It's been widely reported that on May 25, pro-Syrian forces massacred 108 civilians in the Syrian village of Houla, including 34 women and 49 children, many of whose throats were cut. The reported atrocity has sparked the latest round of appeals for intervention in the conflict in Syria. Syrian diplomats have been expelled from several countries over the massacre, including by U.S., Britain, France, Australia and Canada; "Syrian Diplomats Expelled Across World as Outrage Over Houla Massacre Grows," the British Guardian (5/29/12) declared.
"Who Will Stop the Massacres?" asked the headline on a May 29 Washington Post editorial. As the editors explained: "Horrific as it was, the Houla massacre is not unique, just better documented than the crimes perpetrated by the regime of Bashar al-Assad in towns and cities across Syria."
The editorial accused the Obama administration of inaction—"declining to exercise the U.S. leadership that would be required to stop the massacres"—and hiding behind U.N. negotiator Kofi Annan.
The Chicago Tribune (5/28/12) ran a typical news story on the massacre, reporting that Syrian Americans were demonstrating for U.S. intervention after "more than 100 people, including women and children, lay dead in the Syrian town of Houla, the latest victims of Assad's violent rule, according to United Nations observers." The Tribune said "follow-up reports" on Sunday indicated "that as many as 49 children were among them. Many were shot in the head or their throats were slit."
ABC's Christiane Amanpour (6/8/12) quoted one "highly placed Syrian insider" saying that the massacre was part of a program of ethnic cleansing: "What's emerging is a campaign of ethnic cleansing. These massacres [are] used by the Syrian president to expel populations disloyal to him and to consolidate control in what might become a divided Syria."
But is the Houla massacre really "better documented" than other atrocity stories emerging from Syria? On June 7, a major fissure began to appear in the storyline, when leading German daily newspaper Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung (FAZ) quoted sources who said that the Houla massacre was carried out by anti-Assad Sunni militants, and that their victims were nearly all Alawi and Shia—populations traditionally loyal to Assad. According to Syria expert Patrick Seale (Agence Global, 6/12/12) ,who quoted translated parts of the German story, FAZ sources said after the killings, "the perpetrators then filmed their victims and, in videos posted on the internet, presented them as Sunni victims of the regime."
On June 7, the BBC began to back away from its earlier stories that had reported the conventional line, blaming pro-government forces for a massacre that including the cutting of women's and children's throats. As the UK media watch group Media Lens (6/13/12) reported:
Last week, however, in what might almost be interpreted as a mea culpa, the BBC’s World News editor, Jon Williams, began a June 7 blog emphasizing "the complexity of the situation on the ground in Syria, and the need to try to separate fact from fiction."
This was a surprising emphasis—the BBC had previously communicated no sense of "complexity" in blaming the Syrian government. Williams continued:
In the aftermath of the massacre at Houla last month, initial reports said some of the 49 children and 34 women killed had their throats cut. In Damascus, Western officials told me the subsequent investigation revealed none of those found dead had been killed in such a brutal manner. Moreover, while Syrian forces had shelled the area shortly before the massacre, the details of exactly who carried out the attacks, how and why were still unclear…. In Houla, and now in Qubair, the finger has been pointed at the shabiha, pro-government militia. But tragic death toll aside, the facts are few: it's not clear who ordered the killings—or why.
Stories are never black and white—often shades of grey. Those opposed to President Assad have an agenda. One senior Western official went as far as to describe their YouTube communications strategy as "brilliant." But he also likened it to so-called "psy-ops," brainwashing techniques used by the U.S. and other military to convince people of things that may not necessarily be true. A healthy scepticism is one of the essential qualities of any journalist—never more so than in reporting conflict. The stakes are high–all may not always be as it seems.
As Williams now avers, it is hard to tell what's true when it comes to Syria; independent reporters or observers are not able to operate freely, and have been endangered by both sides. It is fair to assume by many accounts that the Syrian government is likely responsible for a lion's share of the violence. It is also fair to assume that various rebel factions have acted with brutality.
So, yes, a healthy skepticism is required–preferably before publication—of tendentious, one-sided stories that cannot be confirmed independently. The cost of getting things wrong can be enormous. We still don’t know with certainty what happened in Houla on May 25. But if it turns out that rebels did the killing, this story may end up ranking with such false but effective stories of war-mongering propaganda as the the tales of German soldiers catching Belgian babies on bayonets in World War One, or Iraqis removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators in advance of the 1991 Gulf War.
UPDATE: I think it’s worth adding more detail from the June 7 Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) story. The reporter, Rainer Hermann, did not travel to the scene of the massacre in Houla, and did not directly quote sources making claims about who did the killing and who the victims were. His account was based on interviews with eyewitnesses conducted by nonviolent opponents of the Assad regime who investigated the massacre. According to Hermann (WSWS, 6/13/12):
Their findings contradict allegations of the rebels, who had blamed the Shabiha militias which are close to the regime…. As oppositionists rejecting the use of force have been killed or at least threatened lately, the oppositionists did not want to see their names mentioned.
It was in this context that Hermann reported:
According to eyewitnesses, the massacre took place during this time. Among the dead were almost exclusively families of the Alawite and Shia minorities of Houla, the population of which is made up of 90 percent Sunnis. Several dozen members of a family that had converted in recent years from the Sunni faith to Shia Islam were slaughtered. Also among the dead were members of the Alawite family Shomaliya and the family of a Sunni member of parliament who was regarded as a collaborator.
Thanks to commenter Lou Proyect for pointing out that the FAZ piece does not actually quote sources making these claims. He's right. But I disagree with him that the report was weak. I think under the circumstances, and with its explanations and caveats, it appears more credible than much of the journalism coming out of Syria.
That said, it is still not clear what is happening in Houla, which all the more reason U.S. media should not be repeating as fact stories that cannot be confirmed–and doubly so when those stories give aid to the case for a wider war.