Jabhat al-Nusra and Other Islamists Briefly Capture Historic Christian Town of Ma’loula

 

A hard-to-reach tomb in Ma'loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

A hard-to-reach tomb in Ma’loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Jabhat al-Nusra and Other Islamists Briefly Capture Historic Christian Town of Ma’loula

Matthew BarberBy Matthew Barber for Syria Comment

 

Ma’loula (or Maaloula) is one of those unique places you may be lucky to visit—or perhaps were lucky to have visited, were you fortunate enough to have been in Syria before the conflict began. An ancient town in a hollow encircled by mountain cliffs descending from their heights to offer shelter to the homes built directly against their sides… exploring its many secrets is to be transported back in time. Ancient monasteries, old churches, rock faces with cave dwellings and tombs—the place is brimming with rich historical treasures.

Ma'loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Ma’loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Ma’loula is also unique for being among the minority of Syrian towns where Christians comprise a majority, though this status has by now eroded to the point where Christians are only a slight majority. Still, the town represents the survival of the Christian community stretching back to the early days of Christianity.

 

A Church in Maaloula. Photo: Kellie Stirling / Syria Comment

A Church in Maaloula. Photo: Kellie Stirling / Syria Comment

But the cultural wealth preserved in the town precedes Christianity; Ma’loula is one of the last places on earth where the pre-Christian language that once dominated the Near East, Aramaic, is still spoken. In use from almost 1000 years BCE, Aramaic was the most important language of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia by the time Christianity entered the scene. Aramaic remained the lingua franca of the Near East until its ascendent position was supplanted by Arabic when Islam spread east, west, and north from the Arabian Peninsula. Aramaic had been an important language for conducting trade from Egypt to the borders of India, until the arrival of a sacred text—the Qur’an—whose effect was strong enough to issue the challenge that its own language take the place of most important tongue.

The dialect used in Ma’loula is labeled “Western Aramaic,” and is now only spoken in this small city and in two neighboring villages. A few years ago, President Assad began to officially support the efforts of Ma’loulans to conduct language preservation through Aramaic education programs in local schools. Though the generous Ba’athists never extended this right to the Kurds, it was a positive step toward strengthening the health of the local culture of Ma’loula. But yesterday, both the actions of Syrian rebels, as well as the response of the regime, will have the opposite effect on this fragile community.

Today, the position of such highly endangered languages is made more precarious by instances of violent conflict. It is important to note that most speakers of Aramaic dialects—Eastern and Western—are minorities: Christians, Jews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Mandeans. We’ve been able to observe clearly the destructive toll that conflict in the Middle East takes on minority and Christian communities, a phenomenon that unfolded before the world’s eyes in Iraq, and which has also been recently intensifying recently in Egypt. As the Syrian conflict has developed, we’ve also seen that minority Christian communities are often some of the most vulnerable segments of the population, and their numbers have already vanished from many of their cities, after fighting has become intense, or after rebels gained control of their areas. Being caught between warring factions, as well as a sense of exclusion experienced as non-Muslims when something that Islamists call “Islamic law” is implemented, prompts many Christians to emigrate from their homelands in the Middle East.

Ma'loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Ma’loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Image: New York Times

Image: New York Times

The Syrian conflict has certainly affected every Syrian to some degree, but it affects some areas more than others. Many towns have still managed to escape direct involvement, but given enough time, the conflict manages to find its way to everyone’s doorstep.

Until yesterday, the community in Ma’loula had avoided the direct presence of the conflict, but that all changed in the early morning (Wed., Sept. 4, reportedly around 5:30 am) when a Jordanian suicide-bomber named Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (yes, same name as the famous al-Qaida figure) detonated a car bomb at the checkpoint guarding the entrance to Ma’loula, killing the soldiers there and allowing al-Qaida-linked rebels to roll into town in 20 pickup trucks with machine-guns mounted in the back.

