In his response to our piece "Assad's Houla Propaganda", John Rosenthal engages in a rather hypocritical and illogical retort. He initiates his screed by accusing us of engaging in a "bait and switch" regarding our correction of the half-truths presented in his piece covering the Houla Massacre and the sources he utilized. What better way to go about establishing that we were engaged in such a practice than by going off on a tangential feat of mental gymnastics about how Al Qaeda is involved in the conflict, recycling the same disproved data, and then arguing that critiquing the sources he used was not an effective manner of criticism? While Rosenthal accuses us of engaging in conspiratorial thinking, it is actually the theory he is pushing on the massacre that requires one to believe in an outlandish conspiracy.
Rosenthal asks what we would, "make of the string of suicide bombings in Damascus, in Aleppo, and elsewhere in Syria". This line of questioning bears no relation to our piece, which dealt with the specifics of the Houla Massacre, the erroneous claims of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung(FAZ), and the very narrative that has sprouted up around conspiracy websites. Instead, this tangential line implies that Al Qaeda was involved in the massacre, which in turn is simply more narrative. What is more, we both clearly stated our assessment about the potential rise of a Sunni Islamist Syria:
"The outcome of Assad's removal, assuming that Syria or even its Sunni heartland can hold together, may well be a new Sunni Islamist regime. However, this does not excuse the regime's attempts to disseminate patent falsehoods."
In the (FAZ) story Rosenthal promotes, Alawites and Sunni converts to Shiism were the victims of the Houla Massacre.
For starters, even the master propaganda spinners in Syria's official media made no mention of Alawites and Shi'a being killed during the Houla Massacre. The FAZ also stated that of those killed in the massacre, "the family of a Sunni member of the Syrian parliament who is regarded as a collaborator" was also murdered. Yet, the only corroborating source for this claim is the state-run outlet Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).
Alex Thomson, a journalist with Britain's Channel 4, actually visited the area of Houla. Thomson can hardly be called a propagandist for the rebels and did not hesitate to point out that some rebels tried to get him killed near the city of Qusayr in order to score a propaganda victory against the Assad regime.
He also observed that the Syrian army began shelling the area as soon as left the immediate vicinity, yet those who believe the Houla massacre was perpetrated by rebels claim that there has been no evidence of shelling by the Syrian armed forces. Even the Assad regime does not deny the evidence of shelling, but instead argues it was the work of militias armed with "heavy weapons."Thomson then visited the Alawite and Shi'a villages in the area of Houla. The villagers claimed that the victims of the massacre were actually casualties from internecine strife between Sunni tribes. They do not claim that those slaughtered were Alawites or Shi'a.
The Houla massacre story forwarded by FAZ doesn't add up. Why would Sunnis carry out a burial of massacred Alawites and Shi'a and then do so in the fashion utilized by Sunnis? FAZ claims it was to trick the media. Then why was there no outcry by the Alawite or Shi'a communities? What about the children shot and stabbed—Did those wounds simply appear due to a communal stigmata brought on by their hatred of Bashar al-Assad? Indeed, Rosenthal must believe that the injuries suffered by the locals whom Thomson interviewed were part of an elaborately faked P.R. campaign.
Rosenthal then goes on to re-cite Dutch "Middle East expert" Martin Janssen. A Damascus based Arabist, Janssen portrays himself as someone whose primary concern is about the rise of Islamism. It is also clear that he has followed the liberationist line on Tunisia and Egypt, echoing Ed Husain'sclaims that what differentiated the protests in Egypt from those in Syria was that the former were crying for freedom while the latter were chanting 'Allah u Akbar' and 'jihad'. The demagogue George Galloway (another friend of the Syrian regime) parrots the same line. Since he started reporting from Syria, Janssen's long list of articles have been little more than rehashing the same old pro-regime line.
Rosenthal's illogical retort became even more disturbing when he mentioned the murder of opposition doctor Adnan Wahbi. Without a shred of evidence and lacking any connection to the original post he cited, Rosenthal absurdly declares Wahbi was killed by the opposition because he called for all sides to put down their weapons. In fact, the other article by Hermann he cites makes no such assertion, and the Syrian opposition claim Wahbi as a martyr murdered by the regime's security forces.
Adding further speciousness to his response, Rosenthal addresses the issue of Syrian nun cum Assad propagandist Mother Agnes-Miriam and 9/11 conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan's interview with her, by stating, "in a French media landscape as bereft of any semblance of balanced reporting on the Syria crisis as the American one, I can assure Al-Tamimi and Smyth that she will not have received many such requests [for interview]."
However, Rosenthal clearly didn't do the necessary research to prove his assertion. In 2012, Le Monde, one of France's major newspapers, uncritically cited figures presented Agnès-Mariam. France's Europe1, a major French radio station, also interviewed Agnès-Mariam in January. Agnès-Mariam was also interviewed by La Vie Magazine, where she stated that she continued to support having Bashar al-Assad as president of Syria and essentially repeated the line that unrest in Syria is all due to a Western plot, echoing the theories pushed by conspiracy theorists and pro-Assad propagandists.
Rosenthal claims he "was also aware that this ephemeral connection would provide fodder for the defenders and publicists of the rebellion to taint Mother Agnès-Mariam with guilt by association." Rosenthal's grasp of the very narrative we refute is equally disquieting. We didn't simply include conspiracy theorist Thierry Meyssan to establish a "guilt by association" implication against Mother Agnès-Mariam, but to establish the fringe atmosphere where this exact pro-Assad line originated, to whom it was marketed, and why.
Rosenthal continues his defense of Agnès-Mariam by muddying the waters, adding, "Perhaps Mother Agnès-Mariam ought, after all, to have refused Meyssan's interview."
