Syria Special: How Regime May Have Staged “Rebel Attack” on Aleppo Hospital…and Fooled World’s Media

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PHOTO: Damage outside al-Dhabeet Hospital in west Aleppo on Tuesday — “rebel rockets” or regime car bomb?


On Tuesday morning, Syria’s State media added an important story to its claims of rebel attacks on civilians in regime-held areas of Aleppo city.

For the first time, the outlets proclaimed that a medical facility had been hit, declaring that “terrorist rockets” had struck the al-Dhabeet Maternity Hospital in west Aleppo. Three women had been killed and 17 women and children wounded, said State news agency SANA. Photographs showed damage to the front of the hospital, with windows blown out, and destroyed cars in the street.

But the narrative immediately ran into trouble. Analysts quickly noted that the pictures did not point to a rocket attack but to a vehicle bomb, given that one of the cars had been blown into pieces and that the hospital showed the widespread effects of a bombing rather than the more direct impact of a rocket. Witnesses, including the hospital director, spoke of a “blast” rather than a strike from the air.

So State media shifted the story. By afternoon, it was a shell that had hit a military vehicle, causing an explosion that fit better with the photographs.

Even later, some accounts began speaking of a “missile” that had been fired on the hospital, the first time that the rebels would have carried out that type of attack on a civilian target in Aleppo.

None of this, however, dealt with the problems that the witnesses had not heard the whistle associated with a rocket or missile. Nor did it explain why the car which had been blown apart appeared to be that of a civilian, and not the armed forces.

Perhaps unwittingly, the Assad regime’s outlet had raised the propaganda stakes. Initially, their hope was to take attention away from the surge in Russian and regime airstrikes and missiles that had not only killed more than 250 civilians in and near Aleppo since April, but had destroyed a major hospital, a clinic, a medical warehouse, and a civil defense center.

Those attacks had prompted a UN Security Council session on Tuesday which unanimously called for an end to the attacks and protection of all medical personnel. The regime’s hope may have been to divert attention from itself and onto the “terrorist” rebels, often framed — inaccurately — as the jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra.

The exposure of a car bomb would not only undermine that effort but raise a bigger PR problem for regime officials. Given the high level of security in the area of the hospital — and given that rebels have never penetrated that security, even if they had sought to do so — the most plausible explanation is that the car was planted in the area. Put bluntly, the Assad regime had staged a “false flag” operation, killing some of the civilians that it claims to protect.

How to escape that possibility? Well, there is always the glimmer that the world’s media will run your original story, even with all its flaws.

And so far the Assad regime has that security, with international outlets — from The New York Times to Reuters — sheltering it with lead paragraphs about rebel “rockets” and “missiles”.

THE LOCATION

The al-Dhabeet Hospital is well to the south of the area where all the claimed “terrorist rockets” had previously landed in west Aleppo. It is not close to any of the sites that have been named by Syrian State media. It is distant from the current fighting between rebels and regime forces in the northwest of the city.

AL-DHABEET MAP

(Map: Julian Roecpke)

The distance — put at 1.6 km from the closest rebel line — is significant because it places the hospital out of reach of the rebels’ firing positions for “hell cannons” and mortars, blamed for most of the attacks on west Aleppo. The longer-range Grad rocket can travel up to 20 km, but its lack of precision would mean — if it was used — that the hospital was not deliberately targeted.

Moreover, the location of the hospital hinders the possibility of a howitzer, artillery, or tank shell. With all the tall buildings surrounding al-Dhabeet, it would be close to a miracle trajectory for a shell to have caused the supposed impact on the street in front of the hospital.

That leaves the idea of a pinpoint missile strike — the belated explanation by some pro-Assad outlets — but no one has established the likely path of such an attack, especially given that rebel forces have not previously attempted such a launch in the Aleppo battle.

THE DAMAGE

The photographs of the attack clearly showed the destruction of cars in front of the hospital.

