Saturday, March 03, 2012

Sharmine Narwani - Hear No Evil, See No Evil

I've been meaning to write a proper rebuttal to Sharmine Narwani's latest article on al Akhbar English. I'd previously critiqued an earlier piece she wrote, where she was accusing the so-called mainstream media of ignoring the fact that Syria's revolution also included an armed element. The biggest problem with that piece was that the mainstream media had, as a matter of fact, been reporting about the armed elements of the uprising, and the creation of the Free Syrian Army, pretty much as soon as it began to occur. So Narwani had basically constructed a straw man to use for her argument.

Narwani's latest piece is far more ambitious, and here she attempts to cast a light on the way that the casualty rate for Syria's uprising has been calculated and supposedly manipulated. The piece is problematic and here I will attempt to examine the foundations of her argument and see if they stand up to scrutiny. Some initial observations were made by a Lebanese blogger, Zak, about her piece, and they raise some valid concerns about Narwani's priorities in writing the piece.

The Syrian uprising has sharply divided Arab opinion, and the old fault lines between pro-Western and pro-"Resistance" camps have been altered severely. The pro-resistance narrative on Syria ranges from the sorrowful to one where the entire Syrian revolution is dismissed as a sham and the death toll is a lie. Naturally criticism of this camp has been extremely strong, and I had written a post criticising the hypocrisy of some of these anti-imperialists. It is in this context that I critique Narwani's latest article.

"Questioning the Syrian Casualty List"

Narwani claims to be interested with establishing the facts, and she finds it baffling that casualty figures can make it out of Syria and onto the lists of various international organisations in what is a very short period of time. Her first premise is an interview with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, with a spokesman there by the name of Rupert Colville. Colville sums up by saying:

“The lists are clear – the question is whether we can fully endorse their accuracy,” he explains, citing the “higher numbers” as an obstacle to verification.
In no way can this be construed that the lists are false, or only partially true. It is just a human acknowledgement that the sheer scale of deaths makes the kind of detailed investigation needed much more difficult to carry out. Next is supposedly an up-close examination of the casualty lists, and Narwani finds, much to her surprise, not only that pro-regime Syrians are included in the list, but also  the names of Palestinians killed near the Golan Heights - on the Syrian side - over two days in June of last year. Narwani calls this a glaring error, but what she omits mentioning to her reader is the crucial context within which these Palestinians were killed. The Syrian regime had sent these protesters by bus to the borders, and encouraged them to attempt crossing the border. This move was widely seen by many Palestinians as a convenient ruse to distract from the domestic crisis engulfing Assad's regime. In fact there was protesting in the Palestinian areas against this manipulation by Assad's regime. This is a context that Narwani should have brought out to her readers, rather than just dismiss it as a "glaring error". These Palestinians might be seen as just as much a victim of Assad's regime as the Syrian people. It is not a judgement I will make, but again, this context is important for the reader if Narwani was as interested in the stories of the victims as she presents herself to be.

Narwani then presents us with a confusing bit of information. She finds references to pro-regime Syrians on the SOHR list, and cross-references that with YouTube clips of their funerals, but then she seems to leave that hanging in the abstract, and then begins quoting Nir Rosen about how there are casualties from both sides and that when the Homs massacre - where 260 people were mistakenly said to have been killed and the figures were later revised down to 55 - the numbers were unreliable. The two parts of her argument do not follow. If she is trying to say that nobody is talking about the deaths of pro-regime Syrians, then the SOHR lists, and Nir Rosen's account, as well as the Arab League monitor report she claims has been widely ignored by the mainstream media, all say otherwise. The reader is left  hanging, and her chain of thought is incomplete.

