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Syria Today: Pressure and Propaganda --- From the UN to Israel to Russia

See also Syria Audio Analysis: Why The Insurgency is More than "Jihadists" and "Cannibals"
Wednesday's Syria Today: US and Russia Manoeuvre Over Support for Assad

Obama and Erdogan Speak.

US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan have given a joint press conference in a rainy White House Rose Garden. One would think with both world leaders on the same stage that topics like terrorism on the Turkish/Syria border, the ongoing Syrian crisis, and the sectarian strife in Iraq would be major priorities. They were not. These topics were not raised until more than halfway through Obama's opening comments, and there was no news beyond echoing very general statements that mirror the policies that have been more-fully expressed at other times.

Syria was clearly not on the agenda, though another journalist makes an important note that this may soon change:

More notable might be the questions from the press. Due to rain, the press conference may have been shortened, but the 1st question asked to Obama was about a domestic scandal (the IRS) and the 1st question to Erdogan was about Turkey's policies towards Israel. In other words, while having both leaders on record at the same time, some really interesting questions could have been asked about how these two leaders will pursue their most pressing common problem. Instead, they were squandered on offering the leaders an opportunity to echo talking points that they're already given.

Where is the Outrage?

A few longtime Syria watchers have really scratched their heads over a headline that has been making its way around the mainstream media this week. In case you missed it, a video circulated that appeared to show a roque rebel leader, Khaled al-Hamad AKA Abu Sakkar, eating the heart of a deceased enemy combatant. It was gruesome, to be sure, but many analysts have been frustrated at the amount of press this story has received. The man in the video is already dead. Perhaps far more than 80,000 other Syrians are already dead. Most of them have been buried respectfully. Richard Spencer, who gives a brief tour of the history of battlefield cannibalism, a practice that was once far more prevalent, asks "why is this a bigger story than the routine slaughter of children?"

There is a tension sometimes between journalistic and moral narratives. Although of course overall we may try to point out the bad so that the good can triumph, within that ambition there is also this: an event is more newsworthy if it is rare or strange. Other, worse, more important horrors are overlooked because they are common. In the town of Baniyas on 2-3 May, there seems to be little doubt that a pro-regime militia swept through two Sunni neighbourhoods slaughtering large numbers of those they found, shooting and knifing many to death. There are photographs – you can find them online – of piles of corpses of little children, aged from two or three upwards. Altogether there seem to have been scores of them.The nature of this crime cannot be fully revealed, because no newspaper, including this one, would publish such pictures. The media are happy to present a pixilated image of a heart-eater, however.

As a result, and of course because we have become so inured to such massacres, the Baniyas incident has received comparatively little international attention.

An activist, Racan Alhoch, posts 10 videos that he says are worse than this "heart eating" episode, and suggests that there are thousands more than could have been posted instead. He suggests that the lack of outrage around other videos that report to show regime crimes, and the outrage appears to disproportionately focus on crimes committed by rebels. He then argues that this is the opposite of what should be happening:

One thing that is always important to note when comparing the mistakes of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to the atrocities of Assad’s military is its structure. The Free Syrian Army is an idea more than it is an actual military. There is no central command, there is no hand book, and there is no official training. The idea of the FSA is to use weapons in defense of yourself and your people and to retake the rights guaranteed to all human beings by default but have been taken away by this regime. The idea of the Free Syrian Army does not include the mutilation, torture, or cruel & unusual punishment of anybody alive or dead. Anybody can become a part of the Free Syrian Army by picking up arms and subscribing to this ideology. If one is to commit a crime that is not in alignment with the idea of the Free Syrian Army than they have left the realm of the FSA and moved into something different.

On the other hand, Assad’s forces are a ‘national’ military. They are trained the same, they wear uniforms, they have a central command, they have a command structure. Anything that is committed by these combatants is representative of the entire body. They are products of the system that they believe in and are willingly a part of. While the evidence of atrocities this military has committed are undeniable and plentiful we have not heard of many (if any) criminal cases against perpetrators of said atrocities. This in itself is a significant testament to why Assad and his government must be dismantled.

