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News Hole: The ICG's Deeply Flawed Syria Report

The International Crisis Group describes itself as “the world’s leading independent, non-partisan, source of analysis and advice to governments, and intergovernmental bodies … on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict.” Since 1995, the ICG has published reports and briefing papers from some of the world’s most notorious hot spots—Sudan, Zimbabwe, Kosovo, Iraq, and the Palestinian Territories. The ICG’s latest report on Syria, titled “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East (VII): The Syrian Regime’s Slow-motion Suicide,” relies almost exclusively on the testimony of Syrian regime figures and its Western apologists, dressed up as “independent” sources. The result is a deeply flawed picture of the last five months of Assadist sadism, where a dynastic regime with a proven history of churning out blatant propaganda and committing mass murder and torture is taken as more credible or sincere than its opposition movement.

The report’s executive summary acknowledges that the Syrian protest movement has been largely free of sectarianism or “Islamisation,” and deserves Western support. But once we get into the meat of the report itself and begin to measure assertions against news or analytical items of corroboration, troubling deficiencies arise. A central claim of this report, embodied in a section called “Violence and Counter Violence?,” is that the majority of Syrian army and security forces were killed by some unidentified consortium of armed insurgents. Again, according to executive summary: “More plausibly, criminal networks, some armed Islamist groups, elements supported from outside and some demonstrators acting in self defense have taken up arms. But that is a marginal piece of the story. The vast majority of the casualties have been peaceful protestors, and the vast majority of the violence has been perpetrated by the security services.”

The last two sentences are undoubtedly true, but the first is more complicated. It may be claimed that criminals and Islamists have been wiping out Assadist forces, but the claim has neither been substantiated nor presented convincingly by ICG. By contrast, for nearly five months, the Syrian opposition has argued that regime fatalities were caused by rebellious soldiers who turned their guns on those ordering them to massacre unarmed civilians. One mutineer soldier I interviewedrecently, from the Third Division in Homs, said that men like himself were the only ones fighting back for the people. Oddly, ICG seems not have interviewed a single soldier who has deserted rather than kill civilians.

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Consider the report’s discussion of the siege of Homs in early May. ICG affirms that “embassies in Damascus saw no evidence to corroborate” widespread allegations that tanks were in fact shelling houses. Why does ICG think that foreign embassies in Damascus would be capable of corroborating events more than an hour’s journey away when the movements of foreign embassy staff have been restricted by the regime? A great source for the limits placed on foreign diplomats is ICG. On the very same page as the foregoing, ICG writes that: “Damascus-based diplomats have seen their freedom of movement curtailed, as security services cordon off the more sensitive areas. Some of these diplomats also complain about their capitals’ lack of interest for thorough fact-checking—notably, attempts to disprove specific accusations leveled by the opposition, such as tank or artillery shelling of residential areas—and fear being perceived as naive or sympathetic to the regime if they challenge conventional wisdom.”

In addition to such open inconsistency, there is the problem of ICG’s sources. Buried in the footnotes is the statement that an academic called Joshua Landis has “refuted” the claim of the shelling of Homs:

This practice [tank shelling residential areas], to which the regime resorted in the 1980s to quell the uprising, was mentioned by the opposition and reported in the media. See, e.g., Zeina Karam, “Syrian troops shelling residential areas,” Associated Press, 11 May 2011. Others have refuted the reports. See, e.g., Joshua Landis’s post in the blog Syria Comment, 15 May 2011.

Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor who has spent a career explaining why Bashar al-Assad is a popular reformer, is less than a dispassionate observer of Syria and the current uprising. (His wife is the daughter of a retired Alawite admiral.) Landis argued in early April that Syrian protest movement had been “exaggerated” and that Assad had nothing to worry about; “coexistence [between sects],” Landis wrote in Foreign Policy, “is due to the stability that the Assad family has enforced in Syria and to the vision of tolerance and secularism they have promoted.” Following murderous crackdown in Deraa on March 25th, he suggested that Assad himself was “shocked” by the extent of the violence. When US Ambassador Robert Ford visited Hama in July and was greeted by jubilant residents of that imperiled city, Landis described Ford’s action as “antics.” Michael Young of Beirut’s Daily Star has trenchantly described Landis as a “court scribe” and “agent of influence” for the Baath regime.

