More than 175 Syrians were killed by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Hezbollah Lebanon fighters, on 26 February 2014 near the town of Otaibeh in the eastern suburbs of Damascus. The high-profile operation was described by Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian state-controlled media as a “tight, preplanned ambush” of “heavily armed al-Qaeda terrorists”. But evidence suggests the victims were either unarmed civilians or prisoners of war who were executed en masse in breach of all international laws and conventions. Moreover, pictures of how their bodies were treated afterwards – using bulldozers to dump them – have caused shock and outrage across the world.
The incident and its details have become yet another episode in the propaganda war between regime and opposition media. Below Naame Shaam attempts to discern facts from lies.
– Terrorists, civilians or prisoners of war?
The story told by media outlets close to the Syrian regime, and reiterated unequivocally by Hezbollah and Iranian state-controlled media, is similar to previous ones and gives the impression that it had been rehearsed beforehand. These were “al-Qaeda terrorists”, it goes, heavily armed and mostly foreign, who were fleeing the area following “great losses” incurred in recent fighting with the regime forces in Eastern Ghouta. The Syrian “army” had intelligence about their plans and their path, so a “tight ambush” was put in place to catch them. Two mines exploded as the group marched by – in a single row – around 3am, followed by heavy gun fire to finish off those who may not have died in the explosions. Pro-regime TV crews were then summoned to the scene to “witness and document the truth.”
Syrian opposition sources, on the other hand, were quick to assert that the victims were all “unarmed civilians.” A statement by the United Legal Desk in Eastern Ghouta said the 175 or so victims were “residents of Eastern Ghouta who were trying to flee the siege imposed on them [by the regime forces] through [the town of] al-Otaibeh.” The statement claims a number of people managed to escape the massacre with serious injures and were treated in a field hospital nearby. To cover their crimes, the statement goes on, the perpetrators then “brought in light and middle-weight weapons and placed them there, and brought in the media to falsify the truth and claim these were Islamist fighters.”
The weapons displayed by TV reports were not scattered around with the corpses but appear to have been collected for display or, alternatively, brought in from somewhere else afterwards. They all allegedly had the words “Liwaa al-Islam” engraved on them, suggesting the ambushed group was from the armed faction led by Zahran Alloush which forms a big part of the Islamic Front. Even if this were true (i.e. if the Liwaa al-Islam had weapons especially manufactured for it), the victims were not from Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda, as all Iranian state and Hezbollah media reports about Syrian opposition armed groups are quick to assert.
A close examination of the pictures and the video footage that have surfaced since suggests that both narratives may be false; at best, distorted or exaggerated. For one, it is hard to believe that a group of civilians or armed fighters fleeing a siege would march slowly in a single row in the middle of nowhere. Moreover, a close inspection of some of the footage shows that some of the corpses had their hands tied, with a teddy bear lying next to one of them. If these were armed fighters who were ambushed all of a sudden, why were their hands tied? And what is a teddy bear doing with an al-Qaeda terrorist? On the other hand, if the victims were all unarmed civilians, why were some of them wearing ammunition vests?
There are two, more plausible explanations of these apparent anomalies. The first is that the victims were indeed civilians fleeing the siege in Eastern Ghouta but were accompanied by some fighters from the Free Syrian Army to protect them on their way, which makes sense. The second is that the victims had been arrested by the regime forces and were marched through the area where an ‘ambush’ had been prepared, complete with cameras ready to ‘document’ the operation. In other words, the whole thing may have been orchestrated by the Syrian regime and Hezbollah Lebanon with the aim of using it in their propaganda war. The fact that there were night-vision cameras, carefully positioned to film the row marching seconds before the mines went off, that many of the corpses do not appear to have been burnt or torn into piece by the explosions, and the speed with which TV crews were brought in, all seem to support this scenario.
If this is true, and regardless of whether the victims were civilians or armed combatants, they were nonetheless prisoners of war and should not have been treated and executed in the way they were, in breach of the Geneva convention on the treatment of prisoners of war. The massacre may also amount to a war crime or a crime against humanity, and Hezbollah Lebanon and its masters in Tehran would be complicit in these crimes, as the next section will show.
– Was Hezbollah involved?
A short video posted on Youtube – which activists claim was obtained from a member of Hezbollah Lebanon – shows two officers in military uniform on the scene joking about the corpses of the Otaibeh massacre with a distinctive Lebanese accent. One of them also appears to be wearing a badge that looks similar to the distinctive yellow badge worn by Hezbollah Lebanon fighters. The quality of the video is very bad (it seems to have been taken with a mobile phone) but both things can nonetheless be noticed.
Moreover, Hezbollah Lebanon’s official TV channel, al-Manar, broadcast on the same day “exclusive footage” of the first moments of the ambush. A night-vision camera shows a row of people marching before two mines explode and heavy gun shots are heard.
Both pieces of evidence suggest that Hezbollah Lebanon was not only involved in carrying out the Otaibeh massacre, but was also involved in planning and preparing for it. This begs the question: were Iranian Sepah Qods commanders, who are known to overlook and direct Hezbollah Lebanon’s operations in Syria, also involved in the orchestration and implementation of this massacre?
– Mutilated bodies and bulldozers
If the massacre itself was not shocking enough, pictures of a bulldozer crudely sweeping and shoving the victims’ corpses certainly did the job. One picture shows a bulldozer sweeping a dozen bodies as if they were trash. Another shows the bulldozer shoving and piling half a dozen bodies, along with soil dug from the ground. A third shows one of the bodies stuck on the corner of the bulldozer’s front blade and carried like a sack of potatoes.
Many Syrian and other commentators have expressed their shock, outrage and disgust at these images, which only prove, they said, that the Assad regime forces and those fighting with them, particularly Hezbollah, have lost all sense of morality, whether cultural, religious or simply human.
We, at Naame Shaam, believe that, unless the Iranian regime pulls all its Sepah Pasdaran, Hezbollah Lebanon and Iraqi militias out of Syria, such crimes and massacres are bound to happen again and again, and will only get more abhorrent.
 See, for example, http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13921207000844.
 See, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r9FdlOXS1RA and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4imi_ikLOM4.
 You can find some of the pictures at https://www.zamanalwsl.net/news/47053.html; http://orient-news.net/index.php?page=news_show&id=7982; and http://the-syrian.com/archives/106398.