The Houla Massacre

The Houla Massacre


The appalling massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla, Syria, dominated the Independent on Sunday’s latest front cover. Above a few short lines of commentary the banner headline read:


The text beneath observed:

‘There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire, which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores. And the international community? It just averts its gaze. Will you do the same? Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?’ (Independent on Sunday, May 27, 2012)

Readers, then, knew exactly where to direct their anger – the ‘brutal’ Syrian ‘regime’ was responsible for the massacre.

It is not quite true that the ‘international community’ has averted its gaze. And the Syrian government is not the only party to have violated the April 12 ceasefire. Earlier this month, four weeks into the attempted pause in fighting, the Washington Post reported:

‘Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.’

The weapons were having an impact:

‘The effect of the new arms appeared evident in Monday’s clash between opposition and government forces over control of the rebel-held city of Rastan, near Homs. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebel forces who overran a government base had killed 23 Syrian soldiers.’

This kind of detail was not allowed to disturb the trans-spectrum media insistence that Assad, and Assad alone, was responsible for the slaughter of innocents in Houla. Nobody reading and watching the national media could come to any other conclusion. Also in the Independent on Sunday, David Randall wrote bitterly:

‘He is the President; she is the First Lady; they are dead children. He governs but doesn’t protect; she shops and doesn’t care… And one hopes that those on the United Nations Security Council, when it reconvenes, will look into the staring eyes of these dead children and remember the hollow words of Assad’s wife when she simpered that she “comforts the families” of her country’s victims.’

In March, US soldier Robert Bales shot dead 16 Afghan civilians, nine of them children, in a night-time massacre in a village outside a US base in southern Afghanistan. The Guardian reported:

‘Among the dead was a young girl in a green and red dress who had been shot in the forehead. The bodies of other victims appeared partially burned. A villager claimed they had been wrapped in blankets and set on fire by the killer.’

What kind of evidence would the media need before finding Barack Obama (and even Michelle Obama) personally responsible for this or any other massacre? Clearly, the involvement of US forces would need to be confirmed beyond doubt. They would need to have been acting under orders. Presumably Obama would need to have signed these orders, or at least to have been aware of them and agreed to them on some level.

But in the case of the Syrian leader, direct personal responsibility was attributed instantly, even before the killers had been identified. Within hours of the massacre being reported, a cartoon by Martin Rowson in the Observer depicted Assad with his mouth and face smeared with the blood of children. In the Independent, Assad was shown sitting in a bath filled with blood.

We challenged Rowson on Twitter: ‘On what actual evidence about the massacre in Houla is your cartoon based?’

We were asking what sources Rowson could offer indicating that Syrian forces were responsible, indeed that Assad was himself personally responsible. Rowson replied:

‘I have no more evidence than media & UN reports, like anyone else. Also used cartoonist’s hunch – are you saying I’m wrong?’

We asked: ‘Would you rely on a “hunch” in depicting Obama and Cameron with mouths smeared with the blood of massacred children?’

Rowson continued: ‘Or are you saying I need New Yorker levels of verification for every story I cover? I’m a cartoonist, for f*ck’s sake…’

Media Lens: ‘But shouldn’t a cartoon also be based on fundamentally rational analysis, on credible evidence?’

We repeatedly and politely asked Rowson to supply some of the evidence (links to articles, quotes) that had informed his thinking. We received numerous and varied responses but no mention of evidence. Instead, Rowson erupted:

‘[Media Lens] has succeeded in riling me. Well done. If I’m proved worng I’ll apologise. Meanwhile, f*ck off & annoy someone else.’

And: ‘No time for this anymore. Sorry. I stand convicted as a c*nt. End of…’

But Rowson did continue Tweeting and explained: ‘I’m answering you out of politeness…’

He finally pointed to one sentence in a BBC article quoting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:

‘There is no doubt that the government used artillery and tanks and this has been reported by UN observers who have visited the scene.’