Nor did Landis refute anything. His Syria Comment blog entry for May 15th includes this:

Syrian Sources say there was no shelling in Homs by tanks or anything else, as was reported in the press.

From a trusted friend in Syria:

Was in Homs again yesterday. We saw no evidence of shelling anywhere and most of the town was normal. One neighborhood, Bab Amr was blocked off and deserted. Was also in Aleppo and I think the story of thousands of students at the university was also exagerrated [gura]. More like 100. People there told me Aleppo is really normal and very few demonstrations have happened.

An anonymous correspondent writing to a regime apologist is not proof of much. By contrast, this video showing Homs on May 8th has billowing plumes of smoke into the sky as if, say, heavy artillery shells had impacted tons of concrete.

Also contradicting the Landis/ICG line is human rights activist Najati Tayara, who told Reuters at the time, “Homs is shaking with the sound of explosions from tank shelling and heavy machine guns.” The BBC, which the ICG report mentions as one of the culprits of misinformation, even got a hold of an eyewitness in Homs:

BBC: “Where are the shells landing?” 

Homs resident: “They are firing at normal people in their houses and their homes and their farms. It’s in the south of Homs which is famous in their [sic] demonstrations. They are trying to punishment [sic], like a kind of punishment. But these people have no guns or even knives to strike against this army.”

Still another Homs resident told the Associated Press: “There were loud explosions and gunfire from automatic rifles throughout the night and until this morning. The area is totally besieged. We are being shelled.” And, according to Al Jazeera’s live blog from the time, “The witnesses and activists, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared reprisals, said the shelling was targeting the Bab Sbaa, Bab Amr and Jouret el Aris neighborhoods.”

As against all this, ICG has only to add: “Field work conducted by Crisis Group in Syria has yet to produce evidence supporting the claim.” Clearly such field work didn’t include talking to human rights activists or interviewing Homs residents.

 

The ICG report also backs up regime claims of opposition atrocities, but again with little credible evidence:

In April, authorities claimed that regular army troops travelling along the Latakia-Tartus road, in the vicinity of Banyas, were attacked without provocation; although the opposition alleged that the victims had been shot by regime forces for showing signs of disloyalty, independent sources corroborated the regime’s version.

State media released pictures of the corpses of Allawite officers ambushed, killed and mutilated in Homs. It is doubtful that the regime would have taken the extreme step of mutilating the bodies of its own security forces if only because of the cost to troop morale.

Interestingly, the regime had already taken the “extreme step” of mutilating Hamza al-Katib, a thirteen-year-old boy seized in Deraa, whose corpse was later returned to his parents—minus a penis and patches of skin where bullets and cigarettes had had their way. And just before this reference to an alleged Banyas atrocity, ICG confirmed media accounts that security forces had disposed of the bodies of slain Deraa residents in a shallow grave. We are now asked to believe that the same security forces that mutilate children would not also mutilate mutinous soldiers who went wobbly or wanted to defect to the other side.

Any mention of “troop morale” had also better examine the psychological effects of ordering soldiers to fire on unarmed civilians. For this we have only the personal testimonies of numerous mutineers themselves, though ICG didn’t speak to any.

Who are the “independent sources” who putatively corroborated the regime’s narrative? None other than Joshua Landis’s Syrian Comment blog. The report cites two entries—from April 11th and April 13th. What do they reveal?

On April 11th, Landis devoted the entire blog to eulogizing his wife’s cousin: “The Syrian revolution struck home yesterday. My wife, Manar Qash`ur [Kachour], burst into tears last night as she read the Facebook page that has kept her updated on events in her hometown, Latakia. Lt. Colonel Yasir Qash`ur, who was Manar’s cousin and 40 years old, was shot in Banyas on Sunday.” While Landis himself offers no view as to who killed Qash’ur, he does cite various comments left on his blog, which include one person suggesting that the Banyas protestors had turned to violence; another insisted that nineteen security personnel had been shot by a single defecting solider (“The story for me is believable because the media government story did not bring how and why those people killed, like there is a cover up or a shy attitude to cover the above story”); and still another who disbelieves the previous commenter (“Your story cannot be true, because all security are armed, and even if someone went off shooting his colleagues, he would be whacked very quickly.”). More commentators listed by Landis both credit and dismiss Syrian state media claims about “armed gangs.” But how can anonymous Internet gossipers be “independent sources”?

