Hatla: fabrication of a massacre
On 12 June 2013, all the international media have published and given enormous attention to the news of a terrible sectarian massacre carried on by the armed Syrian opposition: in fact, after the conquest of Hatla (a village in Deir Izzor province) on June 11 the rebels would have exterminated sixty inhabitants of the town, both civilian and fighters, on the basis of their belonging to the Shia sect.
Then, in websites and social networks supporting Assad and Hezbollah, the terrible scene was enriched with imaginative details, more and more brutal (killing of women and children, beheadings etc.) and it was presented with old photographs of victims made by the Syrian regime.
Several activists close to the Syrian opposition abroad acquired the version of the sectarian slaughter too and rushed to condemn it on various social networks, deaf to the calls for caution made by those who pointed out that there was no evidence of this massacre.
The news of this episode of ethnic cleansing was in fact exclusively reported by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), based in a two-room apartment in London and considered by the Western media, for inexplicable reasons, the only credible and worthy of mention source on Syria. The reliability of the SOHR, composed from a single individual as far as we know, a certain Osama Suleiman – known as Rami Abdul Rahman and who claims to be an opposer in exile to the Syrian regime and to have 200 secret activists on the ground that give him information – is, however, very uncertain, especially as Suleiman has almost never provided any proof of what he says. Moreover, the sometimes scarcely credible statistics published by the SOHR are almost never accompanied by any documentation, not even by the victims’ names (as opposed to what serious organizations do, but they are not taken into account by the Western press) and the SOHR has been repeatedly caught in error, especially in the attempt to attribute to rebels, or at least unidentified authors, crimes that are clearly and demonstrably committed by the Assad regime.
Opposition activists, both abroad and in Syria, have unsuccessfully tried to warn the Western press from the ambiguous Suleiman and his Observatory, accused of enlarging the numbers of deaths close to the Syrian regime, to equate victims and murderers, not ever with any documentation of numbers and events that he publishes and provides to the press, to defame serious organizations and activists and to constantly and falsely present the facts through a sectarian perspective in order to fuel sectarian hatred between Shiites and Sunnis.
Furthermore, even a fast look at the facebook page of the SOHR shows that Osama Suleiman / Rami Abdul Rahman almost exclusively emphasizes the “crimes”, real or imagined, committed by the rebels, which are the only ones followed by videos (that he finds on youtube and then re-publishs and spreads with the logo of the SOHR) and the only ones he informs the media about. And often these “crimes” are very small: on the facebook page of the SOHR the replacement of a revolutionary tricolor with a flag of Jabhat al Nusra made (without any violence) by some Islamist, has far more importance than the destruction of Qusayr by Hezbollhah and regime forces.
Therefore, the only source of the “sectarian massacre of Shiite in Hatla” wouldn’t properly be an above all suspicions source and one that can be believed on the word without further investigation.
If true, the massacre of Hatla would clearly be an episode with no precedents and horrible and would cast a dark light on a part of rebel fighters. Most of all, for the first time, there would be some credibility and foundation about the fears so often expressed, without any factual evidence, by politicians and Western press about the possible risks of killings and even “genocide” of minorities following the fall of the regime. While many cases of ethnic cleansing, with massacres of Sunni civilians – including women and children – made by militias and troops of the regime have been documented, never before there had been killings on sectarian basis by the rebel brigades.
However, the reading of subsequent versions of the events of Hatla gradually lrovided by SOHR leads to strongly doubt that the sectarian massacre ever happened.
The fabrication of the “sectarian slaughter” by the SOHR
In the first version of the conquest of Hatla published by the SOHR, in Arabic, there is no trace of the sectarian massacre. The SOHR use the usual language designed to make people believe that the Syrian revolution is nothing more than a war between sects and to fuel sectarian hatred, but it clearly speaks dead caused by clashes between supporters and opposers of the regime:
“Deir Izzor: Fighters from different brigades took control of the village of Hatla, inhabited by Shiite minority. This happened after violent clashes and shellings that led to the deaths of at least 60 Shiites, the vast majority of whom were fighters armed by the regime. Several Shiite civilians fled to western rural villages and some pro-regime fighters fled to the nearby village of al-Jafra. At least 10 members of rebel brigades were martyred during the fighting today. It seems that the clashes have started on Monday evening, after an attack carried out by Shia fighters of the village to rebels’ base, which led to the martyrdom of 2 fighters of the opposition and the wounding of 8. As a result, thousands of rebels from Deir Izzor gathered to attack Hatla and were bombarded by regime forces stationed in the airport of Deir Izzor, causing the martyrdom of two fighters and injuring dozens. We didn’t manage to get the number of deaths of Shiite fighters. Deir Izzor activists told the SOHR that in recent weeks, the regime has armed hundreds of citizens who converted to the Shiite sect at the time of Hafez al-Assad ” (original press report).
