Published on 27 Aug 2012

The battle to report the facts of Syria’s war

Few wars are as hard to deal with as Syria in terms of straight reporting of the facts.

That being the case, I want to confine things right now to a pattern of action and of facts agreed by all sides.

Reminding people of that will help them draw their own conclusions about what may well have been the bloodiest few days yet in Syria.

So first – all sides agree there was a prolonged period of tank and artillery shelling into Daraya – a relatively poor Damascene suburb – in this case for several days.

Few outsiders have seen the Syrian army at work doing this. I have.  Around the Damascene suburbs and al Houla.

In al Houla, some days after the shelling which preceded the massacre of over 100 people in late May, we watched again from a high position in an Alawite village just west of al Houla.

Shell bursts would occur every few minutes, at all parts of the town. What I personally witnessed and we filmed seemed quite random. Shells fell from the southern fringes to the northern end of the town with utter unpredictability.

It was the complete opposite of, say, a concerted, directed, barrage on identified target buildings or areas.

Time and again people complain of indiscriminate shelling in places like al Houla and the Damascus suburbs.

The UN investigations corroborate this.

House to house

The second agreed fact by all sides is that Syrian ground forces – along with shabbiha militias loyal to President Assad, go house to house in these operations in Sunni areas, as a matter of routine.

This is agreed. Even Syrian TV talked about “heroic” government forces “cleansing terrorists” from Daraya.

So nobody disputes who did the shelling and then who moved in on the ground.

Which makes Daraya look particularly hard for the government to defend. The government announced the operation using heavy weapons. It then talked in public about the ‘cleansing’ operation.

And then more than 200 bodies show up.

Telling wounds

Yet again with the close-range gunshot wounds to chest and head or knife wounds. Exactly the wounds I found on the bodies of two elderly men, both well beyond fighting age, in one of the al Houla settlements.

This is civil war. Both sides are committing acts of appalling brutality and if you really want it is all there these days online.

But, these massacres keep occurring don’t they? And in many cases the pattern of shelling precedes ground operations which precede the massacres in turn.

I have witnessed myself and we’ve filmed government forces in a suburb not far from Daraya, setting fire to houses as they work their way through an area, again after a long period of sustained shelling.

It does not always result in these casualty levels it is true.

A familiar pattern

But it does create them often enough for people to recognise the pattern and make their own conclusions.

There’ll be no meaningful UN investigation now.

The UN convoy taking their mission commander¬† to safety in Lebanon rolled even as all this was unfolding. But their game’s long since been over. Even at al Houla their investigation was thwarted.

But the pattern is there for all to see. And disputed by nobody. Curious in this war where almost everything else is denied, spun and lied about.

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2 reader comments

  1. Chris Simmons says:

    Classic scorched earth policy.

    Tends to work quite well.

    What use is a town or village to the rebels if it is reduced to a shattered shell? Who will want to live amongst the ruins, without food, water and electricity?

  2. george says:

    I will be honest here Alex. After your recent commentaries in Scotland many believe your journalistic integrity to be in tatters and I would not now believe you if you said night follows day.

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