Landis’s entry for April 13th consists of further attempts to debunk opposition claims about who shot the nineteen security officers. First he relies on an interview his wife conducted with Colonel Uday Ahmad, the brother-in-law of Landis’s slain family member, Lieutenant Colonel Yasir Qashur. Next, Landis explains that a Guardian article that purportedly shows an injured security officer saying that he was shot in the back by his comrades was misconstrued, although even in Landis’s clarification the officer does not corroborate the regime’s claims about armed gangs firing on him. Landis then cites an e-mail sent to him by Alix Van Buren, a journalist at La Repubblica, about whom more shortly. Finally, he posts an image of a supposed three-page mukhabarat (or intelligence) letter ordering security officials to fire on their own “in order to deceive the enemy.” Landis dismisses this document—“It has blood splattered on it and is clearly a fake”—and concludes, much like the ICG authors, that such a decree would never have been handed down since it would diminish troop morale. Even assuming Landis is right, when did false evidence of an event disprove that the event took place?

The report expands upon Landis’s theme of troop morale in another footnote: 

Officials apparently highlighted this particular crime [of body mutilation] in order to validate the claim that they faced brutal, violent Islamist groups. “This is a popular crisis sparked by various grievances. But there also is another facet, which is fundamentalism. In Homs, some Islamists killed and desecrated the bodies of security officers on the basis of their confession, importing methods we had seen only in Iraq. This fundamentalism represents the protest movement’s hard core.” Crisis Group interview, senior official, Damascus, 21 April 2011.

The absence of evidence for Islamist fundamentalists butchering the bodies of dead soldiers in Homs is conspicuously unaddressed here. And why does ICG take a senior official’s testimony at face value, particularly when the “methods” he refers to were first exported to Iraq—by Bashar al-Assad.

ICG isn’t quite finished pouring cold water on hot tales of rebel soldiers getting killed. “More generally,” the report states, “the opposition’s assertion that most such casualties result from the summary execution of security forces that refuse to take part in the repression is implausible.”

The justification for such implausibility is yet another footnote:

A defense ministry official dismissed the notion: “It is absurd to believe the security services would slaughter our soldiers. If I put myself in the shoes of our troops and reach that conclusion, I’d be quick to run away from duty and disappear. That’s a recipe for undermining army cohesion.” Crisis Group interview, Damascus, 22 May 2011.

ICG thereby takes at face value the claim of an active defense ministry official working for a mendacious regime. In fact, many soldiers have run away from duty and disappeared, only to turn up in places like Lebanon and Turkey where, free from regime minders or the fear of state reprisal, they’ve recounted to journalists how they were ordered to commit atrocities far worse than corpse desecration. They’ve also corroborated the opposition’s brief that more and more army members are turning their guns on mukhabarat and shabbiha death squads. Also, summary execution of rebellious soldiers has been a commonplace from the decimatio of the Romans to Trotsky’s Red Army. Why would martial discipline be any laxer under a Baathist police state?

Or, to phrase the question another way, what does ICG believe happens to soldiers who disobey orders and decide to mutiny against their commanders? Are they dishonorably discharged? Dressed down by a tough-talking drill sergeant? Or perhaps politely asked to reconsider their position by an Alawite life-coach? As it happens, ICG is not completely in the dark about Syrian army defections. In a later footnote, the authors unquestioningly cite an interview with “Abdul Razzaq Tlass—an officer and member of a family with close regime ties—in which he says he defected because of crimes committed by security services arguably reflects wider feelings within the military.” Should Tlass return to Damascus tomorrow, what might his fate be?