Mother Agnès-Mariam didn't simply accept a single interview from the likes of the batty and conspiracy-minded Voltaire Network, she actively pursued them, inviting "journalists" from the group to visit her and travel around Syria in November 2011. In addition to posting articles from the Voltaire Network on her official website, she contributed a number of pieces to site.
Agnès-Mariam didn't stop with the crackpots at the Voltaire Network. On the same 2011 trip she helped organize, she also brought along Webster Griffin Tarpley. Like Meyssan, Tarpley is another renowned 9/11 conspiracy theorist frequently contributing to Iran's English language propaganda channel, Press TV. Tarpley went on to repeat the narrative the Damascus disinformation network hoped to propagate.
If anything, the connection with the conspiratorial fringe was hardly, "ephemeral". Instead, Agnès-Mariam vigorously sought out these types in the effort to attain an uncritical audience who would happily disseminate the information she and her peers presented.
Creating the image of a defenseless and objective Catholic nun who is plainly ignored by the Western press, Rosenthal attempts to place Agnès-Mariam in a protective bubble, even accusing us of exposing her in an ad hominem style.
At one point, Rosenthal asks rhetorically: "Why in the world would Catholic priests and nuns want or need to serve as 'Assad propagandists?" This is a classic example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. The Assad regime has also been able to compel praise from parents of children it has tortured to death: Why can't Catholic nuns and priests parrot the Syrian government's line or transmit disinformation that aids the regime?
For Christians of the Middle East, their fate in this time of turmoil is a complex conundrum. The threat of "Islam" has been a constant, whether real or supposed. Thus, in the minds of some Christian leaders, for communal survival, their political moves often come down to supporting what they perceive as the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, this shouldn't be an excuse to blatantly lie and push narrative.
The fact of the matter is—and this is understood by the Assad regime—that in many Western political circles, the Iraq War and the subsequent ethnic cleansing, murders, and displacement of Christians is still fresh. While the Iraq War has provided beneficial hindsight in assessing what may become of threatened minority groups, the same sentiments created by the war have been manipulated by the Syrian regime in an attempt to establish a hyper-simplified, if not manifestly incorrect claim they are the guardians of secular order against "extremism," even as the Assad dynasty has (i) supported Hezbollah, (ii) killed thousands of Christians in Lebanon (besides debilitating their political power) and (iii) provided backing for al-Qa'ida and other Sunni Islamist groups in Iraq renowned for their brutality against civilians.
As before, Rosenthal establishes his ability to twist and ignore demonstrable facts. Rosenthal, Mother Agnès -Mariam, and others pushing the "all opposition are Al Qaeda and committing heinous crimes against minorities" message, establish their own conspiratorial explanation concerning why their speciously manufactured claims are ignored.
Emanating from the depths of Bizzaro World, these commentators attempt to establish that the innately diverse nature of Western media is actually a monolithic and biased (against them) source, whereas a dictator's media outlets and propagandists sympathetic to the regime are reporting "the truth."
If establishing the dubious nature of sources and claims made by Rosenthal was not enough to demonstrate the lack of credibility, he should also know that the FAZ piece was rife with errors. For example, Tony Badran noted:
"[T]he report stated that the supposed Alawite victims were from the 'Shomaliya' family. The confused German author—and everyone who uncritically picked up his report—didn't even bother to check his facts or his sources. There is an Alawite village by the name of al-Shumariya, near Houla, which the regime's media and its third-party amplifiers claimed was attacked by 'armed gangs.'"
For further evidence of the errors and inaccuracies of the FAZ piece, see this post by Paul Woodward, in which he notes, with confirmation from Human Rights Watch, that the Abd el-Razzaq family that comprised the majority of the victims was Sunni. This tells against the FAZ piece's claim that "those killed were almost exclusively from families belonging to Houla's Alawi and Shia minorities."
As Rosenthal notes, the pieces he quoted use unnamed "monastery sources". In fact, for Rosenthal and his ilk all roads lead back to the same monastery run by Agnes-Miriam. In any case, this establishes the need to investigate her ideological leanings and what messages she promotes.
To back up his assertions, Rosenthal discusses the experience of Belgian priest Daniel Maes, who spent time at the Monastery with Mother Agnès. For Rosenthal, Maes' testimony is confirmation that Mother Agnès' story is perfectly acceptable.
What is implied is that Maes is a completely objective Westerner critically analyzing the situation for the truth. Yet, a cursory search on Google establishes Maes' wasn't simply one of many, "other persons who have spent time at the monastery". Maes is actually a personal friend of Mother Agnès. After meeting Mother Agnès in 2004 he hosted her in Belgium where she gave speeches since 2006. He had been visiting her monastery since 2010.
But what happens to anyone—especially clergy—within the regime's grasp who "draws outside the lines"? Take the case of Father Dall'Oglio. A resident of the Mar Musa Monastery for over thirty years, the father was expelled from Syria by the Assad regime for the simple offense of stating that he felt Syria's non-violent protesting youth were, "suffering enormously to achieve their desire of freedom and dignity…There are so many young persons that are put in jail and tortured, just because they have expressed, nonviolently, their opinions." He didn't openly sympathize with the FSA –just non-violent protesters—and he was thrown out!
Neither of us is arguing for intervention and we are certainly not trying to underplay Islamism. As analysts with a deep interest in studying this turbulent section of the Levant, we are not interested in moralism or propaganda from either side, but simply want to explain what is going on and predict how events might pan out. We would hope others involved in studying and writing about the situation in Syria would endeavor to do the same.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly to the region.