Mass Murder in Slow Motion (I): East Ghouta

This is the first of a series of posts – continuing my discussions of Cities under Siege in Syria here, here and here – that will examine the siege of East Ghouta in detail.

Today I begin with some basic parameters of East Ghouta, and in subsequent posts I’ll focus on three issues: the siege economy and geographies of precarity; military and paramilitary violence, ‘de-escalation’ and the endgame; and – the hinge linking these two and continuing my work on ‘the death of the clinic‘  – medical care under fire.

From paradise to hell on earth

Eastern Ghouta (‘Ghouta Orientale’ on the map from Le Monde above; ‘Damas’ is of course Damascus) has often been extolled as ‘a Garden of Eden’, ‘an earthly paradise’ and an ‘oasis’.  In the fourteenth century Ibn al-Wardi described the Ghouta as ‘the fairest place on earth’:

. . . full of water, flowering trees, and passing birds, with exquisite flowers, wrapped in branches and paradise-like greenery. For eighteen miles, it is nothing but gardens and castles, surrounded by high mountains in every direction, and from these mountains flows water, which forms into several rivers inside the Ghouta.

Before the present wars much of the Ghouta was a rich, fertile agricultural landscape, a mix of small farms producing wheat and barley, fruits and vegetables (notably tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini), and raising herds of dairy cattle whose milk and other products fed into the main Damascus markets.  Most arable production depended on irrigation delivered through a de-centralised network of water pumps, pipes and channels.

The agrarian economy was seriously disrupted by the siege imposed by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies from 2012.  The siege varied in intensity, but in its first report Siege Watch described the importance – and insufficiency – of these local resources:

While much of the population in Eastern Ghouta has become dependent on local farming 
for survival, the volume and variety of crops that are being produced is still insufficient for 
the population, since modern mechanized farming methods to water and harvest crops are unavailable and new seeds must be smuggled in. Some of the main crops being produced include wheat, barley, broad beans, and peas. The communities closest to Damascus are more urban areas with little arable land, so there is an uneven distribution of locally produced food within besieged Eastern Ghouta. Humanitarian conditions deteriorate in the winter when little locally produced food is available and prices increase.

Cutting off the electricity supply and limiting access to fuel also compromised vital irrigation systems (and much more besides), and many local people had to turn to wood for heating and cooking which resulted in extensive deforestation.

By November 2015 the price of firewood had soared:

Abu Ayman, an official in the Kafr Batna Relief Office, said that a family consisting of six people usually requires about 5 kg of firewood per day, costing up to 15,000 Syrian pounds (around $50) a month.
Fruitless trees are our first source of firewood, as well as the destroyed houses in the cities of Jobar, Ain Tarma and Harasta,” says Asaad, a firewood seller in the town of Jisreen…
Abu Shadi, the Director of Agricultural Office, said: “The orchards of Ghouta, known historically for their intense beauty, are on their way to desertification. Another year of the siege is enough to do so, especially since the urgent need for fuel prompted some people to cut down these trees without the knowledge of their owners.”


The military and paramilitary campaigns, the threats from mortars, snipers and bombs to workers in the fields, combined with a worsening drought (which made those irrigation pumps all the more important) to reduce agricultural production.  And as the regime’s forces advanced so the agricultural base available to the besieged population contracted.  (The reverse was also true: the regime desperately needed to regain access to its old ‘breadbaskets’, most of which were in rebel areas outside its control).

Much of the destruction of food resources was deliberate.  This from Dan Wilkofsky and Ammar Hamou in June 2016, shortly after the Syrian Arab Army captured wheat fields in the south of the region:

Residents of East Ghouta, where a half-million people have been encircled by the Syrian military and its allies, say the government is targeting their food supply as much as it is trying to gain ground. They say that weeks after capturing the area’s breadbasket, a stretch of farmland hundreds of acres wide, the government is using airstrikes and mortar attacks to start fires in the fields that remain in rebel hands [see photograph below].

“People gather the wheat and heap it up, only for the regime to target the piles and burn them,” Khalid Abu Suleiman…  said on Thursday from the al-Marj region.

Fires have spread quickly through wheat fields sitting under the June sun. “When wheat turns yellow, the regime can spot it easily and a small shell is enough to burn the harvest,” Douma resident Mohammed Khabiya said on Thursday.