As it is, this first report of the SOHR has are two mistakes (or, more likely, intentional lies): in reality, the village of Hatla is mixed and not only inhabited by Shiites and, as can be clearly seen from the video (gathered in a playlists by Moses Brown) opposition fighters who took part in the clashes are at most a few hundred, and certainly not the thousands mentioned in the SOHR. Probably the SOHR said that Hatla is entirely Shiite to make people believe that rebels captured a village inhabited by a population that opposes to them and sees them as occupiers, when in fact the videos shows celebrations of civilians for the liberation from Assad militias while the “thousands” of fighters of Deir Izzor are functional to blame the entire armed opposition for the “massacre” that the SOHR was already preparing to manufacture.
Immediately, Osama Suleiman (using the usual pseudonym of Rami Abdul Rahman,) had contacted France 24, which also broadcasts in Arabic, to tell the death of “60 Shiites” as if they were killed for belonging to the sect and not because they were regime militants who had attacked rebel positions. And an hour after the publication of the news in Arabic, the SOHR post an English version of the facts, completely different from the Arabic one: Deir Izzor province: Rebel fighters from several factions took hold of the Hatla village, that is mainly inhabited by civilians with a Muslim Shi’i backgroud, after violent clashes and rebel bombardment which led to the death of 60 civilians and fighters from the Hatla village. Several fighters of Hatla fled to the al-Jafra village. At least 10 rebel fighters were killed by clashes today. The 60 deads – which in Arabic text were “the vast majority” pro-Assad militia members – suddenly become “civilians and fighters,” and in the English text disappears every track of the fact that the dead “Shiites” are actually members of a militia armed by the regime, which already attacked and killed opposition fighters in the previous days. The English version describes an unprovoked attack by the armed opposition in a Shiite village, which just defended itself, with a very high number of civilian deaths due to indiscriminate shelling by the rebels. And the SOHR doesn’t give the slightest explanation of the huge differences between the Arabic text and English one, published almost simultaneously. In addition, on the Arabic SOHR page , doesn’t appear any adjustment: the SOHR gives two completely different versions of the facts according to the language.
Twelve hours later, the SOHR piles it on and explicitly speaks of a terrible massacre on sectarian basis for the first time: in fact, it publishes two videos from youtube, among many others related to the take over of Hatla and on which affixes its own logo (first video and second video) and writes: “Footage of rebel fighters from several factions storming and burning civilian houses in the Hatla village of Reef Deir Izzor. Rebels also killed several inhabitants (civilians and combatants) of the Hatla village. It is worth noting that such atrocities were carried out on a sectarian basis.
This came after rebel fighters took hold of the village yesterday after clashes and bombardment which led to the death of 60 civilians and fighters from Hatla as well as 10 rebel fighters.” (Facebook page).
In reality, the two videos show: the first, few corpses covered with sheets, of which the only one identifiable probably belongs to a pro-Assad militant (see below); the second, a group of rebels boasts of having burned some houses of “Shiites “ with some clouds of smoke in the background. However, in the new SOHR report, the sectarian slaughter is for the first time clearly denounced and would have taken place after the conquest of the village: the SOHR writes unequivocally that the rebels, after killing “60 civilians and fighters” in the clashes and bombings and conquered the village, they would have then slaughtered villagers in a sectarian basis massacre. And this is the version, accompanied by two videos, that the SOHR had already taken care to send to the international press, which immediately published with much prominence and without the slightest verification, and without even taking a look at the English facebook page (not to say the Arab) of the SOHR. If journalists would have done so, they would have immediately realized that something was wrong: in the press release and in the several statements the SHOR forgot to update the total number of Shiites victims, which logically should be the 60 who died in clashes and bombing plus the victims of the “heinous sectarian massacre.” But in every SOHR report, the Shiites deads are invariably 60.
When, 3 hours after the announcement of the sectarian massacre of the inhabitants of Hatla, the SOHR publishes the victims’ number of 11 June, the massacre is no longer there: 60 killed in clashes remain, which is again becoming, as in the Arabic version, “local men armed by the regime,” although some civilians were killed as well. Nor, as the SOHR had declared that the sectarian massacre had taken place “after” the conquest of the village, the dead of the “massacre” were counted the next day: in the calculation of 12 June, there is not even one dead in Hatla.
But it gets worse: in the first minutes of Thursday, when the whole world had already spoken about the sectarian slaughter of the Shiites of Hatla, the SOHR suddenly publishes on the English facebook page an almost literal version of the Arabic text: the dead are described as militants armed by the regime, who had attacked and killed a few days earlier opposition fighters, and the narration of the facts follows to the letter the original Arabic version. The sectarian bloodshed has totally disappeared. The SOHR, however, attach the usual two videos, writing that in the first rebels “verbally insult the dead bodies of people who had previously executed.” This is the only trace left of the horrible episode of ethnic cleansing that the SOHR rushed to communicate to the international press: “someone”, who knows who, was executed by the rebels in Hatla. How does the SOHR know? Mystery, since nothing in the video leads us to believe that the only visible dead was executed and not killed in clashes.
