print close

Peace also requires truth

“Barrel bombs” in the war on Syria

Almost no commitment to the truth, but a lot of war propaganda

km. Joachim Guilliard has been active in the peace movement since the 1980s, working as a part-time journalist and book author. In 2001, he launched the initiative against the Anti-Iraq embargo policy and served as their speaker together with former UN aid co-ordinator for Iraq, Hans-Christof von Sponeck.
In the 26 January 2016 issue of the German newspaper “junge welt” a detailed and well-researched article by him was published, in which he scrutinises the claim of “barrel bombs” which the Syrian army allegedly uses in a way justifying the accusation of a war crime. Meanwhile this claim has become the “most important argument for maintaining the call for a regime change and the refusal to co-operate with the government in any way”.
“Barrel bombs” are explosive weapons consisting of metal barrels or any other bigger vessels filled with explosives and metal parts. They are cheaper to produce than other weapons and may be dropped out of non-military helicopters and planes.
The claims that the Syrian government was employing this weapon and the accusations connected to that are coming mainly from Western media and human rights groups. Readers are lead to the impression that the attacks with this weapon are almost exclusively directed against housing areas and civil facilities. Guilliard quotes a May 2015 press release by Amnesty International (AI) saying that “the reprehensible continuous air strikes against housing areas … were suggesting a policy of deliberate and systematic attacks against civilians, attacks which constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity”.
The US American Organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) also claims in their February 2015 report that “the entire distribution of places with major destruction” suggested that government forces were attacking the “entire population” of the affected cities “with explosive weapons”.
The majority of the reports of both human rights organizations concentrate on Aleppo, which has been a battleground since July 2012. Guilliard doubts those claims of the Syrian army dropping “barrel bombs” in order to “punish” explicitly the civilian population, for several reasons: “Considering the difficult situation of the Syrian army fighting at a hundred frontlines simultaneously the idea that punishing the civilian population had their highest priority sounds fairly absurd. It seems more likely that in places where the air force is deployed there are militarily significant facilities of enemy militias. Quite often such places are in inner cities.”
Maps provided by HRW and AI themselves, showing locations within Aleppo which were targeted by “barrel bombs”, seem to support this argument. Most of these sites are in areas referred to as “controlled by the opposition”. This “opposition” consists of radical Islamist and jihadist militias for the most part.
Moreover: “In Aleppo there had been no significant protests against the government in 2011, and the second biggest city of Syria escaped the unrest for more than a year. However, due to the near proximity of the Turkish border, opposition militias had optimal supply lines and were able to advance towards Aleppo in July 2012, after heavy fighting they succeeded in conquering the Eastern part of the inner city.” Most citizens of Aleppo, Guilliard claims, “had no sympathy for their new masters when they had to surrender to the brutal rule of the militias. Many escaped to the parts of the city held by the government or to secure areas along the coast.” Therefore the author sees no plausible reason why the government should engage in punitive actions against the “entire population”.
The argument that most targets in Aleppo had been too far away from the frontline to have military significance doesn’t convince him either: “According to the HRW and AI maps, no area of military activities had been more than 2,5 kilometres away from the frontline. And most citizens who had not left the embattled areas yet would apparently do so as soon as fighting was flaring up. For instance, when the Syrian army launched a new offensive in the beginning of 2014 up to 500,000 people left the areas held by the militias. Entire districts were deserted as a result. Therefore, for this point in time it is not plausible at all how these offences could have been attacks targeting the civilian population in particular as the HRW claims.”
In addition to that Joachim Guilliard’s investigations prove a case of attempted manipulation with forged materials: “On 26 February 2015, Human Rights Watch showed the photo of an almost completely destroyed district via Twitter with the comment ‘Syria drops barrel bombs despite ban’. However, this same photo had already been published by the ‘New York Times’ on 13 February. According to the description it showed the Kurdish city Kobani, having been ‘destroyed by Islamist forces and the air raids of the US lead coalition’. On 8 May, Kenneth Roth, the head of HRW, distributed the aerial photo of another destroyed part of the city supposedly illustrating ‘what Assad’s barrel bombs did to Aleppo’. In fact this picture happens to show Gaza one year previously.”
Many videos and pictures supposedly illustrating war crimes of the Syrian army and government have been provided by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), based in Coventry, Britain, local co-ordination committees or Shahba Press Agency. Media, when covering their stories, “just copy-pasted their reports, it seems, without verifying them first, despite the fact that they obviously originated from one of the war parties”, Guilliard claims.
He suggests the same was true for those numerous comments issued by AI and HRW, which are usually highly rated by readers thanks to the prestige of human rights organizations: “Their comments, too, are based on the same sources, namely – apart from those mentioned above – the Violations Documentation Center (VDC), based in Istanbul, and the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), again based in Britain. All these organisations are closely linked with opposition groups operating in Syria or abroad, are based in countries who actively support ‘Regime Change’ in Syria, and are partially financed by their host countries.”
Joachim Guilliard investigated the most important source of materials accusing the Syrian government – i.e. the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – in more detail and concludes that it is quite questionable. Still (or: therefore?) this enterprise is funded by the British government, the EU and some British media.
It goes without saying, Guilliard emphasizes, that “biased coverage does not mean that all reports about air strikes destroying civilian targets and killing civilian people are just lies. Syrian forces probably have used air strikes in situations where the risk for innocent bystanders is inappropriately high, and continue to do so”. However, Guilliard compares theses strategies with “sorties of the US air force and other NATO countries in similar war scenarios: they killed a lot more victims as ‘collateral damage’, be it in Afghanistan or the occupied Iraq, also in the NATO war against Libya in 2011, whenever air strikes targeted enemy forces within cities”. But in those cases neither AI’s nor HRW’s efforts to systematically investigate and scandalize these incidents were comparable to their present coverage of the Syrian, and meanwhile also Russian, air strikes in Syria.
In the last part of his investigation Guilliard argues that apparently “there is a connection between the aims of US foreign policy and those of their allies with AI and HRW campaigns. Both have been criticised in the past for their close proximity to the White House and the State Department, most plainly so in an open letter of Nobel prize laureates and former UN officials in July 2014. This letter mainly addressed the common practice of former CIA, US military or government persons being appointed to high ranking positions at HRE, and similarly top HRE officials directly being hired to government posts – the critics even called it a downright revolving door mechanism. For instance, former CIA analyst Miguel Díaz was called into the advising committee of HRW, and eight years later proceeded to use his expertise in a new job at the State Department – serving as liaison officer between intelligence community and NGO experts. Former chief director of the National Security Council Tom Malinowski had been in charge of writing White House speeches on foreign politics during the time of the bombardment of Yugoslavia in 1999, before serving HRE as director of their Washington branch. In his new position he promoted the war on Libya and praised it as ‘probably the fastest military response to an impending human rights crisis in history’. Under Obama he made his way into the State department as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour. Endowments of US corporations provide most of the funds for HRW. The single most important donator is billionaire George Soros. In the year 2010 alone his ‘Open Society Foundation’ donated more than 100 million dollars to the organisation”.
For AI a certain proximity to Western foreign policy positions must be noted, too. Quite often they focus on countries which have been targeted by the USA and the EU states, and “its most influential branch, US one, is part of the revolving door system: Former deputy assistant secretary of state Suzanne Nossel, of all people, was appointed CEO of AI (USA) in 2012, who had been instrumental in ‘ground-breaking human rights resolutions’ against Iran, Syria and Libya and who coined the term ‘Smart Power’ for the co-operation of military and ‘soft’ power in US foreign policy – a concept which Hillary Clinton refers to as the defining property of her foreign policy”.    •