I’ll have much more to say about all this – and the survival strategies and smuggling routes that emerged in response – in my next post, but memories of the bounty of the region haunt those who inhabit its now ruined landscape.  ‘The area was once known for its intense carpet of fruit trees, vegetables and maize,’ wrote a former resident last month, but today ‘Ghouta is a scene of grey death.’  And here is a local doctor talking to the BBC just last weekend:

The place where Dr Hamid was born and raised had been abandoned to its own slow death…  It was a place that people came to from Damascus, with their wives and husbands and children, for weekend picnics, or to shop for cheap merchandise in the bustling markets.  “They came here from all around to smell the fresh air and the rivers and the trees,” he said. “To me it was a paradise on the Earth.” Now he prays in his cramped shelter at night that his children will one day see the place he can still conjure in his mind, “as green as it was when I was a boy”. “It may be too late for me,” he said, “but God willing, our children will see these days.”

Political rebellion and political violence

In the 1920s the Ghouta was a springboard for Syrian nationalism and its ragged, serial insurgency against French colonial occupation –  ‘its orchards and villages provided sustenance for the insurgency of 1925’, wrote Michael Provence in his account of The Great Syrian Revolt, while hundreds of villagers in the Ghouta were killed or executed during the counterinsurgency.  He continued:

Despite months of agitation and countless pamphlets and proclamations, the French bombardment of Damascus ended any organized mobilization in the city. The city’s destruction indelibly underscored the inability of the urban elite to lead resistance. But the effects of the bombardment were not what [French] mandate authorities had hoped. Resistance shifted back to the Ghuta and the surrounding countryside. The destruction of their city failed to pacify the population with fear and led to an outraged expansion of rebel activity, especially among the more humble inhabitants. Guerrilla bands soon gained control of the countryside on all sides of the city. They continually cut the lines of communication by road, telephone, and train, on all sides of the city Damascus went days on end virtually cut off from outside contact. Large areas of the old city were in rebel hands night after night. Contemporary sources document that the southern region was completely under the control of the insurgents. It took more than a year, and massive reinforcements of troops and equipment, for the mandatory power to regain effective control of the countryside of Damascus.

(You can find much more on French counterinsurgency and colonial violence in David Nef‘s Occupying Syria under the French Mandate: insurgency, space and state formation (Cambridge, 2012)).

Abu Ahmad, an activist from Kafr Batna, recalling that ‘Eastern Ghouta has always been at the heart of revolutionary struggles in Syria’, drew a direct line of descent from the Syrian Revolt to the mass mobilisations against the Assad regime during the Arab Spring.  He insisted that the contemporary rebellion in the Ghouta had retained its independent spirit:  keeping its distance from international power-brokers, so he claimed, it was ‘one of the last arenas of a real civil war’ – so much so, that its fall ‘would spell the end of the original battle between the government and the opposition.’

This time around these have been vigorously urban as well as rural movements.  After independence from France in 1946, in the north and west of the Ghouta, closer to Damascus, agriculture gave way to a peri-urban fringe: a scatter of hard-scrabble, cinder and concrete block towns (above).  Aron Lund takes up the story:

Wheat fields were crisscrossed by roads and power lines, while factories, army compounds, and drab housing projects spread out of the city and into the countryside. The ancient oasis seemed destined to disappear.

Douma, which had for hundreds of years been a small town of mosques and Islamic learning, grew into a city in its own right. Many villages were swallowed up by the capital, with, for example, Jobar—once a picturesque multi-religious hamlet where Muslims and Jews tended their orchards—transformed into a series of mostly unremarkable city blocks on the eastern fringes of Damascus….

Throughout the first decade of the new century, slum areas around Damascus expanded rapidly as the capital and its satellite towns took in poor migrants, while spiraling living costs forced parts of the Damascene middle class to abandon the inner city for a congested daily commute. It was as if every driver of anti-regime resentment in the late Assad era had congregated on the outskirts of Damascus: political frustration, religious revanchism, rural dispossession, and downward social mobility.

When the Arab uprisings swept into Syria in March 2011, the comparatively affluent and carefully policed central neighborhoods of the capital hardly stirred—but the Ghouta rose fast and hard in an angry, desperate rebellion.

The scenario was a bleakly familiar one, and followed the script established by the security forces in response to protests in Dara’a, close to the border with Jordan, in February 2011 (see here and here).  One of the most serious incidents took place after Friday prayer on 1 April, when protesters emerged from the Great Mosque in Douma to join a demonstration against the regime (above) in the central square.  They were greeted by hundreds of riot police, who fired teargas into the crowd, beat protesters with sticks and shocked bystanders with cattle prods.  Towards the middle of the afternoon the violence escalated; rocks were thrown by some demonstrators, and the police (including snipers on the rooftops) opened fire with Kalashnikovs: 15 and perhaps as many as 22 people were killed and hundreds injured.  According to one local journalist:

“This was the systematic killing of peaceful and unarmed citizens by security forces,” said Radwan Ziadeh, head of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, one of several organisations that has collated matching witness accounts of the incident.

