Guest Analysis by Robert Barsocchini: A Critical Examination of the DIA Document on Dynamics of Syrian Conflict

DIA 24 hour watch center (Public Domain/Wiki Commons)

LR Editor’s Note: We are pleased to host this guest analysis by Robert Barsocchini, an internationally published researcher and writer who focuses on global force dynamics and writes professionally for the film industry. He is a regular contributor to Washington’s Blog. On Monday (5/25), Juan Cole dismissed well-known international security scholar Nafeez Ahmed’s investigative piece on the newly declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency documents as “just a clickbait story”—Cole did this while offering his own brief and superficial analysis in a mere 190 words of what is actually a complex DIA document. The below point-by-point examination of the DIA documents in question provides the truly in-depth analysis that Cole fails to give us. (Note: Embedded Tweets are not endorsements of the article, but provide broader context of events unfolding in Syria).                                                                                                                                              

by Robert Barsocchini

Here, I wrote that these documents “may” say the US/West wanted/want a Salafist Principality in Eastern Syria, because the declassified docs 1) say “Salafist, Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”; 2) in the next sentence, the doc defines the “The West, Gulf Countries, and Turkey” as the countries that “support the opposition”; 3) they later say the “opposition forces are trying to control the Eastern areas”, where Syria borders Iraq, and, specifically of this control of Eastern areas, say the “Western Countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey are supporting these efforts”. 4) In a section about “effects on Iraq” the docs say that “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in Eastern Syria…”, then say “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).”

However, while the document begins by stating that “The West, Gulf Countries, and Turkey support the opposition”, the document, as noted, also defines other groups, which could be considered “powers”, as either components of or supporters of the opposition: Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI. The report states: “AQI supported the opposition from the beginning…”

While the FSA is defined as “opposition”, Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI are initially described as “the major forces driving the insurgency”, not as “the opposition”. It could be that the document means that the FSA is “the opposition” and the West, its allies, and the Islamic groups are simply all supporting them, but with different individual goals. However, AQI is also directly described as “opposition” to Assad: “AQI declared its opposition of Assad’s government because it considered it a sectarian regime targeting Sunnis.”

In the section that says “there is a possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in Eastern Syria…”, then that “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want”—this section of the doc defines the opposition forces controlling the Iraq/Syria border as “Syrian Free Army”, the FSA, and says the FSA will try to take “advantage of the sympathy of the Iraqi border population”.

It then says that “If the situation [likely meaning FSA control of the border] unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran).” (The US obviously opposes Iranian expansion and sides with the Sunnis, but the last part of this sentence, as it is framed in terms of Shia expansion, may suggest that here the “supporting powers to the opposition” may be referring not the sentence stating “The West, Gulf Countries, and Turkey support the opposition”, but to earlier sentences stating “AQI supported the opposition from the beginning…” and “AQI declared its opposition of Assad’s government because it considered it a sectarian regime targeting Sunnis.”

Thus, perhaps this is simply unclear writing, or too much is censored, and what this really means is that while both AQI and “The West, Gulf Countries, and Turkey” support the “opposition” (and AQI also comprises the opposition), only the AQI part of that support for the opposition would want a “Salafist Principality” to be established. This is clearly stated regarding the effect on Iraq. However, the US/West do strongly support existing Salafist Principalities, as noted above, including the most ideologically expansionist one, Saudi Arabia. Thus, supporting a Salafist Principality, and annexation of territory (Israel, Cuba, Diego Garcia, etc.), is something the US already does currently. (International relations scholar Dr. Nafeez Ahmed notes that a RAND corp report previously advised the US “to capitalise on the Shia-Sunni conflict by taking the side of the conservative Sunni regimes in a decisive fashion and working with them against all Shiite empowerment movements in the Muslim world.”)

The doc says the above-noted “deterioration”, likely referring to the ‘unravels’ term above, “has dire consequences on the Iraq situation.” It continues that this “deterioration” would give more momentum to terrorist groups and could allow them to declare an “Islamic state”, “which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.” (A study out of British universities noted that US government/media did not report on ISIS publicly until it began to seize oil fields. Then, the study shows, the US sent drones to try to stop ISIS.)

The last uncensored sentence of the doc says that the third consequence of the “deterioration of the situation” (‘the situation’ likely meaning the FSA control of the border region) would be terrorist elements from all over the Arab world “entering into Iraqi arena.”