This single sentence, Rowson claimed, ‘seems to nail it’.

This was indeed the initial Western focus in blaming the Syrian government. Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt said:

‘We are appalled at what appears to be credible reports that the Syrian regime has been responsible for the deaths of 92 civilians in Houla, including 32 children. The UN Head of Mission has been able to confirm the numbers and also that artillery tank shells have been used. If this is the case then it’s an act of pure, naked savagery and we condemn it in the most strongest possible terms.’ (Our emphasis)

But it turns out that shelling was not the major cause of deaths. Associated Press has more recently reported:

‘The U.N.’s human rights office said most of the 108 victims were shot execution-style at close range, with fewer than 20 people cut down by regime shelling.’

Also, if Rowson felt that the quote from Lavrov justified blaming Assad solely and personally for the massacre, he should have checked the previous sentence, also from Lavrov:

‘We are dealing with a situation in which both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people…’

The exchange with Rowson is available, in full, here.

Two days after Rowson’s cartoon appeared, the BBC reported the head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, Maj Gen Robert Mood, as saying: ‘the circumstances that led to these tragic killings are still unclear’. Mood commented: ‘Whatever I learned on the ground in Syria… is that I should not jump to conclusions.’

The BBC’s Washington Correspondent – ‘Was Russia Actually Persuaded?… Who Knows?’

The BBC also had no doubts about culpability. Diplomatic correspondent, James Robbins, claimed on the BBC’s News at Ten:

‘The UN now says most victims, including many children, were murdered inside their homes by President Assad’s militias.’ (BBC News At Ten, May 29, 2012)

Thus, in a change from the initial claims, the Syrian government was now additionally being blamed for the close-quarter killings. But this is what UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous had actually said that day:

‘Part of the victims had been killed by artillery shells, now that points ever so clearly to the responsibility of the government. Only the government has heavy weapons, has tanks, has howitzers. 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.’ (Our emphasis)

This gave the lie to Robbins’ emphatic claim on the BBC’s highest profile news programme. We emailed him asking for alternative sources but received no reply.

According to the BBC, even the Russians agreed with the Western view that the Syrian government was wholly to blame. The BBC’s Washington correspondent, Jonny Dymond, commented on a UN meeting in response to the massacre:

‘Going into the meeting, Syria’s big-power ally, Russia, made it clear that it needed to be convinced of the Syrian government’s culpability for what had happened at Houla. It appears to have been persuaded.’

Activist and filmmaker Gabriele Zamparini challenged Dymond, asking: ‘Was Russia persuaded?’ Zamparini quoted from the Guardian:

‘Russia said it is unlikely government forces would have killed civilians at point-blank range and suggested there was a third force – terrorists or external agents – seeking to trigger outside intervention.’

Also in the Guardian:

‘Lavrov said “both sides” were to blame for the deaths of innocent civilians in Houla.’

Dymond responded:

‘Dear Gabriele,

‘Thanks for writing.

‘Who knows the truth of Great Power diplomacy? People are still arguing about the intentions of Metternich.

‘Going into the meeting the Russian deputy ambassador to the UN said he needed to see proof (I paraphrase). According to diplomatic sources Major General Mood said there was a direct link between the deaths from shelling and Syrian government forces. The UNSC then issued a statement making that link, to the surprise of some that believed Russia would veto such criticism of Syria. Was Russia actually persuaded? Does it really need persuasion or is this part of a diplomatic dance entirely unconnected with the truth or the lives of those in Houla? Who knows[?] But I wrote that it “appears” (the qualification is important) to have been persuaded because to an observer of the process, that’s the story of the day, and I stand by it.

‘Thanks again for taking the time to write in touch.


‘Jonny’ (Email, forwarded to Media Lens, May 28, 2012)

And so, on the BBC website, Dymond asserted that Russia ‘appears to have been persuaded’ that the Syrian government was responsible. And yet, on the same day in response to an activist, Dymond asked: ‘Who knows[?]’