Witnesses [said] that thugs were bussed in by government forces to attack demonstrators [These armed thugs act as a private pro-Assad militia, known in Syria as al- Shabeha, ‘the ghosts’]. Journalists and diplomats were prevented from reaching the area over the weekend, and phone lines to Damascus have been disrupted.

In another familiar response, the same journalist reported that state news agencies had claimed that ‘armed groups’ had opened fire and that some of the demonstrators ‘had daubed their clothes with red dye to make foreign reporters believe that they had been injured.’

Local people encircled the Hamdan hospital to try to prevent the security forces gaining access to the wounded seeking treatment.  One local source told Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand:

“This is the last way we have to protect our wounded from being kidnapped by secret service…

“We held the line until live fire was used and we had to run and hide. I saw the secret police break into the hospital and later when I went back to the hospital some of the bodies and some of the injured were missing.”

The National Hospital and the al-Noor Hospital were also raided by security forces on 1 April searching for injured protesters.  And, taking another leaf from the Dara’a playbook, all doctors were ordered to refuse treatment to the wounded; those discovered to have disobeyed were arrested, including the director of Hamdan.

The protests gathered momentum, and by September the first brigades of the Free Syrian Army had formed in Eastern Ghouta – ‘ostensibly’, Amnesty International said, ‘to protect the protesters from Syrian government forces.’

By the time Christine Marlow reported from Douma in December 2011 the city was cordoned off from Damascus by six military checkpoints (above: a Syrian Arab Army checkpoint at Douma in January 2012) and the town was effectively under martial law:

Military trucks stood parked at the end of the dark empty street. The electricity was cut, the phone signals out and apartment windows boarded up with whatever wood or metal people could find. It was to stop the bullets, activists explained. Shouting and chanting of “down down Bashar al Assad” could be heard in the distance, interspersed with the crackle of gunfire.  This is not Homs, Idlib, or any of those Syrian towns that for months have been in the throes of rebellious unrest and violent crackdown. This is Douma, a large satellite town on the edge of Damascus, the heartland of support for President Assad’s regime.

Damascus Old City continues in relative normality with the bustle of daily life. Occasional power cuts and a shortage of gas are the principal signs that all is not well.  But less than seven miles away, Douma is in lockdown. Every Friday – when protests traditionally take place after prayers in the mosques, the suburb is under a military siege.

… Residents had flooded the side streets and mud paths that riddle the town. Doors of homes were left ajar, an invitation of shelter to the demonstrators. Locals passed warnings to each other; “there are dogs in that street”, they said, referring to the army.

 The military was on edge – protesting voices of just 10 or so people was enough to prompt gunfire….

She visited a central hospital – I don’t know whether this was the Hamdan again – and found it dark and empty.  She was told that soldiers had stormed the hospital in the dead of night.  Again, I don’t know if this refers to the previous incident; I do know that Hamdan was raided several times, but so too were other hospitals in Douma: see the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria here.

Staff, who had been tipped off, ran to hide the wounded protesters.  “We grabbed the injured, we dragged them from the back door and down the side streets,” he recalled. “We kept some in the homes of sympathisers, others – those who could move – fled. Others hid inside cupboards in the hospital. Otherwise we think they would be killed.”

Activists say hundreds of people have been injured in the months of protests. Now they are tended by volunteers working in secret clinics inside sympathisers’ homes, with whatever medicine can be smuggled in. It is not enough. Mohammed, whose name has also been changed for his protection, received a heavy blow to the head from a security official during a protest in May. With no utensils or materials, doctors in the home clinic to which he was taken were forced to staple together the gaping, bleeding wound using a piece of old wire.

This too, as I will show in a later post, was a harbinger of the desperate future, in which hospitals would be systematically bombed,  medical supplies routinely removed from humanitarian convoys, and doctors – like everyone else – thrown back on their own limited resources and improvisations.

