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Syria’s Strange Videos Cast Doubt On Claims It Killed 175 ‘Terrorists’

Syria says it killed 175 fighters in an ambush on Wednesday, but video footage of the aftermath doesn't quite add up.

by Alice Speri
Feb 28 2014, 12:15am

Photo via Getty Images

Officials with the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad said the army killed 175 fighters in an ambush on Wednesday. That’s a lot of people. So many people that it might have taken a front loader to pick up the corpses, unverified photos circulating online suggest.

Those photos – like the regime’s statements – should probably be taken with a dose of skepticism.

Syrian authorities patted themselves on the back for the operation and claimed the army blasts hit a column of “terrorists.” Official footage seems to corroborate at least the dynamics of that narrative.

But whom exactly the scattered bodies belong to is less clear.

The allegedly al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters were killed in a dawn ambush in Otaybah, southeast of Damascus, according to the state Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

The agency claimed many of those killed were foreign nationals, including Saudis, Qataris, and Chechens. SANA also cites a field commander who said the army pursued fighters with the Jabhat al Nusra and Liwa al Islam groups — some of the opposition’s best organized — while they were moving from the east to the north of the city.

But while Syria's state news agency is known as an occasionally hyperbolic mouthpiece for Assad’s regime, the choice of footage accompanying the official narrative seems odd.

This graphic video, on the pro-government Al Ikhbariya Syria channel, shows around a dozen bodies scattered on the ground. Some are wearing fatigues but many are in civilian clothes – not unusual for rebel fighters.

The video also shows a pile of weapons, presumably seized at the scene. They make for good B-roll, but if they are all that was seized, these arms appear to be far too few to corroborate the claim that all 175 victims were fighters. If anything, they seem to point to an armed escort for a group of civilians, as some activists have claimed. Members of the opposition have speculated online that the weapons were planted.

Syria’s pro-government Al-Ikhbariya channel, shows a dozen of bodies scattered on the ground after an army ambush on alleged fighters.

This video, by pro-regime journalist Hosein Mortada, shows the same scene, but also includes zoom-ins on a teddy bear and some carefully laid out religious literature and paraphernalia. The whole thing looks a tad bit choreographed, but if the religious symbols tying the fighters to Islamic groups might make sense, the teddy bear seems a little out of place.

Footage by journalist Hosein Mortada, shows the same scene from a different angle.

If the scale of casualties and the affiliation of the victims stated by the regime are confirmed, the ambush would mark a rather significant victory for Assad’s efforts to secure his grip on the areas surrounding Damascus, analysis by Reuters suggests.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group opposed to Assad, confirms the report, but puts the body count at 152.

An opposition group alleged the attack was actually carried out by Hezbollah, the Lebanese group that has helped the regime push back rebels from the Syrian capital, Al Jazeera English reported. Activists also told the network that the fighters were killed while attempting to move to the north of Damascus on a “risky road” that is under continuous government siege.

The night vision footage below, released by state television, shows what appear to be two separate bomb blasts hitting a column of men as they cross an open area.

Syrian state television shows the dynamics of the ambush that killed 175 alleged fighters.

The area around Otaybah has seen several ambushes in the past few months and is near the rebel-held area of Eastern Ghouta, which was hit by a massive chemical attack last August that left more than 1,000 people dead. Like much of the information coming out of Syria these days, that death toll is highly disputed.