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Patrick Seale, The FAZ and the Houla Massacre

Michael Neumann

This was emailed to me with the subject-line: "Patrick Seale demolishes Syrian-American opposition activist".

It links to a discussion with, among others, Seale. How well, in fact, does he acquit himself, especially when discussing the massacre at Houla?

Seale says: "... the opposition, the rebels, know, I believe, that they cannot hope to defeat the Syrian army on the ground. Their whole strategy has been to try and trigger a Western military intervention. Now that’s been slow in coming. Now, to trigger such an intervention, they have either perpetrated massacres themselves — and I stick with the report from the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung — or they try and provoke the regime into massacres. Now, what that German newspaper said was that rebels attacked some checkpoints manned by the army, and in the firefight that followed, which lasted about 90 minutes, the massacre took place. And they contacted many sources on the ground, which Mrs. Jouejati dismisses, and says—and said—they reported that the killing was done by anti-Assad Sunni militants. Now, I’m not saying one thing or the other; I’m saying that this should be investigated."

Here is exactly what the article cited states:

Nach Angaben der Augenzeugen habe sich das Massaker in dieser Zeit ereignet. Getötet worden seien nahezu ausschließlich Familien der alawitischen und schiitischen Minderheit Hulas, dessen Bevölkerung zu mehr als neunzig Prozent Sunniten sind. So wurden mehrere Dutzend Mitglieder einer Familie abgeschlachtet, die in den vergangenen Jahren vom sunnitischen zum schiitischen Islam übergetreten sei. Getötet wurden ferner Mitglieder der alawitischen Familie Shomaliya und die Familie eines sunnitischen Parlamentsabgeordneten, weil dieser als Kollaborateur galt. Unmittelbar nach dem Massaker hätten die Täter ihre Opfer gefilmt, sie als sunnitische Opfer ausgegeben und die Videos über Internet verbreitet. Vertreter der syrischen Regierung bestätigten zwar diese Version, verwiesen aber darauf, dass sich die Regierung verpflichtet habe, öffentlich nicht von Alawiten und Sunniten zu sprechen

Now what does this amount to?

Seale says, presumably of the paper, that "...they contacted many sources on the ground." The article is datelined Damascus; there is no suggestion that its author went anywhere near the scene of the massacre. It does not state that any 'sources' were contacted, much less identify any witnesses. It does not state that any sources were contacted by the paper. The only reference to sources, at the start of the paragraph, is this: "According to eyewitness accounts... ".

So the original article makes some claims about eyewitness accounts. It provides no evidence for or specifics about those accounts; it does not claim to have collected these accounts; it does not claim to have corroborated them. It offers, in place of evidence, an unsubstantiated assertion that such evidence exists. Seale's account of the article is either a senile mistake or a lie.

Moreover all the English citations of the article omit what Seale also omits, reference to the paragraph's next sentence. It says that representatives of the régime confirm the account, but only in private, because the régime doesn't permit public reference to 'Alawites' and 'Sunnis'. In other words, we have no reason to think anything but the following: that the article was written in Damascus, by a regime-accredited journalist, who repeats, without any independent evidence, the régime-endorsed account of the massacre.

Against this account are all accounts of independent journalists at the scene and all identifiable eyewitness accounts - The Guardian is a good place to find them, for example here. There is also this

To choose the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung account over these defies all rules of evidence. No honest observer can make such a choice.

Postscript, from a letter to a friend concerning the FAZ article of 13 June 2012

I won't argue the specifics of the story, which is better done by Syrians, for example here and here.

The links they provide are also worthwhile. I'll only make a few more general comments.

The sequence of articles is extraordinary. You start with what would be a not just any scoop, but a scoop that would undermine all mainstream reporting on Syria, a one-in-a-lifetime journalistic coup. Yet it presents no specifics - the effort at proof is at most desultory. Then it's challenged, and lo and behold, out come all the specifics one would have expected in the original article, something that made it resemble real journalism - specifically identified persons make specific claims. Just one thing is missing: where in hell did all this come from, all of a sudden? Interestingly, though the original article was datelined Damascus, the follow-up is not datelined at all. Of course if Hermann had actually been to Houla, he could have datelined it Houla, and added to his credibility. My guess is that he still sits in Damascus, and that all these specifics come from the Syrian government. No one actually believes the Syrian government; they just pretend to because they're on its side.

This all comes down to one big thing: what Hermann's specifics lack is what is found in any honest reporting, provenance. The journalist tells us where he went, whom he spoke with, and how he came to speak to them. He doesn't just offer us up purported quotes from purported individuals out of nowhere.

In other words the article is highly suspect even on the face of it, and it's up against reports that have none of these defects. Such reports are also buttressed by their consistently, in the essential details, with dozens of reports on dozens of massacres elsewhere, for instance this one.

I'd rather not discuss Houla any more. I'm sure more rabbits will be pulled out of more hats, just as, say, among those the Obama birthers, or the people who deny that there was a moon landing. I don't see any value in engaging with such people, who will never make any difference. Their very tenacity is outdated, because smart phones have opened up the possibilities of confirmation to an extent unimaginable even in 2003. Yet the Houla sceptics seem to think that the sort of moves that were good enough for Chomsky in 1973, must be good enough today. They're not; this isn't WMDs in Iraq; it's time to look at the world again.