The siege of Douma – and of East Ghouta more generally – tightened, and by early 2013 the region was under the control of 16 armed opposition groups.  Theirs was a complex and volatile political geography and, as I will show in my next post, their fortunes were closely tied to their involvement in the siege economy.  They enjoyed considerable though not unconditional nor unwavering support from local people, but this too was a complicated and changing situation.  The Assad regime, its allies and agents have often portrayed the besieged population as homogeneous,  particularly after displacement reduced East Ghouta from 1.5 million to around 400,000 inhabitants at the height of the siege.  In another iteration of ‘the extinction of the grey zone‘ practiced across the absolutist spectrum – from right-wing radicals in the US to Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere – they all became ‘terrorists’.  That term was made to cover a lot of baggage, including anyone who was involved in any form of resistance to the authority of the state. But even within that shrivelled sense of political legitimacy, it’s important to remember throughout the discussions that follow that there were also hundreds of thousands of civilians who were caught in the cross-fire between pro-government forces and the armed opposition groups.

Dying and the Douma Four

I do not mean that last sentence as a standard disclaimer, and the most direct way I can sharpen the point is by giving space to the (too short) story of a small group of courageous activists who made their home in Douma during the siege:

The savage repression of the Assad regime had made it impossible for the people to continue with their non-violent protests. They started to carry arms, and with that, their need for an ideology of confrontation and martyrdom started to eclipse their earlier enthusiasm for forgiveness and reconciliation.

For many civilian activists, the transformation of the Syrian uprising into what seemed like a full-blown civil war was unbearable. Of those who escaped death or detention, many decided to flee the country; and, from the bitterness of their exile, they began to tell a story of loss and disillusionment. But for Razan, Wael, and many of their close friends, these same developments called for more, not less, engagement. They argued that civilian activists had the responsibility now to monitor the actions of the armed rebels, to resist their excesses, and to set up the institutions for good governance in the liberated parts of the country. They also believed, much like their friend the renowned writer Yassin al-Haj Saleh, that their task as secularists was not to preach ‘enlightenment’ from a safe distance, but to join the more ordinary and devout folk in their struggle for a life lived with dignity. Only then could liberal secularism earn its ‘place’ in Syrian society and truly challenge its primordialist detractors.

It was these beliefs that set Razan Zaitouneh on her last journey in late April 2013. After two years of living underground in Damascus, she followed the example of Yassin al-Haj Saleh and moved to the liberated town of Douma. There, among a starving population that was constantly under shelling by the regime forces, Razan launched a project for women empowerment and a community development center, all while continuing her work in documenting and assisting the victims of the war. By August, al-Haj Saleh had already left for the north, but his wife Samira al-Khalil, Razan and her husband, and their friend, the poet and activist Nazem Hammadi were all settled in Douma, sharing two apartments in the same building. In the middle of the night of December 9 [2013], they were abducted from their new homes by a group of armed men that were later linked to Al-Nusra front and the Army of Islam. To this day, their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

You can find out more about the Douma 4 here and here.  Samira al-Khalil‘s diary of the siege of Douma in 2013 has already appeared in Arabic, and will be published in English translation later this year.

Samira wrote this in her diary:

“The world does not interfere with the fact that we are dying, it controls the ways we are dying: it does not want us dead with chemical weapons but does not protest our killing by starvation, closes the borders in the face of those who are escaping certain death with their children.  It leaves them to drown in their flimsy boats—a communal death in the sea, similar to the communal death by the chemical weapon.”

And those who remained inside East Ghouta, as the header to this post says, were all dying slowly.  As one aid worker inside East Ghouta put it yesterday, what has happened since has been ‘wholesale slaughter witnessed by a motionless world.’

To be continued.

Insurgent terrain

Just available from Gastón Gordillo: ‘Terrain as insurgent weapon: An affective geometry of warfare in the mountains of Afghanistan’, Political Geography (2018) [].

Gastón explains:

My argument…   is that the irreducibility of terrain can be best examined through the bodily experiences, affects, and agency of the human actors engaging it da lens I call an affective geometry. This is not the Euclidian or Cartesian geometry of mathematized grids, coordinates, and straight lines abstracted from bodies and affects. This is the qualitative, non-linear geometry conceptualized by Spinoza (1982), attentive to how bodies affect and are affected by other bodies in a multiplicity of ways, which range from negative ways that may diminish the body’s capacity to act to positive ways that may expand the body’s powers for action.

In analyzing how bodies are affected by and affect terrain, an affective geometry can be seen as a materialist phenomenology that conceives of human bodies in their subjective interiority and dispositions and also as mobile, self-propelling bodies that in sit- uations of combat dand as long as they remain able bodiesd walk, run, climb rocks, duck on the ground, fall in ditches, shoot, feel exhausted hiking a mountain, and feel pain if hit by gunfire.


