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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Accounts of a Siege in Syria Differ on Rebel YouTube Channels and British Television

As my colleagues Liam Stack and Hania Mourtada reported, Syrian activists said last week that members of a pro-government militia known as the shabiha had massacred dozens of civilians earlier this month in the village of Aqrab, northwest of the city of Homs, just outside the town of Houla.

What made the claim of a massacre in the village unusual were the accounts of witnesses, identified as survivors of the atrocity on rebel YouTube channels, who said that the victims were Alawites - members of the same minority sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, as President Bashar al-Assad and most members of the shabiha militia. In a civil war that has turned more sectarian over time, the claim that an Alawite militia had killed Alawite civilians, supposedly to keep them from being slaughtered by Sunni Muslim rebels instead, stood out.

Finding out what exactly happened in Aqrab is particularly difficult because, while the Syrian government denied that any massacre had taken place there, independent reporters have been unable to get into the town. Then too, it is hard to know how much weight to give to the extraordinary witness testimony posted on YouTube, since it appears to have been recorded under the watch of the rebel Free Syrian Army in the nearby town of Houla. A massacre in that town in May, blamed on the shabiha, brought global condemnation on the Assad government.

Shakeeb al-Jabri, a Syrian activist and journalist in neighboring Lebanon, noted on the day that the first reports of a massacre emerged there were wildly different accounts of what had taken place and how many people were killed.

Late last week, however, Alex Thomson of Britain's Channel 4 News managed to travel to the outskirts of Aqrab, where he interviewed three people who claim to have escaped from the village to government-controlled territory. All three blamed Sunni rebels, not the pro-Assad Alawite militia, for the killing of Alawites in their village.

A video report from Syria broadcast by Britain's Channel 4 News on Friday.

Restrictions on independent reporting inside Syria remain in place, but Mr. Thomson's report, which was produced without the presence of any government minders, suggests that there might have been no massacre at all.

In a blog post introducing his report, Mr. Thomson acknowledges the difficulty of saying for sure who is telling the truth:

What follows is a series of eyewitness accounts which runs almost entirely against the version of what happened here which has gone global from rebel propaganda websites. We do not say what follows is the truth. But we can say it is the first independently observed story of Aqrab from the first outside journalist to reach this area.

We interviewed three key eyewitnesses in three separate locations. They could not have known either of our sudden arrival, nor did they know the identities of the other two eyewitnesses.

What is striking is that their accounts entirely corroborate each other, to the last detail. And their accounts are further backed up by at least a dozen conversations with other Alawites who had fled from Aqrab.

What happened, according to the witnesses who spoke to Mr. Thomson, is that hundreds of civilians from the village were trapped in one building, under siege from the rebels, for more than a week. The witnesses told Mr. Thomson, “the rebels wanted to take the women and children to al-Houla to use them as human shields agai nst bombardment from government forces, and they believed they would kill the remaining men.”

Although negotiations to free all of the prisoners failed, the witnesses said, a number of people were released before some were killed and others were taken to Houla.

Responding to critics of his reporting on Twitter, Mr. Thomson said that his crew was not escorted by the government and stressed that none of the people he spoke with knew that the others had been interviewed. He added that all of what they said was “corroborated by more than 10 other off-camera interviews.”

He also noted that it was hard to understand, if there had been a massacre in Aqrab, why there was “not a scrap of video to back their story” on the rebel YouTube channels. “Invariably when there's a massacre, the rebels put the bodies out on YouTube and make a song and dance about it. If the government really did massacre up to 250 people from President Assad's own Alawite sect, YouTube would be 10 feet deep in rebel videos, of the bodies, of the funerals, of the carnage.”

As Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch told The Los Angeles Times, “”There are various narratives there, and we don't have enough to have a conclusion yet.” He observed on Twitter that only an independent investigation could clear away the mystery, but that seems unlikely to happen while fighting is still going on in the area.

While the exact nature of the violence in Aqrab remains unclear, Hassan Hassan observed in a commentary for The National, it is striking that about 3,000 Alawites are said to remain in the village with 10,000 Sunnis, given the fierce sectarian warfare all around them. “Alawites are often portrayed as invariably sticking with the regime for survival,” Mr. Hassan wrote. “This is not accurate. Many Alawites are caught in the middle, just as are so many others in Syrian society. Twenty-one months into the violence, Alawites were still living alongside Sunnis in Aqrab - something worth considering.”

Not far from the village in northern Syria, Al Jazeera reported this week that several hundred residents of an Alawite village in northern Syria's Idlib Province were forced to flee when a rebel brigade called Jubhat al-Nusra, which calls itself a Qaeda affiliate and has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States, took control.

An Al Jazeera video report on Islamist fighters taking control of a village in northern Syria this week.