Last week, the UN released a report warning that the conflict in Syria had now
become “overtly sectarian in nature,” while a spokesman for UN Secretary-General
Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about “extremely worrisome reports...of a mass
killing of civilians in the village of Akrab near Hama.”
massacre is said to have resulted in the deaths of at least dozens of Alawite
civilians, in a town with a Sunni majority that has long coexisted with an
However, uncertainty still remains as to what happened
in Akrab. The first account of events to appear in English-language media –
illustrated by a New York Times report published on December 12 – came from
rebel sources, which released multiple videos purporting to give the testimony
of Alawite survivors from the town, now supposedly being protected by the rebels
and being treated for their wounds.
These purported witnesses said that
they had been rounded up by Shabiha (an armed militia loyal to Assad, usually
composed of Alawites) and held hostage in a building as the rebels approached
Akrab. Then, to avoid the disgrace of capture by the rebels, the Shabiha
allegedly killed many of their own hostages.
Yet a couple of days later,
a report was released by Alex Thomson of Channel 4. Traveling into pro-Assad
areas near the town of Akrab but unable to enter Akrab itself, Thomson
interviewed three witnesses in separate locations (and spoke with a dozen or so
other Alawites) – who claimed it was actually the rebels who held them hostage
after attacking the town and deprived them of most basic necessities. The three
witnesses were all said to be from Akrab and part of the Alawite community
The rebels supposedly wished to use the Alawites as human shields
in the nearby town of Houla, which was the site of the massacre of 108 Sunni
civilians by Shabiha. A delegation – including the town’s local Sunni imam and
mayor – then tried to negotiate for the hostages’ release, only to reach a
deadlock that culminated in gunfire through the building in which the Alawites
had been gathered by the rebels.
Eventually, some 70 hostages were
released and taken by bus to the nearest village, but one bus took a few of the
hostages to Houla, where they were treated at a rebel-run hospital. It is
believed that these are the ones who were filmed by the rebels.
ASSESSING the validity of Thomson’s account, it should first be noted that those
who wish to malign him as having an axe to grind are wrong. Thomson has simply
reported what his interviewees told him, and nothing more.
However, it is
apparent that Thomson’s account of the events in Akrab is not the first of its
kind. At the same time as the New York Times report came out, the pro-regime
propaganda site SyriaTruth, which has previously purported to expose me as an
Israeli spy in Iraqi Kurdistan, released a “preliminary” article – drawing on
information “exclusive” to SyriaTruth – that matches Thomson’s report in a
number of details.
For example, one of Thomson’s witnesses claims that
the rebels who took the Alawites hostage were not Syrian Arabs. SyriaTruth’s
purported sources claim the same thing, identifying them as 500 men of Turkish,
Lebanese and other Arab and non-Arab origin. Both accounts also identify the
fighters as being from Houla (SyriaTruth does not mention Rastan).
problem with this claim that the rebels in this case were foreigners is that it
would then not make sense for these fighters to assure the hostages that they
are “brothers from al-Houla and al-Rastan, your Islamic brothers” (to quote one
of Thomson’s witnesses).
Foreign fighters in these conflicts are
invariably hardline jihadists who deem Alawites to be infidels in some form
(whether by virtue of supposedly being Shi’ite or completely outside Islam), and
do not disguise their animosity toward them.
Further, there is no
evidence of a substantial and active foreign fighter presence in Houla or
In truth, the claim that the perpetrators of alleged massacres
and other gross abuses against minorities are not from Syria has become a
standard trope, largely intended to fit the pro-Assad narrative that Syria is
being undermined by a fundamentally foreign conspiracy.