Surprisingly, Narwani seems to follow an entirely different chain of thought almost from the next sentence, and is now trying to tell the readers that, as well as the difficulty of confirming the numbers of those who have been killed, it is also difficult to know why and how those people were killed. Narwani says:
While the overwhelming perception of Syrian casualties thus far has been that they are primarily unarmed civilians deliberately targeted by government forces, it has become obvious these casualties are also likely to include: Civilians caught in the crossfire between government forces and opposition gunmen; victims of deliberate violence by armed groups; “dead opposition fighters” whose attire do not distinguish them from regular civilians; and members of the Syrian security forces, both on and off duty.
It is not clear why Narwani thinks that anything is now "obvious" about the Syrian crisis, especially when she is halfway through a piece that suggests the Syrian revolution and its casualties are anything but obvious. Of course when it comes to the Syrian regime's narrative, Narwani now pretends to apply the impartial lense of objectivity over the Syrian regime's account using principles of international law. Narwani makes reference to the two principles of Necessity and Proportionality.

Interestingly, she makes no reference to the principle of necessity, and immediately moves to discussing whether or not Assad and his forces could be accused, in a court of international law, of violating the principle of proportionality. Firstly, Narwani is clearly confused about the process involved before a case reaches the international court of law. The fact that the Syrian regime does not allow impartial and unfettered access to international organisations could be a bit problematic, especially since it is vital for corroborating witness statements without the fear of reprisals. Of course Narwani, armed with Google, the Arab League monitor's report in PDF, and access to Joshua Landis' Syria Comment blog, has dismissed any such talk, because - she claims - there were armed groups in Syria from the outset. Which brings us to the principle of necessity, was it necessary for Assad to use this force against protesters?

Let us answer simply that Narwani does not provide any evidence to back up her claim that the gunmen were attacking the Syrian regime from the start, and that this is what triggered the crisis. It is so simply because she says so. For somebody who is keen on the truth, it is interesting to see that her elaborate logical constructions are not rooted on any fixed premise at all, and simply based on her subjective whims, albeit emphasised in italics:
... in large part because opponents have been using weapons against security forces and pro-regime civilians almost since the onset of protests.
But let's move on, as I'm sure Narwani would like her readers to. The next bit is where Narwani seems confused about what proportionality means, and takes us on a merry-go-round of figures and rhetorical speculation. She says:
When you calculate the deaths of the government forces in the past 11 months, they amount to about six a day. Contrast that with frequent death toll totals of around 15+ each day disseminated by activists – many of whom are potentially neither civilian casualties nor victims of targeted violence – and there is close to enough parity to suggest a conflict where the acts of violence may be somewhat equal on both sides.
Narwani does not seem to understand that the principle of proportionality is concerned with whether the response was proportional to the threat posed, it is not about tit-for-tat killings and whether fifteen Syrian soldiers killed makes up for fifteen "others" killed. And it is interesting to note that the "other side" that Narwani speaks of is not an invading military force, but the Syrian people themselves - armed or otherwise. The point Narwani doesn't seem to understand is that, as a state, Assad's regime has at its disposal some formidable abilities. The fact that the regime has shelled parts of Homs to oblivion, based on a reporter who was himself on the ground in Syria, is way beyond the mark of any proportionality. In fact it is disproportional, which brings us again to the principle of necessity. Was this all necessary? Again, the glaring - and some might say convenient - omission by Narwani of whether the Syrian regime needed to use military might to crush the uprising at all, is painfully poignant. The acts of violence were there "from the outset" according to Narwani, and it is so because she says so.

The next point is over the issue of the gunmen and the defected soldiers. It is interesting to note that Narwani has not said whether she bothered cross-referencing the names of defected Syrian soldiers who are known to be dead with Youtube videos in the same diligent manner that she did for pro-regime Syrians. Otherwise, her question as to whether gunmen are included in the body count would have been answered. Narwani also decries the fact that the UN's reports do not mention the number of security services killed during the uprising. But that is a moot point, the fact is that nobody has disputed - as far as I have been able to find - the lists produced by the Syrian regime for its own dead. The entire point of the discussion about Syria's dead is that they are being killed by the Syrian regime, and that the Syrian regime should stop doing so and allow investigators in to verify this information. To say that something is because the Syrian regime says so is a circular argument, because it is the Syrian regime itself which has to be investigated, and its credibility verified. In a sense this is a bit like Narwani insisting that there was an armed element to Syria's uprising from the start, because she says so. You cannot say that A is A because of A, that is absurd.