Facing with this plenty of different versions always provided by the SOHR, and the only one sent to the media is tje one about a massacre of Shiites on a sectarian basis, there is reason to suspect that the sectarian slaughter of Hatla never happened and is has been very clumsily built by the SOHR, in order to defame the armed opposition. The analysis of several inconsistent accounts of events provided by the SOHR would lead us to think that at first the SOHR has published a short story in Arabic more or less correct, deduced from what is published on social networks (clashes between anti-and pro-regime fighters caused by the latter and ended with the victory of the rebels), but with a strong emphasis on the sectarian side, which was probably not relevant (if they are armed militias armed by the regime, the religious denomination is not relevant), and with serious inaccuracies (Hatla described as it was only inhabited by Shiites and the “thousands” of rebels stormed it). The nearly simultaneous English version of the SOHR presents the facts in a light much more unfavorable to the rebels and begins to outline a massacre of civilians, even if only in indiscriminate shellings and not as sectarian murderers: the “Shiites” in fact are no longer described as militants armed by the regime, the attack made by pro-Assad militia to rebel positions that started the fighting vanishes, and the dead become “civilians and combatants” (and not “for the vast majority fighters” as in Arabic ), but the massacre on a sectarian basis does not exist yet. An opportunity to make up the story of ethnic cleansing would seem to have been provided to the SOHR by the discovery of the two videos on youtube where some rebels use a language which is violently sectarian in the presence of some corpses of enemies (nobody can know how many, since they are covered , but certainly not more than 4 or 5) and claim to have burned Shiite militiamen houses. At that point the SOHR has probably manufactured the story of ethnic cleansing and horrible “massacre of Shia” sectarian-based, in such a hurry to forget to update the number of the dead and to add to the 60 died in fightings the victims of the alleged “massacre”. And then he sent to all the press the story of the carnage, accompanied by two videos, that does not really show it at all. Before arriving at definitive conclusions, however, we must analyze the documents relating to the conquest of Hatla.
The data about the conquest of Hatla by the rebels
The main evidence of the massacre – according to one of the many versions of the SOHR (the one sent to the media) and according to Western press – would be this video, published on 11 June on several channels on YouTube and, as we said, then redistributed the next day by SOHR. The dead are covered by shrouds, and just one is shown: it is a grown man, probably a fighter. But even if we do not see the other corpses, it is clear that under those covered there can be up to 4 or 5 bodies and certainly not dozens, and it is out of discussion that they died during the fighting, there were on both sides. The jihadist rebels filmed use disgustingly sectarian expressions – and one even sais that Kwaiti Sunni should kill Shiites of their country, guilty of converting Sunni Syrians to their sect – but a sectarian language certainly can’t be used as evidence of an extermination. The only remote clue for the killing of civilians is one of the rebels who would say (the translation is disputed by some) that one of the best 4-5 corpses beneath the sheets belongs to a woman and for this reason it must not be uncovered, but admitting that the translation is correct, one must keep in mind that we have seen in Syria women fight on both sides of the conflict, and still a civilian can die accidentally during a battle. In other videos related to Hatla, corpses don’t appear – just one of the rebels killed during the fighting for the take over of the village – and the only casualties are opposition fighters in videos dated June 10-11. In the videos you can also see the population of Hatla welcome the anti-regime fighters and a demonstratiom made by civilians to celebrate the liberation of Hatla by “Shabiha” (pro-Assad militia). There is no clue that makes us think at the scene of a massacre.
Other evidence produced by those who claim there has been a sectarian massacre in Hatla is a video showing the speech before the Lebanese embassy in Kuwait City by a Kwaiti Sunni extremist preacher, the Sheikh Shafi Al Ajmi , who, after a series of verbal attacks against Hezbollah and having said that in Hatla “bad people” were killed, he says (to Hezbollah): “Today we have killed one of your symbols, Hussein, who lived in Hatla, and his son. “
According to some commentators, that Hussein would be a member of the local Shiite clergy but lacks any confirmation. I even doubt this Kuwaiti preacher refers to a real person. In fact, Hezbollah has repeatedly presented the battle of Qusayr, and in general the Syrian conflict, as a re-enactment and revenge for the battle of Karbala, in which the Imam Hussein – the universal symbol and center of worship of the Shia faith – and his son Ali al-Akbar died. Probably, the Kuwaiti preacher means: “Today we, the Sunnis, won again and we killed again in Hatla your Hussein, who you wanted revenge. We are winning the new Battle of the Kerbala. “ It seems strange that the Kuwaiti preacher, speaking from Kuwait, may assume that his audience knows a certain Hussein of Hatla, and especially it seems quite unlikely that he points an unknowm member of the Shiite clergy in a village near Deir Izzor as “one of the symbols” of Hezbollah. Furthermore, in a video about the taking of Hatla you see one of the rebels carrying a big picture, partially destroyed, of Imam Hussein. In any case, even assuming that the preacher of Kuwait refers to two real people and knows something of what happened in Hatla and didn’t just read the news on media, the possible killing of Hussein and his son can not be an evidence – and not even a clue – of a massacre on sectarian basis, especially as Shafi Al Ajmi says nothing about the circumstances of the death of the two.
