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.

Taking it to the limit

A postscript to my posts here, here and here on civilian deaths from air strikes in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere: Vice has an extended interview with Chris Woods of Airwars here.

The biggest issue we saw in 2017—particularly if we look at the US-led coalition—was that the war moved very heavily into cities. That, more than any other single factor, resulted in the deaths of many more civilians and casualty events. We saw a similar pattern at the back end of 2016, when Russia and the Assad regime heavily bombed east Aleppo. There’s a very strong correlation between attacks on cities and large numbers of civilian casualties. And frankly, it doesn’t matter who’s carrying out those attacks. The outcome for civilians is always dire…

Things didn’t get any better under Trump for civilians—in fact, they got a lot worse. One of the reasons for that was the intensity of the bombardment. We saw an absolutely ferocious bombing campaign by the US and its allies in both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. Between those two cities, the coalition alone dropped 50,000 munitions. One bomb or missile was dropped on Raqqa every 12 minutes, on average, for the duration of the four-month battle…

When Russia and the Assad regime were bombing Aleppo in late 2016, we had assumed that a key reason for the large number of civilian casualties was down to the fact they were primarily using dumb-bombs. We have actually changed our modeling since then, based on what we have seen with the coalition in places like Raqqa and Mosul. The reason is that even when you use precision bombs on cities, really, the outcome for civilians is the same as a dumb bomb. You can’t control what the bombs do when they land.

We saw very little difference between Russian and coalition strikes when it came to bombing cities. This is the big problem we have with a shift to urban warfare —it’s really taking us to the limits of any benefits we might have in terms of protecting civilians by using precision munitions.

Chris also has some characteristically smart (and sharp) things to say about transparency and accountability too…

Ground Truth

I’m just back from an invigorating conference on ‘The Intimacies of Remote Warfare’ at Utrecht – more on this shortly – and it was a wonderful opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones.  Chris Woods gave an outstanding review of air strikes in Iraq and Syria, and told me of an interview Airwars had conducted with Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal whose forensic investigation of civilian casualties in Iraq I discussed in a previous post.  The US-led Coalition has still not responded to their findings, even though they initially afforded a remarkable degree of co-operation.

The full interview really is worth reading, but here is Azmat explaining how their joint investigation started:

We began planning this in February 2016. By April I was on the ground [In Iraq] and I was embedding with local forces, both Shia militias and then with Peshmerga forces, in certain frontline towns. I remember early on seeing how pivotal these airstrikes were in terms of re-taking cities.

There was one town that was really important to Shias, and so dozens of Shia militias had tried to retake it — Bashir — from where ISIS had launched mortars with chemical agents into a neighboring town, Taza. I watched several Shia militias based in Taza try and fail to retake Bashir, putting in all of their troops. Then the peshmerga agreed to try and retake it, and they put in maybe a fraction of the number of troops, but were supported by Coalition airstrikes in a way the militias weren’t, and Bashir fell within hours.

It really showed me the extent to which these airstrikes played a pivotal role in re-taking territory, but also the level of devastation. Many parts of Bashir were just up in smoke, when I visited the day after it was re-taken.

Unless you were on the ground, you couldn’t get a real sense of that scale. There’d been good accounts looking at civilian casualties — but nobody had looked at both those that successfully hit ISIS targets and those that didn’t, so a systematic sample. That’s what we teamed up to do. As more cities were being retaken, we though there’s an opportunity to do this….

In terms of verifying allegations, our work went far beyond interviews and analyzing satellite imagery. In addition to interviewing hundreds of witnesses, we dug through rubble for bomb fragments, or materials that might suggest ISIS use, like artillery vests, ISIS literature, sometimes their bones, because nobody would bury them.

We also got our hands on more than 100 sets of coordinates for suspected ISIS sites passed on by local informants. Sometimes we were able to get photos and videos as well. And ultimately, we verified each civilian casualty allegation with health officials, security forces, or local administrators.

The interview also revisits the attack on the Rezzo family home, a pivot of their NYT essay, which includes even more disturbing details.  As Azmat and Anand explain, this was a strike which ought to have shown Coalition targeting at its most adept; far from it.

Khan: This is a deliberate airstrike, not a dynamic one. It was an “ISIS headquarters,” which we were told, when I was at the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center), a very senior intelligence officer told me that a target with one of the highest thresholds to meet is usually an ISIS headquarters… In so many ways Basim’s case was the ultimate, highest most deliberative process.

Airwars: When you say the best case scenario, you mean the best case on the Coalition side in terms of what intelligence they could have, and they still screwed up in such a fundamental way?

Gopal: if there was ever a strike they could get right, this would be the one. They have weeks to plan it, they have it as an ISIS headquarters. And so you know, if it’s an ISIS headquarters, the threshold for actionable intelligence has to be much higher. It can’t just be drone footage that doesn’t see women and children.