The absurdity continues later in the article when Narwani claims to have met with a select few NGO's that "enjoyed rare access to all parts of the country". Her discussion with their spokespersons seemed to confirm that both the International Committee for the Red Cross, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society, were only ever asked for assistance when the Palestinians were shot at the Golan - yes, those same Palestinians that were egged on by the Syrian regime to go to the border to distract attention from Assad's domestic crisis. Isn't that just a little bit too convenient? And wouldn't Narwani, on her shrewd ability to derive facts from fiction, have thought her readers would find this a little bit too suspicious? Of course, as we mentioned earlier, Narwani neglected to mention the context of the Palestinian deaths in the Golan, and perhaps now we know why this little bit of news would be inconvenient for the overall argument that she is trying to make.

Another NGO worker she spoke with tells her that the other side is "no better", which is odd because she just said that NGO workers from other organisations seem to think that nobody is getting killed. This NGO worker she spoke with over the phone gives her a useful definition of what constitutes a humanitarian crisis, and clearly it is inferred that Syria is not undergoing a humanitarian crisis. Thank you for that Narwani, that is very helpful as I hear the interviews of escaped wounded journalists who were trapped in Homs and who said that there is no food, water or any medical supplies available in any quantity that is helpful to the besieged people of that city.

Perception, and not facts, are what Narwani claims to be focused on, but ultimately it is Narwani's perception of the facts which should be called into question. Narwani concludes that there is some kind of hysteria involved with the casualty lists emerging from Syria and that rather than ask how many we should ask who these dead are and how these people were killed. The only hysteria I see is that which is coming from the author herself, as she uses a childlike approach to logic and the facts to do something we refer to in philosophy as, "denying the antecedent". In a joke, denying the antecedent would be highly amusing, but when the Syrian regime is murdering its own people, Narwani's formal fallacy and verbal gymnastics are as tragic as they are morally condemnable.

12 comments:

نزار الفهد الملكي said...

I great breakdown. Narwani has pulled several of these sort of articles out. It bears the typical hallmarks, discussion of conspiracy, armed groups, minimizing, trivializing, and apologizing.

What we have is someone who has spent so much time dedicated to the Palestinian issue, that I doubt she could discuss the relationships between Arab countries on any other issue. We have a person who has thought of SANA as a trusted source for info for so long that she assumes there must be some merit to their lies.

Another one of your "anti-imperialists" it would seem, clueless, uncaring or possible secretly wishing for the resistance to fail for the "benefits" of a friend in the palace overlooking Damascus, and to hell with the Syrians.

A friend who sold the Golan. A leader who has done nothing but send small arms, exert no pressure, killed his own people and got Lebanon bombed on purpose.

EDB said...

Maysaloon,

Terrific work. Thank you. Reading your piece raised another glaring deficiency/manipulation in Sharmine's piece: Given what we know about the two competing SOHRs and what Al Akhbar English reported about a month ago, the SOHR of Rami Abdul Rahman is the far more credible source and one that international NGOs, such as Amnesty, have been using.
"Amnesty International has maintained a long relationship with Rami Abdulrahman. Al-Akhbar understands they have been meeting with him in person for years. “Amnesty International has been receiving information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London based non-governmental organization, since its establishment in 2006,” an Amnesty officer said speaking on condition of anonymity. “Over the years the information provided by the Observatory has generally been credible and well researched and founded.”

The spokesperson added that it was “very important to clarify” this referred only to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights whose website is www.syriahr.com (in Arabic, with English translations on a linked Facebook page). Amnesty said it could not vouch for “a separate group” under the URL www.syriahr.org (Azzawi’s website, although the Amnesty spokesperson did not name him)."