This is typical of the propaganda that issues forth from the BBC. Under the headline, ‘Syria massacre in Houla condemned as outrage grows,’ the BBC website published a picture of a young child jumping over a huge number of white body bags. But the picture was actually taken on March 27, 2003 of a young Iraqi child jumping over bags of skeletons found in a desert south of Baghdad. The photographer who took the picture, Marco Di Lauro, said he nearly ‘fell off his chair’ when he saw the image being used to illustrate a story from Syria:

‘What I am really astonished by is that a news organization like the BBC doesn’t check the sources and it’s willing to publish any picture sent it by anyone: activist, citizen journalist or whatever.’

In similar vein (to select at random), offering literally no serious supporting evidence at all, two Guardian articles casually reported claims that the Syrian government was behind the massacre:

‘Syria’s fragile peace process is in shreds after what was claimed to be a regime-backed massacre left 32 children among more than 90 dead and triggered a wave of international revulsion.’


‘Although long-planned, the visit gained new urgency following the weekend massacre in Houla, when more than 90 people, including 32 children, were killed in an attack claimed to have been backed by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.’


The Case For Critical Thinking

There are reasonable grounds for questioning the claim that the Syrian government, and Assad personally, was wholly responsible for the massacre. First, as the Sunday Telegraph noted:

‘Damascus has long accused activist groups of exaggerating and falsifying accounts to draw international attention to their plight, a charge that independent observers say has sometimes been justified.’ (Ruth Sherlock, Colin Freeman, Richard Spencer, Magdy Samaan, ‘Massacre of the innocents,’ Sunday Telegraph, May 27, 2012)

A rare dissenting view was offered by the highly respected Syria analyst Alastair Crooke, founder and director of Conflicts Forum. On responsibility for Houla, Crooke commented:

‘We don’t know for sure yet… But one thing that stands out quite clearly, and which is very important, is that the methodology, this type of killing – of beheadings, of slitting of throats, slitting of throats of children, too, and of this mutilation of bodies – has been a characteristic, not of Levantine Islam, not of Syria, not of Lebanon, but really of what happened in the Anbar province of Iraq. And so it seems to point very much in the direction of groups that had been associated with the war in Iraq against the United States, who have perhaps returned to Syria, or perhaps Iraqis who have come up from Anbar to take part in it…. But this whole process of mutilation is so very much against the tradition of Levantine Islam that I think it’s very hard to see this will have come either from soldiers or even from others who might have been bent on revenge… I don’t think this speaks of soldiers going on the rampage.’

Crooke added:

‘This is very much a possibility; that what we’re looking at here is a deliberate and cold-blooded attempt to cast Syria into civil war, to initiate civil war, to bring Western intervention, if possible. But simply, again, to bring down the regime. And it is clearly, I think, perpetrated in the interests of those external parties and groups at the end of the spectrum of the opposition, which are jihadi groups, who want no part in the peace process but who want to bring down the system and for Syria to turn into civil war.’

Crooke believes ‘al-Qaeda-like groups’ were to blame. (Crooke, RT, May 29, 2012)

John Bradley, author of After The Arab Spring: How Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts, wrote in the Daily Mail:

‘The expressions of outrage over Houla and the consequent threats of military action all feed into the conventional Western narrative of the Syrian crisis whereby Assad is portrayed as a bloodthirsty tyrant and the rebels as heroic freedom-fighters trying to liberate the Syrian people from oppression. It is a picture that has been sedulously cultivated by the anti-Assad opposition, who are masters of manipulative propaganda aimed at gullible Western politicians, broadcasters and protest groups. But the truth about the violence in Syria is far more complex than Assad’s enemies would have us believe.’