Airwars: They identified it as a headquarters and what was the genesis of that? In the story you talk about – it’s infuriating to read – that they didn’t see women and children.

Khan: One of the things I asked at the CAOC in Qatar was how do you identify local patterns of behavior. For example, I said, under ISIS a lot of women are not leaving their homes. So when you are looking at these pattern of life videos, are you taking these variable local dynamics into account? How do you distinguish for example when you are bombing in Iraq and one of these areas, how do you distinguish between patterns of behavior that are specific to Iraq vs. bombing in Afghanistan. What are the differences?

I was told that they could not get into a great deal of detail about ISIS’ “TTPs” — tactics, techniques, and procedures — their understanding of how ISIS generally operates.  They told me that these are developed through the intelligence community, in coordination with a cultural expert, but that they could not offer more detail about it.

Gopal: At the end of the day, it appears there are no consequences for getting it wrong, so there are no incentives to try to get it right.

Striking Syria

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-11-48-35

The Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) has published a grim report documenting the pattern of attacks on healthcare in Syria following the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2286 on 3 May 2016 condemning attacks on medical facilities and personnel in conflict zones.  The Resolution was a general one; several states drew attention to Israel’s assault on medical facilities in Gaza, and to the US airstrike on the MSF Trauma Centre in Kunduz (Afghanistan) (see here and here).

The Resolution had the urgent support of a host of humanitarian NGOs; it was co-sponsored by more than 80 member states, and it was adopted unanimously by the Security Council.  At the time the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described attacks on hospitals as a war crime, and declared:

When so-called surgical strikes are hitting surgical wards, something is deeply wrong… Even wars have rules…  The Council and all Member States must do more than condemn such attacks. They must use every ounce of influence to press parties to respect their obligations.

msf-at-the-un

And yet this is what SAMS found in Syria:

  • In 2015, the rate of targeting of medical facilities and personnel was one attack every four days.
  • In October 2015, following Russia’s intervention in support of the Syrian government, this rate doubled to one attack every 48 hours.
  • In November 2016 the rate virtually doubled again to one attack every 29 hours.

SAMS estimates that there were 252 attacks on medical facilities and personnel in 2016; 199 of them took place after the passage of UNSC Resolution 2286.

Between June and December  SAMS identified 172 attacks (all detailed in an appendix to the report): 168 of them were carried out by the Syrian government and its allies; one by non-state opposition forces; one by Islamic State; and two by unidentified parties.  Aleppo and Idlib were the principal targets: eastern Aleppo alone received a numbing 42 per cent of all attacks.

In case you are wondering about the sources for these claims, the report explains:

SAMS maintains rigid documentation standards in collaboration with partners in the WHO Health Cluster in Turkey and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for Health and Human Rights. Our reporters on the ground rely on rst- hand testimony and photo documentation from medical sta and record the date, time, location, damages, casualties, impact on service delivery, weapon(s) used, and perpetrator of each incident. Any other source of information is not considered.

syria-attacks-graphics-03_page_6-e1484145301958

Dr Ahmad Tarakji, President of SAMS, reaches this bleak and compelling conclusion:

The failure of the international community to hold the perpetrators of these attacks accountable sends a dangerous message: that there are no lines, no limits, and no boundaries to the atrocities that are being committed against the Syrian people.

You can find more details about the targeting of doctors and hospitals in my post on the weaponisation of healthcare in Syria here; there is also a response to the passage of UNSC Resolution 2286 and its implementation by the Safeguarding Health in Conflict coalition (in September 2016) here.

Meanwhile Chris WoodsAirwars team has just released its preliminary assessment of civilian casualties from air strikes carried out by the US-led coalition and by Syrian/Russian air forces:

Syria’s civilians were under constant threat from Coalition air strikes throughout 2016, with 38% more casualty events reported in Syria than Iraq over the year. This may however reflect improved local reporting by Syrian monitors.

Overall, minimum likely civilian deaths in Syrian incidents graded by Airwars as Fair or Confirmed doubled in 2016. Across 136 incidents, between 654 and 1,058 civilians were claimed killed in total. Airwars estimates that a minimum of 818 civilians were likely injured in Fair and Confirmed events in Syria alone.

There were major spikes in February, in June and July (the Manbij campaign) and November the Raqqa campaign), all of them focused on areas held by Islamic State.

As for Syrian/Russian air strikes:

Airstrikes carried out by Moscow pummeled rebel-held areas of Syria throughout 2016, with many hundreds of civilians credibly reported killed.

Overall, there were 1,452 separate claimed civilian casualty events allegedly carried out by Russia during 2016. Between 6,228 and 8,172 civilians reportedly died in these events. Many of these incidents are likely to have been the result of actions by the Assad regime. Even so, civilian deaths from Russian strikes in 2016 far outpaced those from Coalition actions.

