the state and had never joined protests or held up arms, who also had opposed the armed terrorist groups, indicating that the terrorist groups aimed to invite foreign and humanitarian intervention.

The Times editorial continued:

But Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned on Sunday that it is continued atrocities that could make intervention more likely. Any outside intervention risks fueling a wider war. Iran is already meddling…

Iran? How is Iran “meddling”? The Times doesn’t say. And, of course, the Times hypocritically makes no mention of how the U.S. is “already meddling” in Syria, including by coordinating arms supplies to the FSA.

On Wednesday, the Times ran an op-ed by Haitham Maleh, a leader of the Syrian opposition, in which he accused government forces of all of the murders in Houla and stated of the Annan peace plan that:

It called for a cease-fire under United Nations supervision, but a cease-fire is usually between two armies; in this case, there is only one army slaughtering its own unarmed population.

That, of course, is emphatically false—rebel forces are very much armed—but the Times had no problem printing it anyway. The point of Maleh’s op-ed was to call for “the West”—presumably meaning the U.S./NATO—to intervene Libya-style in Syria’s conflict (which, again, they are already doing to a significant extent by funding and arming rebel forces). He wrote:

We are not asking for boots on the ground but for a no-fly zone similar to the ones imposed on Iraq and Libya and for support for the opposition’s Free Syrian Army. The no-fly zone would keep the government from bombing civilians indiscriminately. It would also help the opposition build a democratic political platform, because its leaders would be able to travel and speak with civilians without fear of being killed by government forces. And it would give the Free Syrian Army room to operate. The army also needs weapons, and the West should help supply them — though they should be distributed in a controlled manner and not just dumped on the streets of Syria.

The West supported the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya, whose activities now appear minor compared with what is going on in Syria. To fail to do the same now is hypocrisy….

The West cannot stand idly by. The longer this conflict drags on, the greater chance there is for Syria to fall into chaotic war, with grave consequences for the international community.

So it would be hypocritical for the U.S./NATO not to help the rebels overthrow the Assad regime the way they did in Libya, according to Maleh’s logic. Of course, if the U.S./NATO was worried about Syria falling “into chaotic war, with grave consequences”, then it wouldn’t be fueling the conflict as it is doing in the first place.

Another Times article describes Obama as sitting on the sidelines and waiting, without even a hint of acknowledgment that his administration is in fact deeply involved in supporting the rebel forces.

Yesterday, the Times quoted the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice saying:

“There seems to me to be only one other alternative, and that is indeed the worst case, which seems unfortunately at the present to be the most probable.

“And that is that the violence escalates, the conflict spreads and intensifies, it reaches a higher degree of severity, it involves countries in the region, and it takes on increasingly sectarian forms, and we have a major crisis not only in Syria but in the region.”

In that outcome, she said, “The Council’s unity is exploded, the Annan plan is dead and this becomes a proxy conflict with arms flowing in from all sides.”

Once again, no acknowledgment by either Rice or the Times of the admitted fact that the U.S. is helping to arm rebel forces to overthrow the Assad regime.

Of the initial findings of the Syrian government’s investigation, Rice wrote on Twitter:

“Syria regime says the opposition is responsible for the massacre in Houla. Another blatant lie.”

She also said,

“There is no factual evidence, including that provided by the UN observers that would substantiate that rendition of events.”

Except, of course, for the circumstantial evidence that terrorists groups allied with the cause of rebel forces are active in the country and that rebel forces were in control of the area where the massacre occurred. There was also no acknowledgment from Rice that there is also very limited evidence to support the U.S.’s preferred rendition of events, with U.N. investigators urging the withholding of placing blame until the facts can be determined.

Such calls from U.N. investigators are obviously futile, as the U.S. government and media have already made up their minds without waiting for the circumstances of the executions of civilians in Houla to be determined.

Thus one can read misleading statements like this from the Washington Post:

A U.N. statement Sunday blamed the Syrian government for the deaths….

That is what I suppose might be called a half-truth. The whole truth, as I wrote in my report earlier this week, is that:

U.N. observers confirmed that the massacre took place, and also “confirmed from an examination of ordnance that artillery and tank shells were fired at a residential neighborhood.” But the U.N. did not indicate whether the massacred civilians were killed by government this tank and artillery fire. On the contrary, the head of the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS) General Robert Hood said, “The circumstances that led to these tragic killings are still unclear”, and Secretary Ban sent a letter to the Security Councilsaying that, “while the detailed circumstances are unknown, we can confirm that there has been artillery and mortar shelling. There have also been other forms of violence, including shootings at close range and severe physical abuse” (emphasis added).

On Saturday, the Security Council issued a statement condemning the killings of civilians “in attacks that involved a series of Government artillery and tank shellings on a residential neighborhood” (emphasis added). The statement also called for the cessation of “all violence in all its forms by all parties”.

There is no acknowledgment in the Post story containing that misleading statement that U.N. investigators have urged that judgment be withheld until the facts surrounding the Houla massacre can be determined. This is the kind of reporting that can be expected from the U.S. mainstream media.

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