Massacres and crises of this kind (real, imagined, or manufactured) have been used to justify Western armed intervention in the past. In 1999, the contested Racak massacre provided the trigger for Nato military intervention in Kosovo. In 2003, as the Downing Street memo made clear, the US and UK conspired to manufacture a trigger event to justify war on Iraq. Britain and the US did not use UN diplomacy as a way to avoid war, but as a way to lure Iraq into supplying a casus belli for war. Last year, the alleged threat of a massacre in Benghazi was used to trigger an attack on Libya. Clearly, Syrian rebels are hoping for a ‘Benghazi moment’ enabling Western intervention in Syria.

Emails leaked by WikiLeaks from the influential risk analysis group, Stratfor, noted that ‘most of the opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue’. Stratfor argued that Syrian government massacres against civilians were unlikely because the ‘regime has calibrated its crackdowns to avoid just such a scenario. Regime forces have been careful to avoid the high casualty numbers that could lead to an intervention based on humanitarian grounds’.

So why would the Syrian government order the one action that risks triggering Western intervention, regime change and the fate suffered by Gaddafi in Libya? Perhaps Syrian government forces, or allied militias were responsible. Would that mean the Syrian government, and Assad himself, ordered, or knew about, the killings? Might the killers be rogue supporters of the government acting independently? These would be natural questions if the finger of blame was pointing at the US or UK. They are almost unthinkable, now, when the latest official enemy is being targeted for destruction.

Sharmine Narwani, Senior Associate at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, quotes from the US 2010 Unconventional Warfare (UW) Manual of the US Military’s Special Forces on the dark art of generating regime change.

‘First, there should be local and national “agitation” – the organization of boycotts, strikes, and other efforts to suggest public discontent. Then, the “infiltration of foreign organizers and advisors and foreign propaganda, material, money, weapons and equipment.”

‘The next level of operations would be to establish “national front organizations [i.e. the Syrian National Council] and liberation movements [i.e. the Free Syrian Army]” that would move larger segments of the population toward accepting “increased political violence and sabotage” – and encourage the mentoring of “individuals or groups that conduct acts of sabotage in urban centers.”

‘Now, how and why would an uncommitted – and ostensibly peaceful – majority of the population respond to the introduction of violence by opposition groups? The UW manual tells us there is an easy way to spin this one:

‘“If retaliation [by the target government] occurs, the resistance can exploit the negative consequences to garner more sympathy and support from the population by emphasizing the sacrifices and hardship the resistance is enduring on behalf of “the people.” If retaliation is ineffective or does not occur, the resistance can use this as proof of its ability to wage effect combat against the enemy. In addition, the resistance can portray the inability or reluctance of the enemy to retaliate as a weakness, which will demoralize enemy forces and instill a belief in their eventual defeat.”’

We recognise the bloody ruthlessness of the Syrian Baathists, epitomised by Assad’s father and continued now by his son, Bashar. Whatever the truth of Houla, the reaction of the corporate media has, yet again, made a mockery of the claim that it is a ‘free press’. Rather, it has propagandised relentlessly in promoting the US-UK view of the conflict. Once again, war in pursuit of regime change is the real goal behind the ‘humanitarian’ deceit.

With its usual depth of sincerity and compassion, Murdoch’s Times commented:

‘This newspaper is as wary as anyone in Britain of becoming once again involved in foreign struggles.’

Tragi-comically echoing John Lennon, the editors sighed:

‘We wanted and argued to give peace a chance… But what kind of country would Britain be, and what kind of people would young Syrians take us for, if we allowed the slaughter to continue?’ (Leader, ‘Responsibility to Protect,’ The Times, May 30, 2012)

War, again war, always war – endless war! But then corporate greed is a form of eternal war in pursuit of profit. We are living, very clearly, in a pathologically violent and structurally insane society.



The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone. Please write to:


John Mullin, editor of the Independent on Sunday


David Randall at the Independent


Martin Rowson at the Guardian

via Twitter:!/MartinRowson @MartinRowson

Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor


Steve Herrmann, BBC News online editor


Helen Boaden, BBC news director