The rest of the document is censored, as are some sections before this.

Overall, what we can see in the document clearly states that a Salafist Principality is not desired by the West in terms of the Iraqi situation, but may or may not suggest that this principality is desired in terms of isolating Assad, which is a stated goal of the West and its allies (not just isolating, but removing). However, it is also a goal of AQI and its allies, which are defined both as supporting “the opposition” and having “declared its opposition of Assad’s government”. While this group and its affiliates could be viewed as a strategic asset for isolating Assad, they could also be viewed as a third party outside the wider global contest between West and East, which is opposed to either. However, a group in Syria opposed to both sides could be seen as preferable to having a group allied with the East and opposed to the West.

International security scholar Dr. Nafeez Ahmed analyzes these documents and concludes the US practices a policy of “sponsoring Islamist terrorism for dubious geopolitical purposes.”

“According to the newly declassified US document, the Pentagon foresaw the likely rise of the ‘Islamic State’ as a direct consequence of this strategy, and warned that it could destabilize Iraq. Despite anticipating that Western, Gulf state and Turkish support for the “Syrian opposition” — which included al-Qaeda in Iraq — could lead to the emergence of an ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the document provides no indication of any decision to reverse the policy of support to the Syrian rebels. On the contrary, the emergence of an al-Qaeda affiliated “Salafist Principality” as a result is described as a strategic opportunity to isolate Assad.”

“The secret Pentagon document thus provides extraordinary confirmation that the US-led coalition currently fighting ISIS, had three years ago welcomed the emergence of an extremist “Salafist Principality” in the region as a way to undermine Assad, and block off the strategic expansion of Iran.”

“The establishment of such a “Salafist Principality” in eastern Syria, the DIA document asserts, is “exactly” what the “supporting powers to the [Syrian] opposition want.” Earlier on, the document repeatedly describes those “supporting powers” as “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey.”

Charles Shoebridge, a former British Army and Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism intelligence officer, said (noted by Ahmed) that the documents “raise vitally important questions of the West’s governments and media in their support of Syria’s rebellion.”

“Throughout the early years of the Syria crisis, the US and UK governments, and almost universally the West’s mainstream media, promoted Syria’s rebels as moderate, liberal, secular, democratic, and therefore deserving of the West’s support. Given that these documents wholly undermine this assessment, it’s significant that the West’s media has now, despite their immense significance, almost entirely ignored them.”

Ahmed quotes a former US Marine: “US intelligence predicted the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS), but instead of clearly delineating the group as an enemy, the report envisions the terror group as a US strategic asset.”

Ahmed concludes: “The rise of a Salafist quasi-state entity that might expand into Iraq, and fracture that country, was therefore clearly foreseen by US intelligence as likely — but nevertheless strategically useful — blowback from the West’s commitment to “isolating Syria.”

What the docs establish beyond doubt is that, in 2012, when they were written, the US saw the likelihood of a “Salafist Principality” or “Islamic State” being established, and was fully aware the insurgency in Syria was mainly driven by Islamic groups, who were fighting Assad and also supporting the FSA, which itself has been shown to have Islamic tendencies. For example, an FSA commander is on video saying he would want to implement Sharia law. But the West and its allies continued their support, as FSA members openly shared their US supplies with the ISIS-related groups, and even converted to ISIS.

As Ahmed puts it, “the Pentagon continued to support the Islamist insurgency, even while anticipating the probability that doing so would establish an extremist Salafi stronghold in Syria and Iraq.”

This “entire covert strategy was sanctioned and supervised by the US, Britain, France, Israel and other Western powers.”

“As Shoebridge told me, “The documents show that not only did the US government at the latest by August 2012 know the true extremist nature and likely outcome of Syria’s rebellion” — namely, the emergence of ISIS — “but that this was considered an advantage for US foreign policy. This also suggests a decision to spend years in an effort to deliberately mislead the West’s public, via a compliant media, into believing that Syria’s rebellion was overwhelmingly ‘moderate.’”

Ahmed quotes a former MI5 officer explaining that after Libya and other such projects by the West, we see in this behavior towards Syria “part of an established pattern. And they remain indifferent to the sheer scale of human suffering that is unleashed as a result of such game-playing.”