In this paragraph, Sharmine obfuscates which SOHR she is talking about when she mentions the Palestinians killed in the Jolan:

"Abdul Rahman’s SOHR does not make its list available to the general public, but in early February I found a link to a list on the other SOHR website and decided to take a look. The database lists the victim’s name, age, gender, city, province, and date of death – when available. In December 2011, for instance, the list names around 77 registered casualties with no identifying information provided. In total, there are around 260 unknowns on the list.

Around that time, I had come across my first list of Syrians killed in the crisis, reportedly compiled in coordination with the SOHR, that contained the names of Palestinian refugees killed by Israeli fire on the Golan Heights on 15 May 2011 and 5 June 2011 when protesters congregated on Syria’s armistice line with Israel. So my first check was to see if that kind of glaring error appears in the SOHR list I investigate in this piece.

EDB said...

EDB said...

Maysaloon,

Terrific work. Thank you. Reading your piece raised another glaring deficiency/manipulation in Sharmine's piece: Given what we know about the two competing SOHRs and what Al Akhbar English reported about a month ago, the SOHR of Rami Abdul Rahman is the far more credible source and one that international NGOs, such as Amnesty, have been using:
"Amnesty International has maintained a long relationship with Rami Abdulrahman. Al-Akhbar understands they have been meeting with him in person for years. “Amnesty International has been receiving information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London based non-governmental organization, since its establishment in 2006,” an Amnesty officer said speaking on condition of anonymity. “Over the years the information provided by the Observatory has generally been credible and well researched and founded.”

The spokesperson added that it was “very important to clarify” this referred only to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights whose website is www.syriahr.com (in Arabic, with English translations on a linked Facebook page). Amnesty said it could not vouch for “a separate group” under the URL www.syriahr.org (Azzawi’s website, although the Amnesty spokesperson did not name him)."

In this paragraph, Sharmine obfuscates which SOHR she is talking about when she mentions the Palestinians killed in the Jolan:

"Abdul Rahman’s SOHR does not make its list available to the general public, but in early February I found a link to a list on the other SOHR website and decided to take a look. The database lists the victim’s name, age, gender, city, province, and date of death – when available. In December 2011, for instance, the list names around 77 registered casualties with no identifying information provided. In total, there are around 260 unknowns on the list.

Around that time, I had come across my first list of Syrians killed in the crisis, reportedly compiled in coordination with the SOHR, that contained the names of Palestinian refugees killed by Israeli fire on the Golan Heights on 15 May 2011 and 5 June 2011 when protesters congregated on Syria’s armistice line with Israel. So my first check was to see if that kind of glaring error appears in the SOHR list I investigate in this piece."

Anonymous said...

Hi Maysaloon,

I am a constant follower of your blog, thanks for everything.

A few weeks back an analysis was published by Al-Akhbar written by the same person on the satellite images of Homs. I looked at the images and they left my perplexed, so i am wondering if you could take a look at it and share your thoughts with us. Here is the link to the article

http://english.al-akhbar.com/blogs/sandbox/high-tech-trickery-homs

Thanks

نزار الفهد الملكي said...

Here is what I posted about Ms. Narwani's little reference to the "alabama moon" site Narwani's sole source for decrying the State department photos.

I am not impressed at all. I also tried to post the same comments on the Alabama moon site and her site... we will see if my comments make it through the ringer process of their editors though.

it is on my own page:
http://tidesofspring.blogspot.com/2012/03/not-actually-debunking-state-department.html

Amal SG said...