 

Other contradictions abound in the report. In a section called “Identifying Trends,” ICG rightly calls out the regime for making “every effort to deny responsibility” for the crackdown in Deraa in March. Relying on state media and original interviews with regime functionaries, the authors tick off every nonsensical regime claim made to distract from the obvious: the military and security forces killed scores of civilians in the epicenter of the uprising. One such rubbish piece of propaganda is that “elements backed by exiled dissidents such as former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam” were behind the early unrest in Deraa. The attendant footnote makes clear that a “Syrian official” in Damascus queried on March 22nd by ICG blamed “religious extremists and individuals close to Khaddam, who want this to escalate.” We’re meant to treat this assertion with skepticism. However, once the authors get on to speculating about who might be responsible for acts of violence against the regime, violence which has reportedly taken the lives of hundreds of security personnel, they suggest “criminal gangs and smuggling networks,” particularly in border towns, as well as “outside foes.” ICG admits that state television has been used to drum up paranoia about the phenomenon of foreign infiltration. For instance, in late March, Damascus staged a forced confession from one Egyptian activist allegedly sent into Syria by Israel to document the protest movement. Other bruited alien instigators have included Palestinians, Lebanese, and a fourteen-year-old Sudanese boy. 

As against this track record, we have an unnamed Syrian official, this one presented as credible, who claims to have visited wounded officers in a military hospital and to have determined that roving gangs of foreigners are not only armed, they’re equipped with night-vision goggles. By way of substantiating this allegation, the ICG report invites us to consider “a convincing account of the possible involvement of outsiders in unrest in northern Syria by Alix Van Buren, an Italian journalist.” Once again, the reader is directed to Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment blog for April 13, 2011, to see what Ms. Van Buren has to say. Landis introduces her as “a veteran reporter for la Repubblica, Italy’s leading newspaper” and someone who “is in Damascus and sends the following report about the possible role of armed Khaddam agitators in Banyas.”

But hang on. Would those be the same Khaddam agitators whom ICG just discounted as scapegoats for Assadist perfidy just a few pages earlier? What made them phantoms in Deraa but likely interlopers in Banyas? And what makes Van Buren’s account “convincing”? She relies heavily on reports from Al-Watan (charmingly described in this report as a “semi-independent” newspaper, but actually a pro-regime mouth piece) and on the testimony of Haytham al-Manna, a Paris-based Syrian dissident who nonetheless conceded that Khaddam agents were “very few—in the dozens” in Banyas and not really behind much of the supposed foreign agitation at all. Van Buren offers no evidence in either of the two notes she e-mailed to Landis, both of which traffic in the sort of idle speculation and innuendo which, had the like come from the Syrian opposition, would have been met with extreme incredulity by our gimlet-eyed analysts.

And here’s a further wrinkle: Alix Van Buren may be a veteran Italian reporter but she is not above sounding a willing tribune for the ancien régime. In 2006, she e-mailed this wish-you-were-here to Landis, which he obligingly reproduced on his Syria Comment blog:

Hi Josh,

I did it again. Here is a rough translation of my interview with President Bashar, published today in La Repubblica. It is the first one he gave after the release of the Baker report.

Damascus misses you! One very notable development that sums up Bashar’s growing strength: he has earned the title of “Presidente Assad.” People have stopped referring to him as Docteur or Bashar. When they now say President Assad it is very clear that it is him, not his Father.

In person, he looked great—confident, relaxed, physically well fit.

New banks and shops opening up everywhere, with yet other signs of “Opening soon.”

One wonders how a revolution kicked off five years on with such a happy state of affairs obtaining in Presidente’s dominion.

Another troubled attribution comes up in the report’s section on Jisr al-Shughour. ICG argues that the regime’s narrative of what occurred last May in the troubled city of the Idlib governorate—i.e., that one hundred and twenty security forces were killed by “armed gangs”—was more accurate than the opposition’s counterclaim that army defectors turned on security forces. To substantiate this rendering, the authors cite another “well-respected journalist ... [who] published articles that gave credence to the notion of a foreign-backed Islamist insurgency.”