What we already knew before these docs is that the US and West strongly support extremist Salafist states as part of their strategy of eating away at the parts of the world not under the US thumb, the “East”: Syria, Iran, Russia, and China. The US and West themselves are built on and continue to support and commit theft and annexation of territory, and support, commit, or ignore (if they are not politically helpful) all kinds of mass killings, including by groups worse than ISIS; these have included the Khmer Rouge, the Suharto Regime, and the US itself: the establishment of the USA and the building of it into a superpower was a process that involved crimes worse than anything ISIS will ever accomplish.

Further, ISIS, as pointed out by Kofi Annan and many others, arose as a consequence of the illegal US invasion of Iraq, motivated largely by Bush Jr.’s religious fanaticism, an invasion the international community tried and failed to prevent, which, the most recent and comprehensive report finds, has killed about 1 to 2 million or more people, another feat ISIS will never accomplish.

While studies and many official statements make clear, and it is obvious to any minimally non-US-brainwashed individual, that the invasion was largely about oil, even if we disregard that, ignore the rest of US history, and declare the US had/has “good intentions” regarding Iraq, that puts us at the level of of Japanese fascists, who believed in their “good intentions” regarding their invasions of China and elsewhere.

People with too much power always declare good intentions, and are often sincere, as they get god-complexes and view themselves as humanity’s benevolent saviors. But the reason war (including supporting warring proxies) is outlawed as an instrument of policy is that it has disastrous consequences, as we are seeing, even for the sincerely well-intentioned.

Additional Notes:

It should be stressed that clearly admitting the West would “want” a Salafist principality in Eastern Syria is not generally the kind of statement people in governments would make of themselves, even in private, hence makes it less likely here that the West is being referred to specifically by that statement, as does the inclusion of the phrase “if the situation unravels” (meaning FSA control of the East) an Islamic state could result.  However, it is noteworthy that the West and the Islamists are so easily conflated in this document (this conflation may well be intentional as a way of discussing benefits without clearly stating that they might be desired), as they are clearly delineated as both being opposed to the Assad government, and for similar reasons – opposing Iran and the Shia, backed by Russia and China, the latter part being of greater import to the West.  The doc also makes very clear that the FSA was/is being supported by AQI and its Islamist affiliates, and that those Islamists were known to be “the major forces driving the insurgency”.  It has long been known that FSA shares its US/Western/Gulf/Turkish supplies with and converts to Islamist groups, and AQI, the ISIS precursor, has always been known as particularly aggressive.  And as Dr. Ahmed points out, the document nowhere suggests ending aid to the opposition due to its being driven by AQI and affiliates, and only frames the potential creation of the “Islamic state” as a bad thing in relation to Iraq.  In relation to Syria/Assad, it is not framed as a bad thing, but as something that would be seen to “isolate” Assad, a goal shared by the West and the Islamist groups.  So, these documents may well be an example of discussing a strategy while attempting to maintain some degree of “plausible deniability”.

It must also be remembered that the US and West not only support extremist Salafi/Wahhabi/Sharia established states, but have on numerous occasions worked with, backed, aided and/or paralleled some of the goals of non-state groups such as the Mujahedin and al Qaeda (in Afghanistan – see Brzezinski, Bob Gates; Bosnia, Kosovo – on these see Fulton in scholarly journal Global Security Studies), including under Obama in relation to Libya.  In US support for the Mujahedin in Afghanistan and then the Taliban, the support was not even seen as a means to an end, but a completely acceptable end in itself: the US was fine with the Taliban taking power and staying in power, as long as it cooperated with the US.  That is the bottom line.  As soon as it proved uncooperative, the US “discovered” the Taliban human rights violations that non-governmental US monitors had been decrying for years, while the US was supporting the Taliban (here).  And, as noted, abhorrent behavior is not a deterrent to US support.  The US has committed far worse crimes than ISIS and supported groups far worse than ISIS.  Only those unfamiliar with history and glued to US TV can think ISIS is some new level of evil in the world, or at least one not seen for a long time.  The only qualifier for US support is whether the group in question is willing to cater to US business and strategic interests.

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Will the DIA document on Syria be reported in the mainstream U.S. media?

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AS OF THIS WRITING our reporting on the newly declassified August 2012 DIA document has yet to make it into mainstream media in the West; it has however, made it into RT News. On Saturday, RT’s International English broadcast, based in London and Washington D.C., relied on Levant Report’s original reporting of both the DIA document and former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s prior relationship to ISIS aligned militants.

Monday (5/25) and Tuesday will be significant days to see whether the story gathers enough momentum in the press to elicit an official response from Washington. For this to happen the DIA document would have to be covered in British media, or by an American newsroom with enough clout to attract attention, like McClatchy’s Washington Bureau or The Intercept, in order to get the ball rolling.

The well-known investigative journalist and best-selling author Nafeez Ahmed,  whose counter-terrorism work gained official recognition by the 9/11 Commission, published an excellent in-depth investigative piece on the DIA report at INSURGE intelligence.

Nafeez was recently a columnist for The Guardian, one of Britain’s big three national newspapers, and is still based in the UK. He took to Twitter over the weekend and announced that he is currently attempting to push the story into mainstream media, as the DIA document contains startling revelations that deserve the world’s attention and candid debate:

OF COURSE, MANY OF THESE  establishment media outlets have been so heavily invested in advancing a particular set of false assumptions regarding the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, that they would be loath to publish anything that damages their own credibility, even should clear evidence in official government documents contradict the prior reporting.

We are living in an age in which the unique propaganda system that operates in the West is so effective that it often doesn’t matter if government officials admit that they were purposefully promoting a false narrative, or were engaged in criminal conspiracy.

So long as their admissions come long after the fact, and so long as they occupy positions of prestige and respect, they can expect not to come under close scrutiny by a media establishment that itself was complicit in uncritically parroting their falsehoods all along.

We at Levant Report have been trying to shine a spotlight on former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford’s material support of Al-Qaeda for a long time. In February 2015, he openly confessed to having given support to ISIS and Al-Nusra terrorists after being questioned by Al-Monitor News journalist Edward Dark (a violation of Title 18 U.S. Code § 2339A – Providing material support to terrorists)—

Robert Ford Twitter Exchange                                   Click image for enlargement

THE TWITTER HANDLE, @fordrs58 is indeed Ambassador Robert Ford’s account, as was confirmed to me in a personal email by Dr. Joshua Landis, Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the most well-known Syria scholar in the United States.

Ford’s admission came after a lengthy Twitter conversation in response to an original Feb. 18, 2015 entry by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Aaron Lund. Though Ford might now claim “good intentions” or that he was merely following orders from the State Dept., this defense certainly didn’t work for the multiple FBI arrests and successful prosecutions of American citizens that arguably had even less involvement—and at lower levels—with rebels in the Syrian conflict.

While RT News broadcast the video evidence of Ford’s crimes, it remains for American media and US Congress to begin asking serious questions about the State Dept., DOD, and CIA’s relationship with confessed ISIS collaborators on the Syrian battlefield. At the very least, a serious Congressional investigation is warranted. Americans must demand this.

Maaloula Burns

The following video appeared on YouTube December 3rd. It is a compilation of images from the fall of Maaloula compiled by pro-regime activists. Most of the camera angles suggest (and the obscured logos in the left corner) suggest that these images were taken by anti-regime fighters to glorify and document their “success”. The lyrics to the accompanying song have a simple repeating theme: Lord, I implore you, give peace to my country!

Islamists Abduct Nuns in Maaloula

**NOTE: This video is supplied only for the sake of its current visuals (posted yesterday, 12-2). Neither I nor LevantReport endorse the specific military or political views expressed therein.**

Yesterday I raised concerns about early reports from the renewed combat in Maaloula. Sadly, confirmation of those initial reports has begun to emerge in today’s news cycle. Based on interviews with the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria, The Daily Star is confirming that up to 12 nuns  have been abducted from the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Thekla and relocated, most likely to the village of Yabroud (about 30-45 min NW). AsiaNews adds some additional details of unstated source. Given that the Catholic Patriarchate is located less than half a mile from the Orthodox Patriarchate on the same street, there is a high probability that this statement came from credible information shared between the two churches.

The Daily Star article also cites claims by opposition forces that they entered the convent merely to protect the nuns from the hostile Assad regime. Given al-Nusra’s history of violence against Christians and the fact that they rained explosive-filled tires down on the village, this claim is patently absurd, especially given that Assad has a history supporting the Monastery and making personal visits. Most of the English-language news so far has ignored the preposterous element of rebel claims, but nevertheless taken then at their word that the nuns are still present at the Monastery, preferring to label them as hostages  (cf. Bloomberg, Reuters, AP via Fox). Given the degree to which the western press agencies trust the pro-opposition activist Rami Abdulrahman, a.k.a. the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for their information, it is possible that they are taking his agnostic approach to the initial conflict reports. Certainly they have copied his analysis, repeating that the assault is strategic, based on the need to control a major N-S freeway near the village. Had they bothered to check a map, they might have noticed that the village is separated from the freeway by a good 7 miles of winding, dusty road and that another village, Ayn At-Tina, stands far closer. Another 8 miles SW (though at a much lower, less strategic elevation), Qutayfeh lies directly adjacent to the freeway.

Breaking News: Islamists Re-enter Maaloula

Maaloula, Syria: view of the St. Thecla monastery from the top of the rock. In the cove above the monastery there is a shrine of St. Thecla. This file is licensed to Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Earlier today The Daily Star (a Lebanese paper) was one of the first English sources to break the news. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights copied and pasted their work (changing only the spelling of the village) and the story is now beginning to get wider media exposure at AP, NPR, and elsewhere. The derivative stories focus more on the greater context of the battle to control the Qalamoun Mountains, which are strategic to supply lines for both sides.

Sadly, this means that initial reports of a great tragedy are passing in silence. Multiple Arabic Facebook pages are reporting that the Islamists have seized control of St. Thekla’s Monastery and have kidnapped the nuns and the soldiers who were guarding them. Reports claiming to come from foot soldiers stationed in Maaloula indicate that the opposition forces are destroying the convent. All indications are that the girls from the Monastery orphanage and the younger nuns under 60 were relocated to a safer location before the latest outbreak of violence. The Mother Superior and the older nuns chose to stay and there whereabouts not certain. Those whom I have been able to contact in Syria fear the worst.

I point out in full candor that my information is fragmentary and hearsay. That is the nature of information from an active war zone. That said, I would rather express  watchful – and perhaps on some points, overly hasty – concern than wait for a media cycle dominated by football and consumerism to turn its attention to the fate a few pious elderly women who stood their ground against al-Qaeda in one of Christianity’s oldest and most venerable monasteries.

Mar Sarkis and Realities of Disinformation

Mar Sarkis and the neighboring monastic caves. Photographed by the author in 1996.
Mar Sarkis and the neighboring monastic caves. Photographed by the author in 1996.

Author’s prefatory comment: The human death toll in Maaloula and elsewhere matters far more than any building ever will. On this day, however, a particular building deserves our attention.

Today, October 7th, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians throughout the world celebrate the memory of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus. The traditional account is that both men were Syrian soldiers who had served with distinction in the Roman legions and were widely respected despite their Christian faith. When, however, the emperor required that they prove their loyalty by sacrificing to the Roman gods, they refused. They were tortured and executed around the year AD 303. They were laid to rest in the city of Resafa, about 30 south of the modern city of Raqqa in N. Syria.

Veneration of the two saints spread rapidly through the region. Their tomb grew into a fortified basilica and the city became Sergiopolis, an important pilgrimage center. Its ruins still stand in the desert. It enjoyed the patronage not only of Justinian I and other Byzantine emperors, but also of Persian Sassanids and Ommyad caliphs. One of the more important churches in Constantinople was dedicated to their memory as was a later church in Rome.

One of the earliest and most important churches dedicated to their memory lies in the village of Maaloula. The locals call it Deir Mar Sarkis (St. Sarkis Monastery). Its very name suggests its age, for it uses the ancient Aramaic word mar instead of qadees, the Arabic word for “saint”. The church itself was built over the remains of a temple to Apollo that had fallen into disuse when the village became Christian, sometime in the mid-late 1st century. It was almost certainly built within a few years of the death of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, between the legalization of Christianity in AD 313 and the Council of Nicea in AD 325. A bishop Eutychius, from St. Sergius in Maaloula, is listed among the roll of bishops who participated in the council. Its marble altar was semi-circular with a raised lip around the outside. The design came from pagan practice, where it was necessary to drain the blood of sacrificial animals. It was clear, however, that this altar had always been Christian. It had a plain border instead of one with sacrificial processions and reliquary instead of a drainage hole. Such altars were banned at the Council of Nicea, a further indicator of the church’s early date. The masonry also uses timbers as expansion joints to protect the building from earthquakes. The carbon dating on the wood accords with the other evidence. The church also contained a number of antique icons, many of them 400 years or older.