Here’s a photo of the bombing of the Ma’loula checkpoint from Jabhat al-Nusra:

suicide car bombing of Ma'loula checkpoint

Nusra also posted photos of the bodies of the soldiers they killed at the checkpoint:

bodies of soldiers after attack on Ma'loula checkpoint

The following video shows rebels in the center of Ma’loula, firing weapons. It’s not clear if they are firing at specific targets, or merely announcing their arrival by firing into the air. Regardless, it was quite effective in terrorizing the local inhabitants.

 

And another video shows the rebels declaring their capture of the town after entering:

The video and photographic evidence available after the attack indicates that the operation was a coordinated effort between (at least) the following groups: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Baba ‘Amr Brigades (a rebel group possibly affiliated with the SIF – Syrian Islamic Front), FSA Commandos Unit, and Soqour al-Sham. A video from Ahrar al-Sham can be found here. A video of shooting, apparently as part of the initial attack, is here.

My own Ma’loulan sources tell me that displaced people from Duma (between Ma’loula and Damascus) had taken up residence in Ma’loula, and cooperated with the rebels to facilitate their entrance. Ma’loulans now resent them for acting as a 5th column inside the very community that gave them shelter when they fled their own town as refugees. The danger with such cases is that it will generate suspicion and ill-will toward refugees generally.

Other photos of rebels posted online after taking Ma’loula can be found here, here, and here. One poster of photos from the operation to take the checkpoint refers to the soldiers as “apostates.” One poster seems to be from Somalia (unknown if he participated in the attack).

A Facebook page shows an alleged photo of one of the soldiers killed in the attack. Reportedly, at least 8 soldiers were killed on the first day.

Ma’loula only has one mosque. When the rebels entered the city center, they went to that mosque to declare victory and perform a typical chorus of takbiir (the shouting of Allahu Akbar).

According to Ma’loulans I spoke with, the attack involved two fronts. After the checkpoint was disabled, the Safir Hotel, located on the rocky cliffs overlooking the city, was appropriated by the rebels, who used it as a staging point for shelling. Some have said that they shelled the city from there; it seems that shells were fired from outside the city, as well.

The Safir Hotel can be seen atop the cliffs in the following two images. The strategic value of the site for anyone wanting to attack the town is obvious:

Ma'loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Ma’loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Ma'loula 2

Ma’loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

 

After the Islamist-led rebel alliance took the town, the Syrian regime responded by sending in aircraft to attack the rebel positions. This is the ever-disastrous pattern to the Syria conflict: rebels take a town doing its best to mind its own business, and the regime comes to the defense of the town and destroys it in the process. I spoke yesterday with a Syrian Christian who traveled near Ma’loula during the time of the attack. Like many Christians in the country, he has no love for the oppression of the regime, but remains somewhat “pro-regime” in relation to the conflict, since the threat of Islamists showing up and taking over his town outweighs his dislike of the regime. I asked him, “Regardless of the fact that these rebels invaded uninvited, would it not be better for the regime to just leave them alone, rather than conducting an airstrike on one of the most historical places in the country?” He responded sadly: “They don’t care. They will destroy anyplace the rebels are to be found.” He reminded me of other historical treasures that have been damaged through the regime’s response to rebel incursions, such as occurred in Palmyra, and recently at the Qal’at al-Hosn (Crac des Chevaliers), a magnificent Crusader castle and important tourist attraction that the regime bombed after rebels set up base inside. For someone who has defended the regime’s side during the conflict, his attitude of exasperation toward the scale of their responses was telling. Still, residents of Ma’loula have expressed gratitude for the military reinforcements sent in to expel the unwanted rebels. Many in Syria still prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t—though they’re getting to know the latter all the same.

Footage of a helicopter filmed by rebels discussing whether to try shooting it down can be found, here.

After the regime’s counterattack, the rebels withdrew back inside the Safir Hotel. Initial reports said that after a 3-hour battle the military was able to drive the rebels out of the town. Today this has proven to be otherwise; rebels remained in the hotel all night and all the next day, and fighting resumed around 6:00 pm today, when rebels conducted another attack. The rebels lost the town yesterday in the sense that those in the city center were driven out, and only those in the hotel were able to remain. But the presence of rebels was not eliminated, as hostilities resumed today. Today’s fighting was allegedly more intense, as rebels moved through the alleys between homes, shooting. Apparently, young residents of the town tried to defend their areas even though they lacked weapons, and some were injured when standing up to the rebels.