AL-DHABEET HOSPITAL ALEPPO 03-05-16

A closer look identifies one vehicle which appears to have been blown apart from the inside, not from an external strike:

AL-DHABEET CAR

Assad’s ally Russia unwittingly added questions with raw video of the destruction from State broadcaster RT:

And another Russian outlet, ANNA News, features an outpatient who speaks (2:48 mark) of a “big bomb”, matching the account of the hospital’s director and other witnesses:

Both photographs and video also show the damage across the hospital, including shattered windows and pockmarked faced, pointing to the widespread impact associated with a car bomb.

So far there has been no evidence of any canister associated with a rocket.

THE CHANGING EXPLANATION

Witnesses at the site claimed that Syrian intelligence officers quickly moved into the area after the blast, not only securing the area but setting up the “rockets” explanation. State media immediately put out the story of 3 dead and injured, and some accomplices — such as Murad Gazdiev of Russia’s RT — went farther with inflated casualty figures:

State news agency SANA did not go as far as to put out the “two dozen” number, and it soon faced pressure over the photographs challenging the rocket narrative. So the line changed to the “missile on a military vehicle”.

However, when even that proved difficult, SANA reverted to the vague “terrorist organizations’ attacks”, although the Foreign Ministry wrote letters to the UN which continued to declared that “terrorists fired large rocket shells”, and SANA’s brief update on Wednesday referred to “rocket shells”.

THE INTERNATIONAL MEDIA

Given all the questions around the attack and the inconsistencies in State media, one might have expected some caution in international coverage of the incident.

But, fortunately for the Assad regime, there has been no scrutiny. Reuters is blunt: “Rebel fighters…fired rockets on a hospital.” Al Jazeera follows with “a rebel rocket attack”.

Anne Barnard of The New York Times, one of the best correspondents on Syria, is more cautious; however, she fails to pick up on the significance of the images challenging the official narrative: “Insurgent shelling hit a maternity hospital in the government-held section of the Syrian city of Aleppo on Tuesday, according to state media and footage from the scene.”

And The Washington Post, rather than pausing for a careful settlement, runs a banner headline: “Rebel Shelling Hits Aleppo Hospital Amid Cease-Fire Efforts”. It asserts in the lead paragraph:

A Syrian rebel assault on government-held parts of Aleppo killed as many as 19 people, activists and Syrian state media said Tuesday, in attacks that included a deadly rocket strike on a hospital.

Part of the challenge is that journalists are unable to get into regime district of Aleppo to verify stories. Declan Walsh of The New York Times finally was able last week to enter the area to carry out some interviews, but he departed for Damascus before Tuesday’s events.

But part of the media’s difficulty is self-imposed, with reliance on limited and far-from-reliable channels. Reuters, for example, draws almost all their information — not just on Aleppo but on developments across Syria — from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the organization founded by a Syrian shopkeeper in Britain which often recycles chatter as confirmed facts. In turn, Al Jazeera relies on Reuters for much of their output, and The Huffington Post reprints the Reuters article under the headline, “Aleppo Hospital Hit By Rebel Rockets“. Other outlets, as in Tuesday’s case, are dependent on transmitting whatever claim is circulated by Syrian State media.

ASKING QUESTIONS

But perhaps the biggest challenge is just asking questions, rather than printing without critique. Given the demand to publish quickly, combined with the difficulty of a complex situation, the easiest option is to put out the narrative as confirmed.

And, of course, that is what the Assad regime will have known going into Tuesday. It does not want questions asked. It wants questions deflected — notably over the Russian-regime attacks in and near Aleppo on civilian targets, including on medical facilities. It wants to change the narrative, as it tries to hold out against meaningful political transition, especially one that puts President Assad at risk of a future trial.

The media is still citing last week’s Russian-regime assaults that killed doctors, rescuers, patients, and other civilians, but today it is almost always coupling this with the supposed tragic “balance” of the al-Dhabeet incident.

Soon — at least until the next Russian-regime attack that leaves scores dead at a medical facility which is supposed about the saving of lives — all the incidents will disappear.