Turning to the Korengal Valley, and drawing on the work of Sebastien Junger and Tim Hetherington (especially Restrepo: see here for a commentary that meshes with this post) Gastón shows how terrain was opaque, threatening, even penetrative to the US military – for all the ‘imperial verticality’ of its air power – and that the mountains (in all their ‘ambient thickness’) ‘confused them, tired them, and disrupted imperial phantasies of spatial mastery’, whereas their enemies, who weaponised the terrain far more effectively, were able to realise an ‘insurgent verticality’ though their knowledge of and, indeed, intimacy with the mountains.

The Dis/Appeared

A note from Ian Alan Paul – I’ve noticed his Guantanamo Bay Museum before, but he’s produced a host of other interesting projects too – brings the welcome news of his experimental video The Dis/Appeared: 25 Notes on Colonial Regimes of Perception:

“The Dis/Appeared” (2018) is an experimental video essay that examines the totalizing imposition of colonial perception in contemporary Palestine. The project theorizes the Israeli state’s establishment of perceptual regimes that confine the colonized to the liminal thresholds of view, never allowing Palestinians to entirely appear or disappear but instead perpetually rendering them dis/appeared. Through narration and a montage of images that are at once ordinary and unsettling, the video essay gives an account of settler-colonial instantiations of power while also proposing a tactical repertoire to be taken up against colonial rule. The project was produced over the course of 2017 while the artist was living and teaching in the West Bank of Palestine, and is the first part of a series of films, installations, and texts that examine the conjuncture of coloniality, governmentality, and memory in global contexts.

You can view it here (33 minutes) and download the script here.

A sample that really doesn’t do justice to the project and its artful exploration of colonial visuality:

Never entirely in or out of view but perpetually detained in the spectral thresholds between the two, Palestinians are made to be both apparent and transparent, signal and noise, conspicuous and concealed, evident and obscure, appeared and disappeared. Because Palestinians cannot decidedly and finally appear within view, Palestine can be perceived as a pristine landscape, a blank slate, an untouched surface, entirely vacant of Palestinians and inviting of ever-expanding Israeli settlements and colonization. Because Palestinians cannot decidedly and finally disappear from view, they remain perpetually available for increasing intensities of Israeli oversight, management, surveillance, policing, and control. If Palestinians manage to escape from the thresholds of Israel’s colonial regime of perception, the subsequent recognizability or clandestinity, transparency or secrecy, are all perceived by Israel as pure hostility.

To escape from view as a Palestinian is to be viewed as a fugitive threat. The proliferous destruction of civilian architecture in Gaza is preemptively and retroactively justified with claims that enemy combatants and weapon caches are being hidden inside of them, every bomb destroying the conditions for life and the conditions of concealment with the blinding exposure of its blast. Inversely, to enter into view as a Palestinian is to be viewed as an invasive enemy. In the West Bank, Palestinian demonstrations filled with cameras, banners, portraits of martyrs, and flags are made to vanish within toxic obfuscating clouds of tear gas. Attempting an escape from the view of Israel is to be marked as a hostis and fugitive in need of surveillance, capture, and elimination, while entering into Israel’s view is to be marked as an invader and as an infiltrator in need of exclusion, eviction, and expulsion.

Predator flies into the sunset

The US Air Force officially retired the MQ-1B Predator on Friday (9 March) at an official ceremony at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada

Air Force Magazine reports:

Creech has flown the Predator since 1995 when it began its operational life. At the time, the base was called Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Field. That same year, the Predator deployed to Albania and the 11th Reconnaissance Squadron stood up in Indian Springs. The squadron, later joined by the 15th Reconnaissance Squadron, flew the Predator’s early missions, providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for Operation Allied Force over the Balkans.
The Predator became an armed, constant eye in the sky in 2001 as Operation Enduring Freedom kicked off in Afghanistan. It has flown constant m​​issions in the Middle East ever since, undergoing a series of modifications and upgrades to keep it combat relevant. 


The USAF received its last Predator in 2011; by the end of this year its transition to the MQ-9 Reaper fleet will be complete: ‘With the Predator retired, the Air Force plans to field 346 MQ-9 Reapers, which have better sensors, more fuel efficient engines, a higher ceiling, and larger armaments. Predators finished their combat mission in the Middle East last year as expeditionary squadrons transitioned to the MQ-9s.’

The Reaper was introduced in 2006 as the planned successor to the Predator – which never had much imperial reach – and it has been serially upgraded.  Tyler Rogoway adds:

The MQ-9 is getting a series of upgrades that will add new elements to its already diverse capabilities list. Presently the Reaper is used for surveillance or strike missions, and the USAF is trying to blend these two mission sets more smoothly together. The latest variant of the MQ-9 can fly upwards of 40 hours when not carrying weapons.

