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.