NYT’s Syria ‘Crematory’ Story Based on Flawed Report

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The New York Times ran a story on Monday entitled “Syrian Crematory is Hiding Mass Killings of Prisoners, U.S. Says,” alleging the Syrian regime is killing large numbers of its prisoners and burning their bodies in a Nazi-style crematorium, but that claim largely relies on prior reporting from human rights group Amnesty International which does not hold up to scrutiny.

The Times report cites newly declassified satellite photographs of the Sednaya Prison complex taken over the last four years, paraphrasing acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, Stuart Jones, who said that apparent lack of snow on one of the buildings in a photograph from 2015 suggests a “significant internal heat source.”

That, amazingly, is the extent of the Times’ evidence, yet the paper chose to run with an incredibly inflammatory and flimsy narrative about a cover-up of mass executions by the Syrian regime.

The narrative about mass killings at the Sednaya Prison originates with a Feb. 7 Amnesty International (AI) report entitled “Human Slaughterhouse: Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison,” using an alternate spelling of the prison complex.

Without that report, there would be very little to back up the Times’ allegation, but the report itself is riddled with serious errors and inaccuracies.

Investigative journalist Rick Sterling, in a piece at Consortium News, takes apart Amnesty’s report piece by piece.

First, the “Human Slaughterhouse” report departs from Amnesty’s own research standards. Sterling quotes Amnesty’s secretary general, Salil Shetty, who describes the organization’s typical practices. Amnesty conducts its research, Shetty said:

…in a very systematic, primary, way where we collect evidence with our own staff on the ground. And every aspect of our data collection is based on corroboration and cross-checking from all parties, even if there are, you know, many parties in any situation because of all of the issues we deal with are quite contested. So it’s very important to get different points of view and constantly cross check and verify the facts.

The Amnesty report, Sterling says, does none of those things. Every claim in the report is based on third party sources, many anonymous, and the group did not cross-check those claims with all parties involved. AI consulted witnesses only from groups affiliated with the rebel opposition, such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which advocates NATO intervention in Syria, as well as the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, another partisan source.

Sterling further shows that AI’s claims of “extrajudicial killings” are obviously false. Even by AI’s own admission there is some judicial process in place for suspects, and an article at the Independent quotes one former prisoner who describes standing before a judge and being acquitted of all charges before he was released. That also undercuts AI’s claim that all suspects at Sednaya are convicted.

While that former prisoner said conditions at the Sednaya Prison are dismal, some of the claims in AI’s report are directly at odds with his testimony.

On page 30 of the report, AI presents satellite images of what is labeled a “Martyr’s Cemetery,” alleging that the expansion of the site over the course of one year suggests the presence of mass graves filled with murdered prisoners. Sterling quotes Syrian dissident Nizar Nayyouf, who called the claim “silly beyond silly.”

First of all, Syrian rebels would never be interred at a “Martyr’s Cemetery”; the site is reserved for regime soldiers. Moreover, the rapid growth of the cemetery does not necessitate mass extrajudicial killings, and more likely is explained by the burial of additional fallen Syrian soldiers. That, after all, is precisely the purpose of the site.

“In the martyrs cemetery no one can be buried there except the martyrs of the army, even if there is an intercession by Muhammad or Jesus or Hafidh Al-Asad himself,” Nayyouf said. “And contrary to what [Amnesty says], the picture damns them, because it shows the increase in the number of victims of the army.”

The Syrian military is currently engaged in a brutal war with an armed rebel opposition, now in its seventh year, and casualty figures on both sides are relatively equal. This also cuts against AI’s portrayal of the war as a one-sided slaughter of innocent civilians. To date, the Syrian military has lost up to 163,000 soldiers in the war.

An active dissident, Nayyouf has extensive knowledge of the Syrian prison system and of the Sednaya complex in particular. His critique of Amnesty’s report, too lengthy to reproduce here, points out several additional flaws, such as errors in describing the prison’s basic layout.

The AI report overall does not appear to be a product of a neutral actor seeking out the facts, but a sensationalized piece of propaganda meant to provoke emotions in readers. Even the title of the report, “Human Slaughterhouse,” is emotionally-charged and hyperbolic.

Amnesty also left out a number of other important facts in its report, Sterling writes:

-Western powers and Gulf monarchies have spent billions of dollars annually since 2011 to recruit, fund, train, arm and support with sophisticated propaganda a violent campaign to overthrow the Syrian government;

-As part of this operation, tens of thousands of foreign fanatics have invaded Syria and tens of thousands of Syrians have been radicalized and paid by Wahhabi monarchies in the Gulf to overthrow the government;

-More than 100,000 Syrian Army and National Defense soldiers have been killed defending their country. Most of this is public information yet ignored by Amnesty International and other mainstream media in the West. […]

-Without providing evidence, Amnesty International accuses the highest Sunni religious leader in Syria, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, of authorizing the execution of ‘ordinary civilians.’ While the Grand Mufti is a personal victim of the war’s violence—his son was murdered by terrorists near Aleppo—he has consistently called for reconciliation. Following the assassination of his son, Grand Mufti Hassoun gave an eloquent speech expressing forgiveness for the murderers and calling for an end to the violence.

Despite the lack of anything close to definitive evidence from beginning to end, in its Monday report the Times quotes U.S. officials who have accepted the crematorium line as a foregone conclusion.

“The attempt to cover up mass murders in the Assad crematorium is reminiscent of the 20th century’s worst offenses against humanity,” said U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.

The Syrian government strongly denied the allegation.

“The U.S. administration’s accusations against the Syrian government of a so-called crematorium in Saydnaya prison, in addition to the broken record about the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, are categorically false,” the Syrian Foreign Ministry said.

Similar to the alleged use of sarin gas on civilians both in 2013 as well as in April earlier this year, the Times “crematory” piece is yet another hyped up allegation against the Syrian regime that cannot withstand careful analysis.

If American officials and the imperial press desire regime change in Syria, they’re going to have to do better than that.

[This article was originally published at The Daily Sheeple.]

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