Other points of
overlap between SyriaTruth and Thomson’s account include the motivation for the
hostage taking (i.e., to use some of the Alawites as human shields in Houla) and
the negotiations that led to the release of some 70 hostages (in Syria- Truth,
the figure is given as 70-90 hostages). From these similarities, it is hard not
to infer that Syria- Truth has used the same sources as
Crucially, however, SyriaTruth goes further in vouching for the
existence of a massacre, giving a figure of 180-210 Alawites killed, along with
some 20 Sunnis who tried to defend them from the rebel attack on
Another pro-regime site – Shukumaku, which is much less widely
read than SyriaTruth – in a report on December 12 put the total number of those
massacred at 235, among them 88 women and children (SyriaTruth gives a figure of
Like SyriaTruth, Shukumaku claims the attack was the work of
foreign militants, of the “takfiri” type.
Yet as Thomson noted in a
subsequent blog post at Channel 4, neither side has produced any strong evidence
for the existence of a massacre in Akrab. No video footage of the bodies, no
photos of the aftermath of the alleged carnage – in short, nothing like the
clear and graphic evidence that came to light in the case of the Houla massacre,
which sites like SyriaTruth falsely claimed was a rebel hoax.
the rebel account, the fact is that no one has given a convincing answer to the
objections Thomson raised to this version of events.
For instance, rebel
sites claimed that the building in which the hostages were held was destroyed by
government air strikes and artillery, when film footage of the town from a
distance – produced by Channel 4 – showed quite clearly that the building was
Further, if Akrab were a case of Alawites being held
hostage by Shabiha, why did the rebel sites make no mention of this from
December 2 onwards, which by all accounts is the date when the rebel offensive
on Akrab began? As Thomson puts it, it would have been “an enormous propaganda
coup” for the rebels.
As for the video testimony released by the rebels,
it can immediately be objected that the purported eyewitnesses will evidently
say whatever the rebels want them to say.
On balance, therefore, it seems
more likely that Akrab was a case of a mass hostage taking of Alawites by the
rebels, rather than the Alawite militia.
However, it is unlikely the
perpetrators were foreign jihadists, and there is no decisive evidence that
attests to there being an actual massacre, but the hostage crisis probably
prompted all of Akrab’s Alawites to flee.
In terms of motivation, rather
than a supposed plan to use the Alawites as human shields in Houla, the
hostage-taking fits into the context of a wider rebel offensive in the rural
areas surrounding Hama and closing in on the city that was the epicenter of an
Islamist uprising against Hafez Assad’s rule from 1976 to
Generally, regime forces are increasingly yielding control of rural
areas to rebel forces, focusing their efforts on defending urban centers
instead. This explains the lack of a counter-offensive to retake the town from
the rebels and the apparent participation of Hama government officials in
getting hostages released from the town.
SOME MAY view the coverage of
this affair in Akrab as indicative of a mainstream media bias toward the rebels,
but the reality is that until claims of a massacre of Alawites emerged (several
days after the rebel offensive on the town began), events in the town had gone
unnoticed by all media sources.
Just as in Iraq, where many incidents of
violent death at the hands of insurgents and coalition forces, and cases of
ethnic cleansing by rival militias, went unreported, so too will numerous
clashes between rebels and regime forces, violent deaths and developments in the
vicinity of many villages in Syria go unreported. For comparison, note the
hitherto unreported rebel push toward the coastal city of Latakia, which has led
to the capture of numerous Alawite villages and prompted the flight of their
The problem is that in Syria the issue of events going
unreported is greatly exacerbated by the restrictions on foreign journalists
entering and traveling around the country.
To conclude, I would emphasize
that I do not claim that the sequence of events in Akrab that I have tried to
reconstruct is definitively true; I am not in Syria, let alone Akrab. Only a
third-party investigation by the UN that must include a visit to the town and an
extensive overview and cross-examination of purported eyewitness testimony can
give a conclusive answer as to what precisely happened in the town at the start
of this month.
Circumstances may well prevent such an investigation from
ever being carried out, and it could be that, just as with the many videos of
the Syrian civil war uploaded to YouTube, we will never definitely know the full
The writer is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum,
and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford