Monday, 23 December 2013

A Year Of Conflict In Syria In Ten Videos - 6 to 4

Part one of this series can be found here.

6 - Abu Sakkar

Probably the most notorious video of the conflict so far, the video posted online in May showed a member of the Syrian opposition, Abu Sakkar, stating that "we will eat your hearts and your livers, you soldiers of Bashar the dog!", then cutting out an organ from the corpse on the ground, and biting down on it.  There's many edited versions of the video online, here's an example of one of them

One thing that's interesting to note is the video that appeared online was actually edited before it was even posted.  Supposedly, the edited video was sent to pro-government groups as a threat, but earlier versions seen by various organisations also included direct threats to Alawites that were apparently removed before the video was sent out.

The media storm that followed this video was quite unique for any video coming from Syria, and Abu Sakkar rapidly became the poster boy for anti-opposition sentiments, with one individual's act being used to paint the opposition as "cannibal rebels", even by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who stated "one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras".  In the media storm that followed, Abu Sakkar even felt the need to justify his actions, claiming images on the dead man's phone of rape and child killing had been his motivation, and telling the BBC "I didn't want to do this. I had to.  We have to terrify the enemy, humiliate them, just as they do to us. Now, they won't dare be wherever Abu Sakkar is.".

Whatever motivation or justification Abu Sakkar claimed, in the public imagination he came to represent the darkest elements of the Syrian opposition, and the increasingly extreme nature of the conflict.

5 - Chasing White Grenades In Saraqeb

While many people who know my blog are no doubt very familiar with my work on the August 21st Sarin attack in Damascus, what many people are unaware of is my equally obsessive investigation into another alleged chemical attack in the town of Saraqeb, Idlib, on April 29th. One particularly unusual element of the attack was the delivery method, which was reportedly white grenades, as shown below

France had received samples from the scene of the attack which they claimed contained evidence of Sarin. Despite that, so many different details of the attack didn't make sense to me.  From piecing together various pieces of evidence (which I detailed here) I discovered the method of attack was claimed to be two white grenades, placed inside a breeze/cinder-block (the remains of which can be see here), which was then dropped from a helicopter, with the grenades apparently producing smoke as they fell.  This didn't seem to make sense if it was a Sarin attack; the grenades would have produced heat while producing smoke, and as Sarin is heat-sensitive it would have degrading the Sarin; the scale of the attack was tiny on areas with no obvious military value; and all-in-all it seemed like the most inefficient, awkward, and potentially self-endangering way of using Sarin.

In fact, I would have almost have dismissed the attack if it wasn't for another alleged Sarin attack two weeks earlier in Sheikh Maqsoud, Aleppo.  Again, there were reports of grenades dropped from helicopters, a small number of causalities, and photographs showing the same type of white grenade surrounded by the remains of what appears to be a disintegrated breeze/cinder-block.

To add to the confusion, a Jabhat al-Nusra member was photographed with the same type of grenade, and that led to the journalist Alfred Hackensberger hunting for the grenades in Syria, where he discovered most people knew them as just plain smoke grenades.

After that the trail went cold, with no more attacks using this unusual method reported, and I was inclined to think that the attacks were possibly not Sarin at all, but something else.  It wasn't until the final UN report on the use of chemical weapons was published that the agent used in the attack was possibly identified.  One victim of the Saraqeb was taken to Turkey, and her corpse was made available for testing to the investigation team.  They discovered her organs had traces of Sarin in them, and this seemed to strongly point towards Sarin being used in Saraqeb. While the report had little to say on Sheikh Maqsoud attack, it seems not unreasonable to assume the same chemical agent was used.

The question is then, why?  As I said before, the attacks were executed in a very unusual fashion, seemed capable of resulting in small numbers of causalities, and were on targets with no obvious military value.  So the question remains, why did the Syrian military go to the risk of delivering Sarin in such a self-endangering and seemingly pointless manner?

4 - Qatar, Sudan, China, And Missiles

Croatian weapons weren't the only arms smuggled to the Syrian opposition in 2013.  In February, a couple of months after the first sighting of Croatian weapons, Chinese FN-6 MANPADS (MAN Portable Air Defence Systems) started to appear in the east of the country

At the time it was unclear exactly where they had come from.  It was considered highly unlikely that the Western powers involved in the conflict would sign off on MANPADS being supplied to a fractured opposition, so one theory was they came from an as yet unknown stock of weapons supplied to the Syrian government by China.  However, several months later, the New York Times revealed Sudan had been selling the FN-6 MANPADS to Qatar, who had been supplying them to the opposition.  In fact, it also appears other Chinese weapons havd been provided by Sudan to Qatar, including Chinese HJ-8E ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles), M99 anti-materiel rifles, QLZ-87 automatic grenade launchers, and other weapons.

Much like the Croatian weapons smuggling, this goes to show that YouTube can be the starting point of investigations that can uncover all sorts of newsworthy information.

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