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On September 4th, the chaos of Syria engulfed Maaloula. Fighters from the al-Nusra front, which the U.S. State Department clearly identifies as a mere alias for al-Qaeda, seized control of the village with support of the supposedly moderate FSA.

Most of the villagers, both Christian and Muslim, fled the village. From Damascus they reported that, in addition to terror and murder, the extremists had shelled and desecrated the ancient church of Mar Sarkis.

Soon the propaganda war began. The FSA posted videos to YouTube claiming that the Assad regime was shelling churches in Maaloula and started promoting them on Twitter using various aliases. This was soon followed by a video in which a wahabi-bearded “liberator” gave a tour of the supposed damage. Their efforts soon met with the desired reward. On September 10, the New York Times ran an article by Anne Barnard giving credibility to such videos and portraying public outcry about Maaloula as potential misperception. Eight days later, Lina Sinjab of the BBC used such materials to portray the whole event as an unfortunate scuffle with few deaths and no particular damage to local churches.

The supposed evidence told a different story however. I spent many hours of lenten retreat exploring Mar Sarkis and the ancient monastic caves that surround it. When I saw the shelling on YouTube I was indeed horrified, but I also had no doubt about the perpetrator’s identity.

The topography of Maaloula is remarkable. Two huge mountain faces thrust out of the earth in a V shape, each at about a 30 degree angle. The village is built straight into the mountainside, right at the base of the V. Towering rock faces surround it on all but one side. And this was the critical issue. Mar Sarkis is nestled behind the mountain face. The opposition forces held this area above and behind the village. They had an easy, short, unobstructed line of fire to the Monastery. They also have a history of violence toward Christians. The last time I was in Syria, I saw a newly renovated Mar Sarkis and the Assad regime was clearly pressing to make the most of Maaloula’s tourism value as a potential UNESCO world heritage site. War can change people and lead to extreme decisions, but such bombs would certainly be out of step with my every experience of his regard for Christians, and especially those of Maaloula. In any case, geography was the key issue. BBC and RT reports both showed that government forces had their hands full trying to secure the entry point to the village, some 1.5 winding and sloping miles away and many feet down vertically.

The next video showed a tour of Mar Sarkis, but something was out of place. I could not recognize any element of the sanctuary. Then I realized that we were not examining the sanctuary at all. We were in the former gift shop, all of its merchandise now looted or destroyed, supposedly by troops who, to judge from RT and the BBC, had not yet even advanced to the lower village square.

The subsequent articles by Barnard and Sinjab emphasized one more bit of evidence. They rest on video of Mother Pelagia of St. Thekla’s Monastery as evidence that no harm was done to people or nuns. The man to the left is clearly tapping something as she speaks and it gives an audible metallic noise. Another man hides his face just out of camera view behind the nun on the right. As the “Assad shelling” video shows, one could practically walk to the edge of the cliff and drop bombs on St. Thekla’s convent by hand from the position held by al-Nusra. There is every reason to think her assurances were coerced by threat of violence.

Subsequent events proved these suspicions correct. Maria Finoshina of RT was of the few English speaking journalists daring enough to report from the actual combat zone. Her videos show the black jihadist flag (not the Syrian opposition flag) flying over the buildings they had occupied. The parties responsible for the chaos also posted celebratory videos (note again the the black flag in the upper right corner). Finally, this past week, a reporter for ITAR-TASS news agency was able to survey the actual damage to Mar Sarkis: http://www.itar-tass.com/en/c32/895365.html. Granted, this is a Russian news agency and therefore pro-Assad in slant. That said, the nature of the damage – targeted destruction of the altar and of Christian religious art – justifies the sensational headline. This is behavior characteristic of Islamic extremists. One might recall the Buddhas of Bamiyan as an instructive example.

So, in a nutshell, the initial reports of the refugees proved true, and the sad tale of Mar Sarkis can serve as an instructive tale about the dangers of propaganda and careless reporting about the situation in Syria.

I watched Syrian Muslims flock to the holy sites in Maaloula nearly as often as Christians. It was a deeply respected part of their heritage both spiritually and historically. Only one icon is known to have survived, rescued by a Syrian soldier. To judge from his ignorance about it, he is likely Muslim.

That is the Syria I once experienced and I pray for its survival.