The Reaper’s hardpoints give it the ability to carry a mix of AGM-114 Hellfire, GBU-12 Paveway, and now GBU-38 JDAM munitions. In contrast, its forbearer, the Predator, can only carry two Hellfires. Typically a Reaper’s external payload totals no more than about 2,500lbs on a strike mission, but that enables the Reaper to carry four Hellfire missiles and a pair of harder-hitting 500lb Paveways or JDAMs. In the future, guided micro-munitions will give Reapers a deeper and more flexible magazine.

A variety of surveillance, fuel, communications relay, and electronic warfare pods, including Wide Area Aerial Surveillance (WAAS) camera arrays can and are carried on the Reaper’s pylons. These systems are supplemental to the drone’s nose-mounted MTS-B multi-spectral surveillance and targeting turret and its fuselage mounted Lynx synthetic aperture radar.

The USAF is eyeing putting more powerful radar systems onboard some Reapers in an attempt to help build-out a ‘system of systems’ of ground moving targeting identification (GMTI) sensor nodes that can be distributed around the battlefield.

The MQ-9 will also have the capacity to launch air-to-air missiles to provide a (limited) ability to protect the platform in contested airspace.

More on the ‘sunsetting’ of the Predator from Major Joe Chapa at War on the Rocks here.  The US Army will continue to operate its version of the Predator, the MQ-1C Gray Eagle.

Google eyes

The Oxford English Dictionary recognised ‘google’ as a verb in 2006, and its active form is about to gain another dimension.  One of the most persistent anxieties amongst those executing remote warfare, with its extraordinary dependence on (and capacity for) real-time full motion video surveillance as an integral moment of the targeting cycle, has been the ever-present risk of ‘swimming in sensors and drowning in data‘.

But now Kate Conger and Dell Cameron report for Gizmodo on a new collaboration between Google and the Pentagon as part of Project Maven:

Project Maven, a fast-moving Pentagon project also known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional Team (AWCFT), was established in April 2017. Maven’s stated mission is to “accelerate DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning.” In total, the Defense Department spent $7.4 billion on artificial intelligence-related areas in 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The project’s first assignment was to help the Pentagon efficiently process the deluge of video footage collected daily by its aerial drones—an amount of footage so vast that human analysts can’t keep up, according to Greg Allen, an adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who co-authored a lengthy July 2017 report on the military’s use of artificial intelligence. Although the Defense Department has poured resources into the development of advanced sensor technology to gather information during drone flights, it has lagged in creating analysis tools to comb through the data.

“Before Maven, nobody in the department had a clue how to properly buy, field, and implement AI,” Allen wrote.

Maven was tasked with using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage, taking that burden off analysts. Maven’s initial goal was to provide the military with advanced computer vision, enabling the automated detection and identification of objects in as many as 38 categories captured by a drone’s full-motion camera, according to the Pentagon. Maven provides the department with the ability to track individuals as they come and go from different locations.

Google has reportedly attempted to allay fears about its involvement:

A Google spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement that it is providing the Defense Department with TensorFlow APIs, which are used in machine learning applications, to help military analysts detect objects in images. Acknowledging the controversial nature of using machine learning for military purposes, the spokesperson said the company is currently working “to develop polices and safeguards” around its use.

“We have long worked with government agencies to provide technology solutions. This specific project is a pilot with the Department of Defense, to provide open source TensorFlow APIs that can assist in object recognition on unclassified data,” the spokesperson said. “The technology flags images for human review, and is for non-offensive uses only. Military use of machine learning naturally raises valid concerns. We’re actively discussing this important topic internally and with others as we continue to develop policies and safeguards around the development and use of our machine learning technologies.”


As Mehreen Kasana notes, Google has indeed ‘long worked with government agencies’:

2017 report in Quartz shed light on the origins of Google and how a significant amount of funding for the company came from the CIA and NSA for mass surveillance purposes. Time and again, Google’s funding raises questions. In 2013, a Guardian report highlighted Google’s acquisition of the robotics company Boston Dynamics, and noted that most of the projects were funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Silent Witnesses

I’m still working on the mass murder in slow motion that is Ghouta; there’s so much to see, say and do that my promised post has been delayed.  Most readers will know of the stark declaration issued by UNICEF last month:

It was accompanied by this explanatory footnote:

We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage.  Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?


One of Allan Pred‘s favourite quotations from Walter Benjamin was this: ‘I have nothing to say.  Only to show.’  And perhaps the broken, mangled shards of montage are the most appropriate way to convey the collision of medieval and later modern violence that is sowing Syria’s killing fields with so many injured, dying and dead bodies.