The big question is: Why Ma’loula? What need is there for rebels to capture this town? Talk of “liberation” certainly has no currency when the local residents aren’t asking for any and would prefer to be left alone. Was there any strategic importance to the town? Or was it merely an easy target for “victory,” not well-guarded and unable to resist being taken over? Some have suggested that taking the town was needed in order to link to opposition resistance efforts in the nearby Qalamoon region. Jabhat al-Nusra’s official account, however, referred to the attack as part of the “Eye-for-an-Eye” revenge campaign, initially declared after the chemical weapons attacks in the Ghouta.

Al-Jazeera’s reporting was one-sided, as usual. It explained the attack exclusively in strategic terms, noting the town’s connections to other nearby communities with a rebel presence. They failed even to mention Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in this campaign, instead referring only to the FSA’s involvement and ignoring the central role of Islamists in the operation.

When the rebels first came into the town, they reportedly told people “Don’t be afraid; stay inside your homes.” A video posted online by the Katibat Souwar Bab ‘Amr shows a rebel speaking to his men, affirming that (paraphrase, not verbatim):

We don’t shoot at any church or at civilians; we’re only here to push back against the oppression and will only target those who target us. They (the people of the town) are our people and part of our country. The regime has persecuted everyone, from all sects. Here we are in front of the church and everything is safe and the houses are safe.

Despite the affirmation of goodwill toward civilians and the pledge to not harm churches, I was told that the first mortar fired by rebels hit a church. Since then, others have conveyed to me that churches and monasteries have been damaged in yesterday and today’s fighting. Even if the damage is unintentional, local residents will likely not feel very understanding toward their uninvited “liberators.” I was told that at least some of the rebels cursed some Christians and threatened to kill them for being infidels. The rebel speaking in the video quoted above may reflect one group’s approach to taking the town, but several groups with different ideologies were participating, and Nusra’s presence confuses things. When Nusra’s revenge campaign began, many threats were voiced against towns and civilians. Though it seems that civilians survived largely unscathed in the events in Ma’loula, it is disconcerting to see the attack associated with a revenge campaign. One of Nusra’s photos for the attack on Ma’loula was published on Facebook with a verse from the Qur’an stating: “Allah give us patience and victory over the infidels”—perhaps not the best slogan to use when launching an al-Qaida-led attack in which a Jordanian Islamist blows himself up at the gate of the oldest Christian village in the country.

It is hard to know how unified they were on their post-invasion behavioral code, but we have more than one report (including from my own contacts) alleging that multiple churches/monasteries were damaged and/or ransacked. Reports online of churches burned in Ma’loula are false and can be attributed to propaganda sources with a pro-regime orientation, exaggerating the degree and kind of damage that occurred. However, my own source alleges that the Mar Taqla monastery was hit with two shells, and there are varying reports of other attacks. Three articles on Lebanese and Syrian websites offer conflicting reports on exactly which churches were damaged: 1, 2, 3. In one of them, the Melkite patriarch is quoted claiming that rebels broke into multiple Christian homes and churches, burning crucifixes and icons. The other two articles give conflicting accounts of the report received by the head nun of the Mar Taqla Monastery. One account has her claiming that 15 nuns and the orphans they care for had to sleep inside of a cave in the mountain, while the other has her claiming that the monastery was not attacked.

While we’re waiting for more details on the actual damage, my contacts claim to be certain that Ma’loula’s Aramaic Language Education Center (an institute that works for the preservation of the language) was broken into by rebels and looted.

There are no details on what was stolen, but that this particular institution would be targeted seems to underscore the earlier point about the vulnerability of religio-linguistic minorities. This vulnerability is what has prompted Pope Francis to issue a statement today to the leaders of the G20 countries, opposing military intervention in Syria.

