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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/11/17

A Flawed UN Investigation on Syria

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The March 1 report by the United Nations' "Independent International Commission of Inquiry" asserted that the bloody attack on a humanitarian aid convoy west of Aleppo City on Sept. 19, 2016, was an airstrike by Syrian government planes. But an analysis of the U.N. panel's report shows that it was based on an account of the attack from the pro-rebel Syrian "White Helmets" civil defense organization that was full of internal contradictions.

The U.N. account also was not supported by either the photographic evidence that the White Helmets provided or by satellite imagery that was available to the commission, according to independent experts. Further undermining the U.N. report's credibility, the White Helmets now acknowledge that rockets they photographed were not fired from Russian or Syrian planes but from the ground.

Like last December's summary of the U.N.'s Headquarters Board of Inquiry report on the same incident, the Commission's report described the attack as having begun with "barrel bombs" dropped by Syrian helicopters, followed by further bombing by fixed-wing planes and, finally, strafing by machine guns from the air.

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The March 1 report did not identify any specific source for its narrative, citing only "[c]ommunications from governments and non-government organizations." But in fact the U.N. investigators accepted the version of events provided by the White Helmets chief in Aleppo province as well as specific evidence that the White Helmets had made public.

The White Helmets, which are heavily funded by Western governments and operate only in rebel-controlled areas, are famous for using social media to upload videos purporting to show injured children and other civilian victims of the war.

Last year, a well-organized campaign pushed the group's nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize and a Netflix film about the group won an Oscar last month. The United Nations and the mainstream Western news media have frequently relied on White Helmets accounts from war zones that are not accessible to outsiders. But the White Helmets' officials have pursued an obvious political agenda in support of opposition forces in Al Qaeda-dominated zones in Aleppo and Idlib where they have operated.

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On Sept. 19, immediately after the attack on the aid convoy, the chief of the White Helmets organization in the Aleppo governorate, Ammar al-Selmo, presented a dramatic narrative of a Russian-Syrian air attack, but it was marked by obvious internal contradictions.

At first, Selmo claimed in an interview that he had been more than a kilometer away from the warehouses where the attack occurred and had seen Syrian helicopters dropping "barrel bombs" on the site. But his eyewitness account would have been impossible because it was already dark by the time he said the attack began at about 7:15 p.m. He changed his story in a later interview, claiming that he had been right across the street at the moment of the attack and had heard the "barrel bombs" being dropped rather than seeing them.

Selmo insisted in a video filmed that night that the attack began with Syrian helicopters dropping eight "barrel bombs," which are described as large, crudely constructed bombs weighing from 250 kg to 500 kg or even more. Citing a box-shaped indentation in the rubble, Selmo said the video is showing "the box of the barrel bomb," but the indentation is far too small to be a crater from such a bomb.

Selmo continued the account, "Then the regime also target this place with cluster bombs two times, and also the aircraft of the Russians target this place with C-5 and with bullets," apparently referring to Soviet-era S-5 rockets. The White Helmets photographed two such rockets and sent it to media outlets, including the Washington Post, which published the picture in the Post story with credit to the White Helmets.

Story Contradictions

But Hussein Badawi, apparently the White Helmet official in charge of the Urum al Kubrah area, contradicted Selmo's story. In a separate interview, Badawi said the attack had begun not with "barrel bombs" but with "four consecutive rockets" that he said had been launched by government forces from their defense plant in Aleppo province -- meaning that it was a ground-launched attack rather than an air attack.

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In an email response to a query from me, Selmo retracted his own original claim about the S-5 rockets. "[B]efore aircraft's attack on the area," he wrote, "many land to land missiles attacked the place coming from the defense factories which [are] located in eastern Aleppo [east of] the city, regime controlled area. [T]hen aircraft came and attacked the place."

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Gareth Porter (born 18 June 1942, Independence, Kansas) is an American historian, investigative journalist and policy analyst on U.S. foreign and military policy. A strong opponent of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, he has also (more...)
 

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