On January 15 2013, bands of armed men invaded the small Syrian village of Basatin al-Hasawiya and proceeded to carry out a mass slaughter of men women and children, burning the bodies once they were finished. On these facts there is broad agreement. But on everything else there are two conflicting accounts.

According to local Syrian oppositionists:

“Reports emerging from Hasawiya of an extremely appalling massacre committed against 13 families according to eyewitnesses. The village is about 5 kilometres north of Homs city centre. Hasawiya’s families are well-known for being farmers; the village has a population of about 1,500 civilians and recently had more families settling in from disaster-stricken and invaded districts. The village includes Sunnis, Christians, and Alawites, but the massacre is  purely driven by sectarianism since all the families massacred are Sunni families.

On Tuesday, 15 January, the regime’s military security forces entered the village at 12:00 p.m. and arbitrarily arrested a number of men, amongst them martyr Abdul Haseeb Deyab, Imam of Al Tayyar mosque in Hasawiya. At 1:00 p.m., some of the detainees got released. At 2:00 p.m., 2 buses (well-known by civilians for being used to drive Shabiha), 4 other security force buses, and 2 armoured vehicles arrived and parked near Al Boushi factory for ceramics.

“Some young men were extrajudicially executed in these houses then burnt in the house of Abu Mashhour Shehab Deyab. They then moved into Al Ghaloul orchards and executed all the men, women, and children found there from Al Ghaloul family. Third place was Al Deyab farmlands, where they also executed the whole family and burnt their corpses. Their last place was the farmlands beside Al Deyab farmlands, where they killed more than 17 members of Al Mahbani family.

105 martyrs have been documented as executed from all these families (the names of the dead are then provided)

Other reports described this as beginning with a raid on the village and a search for weapons. One oppositionist was reported by Reuters as saying: “the rebel Free Syrian Army occasionally entered the farmland of Basatin al-Hasawiya to attack a nearby military academy. “

Two western TV crews visited the village in the days following the killings, but their reports, far from clarifying the picture, helped give rise to two conflicting accounts of the Hasawiya events. I will refer to the contrasting account that emerged at this point in time as the “regime narrative” – but this is not a single systematic account of the events, but has to be assembled from a number of pieces of information and testimony delivered to the visiting western journalists. See:

  • Bill Neely’s report for ITN: (17 January)
  • Lyse Doucet’s Report for the BBC: (18 January)

Two days after the killings, ITN journalist Bill Neely, entered the village with a Syrian army escort. As he arrived some men appeared, apparently from hiding, and offered an account of what had transpired that sharply differed from the opposition version. Neely and his interpreter conducted an interview with 6 men, two of whom took him into nearby buildings and showed him blood-stained sites where the killings had taken place and offered details of what had happened. Neely stated that he did not himself see any bodies because they had already been cleaned up by the Syrian army in the area he was permitted to visit, (The army refused access to the rest of the village on the grounds that snipers were still active.)

(The ITN report includes what looks like an interview with a woman in her home; but on closer inspection this turns out to be a brief clip from an opposition video that has been edited into the report. See below for more details.)

According to the men – or at least the three of them who spoke during the interview – the killings had been carried out by a group of “armed men” who had arrived in the village dressed in black and with headbands inscribed “Allahu Akhbar”. One of the witnesses said they were from the jihadist group Jabhat al Nusra (JN). Neely was told that they had demanded access to the roofs of houses in order to carry out an operation against the nearby Intelligence building, and when they were refused began systematic killings in retaliation. According to these informants the death toll was around 30.

Neely also interviewed the commander of the military detachment in the village and had earlier spoken to the Governor of Homs, both of whom asserted that there had been no deliberate killing of civilians by the Army. The Governor placed the total number of deaths as 8 civilians (four women and four children) plus an unspecified number of rebel fighters. He blamed the civilian deaths on “al Qaeda” (presumably referring to JN)

The ITN report included the names of 3 families who the informants named as victims;: these seem to correspond to names in the opposition account.