… amid the U.S. threat of military intervention, Vatican and church officials have warned that a world war could erupt, with Christians in the region bearing the brunt of the fallout…

Though many details on this story need further clarification, one thing is certain: the situation led to the fleeing of many Ma’loula residents to Damascus. An area that previously received refugees is now sending out its own, and the dwindling numbers of Aramaic-speakers are no longer comfortable within their remote mountain fastness.

—————————————-

Ma'loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

Ma’loula, Syria. Photo: Matthew Barber / Syria Comment

 

For an interesting read about Ma’loula during the conflict, see this article by Robert Fisk.

Comments (1,562)


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1551. mjabali said:

Observer:

There are more Alawites than you think against al-Assad. The Opposition never reached to them in the right way, instead they scared them more than the regime. The Opposition (If we assume there is a body that could be called that) did not have the right plan to incorporate the Alawis, and other minorities.

CW : You need to see who did it first, then you apply the international law. Who did it? It is a dirty war and anyone could have done this. Sarin is available for all parties.

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September 18th, 2013, 11:42 am

 

1552. ghufran said:

ISIS terrorism and head chopping campaign is now reaching the FSA:
تصاعدت حدّة الاقتتال بين الميليشيات المسلحة، ووصلت حد ارتكاب مجزرة مروّعة ذبحاً بالسكاكين عشية إحكام عناصر «الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام» سيطرتها على مدينة الباب شمال شرق حلب، حيث قاموا بذبح عدد من مسلحي «الجيش الحر» في المدينة، بعد أن أعلنت «الدولة» أن «الجيش الحر» عملاء للنظام وسيتم سحقهم.
وتأتي المجزرة بعد أسبوعين من قيام مسلحي «الدولة الإسلامية» بتهجير سكان قرية حربل شمال حلب وترويعهم بعد إعدام ثلاثة من الشبان التابعين لـ«الجيش الحر
suddenly, there is a lot of talks about eliminating Assad physically as part of a larger bargain between Russia and the US. Western diplomats are worried that the opposition has not been able to come up with a leader who can rally the troops and does not alarm minorities, they even believe that a UN monitored elections may keep Assad in power. I think Assad should not run in 2014 but I am against assassination of head of states even if they were accused of war crimes, after all this is why we have the UN and war crimes court.

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September 18th, 2013, 12:10 pm

 

1553. Observer said:

Mjabali you are way too smart to tell me “find it who did it first”.

The report and the type of weapon and the sophistication and the purety of the gas in the unbiased technical report all point to the regime side using it.

Can we apply syrian law and put the killers in jail for a fair and just retribution?

Children are starving to death in various parts of this tortured land.

The opposition never coming to them is a cop out. Why not form their own resistance like the Kurds?

I am sorry to say that the sect is too deeply involved in with the regime to sit on any fence or on any opposition or to cop out and stay with it.

Sad indeed.

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September 18th, 2013, 1:17 pm

 

1554. Ghufran said:

(CNN) – U.N. investigators are planning to return to Syria to follow up on more allegations of chemical weapons use.
Ake Sellstrom, the head of the inspection team that visited after an August 21 attack, told CNN that the next visit could take place as early as next week.
The news might please Russia, which slammed a recent U.N. chemical weapons report as one-sided and called for inspectors to return to Syria.

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September 18th, 2013, 1:38 pm

 

1555. Tara said:

‘Maybe if you film the cats here and put them on YouTube people will help’ … American filmmaker Matthew VanDyke is taken around the ruined streets of Aleppo by Mowya, a Free Syrian Army fighter and Nour, a photographer. They describe how the war has changed the lives, and how they remain resolved to fight for a democratic Syria despite the threat of death. Warning: this film contains violent scenes that some viewers may find distressing

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/video/2013/sep/18/syria-revolution-story-video

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September 18th, 2013, 3:35 pm

 

1556. William Scott Scherk said:

Here’s an analysis of continuing Russian attempts to protect their client regime via disinformation. In a Russia Today segment, the spin was that Brown Moses (hilariously misidentified as “Black Moses”) confirmed that Syrian ‘rebels’ were responsible for the atrocities on August 21.