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13 COMMENTS

  1. Good work Scott.
    The Assad regime has a history of staging false-flag attacks so I think you are right. I wrote about some of them here: http://claysbeach.blogspot.com/2013/12/through-looking-glass-viet-cong.html

    Item 5
    Nawaf Fares, formerly Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, defected in July 2012. He was interviewed by James Bay of Al Jazeera live on Inside Syria. Among the many interesting things he said was that all the large explosions in Damascus were not the work of terrorist but of the regime. He said the explosion that struck the intelligence headquarters, most people got a 15 minute notice to get out of the building. that’s how he knew it was the work of the regime. He said they had also done this sort of thing in Iraq. [Al Jazeera video now blocked in the US]

    Item 4
    Adham Saif al-Din, writing for Asharq Al-Awsat, 4 Jan 2013, spoken to an anonymous “Syrian regime media defector, who previously worked at the pro-Assad Addounia TV” and reported:

    Al-Arabiya published a video, leaked by the same media defector, which shows a young Syrian woman – her features blurred to protect her identity – relating the story of how she was kidnapped by Syrian rebels in the city of Harasta in Rif Dimashq governorate. Following this, we see a clip of one of the young men confessing to his part in this kidnapping; the only problem is that the story is a complete sham. In fact, the compete video clip shows the young Syrian woman – her features uncovered – relating the same story, only this time smiling and stumbling over her lines.

    The Syrian defector informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the scene will have been pre-prepared at one of the security branches. Following this, Syrian state media correspondents will go to record confessions with the speaker being prompted in what he must say to harm the Syrian revolution and revolutionary forces.”

    He added “the large number of security branches and their lack of coordination means that sometimes blatant contradictions appear on television such as with regards to the killing of Sarriya Hassoun, the son of Syrian Grand Mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun. Syrian state television broadcast the confession of two separate terrorist cells – telling two different stories – regarding Sarriya Hassoun’s death. Of course, both stories highlighted the aspects that the Syrian regime wanted highlighting.”

    Item 3
    Abdullah al-Omar is a defector that claims he worked in the press office of the presidential palace in Damascus, as part of a 15-person team under the direction of long-time government spokeswoman and presidential adviser Bouthaina Shabaan. After he defected in Sept 2012, CNN conducted a four hour interview with him and reported:

    Until he defected and fled the Syrian capital last month, al-Omar said, the bulk of his work consisted of lying.

    “Our job was to fabricate, make deceptions and cover up for Bashar al-Assad’s crimes,” he said.

    It is impossible to independently confirm al-Omar’s claims. The fact that he freely admits to a career as a government propagandist makes him a somewhat unreliable whistle-blower.

    However, the editorial director of a pro-rebel media organization who asked not to be named for security reasons confirmed to CNN that he knows al-Omar worked for Syrian secret police.

    “He is the biggest informant for the Al Jawiya,” the Syrian journalist said, referring to Syria’s much-feared air force intelligence agency. “He was a very strong informant who worked for the palace and worked for Bouthaina (Shabaan).”

    During a four-hour interview in Istanbul, al-Omar described in detail some of the propaganda methods used by pro-government media.

    During the government’s artillery bombardment of the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs, loyalist women were brought in and disguised as locals for government television interviews, he said.

    “The women would say that the massacres against men, women and children were perpetrated by armed gangs, when it was actually the Syrian regime, security forces and the Shabiha” — the pro-government militia — “who were behind these horrendous acts,” al-Omar said.

    These claims are backed by the accounts of residents of Homs, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal at the hands of Syrian security forces.

    “I remember that day as if it was yesterday, when state TV showed Assad parading through Baba Amr, not a single resident was from the area,” said a native of Homs, now exiled to neighboring Lebanon. “They brought them from neighboring towns from the countryside so they could pretend he was getting a hero’s welcome, that he was greeted as a beloved leader, when in reality everyone in Homs knew he was behind the destruction of every house and the killing of every innocent civilian on Homs and every other city in Syria.”

    Al-Omar said al-Assad worked out of an office about 30 meters down the corridor from the room where the press department was stationed. He claimed the beleaguered president was obsessed with foreign media coverage of Syria.