The following day Lyse Doucet of the BBC was able to enter the village, also under army escort. She managed to persuade the army to let her visit a more remote set of houses outside the village centre, where she discovered some burned corpses that the army had not removed. The army officer accompanying her provided further details of the official version of what had happened, stating that some 200 rebel fighters had come to the village across the surrounding fields (from what direction is unclear).

Doucet reported that several people she spoke to in the village in the presence of the army produced a similar account to Neely’s informants. However she also managed to talk to one woman out of earshot of the army and recorded a very different account: “one woman, who spoke to us off-camera, out of earshot of our minders, told us soldiers were there that day, and that some had apologised that others acted without orders”.

Both teams of journalists stated that they were only reporting what they had been told and had no way of choosing between the conflicting accounts.

acloserlookonsyria

In the following days, James Miller for EIA World View reviewed the available evidence and gathered some further information from Neely. His conclusion was pretty much the same as the journalists – there was not sufficient evidence to decide between the alternate accounts. A similar stance was taken by acloserlookonsyria.

I have re-revisited all the available information I can identify, with the assistance of some Syrian opposition sympathisers, one of whom has visited Hasawiya. In my view it is possible to compare the veracity of the two accounts with considerably greater precision by looking closely at several factors: the conditions under which interviews were conducted; the logic of the accounts provided; and the context in which the alleged events took place.

Background: The location

Hasawiya is located on the northern fringes of Homs, and on the banks of the Orontes river. There is some uncertainty about its physical disposition in relation to the contending military forces in the area. According to one account (ITN) it is divided into two parts by the river, with one side controlled by the Syrian army and the other by the FSA, and has been used by rebel forces as a staging post for attacks on the nearby Military Intelligence building. Lyse Doucet has described it as: “just around the corner” from a nearby Syrian army base. A Syrian oppositionist with local knowledge has told me that the whole area is firmly under army control. A news report from al-Arabiya supports this latter view with detailed information:

“The village lies within a fortified security square, with Air Force Intelligence to the south, 800 metres from the village; the industrial estate to the east, currently used as a military base; to the north-east is a big military checkpoint; to the west are the military academies, the main source for shelling Homs & its countryside.”

Collating various sources of information, this seems to be an accurate description, and I have mapped the key features here.  Scrutinising the Google satellite images with these facts in mind, a number of things arise:

The bulk of the built-up portion of the village, and the areas where the killings seem to have taken place, are on the west bank of the Orontes river; on the other side there appear to be only fields/orchards and some dispersed buildings; this area is also linked by road to the army’s checkpoint at Dik al Jin.

The Army intelligence building is about 1.25km (or 0.8 miles) away from the Hasawiya fields – beyond the effective range of small arms or rocket propelled grenades. Moreover there is a major road and a large built up area interposed between the fields and the Intelligence building. It is therefore unlikely that the latter could have been effectively targeted from Hasawiya.

However  if , as the al-Arabiya report (supported by other sources) states, the adjoining built up area (the al-Sinaa industrial estate) has been turned into a military base, then that is much closer and could have been targeted from nearby Hasawiya fields. However that would place Hasawiya quite literally “around the corner” from the a military base

The most likely hypothesis would seem to be that west-bank Hasawiya was not FSA controlled but at most contested territory, with the FSA making occasional use of its fields to the west to attack not the Intelligence building, but either the military base in the former industrial estate to the East or the Military academy to the West (as an opposition source has claimed). If the target was the Military Academy then the regime narrative breaks down completely, as the nearest fields to that zone are on the other side of the river and away from the area where the killings took  place (see map); so to be consistent the regime account must be claiming that the target was the military base on the industrial estate, although that leaves unexplained the desire of the rebel fighters to gain access to village roofs, since the fields would get them far closer to their objective.

The setting of the ITN interview

A close review of the ITN news story shows the following: Throughout the interviews uniformed Syrian military are clearly visible in close proximity: an armoured personnel carrier is the backdrop to the interviews, and when they are is taken into houses there are uniformed personnel visible in every shot.