You might think it’s always been so: in 1924 Ernst Friedrich introduced his collection of war photographs by insisting that ‘in the present and in the future, all the treasure of words is not enough to paint correctly the infamous carnage.’

These are suggestive claims, but two riders are necessary.  First,  images have such an extraordinary, if often insidious, subliminal power – even in our own, image-saturated culture – that they demand careful, critical interrogation and deployment.  They don’t speak for themselves.  And second, Benjamin described his method as ‘literary montage’: as Allan knew very well, words do not beat a silent retreat in the face of the image, and it’s in concert that the two produce some of their most exacting effects.

 In the course of my work on war in Syria and elsewhere I’ve encountered (and drawn upon) the work of many outstanding photographers; in some cases their images seem out-of-time, almost transcendent testimony to the enduring realities of war, while others disclose new horrors erupting in the midst of the all-too-bloody-familiar.  I think, for example, of the work of Narciso Contreras (see above and below, and also here and his collection, Syria’s War: a journal of pain, War Photo, 2014) – and I do know about the controversy over editing/cropping – or Nish Nalbandian (see also here and here and his book, A whole world blind: war and life in northern Syria, Daylight Books, 2016).


In my research on other conflicts I’ve also learned a lot from war artists, and in the case of Syria from graphic journalism: see, for example, the discussion by Nathalie Rosa Bucher here and the example of Molly Crabapple here. (Her work was based on cell-phone videos sent to her by a source inside IS-controlled Raqqa: another digital breach of siege warfare in Syria).


The point of all of this is to emphasise my debt to multiple (in this case, visual) sources that enable me – sometimes force me –  to see things differently: to turn those broken shards around, to have them catch the light and illuminate the situation anew.  And to see things I’d often rather not see.


It’s not a new experience. When I was completing The colonial present I was given access to a major image library, and in the course of three exhilarating days I learned more about Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq than I had learned in three months of reading. The image bank included not only published but also unpublished images, which revealed aspects, dimensions, whole stories that had been left unremarked and unrecorded in the public record produced through editorial selection.

For my present work the Syrian Archive is invaluable:

The Syrian Archive is a Syrian-led and initiated collective of human rights activists dedicated to curating visual documentation relating to human rights violations and other crimes committed by all sides during the conflict in Syria with the goal of creating an evidence-based tool for reporting, advocacy and accountability purposes.


Its emphasis on visual documentation and analysis needs to be seen alongside the investigations of Forensic Architecture and bellingcat.


The Syrian Archive aims to support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.

We believe that visual documentation of human rights violations that is transparent, detailed, and reliable are critical towards providing accountability and can positively contribute to post-conflict reconstruction and stability. Such documentation can humanise victims, reduce the space for dispute over numbers killed, help societies understand the true human costs of war, and support truth and reconciliation efforts.

Visual documentation is also valuable during conflict as it can feed into:

  • Humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contribute to the protection of civilians;
  • Mechanisms that support increased legal compliance by conflict parties and reductions in civilian harm;
  • Strengthening advocacy campaigns and legal accountability through building verified sets of materials documenting human rights violations in the Syrian conflict.

User-generated content is valuable during times of conflict. Verified visual documentation can feed into humanitarian response planning by helping to identify areas of risk and need as well as contributing to the protection of civilians.

Furthermore, visual documentation allows the Syrian Archive to tell untold stories through amplifying the voices of witnesses, victims and others who risked their lives to capture and document human rights violations in Syria. Not every incident in the Syrian conflict has been reported by journalists. The very challenging conditions have made it extremely difficult for local and especially international media to work in Syria, meaning the many incidents have been missed or under-reported.

Visual documentation aims to strengthen political campaigns of human rights advocates by providing content that supports their campaign. This could include content on the violation of children’s rights; sexual and gender based violence; violations against specifically protected persons and objects, or the use of illegal weapons.

Additionally, visual documentation aims to help human rights activists and Syrian citizens in setting up a memorialisation process and to create dialogues around issues related to peace and justice, to recognise and substantiate the suffering of citizens and provide multiple perspectives on the conflict that acts to prevent revisionist or simplified narratives while raising awareness of the situation in the country and highlighting the futility of violence to next generations. Video and images often compliments official narratives and press accounts of an event or situation, adding both detail and nuance. At other times, they directly rebut certain factual claims and contradict pervasive narratives.