Both authors, and many more, raise very important points. However, that does not diminish the fact that some rebel groups do not commit crimes. In fact, while the vast majority of the documented crimes implicate the regime, there maybe be growing trends that the most radical rebel groups are engaging in increasingly radical behavior.

Furthermore, much of the rest of the world has indeed expressed its disgust with the actions of the Syrian government. Yesterday, the United NAtions General Assembly widely condemned the regime, as the map below suggests:

Here's a map of how the world voted on yesterday's ... on Twitpic

But condemning crimes and acting to prevent them and punish those responsible are very different things. Clearly, radical rebel groups rule some areas of Syria, and we should expect crimes, like the execution of prisoners without fair trial, to escalate as a result. Furthermore, Baniyas suggests that pro-Assad elements are becoming more violent, and their crimes have caused far wider death and misery than the sporadic field execution or act of cannibalism.

There's plenty of outrage. So far, however, there haven't been solutions.

Execution Video Old?

According to one Al Jazeera reporter, the video of the execution that was posted below may be old.

In one sense, its age is not that important. After all, an execution is an execution. In another, however, the timing might be critical. There is a real sense that sectarian tensions are exploding after years of stoking, catalyzed by Hezbollah's involvement in combat in Homs and by the Baniyas massacre. If this video is new, it is evidence that sectarian killings are becoming more common. If it is just a few weeks older, its importance in that particular narrative is less clear.

The video may be even older than that, according to one France 24 journalist:

Are we seeing an outbreak of sectarian killings by both the regime and hardline opposition Islamists? It's unclear if this video is evidence of that, or if it is evidence of a much older event. A crime is a crime, and the timing doesn't matter. But if something is being used to gauge to examine a trend like sectarian killing, then the timing might make all the difference in the world.

Jabhat Al Nusra Executes 11 "Apostates."

A graphic video, posted to Youtube yesterday, appears to show several Jabhat al Nusra fighters executing several blindfolded men in Deir Ez Zor. Eight executed men can be seen in frame, but the video's description says that 11 were killed. Reuters provides this translation:

"The sharia court for the eastern region in Deir al-Zor has sentenced to death these apostate soldiers that committed massacres against our brothers and families in Syria," the executioner said on the video.

Islamist militants with black flags shouted "God is great" as each man was shot. The executioner returned to some victims, firing more bullets into them to make sure they were dead.

This week, video emerged that reported showed the execution of three Assad loyalists in Al Raqqah. Al Raqqah is also occupied by Jabhat al Nusrah fighters, but the men in the video said that they were from a new group, the Islamic State in Iraq and as-Sham. The Islamic State in Iraq is an al-Qaeda affiliate, but this new group appears to be claiming dominion over not just Iraq but also "Sham." Sham, also known as "the Levant," runs from roughly Iraq to the Sinai peninsula.

Death Toll Rising.

According to the Local Coordination Committees, 63 people have been killed already today, most in Damascus:

45 martyrs were reported in Damascus and its suburbs, mostly in Duma; 5 in Daraa, 5 in Aleppo, 3 in Hama; 2 in Homs; 1 in Idlib; 1 in Deir Ezzor, and 1 in Raqqa.

According to the LCC, at least 30 executed people have been found in Douma, a northeast suburb of Damascus, after they were executed and lit on fire on some farms near a military checkpoint. A horrible picture shows the burned bodies in the back of a pickup truck, reportedly after they were recovered by residents.

The Local Coordination Committees (LCC) is an activist network operating both inside and outside of Syria. They claim to use stringent verification processes to ensure that a member of the LCC can vouch for any information posted either on their Facebook page or their website. The LCC also cooperates with an independent organization to populate database of those killed in the Syrian conflict, which can be seen at the website for the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria.

The LCC's casualty figures are often a mix of insurgents and civilians, and never include regime casualties. Syrian State Media has stopped reporting regime casualty figures.

Also see our description of the Local Coordination Committees and how we utilize their reports in the Columbia Journalism Review.

Aid Truck Attacked Near Turkish Border.

James Miller takes over today's live coverage.

Residents of Bab al Hawa, a border town in Idlib province, say that Assad forces blew up a truck carrying humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria. The image on the side of the burning vehicle, apparently destroyed just outside a hospital, seems to indicate that France bought the aid, gave it to Turkey, and it was being delivered to the Free Syrian Army.