    “Bashar al-Assad has 16 TV screens in the meeting room, in his office, and also in the press office,” the defector said. “Most news channels on the top row of the TV screens were Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, BBC, CNN. … He considered media people his first enemy. He hated them more than the revolution of the Free Syrian Army, especially the foreign reporters who enter Syria, because these were people who were showing the true picture and truth about what’s happening in Syria. …

    “He would get very angry and swear, cursing the secret police and security forces saying, why can’t they find out where these reporters are, capture them and ‘bring them to me so that I can kill them.'” [Al Jazeera video now blocked in the US]

    • The Assad regime has a history of staging false-flag attacks so I think you are right. I wrote about some of them here

      Having read through that post, most of it is either flawed or doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Other allegations about Assad buddying up to the Muslim Brotherhood are undermined by Wikileaks cables showing the US taking the MB under their wing to overthrow Assad.
      http://www.cbsnews.com/news/wikileaks-us-secretly-backed-syria-opposition/

      In fact a great deal of it is either self referencing or relies on spurious sources or US military sources, which have been shown to be either heavily biased and politicised or very unreliable.

      I mean seriously, would anyone with a modicum of self respect cite the US State Department and expect to be taken seriously?

      Nawaf Fares, formerly Syria’s ambassador to Iraq, defected in July 2012. He was interviewed by James Bay of Al Jazeera live on Inside Syria.

      The funny thing is I did a Google search and the only hits were those to your blog. Do you have a link?

      Al-Arabiya published a video, leaked by the same media defector, which shows a young Syrian woman

      If true it’s hardly evidence of a false flag so much as propaganda and disinformation.

      It is impossible to independently confirm al-Omar’s claims.

      This comment from you stood out for the mere fact that the same is true of most of the witnesses you cite in your article.

      These claims are backed by the accounts of residents of Homs, who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal at the hands of Syrian security forces.

      Doesn’t hold water. Why would Homs exiles in Lebanon be fearful of reprisal at the hands of Syrian security forces?

      Al-Omar said al-Assad worked out of an office about 30 meters down the corridor from the room where the press department was stationed. He claimed the beleaguered president was obsessed with foreign media coverage of Syria.

      Again doesn’t hold water. Not only not evidence of a false flag, but why would Assad be bombing hospitals and dropping barrel bombs if he was so obsessed with foreign media coverage? Obviously he’s not getting favourable reviews from CNN and the like, so one would think that someone so obsessed with foreign media coverage would modify his tactics rather than trying to find those pesky foreign reporters and trying to kill them.

      This also doesn’t add up by way of the fact that there are very few foreign reporters in Syria, especially reporting from rebels held areas.

      • The State Department gave Barada TV $6 million over 5 years. Only Assad and his supporters will sell the “US backed” sponsorship label so cheap – but then they are “accepting” the “honor” for their enemy when people like you wave this WikiLeaks claim of $6million to 1 group in London to claim the
        US has taken the Syrian Revolution “under its wing” to overthrow Assad. See also:
        http://claysbeach.blogspot.com/2016/04/robert-f-kennedys-jr-andromeda-strain.html
        I’ve licensed film to RT for thousands. Does that make me a “Putin proxy?”

        • You like fairy tales – without any connecrion to reality?

          Shishakli sought good relations with Western countries, but maintained Syria’s uncompromising stance towards Israel. Syrian relations with the Hashemite monarchies of Jordan and Iraq were poor during his presidency, but he also mistrusted the rapid spread of Nasserism.

          Additional relations with both Britain and the United States were mixed. Britain courted Shishakli during the early period of his rule in the hope that Syria would join plans for a British-led Middle East Defence Organization.

          The United States offered Shishakli considerable sums of money to settle Palestinian refugees in Syria and turn them into Syrians. Shishakli, although tempted by these offers of Western arms and money, did not take them.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adib_Shishakli

          BTW – SSNP grew to a position of considerable influence in the years following the country’s independence in 1946, and was a major political force immediately after the restoration of democracy in 1954.

          But it was nether surpported by US ………………………………..

        • . Only Assad and his supporters will sell the “US backed” sponsorship label so cheap

          No one ever said the State Department was cheap. That is only the tip of the iceberg. They have been funding opposition groups to the tune of a billion dollars a year and rolled out 4 vetted fighters at the paltry 100 million each.

          The fact your comments and blog is so laden with ad hominems betrays any objectivity you might be trying to establish. You couldn’t even answer my question.

