Westerners trying to figure out what exactly happened at Houla, the scene of a massacre in Syria that resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people, many of them children, can be forgiven if they feel a bit like prisoners chained to the wall in Plato’s Cave trying to figure out what is going on in the world outside.
For most of the past several weeks, the consensus opinion was that death squads working for the regime led by Bashar Al Assad perpetrated the May 25 massacre. The death squads, called Shabiha in Arabic, have gotten a lot of bad press over the past few weeks, and deservedly so. They are killers.
Things got complicated after a German newspaper, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on June 7, 2012 that Houla previously had been blamed on Assad when in fact it was perpetrated by rebels trying to oust Assad from power. This report, summarized by John Rosenthal at The National Review on June 9, 2012, indicates that the 100-plus victims were not Sunni Muslims, as originally believed, but were instead Alawites and Shia Muslims.
According to the report summarized by Rosenthal, anti-government rebels videotaped the scene soon after the massacre and then posted the video on the Internet, portraying the Alawite and Shia victims as Sunnis and the perpetrators as thugs working for the Assad regime when in fact they themselves had done the killing, much of which had taken place at close range.
The FAZ’s report that the attack was perpetrated by anti-Assad forces and not regime thugs contradicts testimony offered by Jihad Raslan, a major in the Syrian Air Force who defected from the Assad regime, stating his decision was based having witnessed the massacre first-hand. He told reporters:
“Those victims who were slaughtered are people that I knew well,” Raslan said. “These children I knew well, personally. I ate with their families. I had social ties with them. The regime cannot lie about these people, who they were and what they did to them. It was a brutal act by the regime against people who were with the revolution,” he said.
If Raslan is telling the truth, it sure looks like FAZ got it wrong. But if the FAZ’s account is correct, what the perpetrators did was kill more than 100 people, many of them children, and broadcast a false narrative about who the victims and killers were. The goal was to libel a murderous tyrant who already had a deservedly bad reputation and accelerate his isolation from the international community.
If this was their goal, the strategy worked. The United Nations blamed Assad for the massacre prompting the U.S. State Department and the diplomatic agencies of a dozen other Western nations to expel Syrian diplomats.
Maybe it was FAZ and not its competitors who got it wrong. Maybe they got fooled. That was the assessment offered by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi and Phillip Smyth in a piece published by the National Review, the same publication that published Rosenthal’s article. They accuse FAZ of “recycling dubious claims coming from pro-Assad propagandists and conspiracy theorists.”
The level of cynicism to conceive and carry out such a strategy like the one described by FAZ is monumental. If anti-Assad rebels did use such a strategy, it raises serious questions about what type of government will be created by Assad’s adversaries should they gain power. (This is not offered as a defense of the Assad regime, but merely as a warning against being overly optimistic about his adversaries.)
Somebody is perpetrating a hoax. Either the anti-Assad rebels perpetrated a massacre and got the world to believe it was the Assad regime that did the killing, or the Assad regime is responsible for the massacre but was nevertheless able to fool a newspaper in Germany to blame the rebels.
One only has to think back to the Mohammed Al Dura Affair to realize that this isn’t the first time a hoax like this has been perpetrated.
In 2000, at the start of the Second Intifada, the world watched in horror as a young Palestinian boy, Mohammed Al Dura hid in the protective cover of his father’s arms during a firefight between Israeli soldiers and Palestinians. Video broadcast in France and then throughout the world showed the boy dying on the concrete pavement. Israel was blamed for the little boy’s death. The image of the young boy lying on the pavement incited huge amount of hostility toward Israel during the Second Intifada and people died as a result of anger generated by that image.
As it turned out, the video shown on France Two television left out an important part of the original footage – the part that showed the little boy lifting his head off the ground to see what was going on after he had “died.” It took a while, but in the face of relentless activism by Philipe Karsenty, most people have concluded that the whole episode was a hoax intended to demonize Israel and isolate it in the international community.
The Al Dura Affair began a process of education for many, but not all, Western intellectuals who started to realize that the imagery and narrative coming out of the Middle East was not a reliable view of what was actually happening. Richard Landes, a professor at Boston University, has been at the forefront of this effort.
Landes has documented a number of instances in which video filmed using dramatic techniques appropriate for a sound stage in Hollywood has been passed off as “journalism” to unsuspecting audiences in the West.
Landes’ websites (seconddraft.org and theaugeanstables.com) provide access to raw video of Palestinian gunmen firing into empty buildings. You will also see a badly wounded Palestinian falling to the ground from a stretcher, then leaping up from the ground and then dutifully laying himself back on the stretcher.
Viewers who visit these websites will see puzzling images of Palestinians posing in combat stances with unarmed people nonchalantly standing nearby. They will also see gunmen taking directions not from military commanders, but from unarmed bystanders who are directing for the benefit of the camera.
Watch “Pallywood, ‘According to Palestinian Sources“, which includes the scenes described above and a narrative from Professor Landes. Readers should also look at this video by photojournalist Ruben Salvadori, which sheds a lot of light on how scenes are manipulated by photographers and videographers to create drama that really isn’t there.
Landes’ work is based on an important truth that totalitarians never forget – the institutions that democracies rely on for information about what is going on in the rest of the world are a theater of war. Atrocity stories are an important tool of this theater. They galvanize the supporters of the alleged victims and demoralize the alleged perpetrators.
After World War I, stories about alleged atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in Belgium during the war were found to be false. The lies told in an effort to demonize Germany during World War I gave reason to doubt the truth about German atrocities against Jews during the Holocaust.
Similar events took place during the first Gulf War in the 1990s when propagandists told false stories about Iraqi soldiers stealing hundreds of incubators from Kuwaiti hospitals and leaving babies to die. These stories passed on by the Associated Press and Amnesty International later proved to be false.
It may be a while before the world can come to a definitive conclusion over who did what to whom in Houla.
But one thing is sure.
Somebody – a whole lot of somebodies, actually – is lying to us.