Many of the videos on which this visual analysis relies (me too) were uploaded to YouTube.  Armin Rosen reports:


Google, which is YouTube’s parent company, knows how significant its platform has been during the war. “The Syrian civil war is in many ways the first YouTube conflict in the same way that Vietnam was the first television conflict,” Justin Kosslyn, the product manager for Jigsaw, formerly called Google Ideas, said during an interview on the sidelines of September’s Oslo Freedom Forum in New York, where Kosslyn had just spoken. “You have more hours of footage of the Syrian civil war on YouTube then there actually are hours of the war in real life.” In 2016, Jigsaw developed Montage, a Google Docs-like application that allows for collaborative analysis of online videos. Kosslyn said the project was undertaken with human rights-related investigations in mind.

The value of YouTube’s Syria videos is indisputable, especially since the regime and other armed actors have closed off much of the country to journalists and human rights observers. [Eliot] Higgins and his colleagues [at Bellingcat] proved beyond all doubt that Assad’s forces gassed a suburb of Damascus in August 2013, and a U.N. organization is now in the early stages of assessing YouTube’s Syria footage for its future use in war crimes trials. In December 2016, the U.N. General Assembly voted to establish the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) to assist in war crimes prosecutions related to Syria. In connection with the IIIM, Hiatt and his team at Benetech are developing software that can search and organize the estimated 4 million videos related to the conflict. The IIIM will facilitate the use of the videos in court if alleged human rights abusers ever face trial.

Last summer YouTube started deleting videos that violated its Terms of Service; the platform used algorithms to flag the offending materials and within days some 900 Syria-related channels were removed.

Alarm bells rang; here’s Chris Woods of Airwars talking to the New York Times:

“When the conflict in Syria started, independent media broke down and Syrians themselves have taken to YouTube to post news of the conflict…  What’s disappearing in front of our eyes is the history of this terrible war.”

And Eliot Higgins (on YouTube!):

After the concerted protests many of the videos were restored, but the cull continued and by the end of the year more than 200 channels providing over 400,000 videos had been removed.  Again, some of those were subsequently restored, but the Syrian Archive estimates that more than 200,000 videos are still offline.



The intervention was the product of an understandable desire to remove ‘propaganda’ videos – part of the fight back against ‘fake news’ – but here’s the rub:

Videos from the conflict could prove critical in cases where they might violate the site’s ToS—even ISIS propaganda videos help identify members of the organization and explain its internal hierarchies. “The difficulty in this type of work is that the information put out there on social media by the perpetrators of the violence can also be used to hold those perpetrators accountable,” Shabnam Mojtahedi [a legal analyst with the Syria Justice and Accountability Center: see also here for its statement on this issue] notes.

And it’s not just YouTube.  In an extended report for The Intercept Avi Asher Schapiro detected

a pattern that’s causing a quiet panic among human rights groups and war crimes investigators. Social media companies can, and do, remove content with little regard for its evidentiary value. First-hand accounts of extrajudicial killings, ethnic cleansing, and the targeting of civilians by armies can disappear with little warning, sometimes before investigators notice. When groups do realize potential evidence has been erased, recovering it can be a kafkaesque ordeal. Facing a variety of pressures — to safeguard user privacy, neuter extremist propaganda, curb harassment and, most recently, combat the spread of so-called fake news — social media companies have over and over again chosen to ignore, and, at times, disrupt the work of human rights groups scrambling to build cases against war criminals.

“It’s something that keeps me awake at night,” says Julian Nicholls, a senior trial lawyer at the International Criminal Court,  where he’s responsible for prosecuting cases against war criminals, “the idea that there’s a video or photo out there that I could use, but before we identify it or preserve it, it disappears.”

As Christoph Koettl, a senior analyst with Amnesty International and a founder of Citizen Evidence Lab put it, these social media platforms are ‘essentially privately-owned evidence lockers’.  And that should worry all of us.

The war on children

Save the Children has just published a new report, The War on Children, which you can download here.

One in six children across the world are living in areas impacted by conflict, and children are more at risk in conflict now than at any time in the last 20 years. From Syria to South Sudan, Yemen to DRC, children are caught up in violence, which is not of their making. Children are being killed and maimed, raped and recruited, and being denied aid and medical care. Warring parties are bombing schools and hospitals on a scale not seen for decades.

The War on Children: Time to End Violations Against Children in Armed Conflict looks at how conflict has impacted children, and sheds light on a worrying trend of increased brutality against children in conflict, particularly in the last few years.

The findings of this report are stark, and the message is clear – we need to take concerted, collective action to turn back the tide of brutality and indifference and better protect children in conflict.