The author here is Hala Jaber of the Sunday Times. However, Jaber never set foot in Jisr al-Shughor. Her two articles, “Islamists battle Syrian regime,” and “Syria caught in crossfire of extremists,” both published on June 26th and cited in the ICG report’s footnotes, speak of armed infiltrators operating in Ma’arrat al-Numan, a different city in the Idlib province. Moreover, the identities of these infiltrators are never firmly established; they’re only described by Jaber as “bearded militants” armed with guns and rocket-propelled grenades, driving around in pickup trucks without license plates. Tellingly, protestors have elsewhere in Syria spotted such “militants” and characterized them as either imported Hezbollah agents or pro-regime shabbiha gangs seeking to stoke violence and disrupt otherwise peaceful democratic demonstrations. The second of Jaber’s articles also confirms that the pro-democracy protestors were “stoic” in the face of these supposed insurgents’ provocations and had nothing to do with any violence. How does this in any way corroborate the regime’s sequence of events in Jisr al-Shughour, which ICG credulously claims is more believable because of the haste with which Damascus invited Western diplomats and observers in to survey the wreckage?

Since ICG is happy to conflate cities in Idlib, it is also worth noting that Jaber attests to the presence of helicopter gunships in Ma’arrat al-Numan, brought in, she says, to suppress those armed Islamists. The report, however, dismisses the widespread eyewitness testimony that helicopter gunships were used in Jisr al-Shughour, this time to split the skulls of unarmed civilians who didn’t manage to flee to Turkey in time.

 

When in doubt, ICG reports quotes a regime stooge. Syrian “state media” is deemed worthy of consideration, whereas the opposition seems interested in special pleading. Some of the quotations presented herein are a great source of amusement: “An official said, ‘there is an understanding at the leadership level that [Bashar al-Assad’s] speech didn’t go down well.’” Such understatement does not require meeting with a regime official. Indeed, too many officials are treated as credible sources, as shown by citations such as “Crisis Group interview, official at presidential palace, Damascus, 6 April 2011,” which are sprinkled throughout this report. 

One particularly shabby assertion ICG makes is that the opposition has “edit[ed] out sectarian (i.e., anti-Allawite) slogans that at times are voiced on the streets in favor of those conveying a broader sense of community.” There is a difference between editing something out and not being around to record something. ICG cannot substantiate this damaging claim. The best it can do is quote a lone “intellectual” who tells them: “There is this suppressed hatred of Allawites that is coming out into the open. It remains a taboo, and most Syrians would rather not recognize it. People still try hard to conceal it, but it is increasingly manifest.” 

In all, I counted more than sixty citations of “regime insiders,” “palace employees” “senior officials, “defense ministry officials,” “security officials,” “government advisers,” or some derivation of employee of Bashar al-Assad’s police state in a report purportedly weighing the results and prospects of a full-blown national revolution. The first mention of the Local Coordination Committees occurs on page 20, and even here, this loose network of anti-regime activists is disingenuously presented as having emerged after Assad made noises about having a “national dialogue,” but only with vetted or handpicked interlocutors. In fact, the LCCs released their first joint statement in late April, following the Good Friday massacre on the 22nd when one hundred and twelve people were slaughtered in the space of a just few hours in Damascus, Deraa, Hama, Lattakia, and Homs. This transformative event, coinciding with a major Christian holiday and precipitating the first semblance of oppositional organization, goes unrecorded in a study where regime warnings of “sectarianism” are treated at face value. The LCCs, needless to add, demanded that Assad leave power long before the Semiramis Hotel in central Damascus, which is owned by Hafez al-Assad’s former chief of staff, was given over to mock bull sessions about how best to refurbish a criminal dynasty. “[T]here is reason to question the genuineness of the dialogue and representative quality of the delegations,” the ICG authors declare in their characteristic display of mandarin judiciousness. “As a result, the ‘national dialogue’ promised by Bashar has every chance of turning into an empty exercise, a conversation essentially between the regime and itself.” Oh look, a real insight.

