We will not hear a case for the defence, so viewers who believe in due process are left to work out questions to ask of the accusers.
Channel 4 this week is to present a renewed ‘case against Assad’. Having examined a number of previous such cases advanced via the Western media and NGOs, I have learned to look carefully at whether they claim more than they prove, or are even actively misleading. So I shall be watching the programme with some questions in mind.
Although what follows is very much a note to myself – a reminder to stay critical even as I prepare to be moved emotionally by harrowing human stories – I am posting it here because I do think that if a prosecutor’s case is being made in the court of public opinion, we, the viewing jury, should endeavour – in the spirit of recognizing the right of due process – to imagine together what a counsel for the defence might have asked, given a chance. And it is not just procedures at stake. Those hoping to precipitate regime change leave uncertain what would follow, except that any new regime would be more accommodating to the Western and Gulf states that are backing the Islamist fighters. Those fighters have controlled the areas they have captured by abducting, enslaving, raping, trafficking, beheading people at will, preventing children going to school or the sick receiving treatment, restricting access to food, restricting freedom of movement, and generally disregarding human rights and laws of war. To wish their rule on the Syrian people would, in my opinion, be evil. At the very least, contemplation of it should serve to inject some balance into the assessment of the government’s actions against insurgency and of how best to prevent crimes against humanity.
For what it’s worth, then, here are some questions I shall keep in mind:
– How much does this new ‘case’ recycle material that has been used in previous attempts to sway public opinion (usually just before some important decision is to be taken) only subsequently to be discredited by critical analysts? (I shall watch out particularly for a revival of the notorious and repeatedly discredited Caesar photographs.) I shall also be alert to the presentation of large numbers of alleged victims provided without evidence or corroboration by NGOs created since 2011 with the clear mission of supporting regime change in Syria.
– If new evidence is presented, does the programme explain why it is only now coming to light? What does it show? How credible is it?
– How much of the programme is devoted to conjuring a picture of the horrors of being subjected to appalling mistreatment, as opposed to presenting evidence of occurrences? (I have in mind, for instance, how computerised models of ‘forensic architecture’ were used in the imaginative storytelling technique recently deployed by Amnesty International, in place of actual evidence.)
– Do the programme makers, to enhance the effect, throw in mention of other allegations that they are not directly making and which have already been seriously questioned, if not refuted, by authoritative sources (such as chemical weapons accusations).
– If anonymity is accorded any witnesses heard, are satisfactory grounds given for it? (Otherwise, one is left unsure whether the anonymity really serves to prevent discoveries that would tell against the testimony supplied.)
– Does the programme present a vivid case for a small number of victims and then extrapolate to very large numbers without explaining the methodology? Are the direct witnesses interviewed for the programme definitely representative of larger numbers? Can we have confidence in the numbers presented?
– Finally, I shall be wanting to check whether the programme corrects or repeats the errors and omissions of similar-sounding reports that have been presented before, as for instance, in April 2016 by Ben Taub, whose claims were critically analysed by Daniel Lazare.
I realise that anyone who has not closely scrutinised previous ‘cases’ against Assad might feel that the degree of scepticism implicit here – before the film has even been broadcast – looks somewhat prejudicial. But a documentary is not supposed to be a drama that enlists our willing suspension of disbelief, so a sceptical approach should not be objectionable. More importantly, an unprejudiced commitment to human rights means accepting that the accused has a right of defence. If the media seldom allow any defence to be heard, it is left to us to ask questions of the prosecution’s case. Most important, of course, is our collective obligation – and, I hope, our right – to scrutinise any public pronouncement that could influence support for military deployment in our name.
If none of the issues flagged arises, then I shall be greatly pleased that Channel 4 will have earned the commendation of an erstwhile sceptic for an accurate and illuminating documentary.
 Rick Sterling has made a close study of what he calls the Caesar hoax, and links to it from his summary of it here. For an extensive wiki-style discussion of the Caesar photos, their uses and credibility see the collaborative investigation for A Closer Look On Syria gathered here.
 Among NGOs that have asserted large numbers of deaths and detentions without providing checkable evidence of the people concerned or clear methodological justification for the large numbers projected are Syrian Institute for Justice and Accountability, Violations Documentation Center in Syria, and Syrian Network for Human Rights. If information from these organizations is relied on, then it is subject to the criticism already made of Amnesty International in relying on it. (For an introduction to this, see my earlier piece ‘How We Were Misled About Syria: Amnesty International’.)
 This strategy of the recent Amnesty International publication was widely condemned as tantamount to fabricating evidence. See, for instance, Tony Cartalucci, and Moon of Alabama. I also briefly remarked on it at the time here. Those shown here to have discredited it include former British Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, who had earlier visited the prison in question, and stated the report ‘would not stand scrutiny’. The Independent acknowledges that there is concern about the report. CNN sets out the immediate political stakes in the controversy at the time. Further critical discussions are cited here.
 Such accusations have repeatedly been leveled at the Syrian government in the media despite considerable evidence and testimony to indicate the opposition’s responsibility for the confirmed uses of chemical weapons in Syria. This has been acknowledged even by opposition sources, along with independent experts in American and UK as well as Russia. It was this awareness in the background that probably explains why the UK and US held back on their planned attacks that took the alleged red line crossing as their justification. For a detailed discussion of these matters, with many key references, is to be found here, and still more exhaustively here.
 For the sake of brevity, I cut the original introduction for this post. As it serves to contextualise the discussion (and the photo included) it is restored here for anyone interested:
< The government of Bashar Al-Assad has unswervingly sought to defeat the foreign-backed insurgents in Syria by all means necessary. In view of the destruction, death and displacement caused by the warfare, charges of disproportionality could stand to be answered. A proper judgement on such charges may one day be possible.
Those who wish to hasten the pressing of such charges might meanwhile be expected to share Assad’s interest in eliminating terrorism from the territory and in restoring the sway of legitimate government.
Yet, instead, we hear vociferous and repeated calls from a variety of Western PR outlets (which is what I fear so many media and non-governmental organisations are becoming) to pronounce him guilty of crimes against humanity. This could support a bid to sharpen the conflict so as to precipitate regime change. What would result is unclear, except any new regime would be more accommodating to the Western and Gulf states that are backing the Islamist fighters. Those fighters have controlled the areas they have captured by abducting, raping, trafficking, beheading people at will, preventing children going to school or the sick receiving treatment, restricting access to food, restricting freedom of movement, and generally disregarding human rights and laws of war. To wish their rule on the Syrian people would, in my opinion, be evil. At the very least, contemplation of it should serve to inject some balance into the assessment of the government’s failings and of how best to ward off crimes against humanity.>