Maysaloon, I am only bothering to critique your blog entry about Sharmine Narwani's fine piece on the Syrian casualty list because you are an FB friend of mine (yes I know your real name) and I want you to know what I think. I honestly had to trim it down because the glaring errors and logical inconsistencies you make you make are simply too numerous to document. But here goes:
1) Regarding the Palestinian protesters who were shot by the Zionist occupation army you assert: "The Syrian regime had sent these protesters by bus to the borders, and encouraged them to attempt crossing the border...These Palestinians might be seen as just as much a victim of Assad's regime as the Syrian people... Narwani neglected to mention the context of the Palestinian deaths in the Golan". Seriously dude? Assad was responsible for the Palestinians who were shot by Israelis? And what's with this patronizing and infantilizing discourse you use vis-a-v-s Palestinians, who were merely "sent" and "encouraged" to stand up to the Zionists. You reduce them to a bunch of hapless and easily manipulable individuals with no sense of political agency or awareness, regime stooges almost given that they were bussed there.
2)You say: "Interestingly, she makes no reference to the principle of necessity, and immediately moves to discussing whether or not Assad and his forces could be accused, in a court of international law, of violating the principle of proportionality." Erm hello, she devotes two paragraphs explaining how Assad had violated the principle of necessity and even cites the Arab league Report (which you later acknowledge she does) as proof of this.
3) And then you argue: "Let us answer simply that Narwani does not provide any evidence to back up her claim that the gunmen were attacking the Syrian regime from the start, and that this is what triggered the crisis. It is so simply because she says so". Not really Maysaloon because if you had bothered to read the piece properly you would have noted that she writes a full 3 paragraphs on the issue and quotes from Joshua Landis' blog (his wife had spoken to one of the victims' friends).
4) You conclude with this flawed understanding of the principle of proportionality: "Narwani does not seem to understand that the principle of proportionality is concerned with whether the response was proportional to the threat posed, it isnot about tit-for-tat killings and whether fifteen Syrian soldiers killed makes up for fifteen "others" killed. And it is interesting to note that the "other side" that Narwani speaks of is not an invading military force, but the Syrian people themselves - armed or otherwise." Akh ya Maysaloon, how does one even begin to respond to this self delusional propaganda, not to mention the flaws in basic reasoning? In demonstrating how the casualties include a large proportion of the Armed Forces and armed gunmen, Sharmine is essentially saying that the response can't be disproportionate to the threat posed because most of the dead are combatants from both sides. It is a threat precisely because there is an armed insurgency undermining state security and national stability. What else qualifies as a threat for you? And as for your comment about how the Zionist collaborationist FSA are essentially synonymous with the "Syrian people", what can I say other than it is such a shame that you and your kind, who once supported resistance to Israel, have now started to normalize collaborationists in so far as they are now "the Syrian people".

Maysaloon said...

Amal,
Not quite sure why you should mention that you know me, I would have thought that is obvious and it is hardly difficult to find out. I will respond to your points mainly for the benefit of future readers who would read this exchange. I'm not sure as to how helpful it would be for yourself.

1. Yes, I stand by what I said. The Palestinians who were killed at the border were encouraged and allowed by Assad's men. To reach the Golan Heights a person would need the permission of a number of intelligence agencies, and those Palestinians would never have caught a whiff of the Golan Heights without the connivance and assistance of Assad's regime. After over forty years of Israeli occupation of those heights, this is the first and only time that any civilians have been allowed so close to it. That you don't find this a curious coincidence at a time when Assad faces a revolution that threatens his rule perplexes me. And your accusing me of patronizing the Palestinians is a non sequitur and a deliberate attempt to distract from the real point, which is that Assad deliberately sacrificed those people and that the "brave" Syrian army did not fire a single bullet to protect them when the Israelis opened fire on them - something that you don't seem particularly bothered with.

2. Thank you for deliberately misinterpreting what I have written but unfortunately for your argument I actually know exactly what I'm talking about. Narwani does *not* refer to the principle of necessity. Moreover, she does not seem to understand what that principle represents in the same way she does not understand what the principle of proportionality is about. If you had read the article properly yourself then you would understand that, based on the definition that Narwani has provided for the two principles, the principle of necessity is concerned with whether or not the actor in question should have responded to the problem in the way that it did. Narwani, quite naively, states her assumption - for the sake of argument - that the Syrian goverment was "overzealous" in its use of force. But this has nothing to do with the principle of necessity and is actually what the latter principle of proportionality is concerned with. The whole point is that Assad's resorting to military force to crush the protests must be examined first to see if he breached the principle of necessity! It seems that both you and Narwani are having trouble understanding and distinguishing between these two principles. Therefore, I'll repeat that Narwani has not referred to the principle of necessity in her argument and has simply skirted around it.