However there is a much more definitive indication of the extent to which these interviews were being monitored. Throughout the interview sequence there is a “seventh man” clearly visible on the edge of the group: he is not in army uniform but he is wearing a dark tunic, with epaulettes and breast and arm badges that look as if they are air force (suggesting he is Air force intelligence) See the figure on the right in the picture below:

 

Source: acloserlookonsyria

If there is any doubt about that identification then you merely have to watch the later sequence of the report where the same man is seen escorting a prisoner for display to the journalists. (See him on the right of the group from 1:02 onwards, especially clearly at 1:38; and then escorting the prisoners at 1:46-1:50)

The conclusion seems unavoidable that these interviews were carried out not merely in the presence of the Syrian army but were closely monitored by Syrian intelligence. Under such circumstances, they are fatally flawed as evidence.

The logic of the setting

One of the striking things about the scene which was offered up to the ITN team is its theatricality: a group of men who have allegedly been in hiding throughout this attack choose the  moment of the television crew’s arrival to emerge from their hiding places and offer the perfect photo opportunity. Some viewers of this sequence have assumed that the ITN crew entered the village with the first army contingents, but this can’t be so: the army would hardly have allowed a journalist to walk into a village that they had not already secured; and the village centre houses have been cleaned of human remains by the time of their arrival. So the army has clearly been in occupation at least for several hours (perhaps much longer). This then raises the question why the informants remained in hiding well beyond the point at which the army began its clean-up operation (and house-to-house searches). Finally we have the issue of the strange nature of their story: six adult men who managed to hide in the village centre so deeply that they were not discovered by 200 irate armed invaders, but so close to the surface that they could provide detailed physical descriptions, down to inscriptions on their headbands; and their particular group. They had allegedly been in hiding until the moment of the ITN crew’s arrival, but had detailed knowledge of what had taken place in a number of village houses while they were in hiding.

The army’s presentation of evidence closes with a final dramatic gesture when security officials (led by our “seventh man”) bring out two captives allegedly found during house-to-house searches in possession of an M16 rifle complete with sniper scope ( a potential “smoking gun” in that it is standard issue for US forces in Iraq, where JN is supposed to have its roots, but somewhat diminished by its shiny “off the shelf” appearance and the fact that the “captives” look like two hapless villagers dragooned for the purpose).

The Logic of the regime narrative

I’ve taken a close look at all the recorded material and tried to place the regime narrative in the context of what we know about the village.

The arrival of the 200 JN fighters in the village would have meant crossing the area of open land either to the north or west of the village (it’s clear why they are described as coming across the fields: army control of the surrounding roads would have made vehicular approaches impossible.) Coming from the west would have involved passing very near to an area of army controlled ground and fording the Orontes river to reach the village. Neither of these is impossible (the river appears to be about 10m wide) but it would present difficulties. Whichever direction the “armed men came from it would have precluded the deployment of heavy weaponry. Now 200 fighters is a large force for Jabhat al Nusra – it’s the sort of deployments that they make in cooperation with other units to undertake a major assault. If you combine that with the difficulties of the terrain then this, if it ever existed, must have been a major operation of some sort, but one undertaken with only light weapons.

So, we are being asked to believe that a large force of fighters entered the village with the intention of carrying out a major operation that required access to the village roofs, but were thrown off course when the villagers refused to cooperate. But why would anyone “refuse” such a formidable force anything? And if they did why would the attackers not just brush them aside and mount the rooftop operation regardless? If this was just a dispute over access to a couple of village roofs, then it would not explain such a large scale massacre as the opposition has reported, which is presumably the reason why the regime account scales down the number of deaths.