The Free Syrian Army has immediately denied there was any massacre in Hatla and that civilians were killed, and said they had captured the village after some days of clashes with members of a local pro-regime militia, some of whom had died in combat while others were captured.
The day after the alleged massacre, Zaid Benjamin interviewed Omar Abu Lilah, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army in the eastern region. Abu Lilah categorically denies that there has been any episode of ethnic cleansing. The dead – he says – were combatants in a pro-government militia (called the National Army, which in the days before had killed some of the rebels and tried to get hold of a checkpoint of the armed opposition. Therefore, the rebels decided to seize the village from which they launched attacks against them. Some of the militiamen armed by the regime – goes on – have been captured alive and are now being interrogated. Abu Lilah admits only that some Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, who had taken part in military operations along with other armed resistance groups, set fire to the homes of pro-government militiamen. Even the Local Coordination Committees in Syria (LCCSy), certainly not suspected of Islamist sympathies and never reluctant to denounce and condemn sectarianism, abuse and possible crimes made by some faction of the rebels, just gave news of the liberation of Hatla by the Free Syrian Army.
The analysis of the data leads to the conclusion that there is no evidence that in Hatla a massacre of Shiites happened. Certainly “Shiites” died, but there is every indication that they have been killed in fighting because they were members of a militia armed by the regime, which had already attacked the armed opposition fighters, killing a few. And besides, even the SOHR admits that during the clashes for taking over Hatla there were no deaths among the rebels also (as unequivocally confirmed in one of the video). Certainly some of the opposition fighters have used expressions intolerably sectarian, but a sectarian language, although reprehensible, is a very different thing from an episode of ethnic cleansing. Even EAWorldView, without taking into account the different versions of the SOHR and without even analyze in detail the video Hatla, notes that there is no evidence to support the allegations of the SOHR, even if it doesn’t go so far as to explicitly state that the massacre has never happened. In addition, EAWorldView points out that not only there is no trace of the 60 deaths in the videos, but they also seem to blatantly contradict the assertion of the same SOHR that “thousands” of opposition fighters have taken part in the hostilities and the subsequent massacre. During the filmings, including those of the battle, you see dozens of fighters, and certainly not thousands: the rebels who fought to Hatla are at most a few hundred. Moreover, it would be impossible to think that the Free Syrian Army and other resistance groups had diverted thousands of fighters on Hatla to conquer a small village. I guess the SOHR, in the various stages of manufacture of a sectarian massacre probably never happened, wanted to criminalize the highest possible number of opposition fighters, in order to avoid that someone could speak of “a few bad apples.” If thousands of people had taken part in the “massacre,” there wouldn’t have been just a few bad apples but the entire tree.
Of course, it is not even possible to prove irrefutably that the “massacre of Hatla” never happened. But as always and obvious, the burden of proof is always on the accuser, and the SOHR never provided proves, in fact it did not even have any clue in Hatla an episode of ethnic cleansing was carried out: it just said that the armed opposition carried out a sectarian-based massacre of Shiite (providing different versions of it each time) and then send its press release – complete with two videos that do not prove anything – to newspapers, which published it as if it was an incontrovertible fact. And so the “massacre of Shiites of Hatla” became the news of the day about Syria. Surely the press didn’t behave in the same way as when opposition denounces (ie almost daily) a massacre committed by regime soldiers or militias, even though the denounce is supported by videos showing the victims, interviews with witnesses, etc.. In the rare cases where the massacres of civilians – even documented with certainty – perpetrated by the regime reach the headlines, and usually with little prominence, they are always presented in a doubtful way (“news that can not be independently verified”) and, if there is, the version of the Syrian regime is always provided, while almost no media outlet reported the denial of the Free Syrian Army about the “massacre of Hatla.”
Talking about the double standards of the media, however, would lead us too far. The question remains: why, according to the Western press, a much discredited man who lives in London and who has never provided evidences of its claims and provided numbers often scarcely credible, is the only source considered worthy of faith on Syria?
author Paola Pisi
Translation Vanessa Marzullo for Osservatorio Italo Siriano – 16 Juin 2013