Russian Media: Conspiracy Theories and Reading Comprehension Issues

According to RT (formerly Russia Today), the blogger Brown Moses had produced evidence that the Syrian rebels, not the regime, had launched the August 21st attack. As RT explains, Brown Moses, who has become famous for analyzing Youtube videos from Syria, had discovered the literal smoking gun, a video showing a Syrian rebel group, Liwa al-Islam, launching chemical rockets from a D-30 howitzer.

Here’s a partial transcript from the videos:

Thabang Motsei (RT’s host) – “……Meanwhile a prominent Syrian blogger known as Black Moses has posted footage allegedly showing chemical weapons being used by rebels. Let’s get the details from our correspondent Paul Scott here in the studio. ”

Paul Scott (RT correspondent) – “The blogger is a staunch critic of Damascus and a staunch critic of President Bashar al Assad’s regime and in the past he has monitored all sorts of news sources and claims and counter claims emerging from the Syrian Civil War to use it as a stick to beat the Assad Government with and implicate Assad in all sorts of atrocities. But it is interesting now that he has posted a video on this blog that suggests that it actually could be the Syrian Opposition that had been using these chemical weapons. It represent a slight shift in focus from what the narrative that the blog has been taking in recent weeks.”

If Brown Moses thinks the rebels have used chemical weapons, then RT was right all along, right? RT did describe this as “game changing stuff” after all.

Too bad RT doesn’t seem to have actually read what Brown Moses (whose real name is Eliot Higgins) wrote about the videos.

Higgins analyzed the videos because they had been sent to him by skeptics of his work. However, upon careful inspection of the videos, he discovered that there were significant reasons to think that they may have been faked. His entire report can be found here, but these are just a few of the bullet points:

– The video was shot on a moonless night and no city lights are visible. This differs greatly from other videos posted on August 21st.

– The weapon used, the D-30 howitzer, does not match the weapons that have been linked to the attack.

– The “rebels” in the video continuously advertise their identities in this video, both by stating the name of their brigade, Liwa al Islam, and by printing it on flags that are conspicuously displayed in multiple locations in the video. Not only does this look like the criminals are trying hard to broadcast their identities, it also doesn’t match other videos uploaded by Liwa al Islam.

In other words, Eliot’s conclusion is that this appears like someone is trying hard to fake these videos. None of this, of course, was mentioned by RT.

[...]

I decided to ask Eliot Higgins what he thought of this RT video:

Let’s Ask Brown Moses (Eliot Higgins)

JM – Eliot, what about these videos you’ve posted that do claim to show Syrian rebels firing Sarin gas on August 21st? Your article, published on your blogspot, seemed to indicate that you were highly skeptical of the videos which is why you were analyzing them. How do you feel about how RT represented your work?

BM – Russia Today has clearly decided to use the credibility of my own blog to prop up highly dubious videos. Anyone who is familiar with the way in which social media is used in the conflict by groups like Liwa al-Islam would immediately be aware the videos are questionable, something I highlight in my post on the videos, and which Russia Today decides to ignore entirely.

JM – What do you think is the probability that the Syrian rebels conducted the August 21st chemical weapons attack?

BM – Considering the open source evidence and what’s contained in the UN report, in particular the evidence of the rockets being fired from the direction of government controlled territory, I think any scenario where the opposition were involved would require a serious disconnect from the reality of the situation.

[...]

The RT segment goes on to speculate, without citing sources, that the Syrian rebels must have gotten the sarin from Iraq. Then they speak to a man who used to work at the Pentagon, F. Michael Maloof, who claims that sources inside the American government have told him that the U.S. military knew that the sarin came from Iraq, via Turkey, where it is still being produced.

But who is Maloof? According to a Mother Jones investigation, he’s a man with a dubious past who helped spread misinformation about Iraq in 2003, misinformation that ultimately helped make the case to go to war:

Maloof, a former aide to (Richard Perle) in the 1980s Pentagon, was twice stripped of his high-level security clearances‚ — once in late 2001 and, again,[in the spring of 2003], for various infractions. Maloof was also reportedly involved in a bizarre scheme to broker contacts between Iraqi officials and the Pentagon, channeled through Perle, in what one report called a “rogue [intelligence] operation” outside official CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency channels.