 

No one from the thirty-one-member consultative council elected at the Antalya Conference in Turkey, which represented more than sixty-eight different opposition groups, or from that body’s executive committee appointed later, is asked for comment by ICG, which has adopted an attitude of condescension toward the opposition. Contrast the report’s lame concluding statement that “much of the opposition in exile will remain distrusted by those who stayed inside” with the following facts. In Homs on June 2nd, a crowd of marchers chanted, “We salute the conference.” Photos from the same city show banners reading “O heroes of the Antalya Conference, you are our pulse and we are with you,” and “The demands of the Antalya Conference are the demands of the Syrian people.” In Hama, the rally that turned out one hundred thousand protestors on June 17th saw a 3,000-meter-long flag made up of a hybrid of the Syrian national flag and the “independence” banner adopted at Antalya unfurled above the crowd’s head. On it was written: “Hama will not kneel.” Curiously, the ICG authors neglect to mention this episode, too, but do refer to its precipitating antecedent, a staged, pro-regime rally held a few days earlier in Damascus featuring a 2,500-meter-long Syrian flag on which was scribbled, “God, Syria, Bashar.”

As for the “Final Declaration” of Antalya, released after much wrangling and procedural mayhem in a resort town in southern Turkey, this important document is crudely dismissed in a footnote as little more than “supporting protests and defending vague principles.” In fact it stated:

Participants affirm that the Syrian people are of many ethnicities, Arab, Kurd, Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Turkmen, Chechen, Armenian and others. The conference establishes the legitimate and equal rights of all under a new Syrian constitution based on national unity, civil state and a pluralistic, parliamentary, and democratic regime.

Participants commit to exert all efforts towards achieving a democratic future of Syria which respects human rights and protects freedom for all Syrians, including the freedom of belief, expression and practice of religion, under a civil state based on the separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers, while adopting democracy and the ballot box as the sole medium of governance.

Too bad the opposition was busy editing out anti-Alawite incitements to get its act together. And what a shame that the Antalya assembly didn’t convene in the presidential palace where it might have been treated to more careful exegesis by ICG’s well-connected field workers.

Recurring chatter about missed opportunities and political miscalculations (recall the report’s subtitle) too often grant the benefit of the doubt to a man raised to believe that Syria’s citizens are his chattel, that a minority is entitled to rule over a majority, and that everything one ever needed to know about human relations could be gleaned from The Godfather:

Some officials pointed out that Bashar by then was in a no-win situation. He was blamed for being vague and indecisive and for delegating decisions to various committees, yet he also likely would have been criticized for taking decision on his own. An official said:

The president faces a Catch-22. People want him to be decisive but they also want him to open up the political system to broad participation. They want a consultative process but also instant changes. They want the regime to restore order now, and they want it to pull its troops off the streets. Bashar has to contend with millions of contradictory demands and preferably address them yesterday. A reform drive that takes three to four months, as he suggested, is seen by many as an eternity. But how could the regime have moved any faster?

Woe is me and lack a day—the people still want to topple the regime! 

A despairing official lamented the loss of regional prestige: “The regime can no longer claim to be standing up for resistance.”

No doubt the raped women ordered to serve tea to their rapists in Jisr al-Shughour will be lamenting Syria’s vanished credibility as an upholder of anti-Zionist steadfastness.

Although the president assured artists and intellectuals that all opinions would be respected “as long as they were held with the homeland’s interests at heart,” the local media has aired relatively few dissident views and continues for the most part to put forward the conspiracy theory.

A master class in how to observe fascism up close and see nothing at all can be taught on the use of the words “although” and “for the most part” in that sentence.

Only in the last fortnight has a single piece of footage come to light showing what look to be civilians dumping what look to be dead security officials into the Orontes River in Hama. And it took a full-on siege of that formerly liberated city to produce this single reel, which has yet to be authenticated by independent analysis, possibly showing armed civilians fighting back. No footage has been offered by either ICG or its “independent” sources substantiating allegations of anti-Alawite incitement. And as against this lone video of posthumous indecency in Hama, the Syrian opposition has uploaded thousands of mobile phone records documenting everything from snipers firing at civilians from rooftops, screaming mothers cradling the corpses of their slain children, self-confessed mercenaries admitting that Hezbollah paid and bused them into Syria to enforce military discipline, mukhabarat thugs kicking old men in the head, and a mentally disabled man displaying his bruises and reprehending Assad personally. In other words, the weight of all available evidence overwhelmingly confirms the opposition’s narrative and discredits the regime’s. And yet, an organization dedicated to “preventing conflict” had instead become tribune for the sowers of one. 

Michael Weiss is the communication director of the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank focused on democratic geopolitics.
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