It’s not clear whether an attack was actually mounted from Hasawiya on any Syrian military installation on 15 January or not. This appears to be a time when the offensive was being taken by the Syrian army in an attempt to consolidate its hold on Homs. Indeed, the army indicated to the visiting journalists that they were involved in an on-going operation against rebel fighters – but they had only one weapon and not a single black-clad fighter from the alleged 200  – dead or alive – to display to either ITN or the BBC. If they had just finished routing such a force in the course of a 24-hour fire fight, then surely there would have been something to show for it?

Its interesting to compare the narrative which was served up to the western media with that provided for domestic consumption. According to Associated Press: “the pro-government daily al-Watan reported Thursday (17 January) that Syrian troops had advanced in the countryside of Homs, “cleansing the villages of Haswiyeh and Dweir as well as their fields of gunmen.” Regime television broadcast a report which also included a number of alleged eye-witnesses to the killings. However they do not repeat the Jabhat al Nusra claim, but simply describe the killers as being “unknown gangs”. It concludes with a shot of a group of about 30 “captives” who are not only not black-clad but are not in any sort of uniform at all (indeed some are in short sleeve shirts), and with no weapons on display. Once again, they look like the sort of ordinary villagers described by opposition reports as having been taken into custody.

Conclusion

I believe the above analysis of the available evidence demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the regime narrative carries no credibility. The attempt to attribute responsibility to Jabhat al Nusra looks like a piece of theatre served up by Syrian Air Force intelligence; the narrative as a whole is riddled with inconsistencies and lack of logic. And, as Lyse Doucet has stated, “It begs the question of why the atrocities, which villagers said took hours, weren’t stopped by the military base which is just around the corner.”.

That leaves the opposition account – at least in its general outlines – as the only plausible version in play. This is highly detailed and offers a long list of facts. It is supported by a number of video testimonies by survivors – I have managed to identify 6 such videos which include the testimony of 10 adult survivors. They have been summarised for me by opposition sympathisers, and appear consistent with the opposition account.

Some of these reports are very detailed, and provide agonising accounts of the killings and assaults, and identify of some of the perpetrators, who were known to the victims as one time neighbours. They agree that the killers were regime Shabiha, from Shia communities or connected with Hezbollah.

“They used to be my brothers’ mates. They left when troubles started and joined Shabiha”

“Q: Which direction they come from? A: From all sides from the orchards below, from the road where the textile factory is, from the Shia houses, from the Industrial estate”

And further confirmation is provided by BBC Lyse Doucet’s village informant.

This seems sufficient to me to confirm the opposition claim that this massacre was the handiwork of the regime – perpetrated by shabiha, perhaps with the army as onlookers.

Hopefully there will eventually be some form of independent investigation undertaken by the UN or the human rights organisations that can scrutinise the evidence in detail and provide a definitive verdict. It is presumably with such a hope in mind that the citizens’ committee of the nearby opposition town of Talbiseh (where some of the Hasawiya victims have sought refuge) presented a report on the massacre to a high-powered visiting UN delegation headed by John Ging of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on 21 January. That report has yet to see the light of day – one can only hope that it is currently working its way through the UN bureaucracy.

I think it is appropriate to give the final word in this account to the woman who was so short-changed by the western media – the distraught mother who was only given 11 seconds in the ITN broadcast, where she was simply described as “not knowing” who the killers were. But in fact she had quite a bit more to say than that (Even if you can’t understand her language its worth taking 3 minutes of your time to watch her and her companions’s statement – their intonation and gestures are eloquent in themselves.)

“We did not know how they came in slaughtering, then burning our women and children, and they stripped our girls naked. They took girls, raped and killed. We did not know who they were: Iranians? [I’m told this term could mean Shia or Hezbollah Shabiha] My slaughtered children are three. my slaughtered cousins are seven, from a single house, a lot more we don’t know about, many more dead bodies in the fields. … we are poor workers, at God’s mercy, striving for a loaf of bread. We don’t have any armed men at all.

The second witness sitting beside her then adds “What did we do to him? [Assad]. His father was a beggar; we made him rich. He slaughtered our children, may Allah slaughter him. They were all Iranians.”

 

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