Syrian Prison Executions – Anatomy of a Smear Campaign

Syria has long been a pebble in the shoe for America, unwillingly to get with the program. Recalcitrant, stubbornly independent. Hafez al-Assad, father of current president Bashar al-Assad, founded modern-day Syria as a secular state back in 1970. His biggest mistake (in the U.S. book) was to side with the Soviet Union. Fast forward to 2011 and his son Bashar is in power. The country is in the throes of a CIA-backed insurgency. Islamist extremists of every extraction, not to mention ISIS, with the common goal of replacing al-Assad with an extreme form of Sunni Islam. Everyone armed with American weapons supplied directly by the US or indirectly through Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and others.

Branded a threat to national security, Syria has since been the target of a massive, relentless disinformation campaign orchestrated at multiple levels in the US Threats had to be dealt with, which meant the US government needed total, uncompromising public support. What better way to get that support than to depict your enemy as a sadistic, barbaric dictator? After all, he kills children! Any normal human being would get on the band wagon, hating the enemy on a visceral level.

The smear campaign against Syria in general – and Bashar al-Assad personally – has been ongoing for years. We’ve seen nothing but horror stories come out of Syria. Allegations of chemical weapons, barrel bombing of civilians, terrible crimes against humanity. We’re seldom presented with evidence, yet the headlines stick in our minds. It’s not what’s true, it’s what people believe, and headlines are great indoctrination tools. Who cares about proof anymore? If the government says it true, it must be true.

The smear machine is again in high gear, with reports of mass executions in a Syria prison accompanied by ghastly headlines such as:

We can react with nothing but horror, wondering how the world can allow such things to happen. We all want President Bashar al-Assad, known in the press as Syria’s henchman or more affectionately the butcher of Damascus, to be brought to justice. Who wouldn’t? In practical terms, this means regime change, which has long been the American objective. Interventionism.

What a happy coincidence that the Syrian prison stories happen to support American foreign policy objectives! The reason is obvious to some: the enemy of your friend is your enemy. Syria is an enemy of the Saudis, who are America’s best friend. No foreign country has more control of the US government than Saudi Arabia.

The mass media stories on Syrian prison exterminations conjure up images of people tortured to death in dark, dingy rooms. They turn our stomachs. They cry out for justice.

If only they were true.

If my mother taught me anything, it was "don’t believe everything you read". Mothers sometimes have good advice, so let’s look at the stories more carefully to see if they merit our belief.

The first thing that strikes one is the sensationalist tone. Huge numbers, if inconsistent. CNN goes so far as to give us an exact total: 17,723. A solid, mathematical fact. How they reached that figure isn’t important, right? Then we have gruesome depictions such as "exterminations" and "slaughterhouse". Words that will make readers cringe and draw inevitable conclusions even before reading the articles. The headlines say it all.

In a court of law, one would immediately demand proof. Where is the evidence? The fact that all the stories first appeared in August 2016 is interesting. As it turns out, they’re all based on a single report published by Amnesty International.

On the surface, the report is formatted to look like a scholarly paper, with footnotes, dates, methodologies, procedures. All very impressive to the layman. One might realize it departs from a scholarly premise by its title. "Human Slaughterhouse. Mass Hangings and Extermination at Saydnaya Prison, Syria". Provocative, deliberate, even juicy. A truly scholar paper would have been titled something less charged, like "Executions in Syrian Prisons: A Study". Objective, detached, scientific. But Amnesty’s purpose wasn’t to present facts but rather to sway opinion, and at the highest levels: The US Congress, the US courts, the US presidency, the United Nations, not to mention the western public in general.

In the report, Amnesty states (paragraph 5 on page 6) that that "between 5,000 and 13,000 people were extra judicially executed at Saydnaya between September 2011 and December 2015". Evidence please? You have to dig down to paragraph 2 on page 17 to get some justification.

"People who worked within the prison authorities at Saydnaya told Amnesty International that extra judicial executions related to the crisis in Syria first began in September 2011. Since that time, the frequency with which they have been carried out has varied and increased. For the first four months, it was usual for between seven and 20 people to be executed every 10-15 days. For the following 11 months, between 20 and 50 people were executed once a week, usually on Monday nights. For the subsequent six months, groups of between 20 and 50 people were executed once or twice a week"

Let’s break everything down.