It seems that Maloof is still pushing similar lies about Iraq WMD.

So at the end of the day, RT has misrepresented their main source, Brown Moses, and brought on a disavowed conspiracy theorist in order to push information that also runs counter to the UN report.

So, what kind of addled thinking continues to put forth such preposterous, unwarranted ignorance like this?

— “I believe that if there has been a chemical attack, it was Al Nusra and its allies who did it using toxic gaz provided by Israel

– “Action is needed urgently to stop the Islamists carrying more chemical weapons attacks It seems clear to me that this was a vicious Al Nusra and Cie attack

– “It is a dirty war and anyone could have done this. Sarin is available for all parties.

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September 18th, 2013, 3:53 pm

 

1557. Tara said:

#1553

There is a doctor and there is a doctor. There is a film maker and there is a film maker. There is a woman and there is a woman. There is a human and there is hardly-a-human. There is a killer and there is a martyr.

#1553 can not be missed.

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September 18th, 2013, 4:04 pm

 

1558. Heads-up said:

Just so you know, our sources are very well informed and fully reliable because they continue to work very hard, behind the scenes and around the clock so that you may stay informed with news before it becomes news.

Today’s heads up is about the current world-wide debate of who is responsible and who is not responsible for the latest crimes against humanity by the deliberate release of high quality poison gas from the stockpile of the Serpent-head.

While, we at heads up due to our reliance on well informed and reliable sources, knew for certain long ago who was responsible, we still know that the world at large is still indulging in ‘constructive’ debates on who came in first: the chicken or the egg?

The Serpent-head of Criminal Pervert, Ass-head came in first, have no doubt about it.

The world, with a mountain of evidence in front of it, however continues to play outdated chicken and egg game.

For this reason, we, at heads up, present this revolutionary and very short visual aid about who is who in Syria for idiots, and what is what in crime perversion for jackasses,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TV3qARow1cg

It is common knowledge the world cannot tolerate death by chemical poisoning. Hence, the above visual aid was specifically designed as a sanitized presentation taking into consideration common sensibilities.

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September 18th, 2013, 4:26 pm

 

1559. Ziad said:

Assad’s Office Promotes Fox News Interview With Kucinich

Syrians who take their cues from President Bashar al-Assad’s office were advised to stay up late Wednesday, so they can tune into the Fox News Channel at 1 a.m. local time (6 p.m. Eastern) to watch “a television dialogue” between their leader and Dennis Kucinich, the former Democratic representative from Ohio who is now a Fox News contributor.

Although Fox News has not yet announced the interview, and did not respond to a request for comment, the Syrian presidency’s Twitter promo featured a photograph of Mr. Kucinich and Greg Palkot, a Fox correspondent who has been reporting from Damascus this week. They were apparently seated in exactly the same spot occupied by Charlie Rose during the taping of his recent interview with Mr. Assad for CBS.

http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/18/assads-office-promotes-fox-news-interview-with-kucinich/?_r=0

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September 18th, 2013, 5:17 pm

 

1560. William Scott Scherk said:

More on the same subject — Russian disinformation, slop and speculation on ‘rebel’ guilt. It seems that regime supporters will say anything, do anything, cite anything — regardless of its truth, coherence and source — to avoid the overwhelming indications that the August 21 atrocities were conducted by regime forces.

The only thing we had’t heard yet is Lavrov referring to Mere Agnes-Mariam de la Baath and her garbled, illiterate speculations.

Er …

Russia says no proof Assad was behind chemical attack

… “Lavrov said the U.N. report should be examined not in isolation but along with evidence from sources such as the Internet and other media, including accounts from “nuns at a nearby convent” and a journalist who had spoken to rebels.