The pattern of civilian casualties from Russian air strikes:

screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-12-11-37

But at least three caveats are necessary.  First, these are provisional calculations:  ‘With so many allegations to assess, Airwars has a significant case backlog’, and the team has so far only completed a detailed analysis of the first four months of 2016.

Second, the report provides no separate listing of air strikes carried out by the Syrian Arab Air Force. The Airwars team concedes a ‘very high level of confusion – especially between Russia and the regime’.  Here is Kinda Haddad: ‘For many incidents we have some sources blaming the regime and others Russia – and we can’t really tell who is responsible as they use similar planes and weaponry.’  One major exception to that must be the use of barrel bombs dropped by the SAAF’s helicopters.

Third, these tabulations identify immediate casualties from the strikes: one of the reasons for attacking doctors and hospitals, as I explained previously, is to multiply subsequent and distant casualties – to deny those wounded (or simply sick) life-saving medical treatment.  So these casualty lists are minima – and not only as a result of the general problems of casualty accounting in conflict zones.

‘Reach from the sky’ ONLINE

Tanner_Lecture_2016_FINAL

The video of my two Tanner Lectures, Reach from the sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war, delivered in Cambridge last month, is now available on the Clare Hall website.  The first, ‘Good bomb, bad bomb’ is here, and the second, ‘Killing Space’, is here, while the responses from Grégoire Chamayou, Jochen von Bernstorff and Chris Woods are here.

I’m immensely grateful to the video team, who were exceptionally helpful and remarkably accomplished.

I’m now hard at work on the long-form version…  And yes, I have – just! – notice the mistake on the poster.  It was indeed ‘Reach from the sky.’  Per ardua….

There’s also a short and kind reflection on the lectures from Alex Jeffrey over at Placing Law here.

Tanner respondents

I’m delighted that Grégoire Chamayou and Chris Woods have both accepted invitations to act as discussants and interlocutors for my Tanner Lectures, “Reach from the Sky: aerial violence and the everywhere war“, in Cambridge in January.

The format for the Lectures is for me to give two presentations on the first day; the next day a panel of four respondents offers reactions and comments, and then we open up into general debate and discussion.

9780241970355I provided a series of detailed commentaries on Grégoire’s variously titled Drone Theory/A Theory of the Drone when it was originally published in French (see here for a full listing: scroll down), and we met last year at a wonderful workshop on Secrecy and Transparency at the Humanities Research Institute at Irvine, so I’m thrilled that the tables will be reversed.  Grégoire’s creative imagination seems to know no bounds – see, for example, here and here – and we keep in close touch so I know this will be a rewarding conversation.

9780190202590I’ve never met Chris, but I’m really looking forward to doing so: he has worked with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism; his Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars is the gold standard for books about the conduct of US remote operations; and he is now busy at Airwars monitoring coalition air strikes over Iraq and Syria.  I greatly admire Chris’s combination of probing analysis and lucid prose, and his determination to bring the results to the widest possible public audience is an inspiration.

More on other respondents later.

Airwars

Air strike sin Iraq and Syria to April 2015

Air strikes in Iraq and Syria to 17 May 2015

I’ve taken the maps above from the BBC, which rely on reports from the Institute for the Study of War and news releases from US Central Command on ‘Operation Inherent Resolve‘.

For readers wanting to follow and analyse the US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria in more detail, I recommend Chris Woods‘ new project, Airwars.  Chris is a veteran of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone War Project and the author of Sudden Justice: America’s secret drone wars (2015) – which really is the gold standard for analysis of US remote operations.

Airwars.org is a collaborative, not-for-profit transparency project aimed both at tracking and archiving the international air war against Islamic State (Daesh), in both Iraq and Syria. We also seek to highlight – and follow up where possible – those cases in which claims of civilian non-combatant casualties from coalition airstrikes have been indicated by credible monitoring agencies. In addition we track reported ‘friendly fire’ incidents.

The site includes tabulations and also an interactive, zoomable map (see the screenshot below).  You can find a detailed discussion of sources and methodology here.

AIRWARS 25 May 2015

I’m tracking all this for The everywhere war…  In case you are wondering why that is taking so long to finish: The colonial present started out as an essay on 9/11 and the US invasion of Afghanistan; I then realised that Sharon was taking advantage of the ‘war on terror’ to ramp up Israeli dispossession and repression of the Palestinian people, and so started work on a second essay (I’m ashamed to say that at the time I knew as little about the West Bank and Gaza as I did about Afghanistan on 11 September 2001).  Then the US invaded Iraq…  Much the same is happening with The everywhere war, but I do have the end in my sights.  I hope.