  1. "People who worked within the prison". Who exactly? We expect names, descriptions and dates. No scientific or legal paper can accept anonymous sources. They amount to less than hearsay. Alleged hearsay. Amnesty tells us they interviewed 84 people, without giving a single name. As it turns out (paragraph 3 on page 5), we’re told "the majority of these interviews were carried out in southern Turkey. The remaining interviews were conducted by telephone or through other remote means…" Really? Again no names or dates. Amnesty could have called anyone and no one. We have to take their word for it. For all we know, they could have interviewed a bunch of government opposition fighters or made up numbers entirely.
  2. The report concludes that "Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were extra judicially executed". Why the huge range of uncertainty? Well, because "people who worked within the prison" gave widely ranging estimates. Then those estimates were arbitrarily extrapolated to cover the period from 2011 to 2015. Simple. Easy to explain. But without evidence, it all amounts to pure fantasy. Luckily it plays well on the streets of America and sounds plausible to those who have been duped by the corporate media and the government for so long.

And what to say about recent reports of a crematorium inside the Saydnaya prison grounds? We’ve seen the headlines. Here’s one from the Washington Post:

US says Syria built crematorium to handle mass prisoner killings. May 15, 2017.

How terrible! Another outrage from that savage al-Assad. The article opens with a flat statement. "The Syrian government has constructed and is using a crematorium at its notorious Sednaya [Saydnaya] military prison near Damascus to clandestinely dispose of the bodies of prisoners it continues to execute inside the facility", the State Department said Monday.

A statement of certainty: "The Syrian government has constructed and is using a crematorium". No ifs ands or buts about it. Crematorium built and in use. Done. Fact.

The onslaught of worldwide stories about the Syrian crematory should lead to a question: Why is it that reports of this crematorium suddenly exploded on the global scene? Was the crematorium just built? No, according to Washington. With a little digging, we discover that all the stories are tied (again) to a single source: a newly declassified satellite image of Saydnaya prison. The picture was published worldwide. Click here for the New York Times story.

The alleged crematorium is not new at all. The claim for its existence stems from a 2015 spy-satellite winter photo, showing all the prison buildings covered in snow except one. That’s it. No other proof. Not even a single witness, alleged or otherwise. The logic is simple: no snow, ergo crematorium. It goes without saying that the explanations for a building not having snow on it are many, none of which have anything to do with crematoriums. And why would a crematorium NOT have snow? It’s not like the interior of the whole building is somehow overheated, melting snow clear through the roof. Crematoriums use simple gas-operated furnaces and vent their hot exhaust through a chimney. The building doesn’t change temperature as a whole. A more telling intelligence photo might have been a false-colored thermal camera image showing an unusually hot exhaust plume from the building’s chimney. To be burning the number of bodies claimed, the plume would have been substantial. No such evidence. But there was no snow on the roof.

There are two particularly interesting facts about the crematorium story:

  1. If the satellite photo was taken in 2015, why didn’t Amnesty’s 2016 report fail to even mention it? The building is certainly not invisible, and would have definitely been known to "People who worked within the prison".
  2. The timing of the crematorium story is most opportune. How fortunate the timing of the government’s decision to declassify a 2-year old picture and make it public, mere days before Trump’s first trip abroad! And what country tops his itinerary? Take a guess, but it begins with Saudi. What better climate to discuss intervention in Syria than a world clamoring to "stop the butcher"?

The public has become accustomed to media and government stories peddled without evidence, playing on shear emotion. The pseudo-journalists of today are heavy on accusations and light on facts, especially when dealing with perceived foes of the United States. We’re all still waiting for the evidence about Russia’s tampering with the US elections, Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Convention servers, Russia’s secret ties with Trump. Given what’s at stake, if evidence existed it would have been presented long ago, and the massive US smear machine would have had a field day.

Edmund "Ted" Faison is a software architect living in Southern California. With an electrical engineering degree from California State University, Fullerton, he has published several books on computer and software technology. He also writes fiction. Having once lived in Europe, he developed a keen interest in international affairs, with special emphasis on American foreign policy.