The claims appear to be that the truck was attacked, but I'm not so certain. The walls of the truck appear to bend outwards, which would rule out either a car bomb or any other explosive that might have landed nearby. On the other side, closer to the building, there doesn;t appear to be extensive damage to the building itself (though it's hard to tell from the angles we've seen). If a bomb or shell directly hit the vehicle, it's likely that the thin walls of the trailer would have been blown off. As it is, another video appears to show that the walls have been removed, possibly by rescue workers or possibly as they broke from their own weight, which is a testament to the strength of the walls of the trailer.

So what did this? It's unclear. It's possible that an incendiary weapon could have burned the truck. It's also possible that there was a fire inside the contents of the truck to begin with.

Informal Assad Appears in Video

Footage has been posted of President Assad in the streets of Damascus after he visited the family of a victim of the conflict:

Britain Presses for Weapons to Insurgents

The Foreign Office has used a hearing in Parliament to appeal for public arming of the insurgency.

The head of the Foreign Office's Syria desk said that the armament would help spur discussions for a political resolution:

We are trying to get the opposition to get involved in a negotiation with people they really don't want to negotiate with. The political reality is that in order to get them to the table we need to amend the arms embargo. It is that simple. They need an incentive.<

The official said that the lifting of the European Union's embargo on arms to insurgents would also ensure that "moderates" received weapons:

Everyone is getting arms except the good guys ... It means that people are becoming more and more radicalised.

Those people who are on the extreme end of the spectrum are winning out. They are able to provide security and services in areas where there is a vacuum. And the good guys can't. It is making the situation worse. I'm not saying that the answer to that is necessarily throwing a bunch of arms in there, but I am saying it is not as simple as saying, "You don't want to add fuel to the fire."


The Local Coordination Committees claim 90 people were killed on Wednesday, including 28 in Aleppo Province, 21 in Homs Province, 19 in Damascus and its suburbs.

The Violations Documentation Center puts the confirmed death toll at 60,483 since the conflict begin in March 2011, an increase of 137 from Wednesday. Of those killed, 47,312 were civilians, a rise of 129 from yesterday.

Russia: Our Citizens Fighting With Insurgency and Will Return as Militants

The head of Russia's FSB intelligence service, Alexander Bortnikov, has said that about 200 of its citizens are fighting alongside Syrian insurgents and "will naturally pose a particular threat" when they return after the conflict is over.

Israel Uses New York Times to Warn Damascus

The Israeli Government has used The New York Times to warn the Assad regime, “Israel is determined to continue to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah. The transfer of such weapons to Hezbollah will destabilize and endanger the entire region.”

A "senior official" continued, “If Syrian President Assad reacts by attacking Israel, or tries to strike Israel through his terrorist proxies, he will risk forfeiting his regime, for Israel will retaliate.”

The Times emphasised that the the Israeli official "had been briefed by high-level officials on Israel’s assessment of the situation in Syria".

The official said that, if the Assad regime heeded the warning, there would be no Israeli involvement in the Syrian conflict:

Israel has so far refrained from intervening in Syria’s civil war and will maintain this policy as long as Assad refrains from attacking Israel directly or indirectly.

Israel will continue its policy of interdicting attempts to strengthen Hezbollah, but will not intercede in the Syrian civil war as long as Assad desists from direct or indirect attacks against Israel.

UN Criticises Regime While Israel and Russia Put Out Propaganda Lines

By a 107 to 12 vote, the UN General Assembly has called for a transitional government and condemned  the Syrian regime for human rights violations.

There were 59 abstentions.

The measure was approved by a vote of 107 to 12, with 59 member states abstaining. That was a tighter margin than in August of last year, when 133 states voted to approve a similar resolution. Russia fiercely opposed the resolution as a potential obstacle to peace talks.

The resolution denounced Systematic violations of human rights and the escalation of heavy weapons on civilian areas, expressing concern over regime use of chemical weapons and calling for unfettered access for UN investigators.

The measure, in pressing for a Syrian-led political transition, said the opposition Syrian National Coalition was the representative of the Syrian people.

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