        • Only Assad and his supporters will sell the “US backed” sponsorship label so cheap
          Who ever said the State Department was cheap? That is just the tip of the iceberg. They are giving 1 billion a year to the opposition in Syria and spent 5 billion to achieve regime change in Ukraine.
          https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/lawmakers-move-to-curb-1-billion-cia-program-to-train-syrian-rebels/2015/06/12/b0f45a9e-1114-11e5-adec-e82f8395c032_story.html
          Not to mention what he Saudis and Gulf allies put in, as Joe Biden let slip.

          but then they are “accepting” the “honor” for their enemy when people like you wave this WikiLeaks claim of $6million to 1 group in London to claim the
          There’s plenty more where that came from and you know it, seeing as you’re familiar with the work of Sy Hersh. BTW. Your blog article completely missed the fact that the US had the 12 top leaders of ISIS locked up at Camp Bucca in Iraq and released all of them.

          • From early stages of the civil conflict in Syria, major Western countries such as the U.S, France, and the UK provide political, military and logistic support to the opposition as well as rebel groups in Syria that are not designated by them as terrorist.

            The predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the main armed service of the Kurdish Supreme Committee, the government of Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), have received military and logistic support from Iraqi Kurdistan and air support by U.S., Canada, British and French air force.

            It means: FSA troops are fighting against Daesh and against terrorists like Assad.
            There is nothing wrong with it to surpport FSA

      • Assad is bombing hospitals and dropping barrel bombs since 2011
        ====================================================
        MSF stops sharing Syria hospital locations after ‘deliberate’ attacks

        Hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria are refusing to share GPS coordinates with Russian and Syrian authorities because of repeated attacks on medical facilities and workers, Médecins Sans Frontières and humanitarian workers on the ground have said.

        International charity MSF said it took the decision not to formally inform Syria’s government or its Russian allies about the location of some medical facilities, such as the one hit by a deadly airstrike this week, amid concerns that doing so could make them targets.

        Joanne Liu, MSF International president, told reporters in Geneva that deliberate attacks on civilian infrastructures were routine. “Healthcare in Syria is in the crosshair of bombs and missiles. It has collapsed,” Liu said. “Let me be clear: attacks on civilians and hospitals must stop. The normalisation of such attacks is intolerable.”

        Humanitarian officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Guardian that the Syrian government has explicitly threatened to bomb a hospital in a besieged suburb of Damascus if it continues to admit emergency cases, and said doctors and families were targeted by the regime.

        “Since 2011 during the demonstration time, medical activities that are not under their control are considered by the government of Syria as illegal and consequently as legitimate targets,” one official said. “This decision explains the repeated threat, arrest, torture and killing of doctors … and their direct families in addition to the systematic targeting of networks in charge of supplying underground medical activities in besieged zones.”

        http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/18/msf-will-not-share-syria-gps-locations-after-deliberate-attacks

        The hospital attacks b< assad have been described as brutal. Secondary strikes often follow the initial hit. Bombers will lay in wait for rescuers to arrive, then strike again in an attempt to wipe out the medical personnel trying to help the injured.

        "Today in Syria, the abnormal is now normal. The unacceptable is accepted," Joanne Liu, the international president of Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement this week. "… Deliberate attacks against civilian infrastructure, including hospitals struggling to provide lifesaving assistance, are routine. Healthcare in Syria is in the crosshair of bombs and missiles. It has collapsed."

  2. Good post, Scott. If you follow the main video that has been circulated the scenario looks as follows: the origin of the blast appears to be the silver car you focus on, which was far more seriously destroyed than any other vehicle; it then sets off a blaze (but not apparently, an explosion) in an adjacent flatbed truck which is presumably the “military vehicle” that later regime reports refer to, but there’s nothing very military in its appearance ; this becomes the main focus of attention of the responders to the incident. The damage to the hospital looks dramatic but appears to be mostly just to the external cladding of the building (you have people on the outside of the building tearing off the damaged cladding shortly after the explosion, which they are unlikely to have done if the building had suffered structural damage). All of this seems to confirm your hypothesis of a car bomb. A proper forensic examination of the footage by someone with knowledge of the blast effects of military munitions could probably further clarify this.

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