3. The paragraphs you are referring to have nothing to do with proving that the protests were armed from the start. Narwani begins by saying that the first reference she could find of casualties in the Syrian regular army is from the 10th of April. The Syrian revolution began in mid-March! Also the reference to Landis' blog is in referral to that specific incident which happened almost a full month after the revolution had started. So those paragraphs you appear to be referring to can in no way be construed as evidence that the protests in Syria were armed from the start.

4. Not sure there is a point I can respond to here, it's just your opinion and trying to address that would just lead to a circular argument. If you don't understand what points 2 and 3 are about then I'm not sure I can help you at this stage.

To conclude, what you think of me is irrelevant. I stand by what I say and I am capable of backing up each of my arguments with firm reasoning and clear premises. The foundation of my position is a firm rejection of the brutal oppression and murder that has been unleashed by Assad. I am proud to be a traitor to any cause which justifies this murder. If you have chosen to be wilfully blind to this criminality, then I am the one who is truly sorry for you.

Anonymous said...

Hi نزار الفهد الملكي,

Thanks a lot for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. I looked at what your wrote, and i think you answer a different thing from what i was truing to get to understand. MY inquiry was about the satellite images of destroyed neighbourhoods of Alawites being shown as Bab Amro. As i said, the Alakhbar article shows these images, which i inspected and i found that what they proclaim to be true, which what left me wondering how it could have happened.
I was not talking about images of deployed artillery but rather the destroyed neighbourhoods. I hope you or Maysaloon can try to help me answer that.

Crazy Bear said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Maysaloon writes:

"The Syrian regime had sent these protesters by bus to the borders, and encouraged them to attempt crossing the border. This move was widely seen by many Palestinians as a convenient rouse to distract from the domestic crisis engulfing Assad's regime."

Egged on or not, those Palestinians were killed by Israel and shouldn't have been included in the lists provided by the opposition as those killed by the regime. Sharmine is correct in pointing that out. Arguing otherwise only allows Israel to wash its hands clean. I actually agree with many of the criticisms you made about questioning the casualty figures in general, but I didn't expect you to repeat the arguments made by Zionists to excuse Israel's behavior at the time of the border demonstrations (this wasn't the first case of Israel killing Palestinian refugees trying to return home). I'm hoping the Syrian uprising has not soured your views on the Palestinian cause, Maysaloon.

Maysaloon said...

Anonymous,
Here is the part you seem to have missed in my article


Narwani calls this a glaring error, but what she omits mentioning to her reader is the crucial context within which these Palestinians were killed. The Syrian regime had sent these protesters by bus to the borders, and encouraged them to attempt crossing the border. This move was widely seen by many Palestinians as a convenient ruse to distract from the domestic crisis engulfing Assad's regime. In fact there was protesting in the Palestinian areas against this manipulation by Assad's regime. This is a context that Narwani should have brought out to her readers, rather than just dismiss it as a "glaring error". These Palestinians might be seen as just as much a victim of Assad's regime as the Syrian people. It is not a judgement I will make, but again, this context is important for the reader if Narwani was as interested in the stories of the victims as she presents herself to be.


Quite clearly, I'm specifically asking why Narwani does not focus on the context for the Palestinian deaths, though she does for other deaths on the lists. Whether that is an error or not, I stated clearly that it is not a judgement I am making. Your assumption is erroneous.

Bearing in mind that those refugees could only be present at the border with the express permission of the Syrian regime, and that it did absolutely nothing to protect them, why should we not be cynical about this? And why should this be seen as absolving one party at the expense of another?

Check your premises.

William Scott Scherk said...

Maysaloon, re-reading your posts on the reportage of Sharmine Narwani.

This is good, strong, logical work. Thank you for the persistent struggle against bias and lack of coherent argument.