Friday December 16, 2016

The fog of war: separating fact from fiction in Aleppo

Pro-government forces watch as buses pass by during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families from the embattled city of Aleppo.

Pro-government forces watch as buses pass by during an evacuation operation of rebel fighters and their families from the embattled city of Aleppo. (YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 11:15

by Brent Bambury (@notrexmurphy)

Eastern Aleppo, the rebel-held section of Syria's second largest city, was retaken by government forces this week, after a long and deadly siege. On CBC Day6 we've been documenting that conflict, particularly the impact on hospitals and health care, which appeared to be specifically targeted by the Assad regime.

It was a brutal campaign, and as it became clear Assad's forces would prevail, people inside Aleppo and around the world prepared for the worst. Aid groups that had been entrenched in the city, like the White Helmets, pleaded for safe passage for the people who remained. After months of civilian carnage from snipers' bullets and barrel bombs, they prepared for the worst.

They were right.

Almost as soon as the deal was reached for a ceasefire and evacuation, government troops resumed shelling and each side blamed the other for the violence. Reports of atrocities prompted the U.N. to warn Russia and Syria they would be held accountable, but in the same statement the U.N. admitted it could not verify those stories.

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A Syrian man, who was evacuated from a rebel-held neighbourhood in Aleppo, cries upon his arrival in the opposition-controlled Khan al-Aassal region. (Baraa Al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images)

All parties to the Syrian conflict, and there are many, have reason to blame, deflect and deny as the world tries to piece together the fate of the civilians at the centre of it all. It's always hard to extract evidence from a violent and fluid frontline. In Aleppo this week, it seemed impossible.

            

Who is telling the truth?

I asked Borzou Daragahi for his advice. Daragahi has spent 15 years reporting from across the Middle East, for the L.A. Times, Financial Times and the CBC. He's now the Middle East Correspondent for Buzzfeed News.

"There is a lot of propaganda," he told me on CBCDay6, and he sees it coming from all sides.

"The rebels issue propaganda and misinformation."

"You have the Syrian regime — just the mendacity of the Syrian regime is unfathomable."

Daragahi cites the actions of Syria's ambassador to the UN, Bashar Jaafari, who displayed a picture to the U.N. Security Council and claimed it was proof of Syrian soldiers' goodwill in Aleppo.

"The Syrian envoy to the U.N. presented a picture of a soldier helping out an old woman and said that this was Aleppo when in fact it was a picture from the Iraqi city of Fallujah," says Daragahi.

"I mean, the level of mendacity and just audacity is incredible, astounding:  the untrustworthiness of the regime."

                   

A bogus tweet from Ottawa

On Tuesday, as the Aleppo siege intensified, the Russian embassy in Canada sent out this message on Twitter:

Daragahi says he knows this information to be false.

He talks to activists in Aleppo and is certain their commitment to civilians would not allow them to abandon the city.  So he was contemptuous of the tweet and sees it as part of a pattern of deceit coming from Russia.

"I've seen other Russian officials and Russian diplomats speak this kind of misinformation as well," he said.

"They're swimming in a soup of lies and misinformation and it doesn't surprise me at all."

"This is just the universe they live in."

                        

Chilling reports, difficult to verify

The atrocities cited by the U.N. include accounts of the summary executions of 82 people, including women and children. They're difficult to verify, but Daragahi says it is likely there were executions, though he suggests the bloodshed could have been worse.

"The lead in this fight was not the Syrian troops, it was the Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and those guys are fairly disciplined. They also understand the danger of that kind of violence and how it could breed vengeance."

"So I imagine there was a measure of restraint on the part of those Hezbollah fighters that the regime thugs would not have engaged in."

                   

A social media star and the questions around her

In the weeks leading up the siege, international media were fascinated by a verified Twitter account attributed to a 7 year old girl. Bana al-Abed sent messages from Aleppo to her 300,000 followers imploring them to bear witness to the misery and uncertainty her family and others were experiencing.

There was skepticism around the account and the authorship of the tweets. Did Bana have a collaborator? Was she being used by the rebels?  I wondered what Daragahi made of it. Who did he think was really behind it?

"I feel rather uncomfortable on that whole topic of that child," he said.

"I understand from people that I've talked to and respect that this child does exist."

"And you know, I have a daughter and I wouldn't want that daughter in a war zone. If I were in a war zone I'd want to get that daughter to safety.  And I have an extreme ethical problem with using that child for any kind of political gain, no matter how worthy it may or may not be."

Supporters of the Assad regime resented Bana's account of Aleppo under siege. Online, some insist Bana's tweets are the work of the CIA.

"That's absurd," said Daragahi. "That's just not true."

"I think there are some professional PR types — well-meaning — who are helping, who are sympathetic to the Syrian opposition, who are helping maybe craft some of the messages here, but I don't think that the US government is involved in something like this."

                 

Making a complete picture

Daragahi says even in a situation as dangerous and chaotic as Aleppo, it is possible to verify information and develop an account that's faithful to the events. But it takes a lot of work.

"You have to talk to people extensively and you have to talk to people in different parts of the city, people who are outside of the city, try to read the media accounts, and try to talk to people in regime areas. They don't talk often. They're kind of like North Korea-esque."

"You talk to think tank people, who make it their job to follow Syria very closely. You talk to diplomats, for example, in embassies whose job it is also to talk to the Syrians."

"You know, you can't just read social media."