Yes, the heretofore invisible evidence of ‘rebel’ guilt is on the internet somewhere … more details of the shonky Russian talking points follow (the second note, of “a journalist” who spoke to rebels, seems to refer to the sourceless Mintpress article attributed to Dale Gavlak, previously discussed):

Russia’s Foreign Minister Cites Questions Raised by Nun in Syria on Chemical Attacks

But on Tuesday [Lavrov] drew attention to an unusual source: a skeptical analysis of the online video evidence produced by a Lebanese nun who did not witness any part of the attack.

[...]

As the Human Rights Watch emergencies director Peter Bouckaert suggests, it seems likely that Mr. Lavrov intended to highlight the arguments of Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a Carmelite nun born in Lebanon who is frequently quoted in the Russian media, and by American critics of Islam, defending the Assad government.

Despite Mr. Lavrov’s endorsement, however, Mother Agnes has not presented any concrete evidence on the attack and was not nearby when it was carried out. (Her monastery is north of Damascus, not near the site of the attack.) Instead, she has written a rambling, 50-page analysis of the video posted on opposition YouTube channels that contains nothing but speculation that some or all of it was staged.

[...]

“The key evidence is that Reuters made these files public at 6:05 in the morning,” she continued. “The chemical attack is said to have been launched between 3 and 5 o’clock in the morning in Ghouta. How is it even possible to collect a dozen different pieces of footage, get more than 200 kids and 300 young people together in one place, give them first aid and interview them on camera, and all that in less than three hours? Is that realistic at all?”

However, a close look at what appears to be the early Reuters report Mother Agnes cited as evidence suggests that her suspicion was ill-founded. The report’s time stamp indicates that it was posted online on Aug. 21 at “6:05 a.m. EDT,” or Eastern Daylight Time, the time zone used in New York, which is seven hours behind Syria. That means that the report, based on video of the attack’s victims, appeared just after 1 p.m. in Syria that day — ten, not three, hours after the first video of the victims was posted online.

The nun also described her suspicions a week earlier in a Skype interview with the Canadian Web site GlobalResearch — whose founder has called the 9/11 attacks “a pretext” for invading Afghanistan, and asserted that there is “not a scrap of evidence” that Al Qaeda was responsible. She told the site that at the time of the attack she was in Damascus, not far from the hotel where the U.N. investigators were staying, and did not believe there had been a chemical attack. “How is it possible, you know, for a chemical weapon to be blown up” on the outskirts of the city, she asked, if no one in the city noticed any unusual smell after the event.

Mother Agnes presented the theory, unsupported by evidence, that the dead children seen in Ghouta that day might have been brought there from another part of Syria and killed by jihadists intent on framing the government.

As my colleagues also explained, the U.N. findings did contain evidence suggesting that the rockets carrying dozens of liters of chemical weapons had come from the direction of a Syrian military base:

One annex to the report also identified azimuths, or angular measurements, from where rockets had struck, back to their points of origin. When plotted and marked independently on maps by analysts from Human Rights Watch and by The New York Times, the United Nations data from two widely scattered impact sites pointed directly to a Syrian military complex.

Yup, weeks have gone by with both Russia and Syrian poodle media repeating that we need to look at ‘evidence’ of rebel guilt.

But as yet, nothing coherent, comprehensive and credible has been put forward for examination.

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September 18th, 2013, 8:14 pm

 

1561. William Scott Scherk said:

As noted above, Fox News, with contributor Cucinich got some facetime with President Assad. SANA has a transcript of their lengthy encounter. It’s worth a close read, although depressing to realize how rote and briefed is the president. My take-home is that Assad is intent on war to the bitter end, and will cling to the throne by all means. The kingdom, the cult-like Baath State cannot function without such as him at the apex.

Look at what he puts on offer for Syria.

All the terrorists will be hunted to death, vast civilian landscapes will be rubbled, and then somehow a bright new morning will dawn. Here’s some of what I found sad or revealing or both in the interview:

Fox News: One of the notions about this very serious conflict is that it’s a civil war. Would you agree with that characterization that you’re involved in a civil war?

President Assad: No, civil war should start from within the society. Civil war needs clear lines, geographical lines, social lines and sectarian lines, but we don’t have these lines in Syria. Civil war doesn’t mean to have 80 or 83 nationalities coming to fight within your countries supported by foreign countries. What we have is not a civil war; what we have is a war, but it’s a new kind of war.

[...]

Fox News: The international community reports that Syrian rebel forces opposed to you are equally if not more worried now about Jihadist fighters than they were previously by your government. Now, in this new development, is there an opening for you to achieve a rapprochement with your Syrian opponents?

President Assad: Yeah, here we have to differentiate between what you call opposition and the terrorists. Opposition is a political term. When you oppose somebody, like in your country and any other country in the world, you have your own program, your own vision, you have your own grassroots, and you go and propose whatever you want regarding the political system or anything else, and you can change that system if you oppose the other party. Opposition doesn’t mean to carry weapons, kill innocent people, destroy school and infrastructure, and behead. What’s the relation between opposition and beheading?

Fox News: Well, let me then, as a follow-up, ask you about diplomacy. What diplomatic moves are you prepared to make as confidence-building measures towards peace in your country?

President Assad: Any diplomatic move without having stability and getting rid of the terrorists is going to be just an illusion. Any diplomatic move should start with stopping the flow of the terrorists, the logistical support of those terrorists, the armament support and the money support. Then, you have a full plan, the Syrians could sit on the table, discuss the future of Syria, the political system, the constitution and everything.

Fox News: Would that future include negotiations with the Syrian opposition?

President Assad: Exactly, that doesn’t mean negotiating with the terrorists.

Fox News: I understand. Now, but does it mean that you’re ready for, let’s say, a program of reconciliation with those who have opposed you? Are you ready for that?

President Assad: Of course, we announced it at the beginning of this year. We said we are ready to discuss with any political party inside and outside Syria.

[...]

Fox News: Mr. President, our time is limited and I want to briefly go back in time a little bit. I was here in 2000 for the funeral of your father. You assumed the position of President, and at that time some people had real hopes for you as a reformer, to change things, to bring more democracy to this country. In fact, however, critics and analysts say you pulled back to the point where now you are branded other things; you’re branded “dictator” and much, much worse. How does that make you feel when people say you lost the plot, that is, you lost the trail of what you might have done then, that might have avoided all of this now?

President Assad: First of all, if you want to talk about the hope, I would say I’m the hope of the Syrians, it doesn’t matter if I’m the hope of any foreign person, whether he’s official or any other one.

[...]

Fox News: Let’s go on to the latest breaking news. There’s a lot of breaking news in this region right now, and that’s the just-released UN report on the chemical weapon attack last month in the outskirts of Damascus right now. According to this report, and this is the report you said you were waiting for. You said you didn’t want to hear the US, you didn’t want to hear the UK, you didn’t want to hear France, you want the UN to speak, and they have spoken, and they have said and I quote “there’s clear and convincing evidence that the nerve gas Sarin has been used”, and they base this on environmental, chemical, medical samples, they say the killing happened on a relatively large scale, that killing included children. Do you agree with this assessment?

President Assad: They have the samples, and they’re supposed to be objective. We didn’t have any formal report, but the question is if I agree about the use of Sarin gas.

There is much more at the link, all depressingly familiar.

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September 18th, 2013, 10:36 pm

 

1562. Hopeful said:

#1559 Scherck

Depressing indeed. How the hell can you start peace negotiation to end a civil war when BOTH sides refuse to even acknowledge there is a civil war?

I remember the days when Syrians used to look at Iraq and say “well, at least we have security”. It was all a mirage. You know, I can probably understand that many support the regime because they are afraid of the alternative. I can understand that many support the regime because they believe in the conspiracy. I can even understand that many support the regime because they truly believe they are fighting terrorists. But it is beyond me that these people cannot acknowledge the failure and incompetency of this regime in managing this crisis for the past 2.5 years, or the past 13 years for that matter. Assad the father destroyed the soul and spirit of Syrians, and Assad the son is destroying physically what is left of it.

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September 19th, 2013, 12:46 am

 

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