Syria: What happened At Jisr al-Shagour? – Analysis


What happened in the initial attack on Jisr al-Shagour? Many of the stories that were reported by both sides seem to have been filled with falsehoods and exaggeration. The real story is not the fake Gay Girl in Damascus – a juicy distraction that has dominated the airwaves for the last two days – but the way so many journalists cannot check their stories before deadlines because they are not permitted into Syria and don’t understand Arabic. The Syrian government doesn’t even try to add English subtitles to its version of events and Youtube recordings, making them useless to the thousands of foreign reporters who cannot understand Arabic. The result is bad reporting that often relies on one side of the story.

There is little evidence of wide-scale mutiny of Syrian soldiers. No solid evidence that they shot at each other, and some evidence that the young men of Jisr set a trap for Syrian soldiers with simple weapons and dynamite. Individual soldiers do seem to have deserted. Some turned up in Turkey. They seem to have been instructed to exaggerate the defections and to follow a common narrative of soldiers shooting each other in a large conflagration at Jisr. This story is hard to verify, making it seem dubious.


Contrary to the claims of Syrian authorities, 120 Syria soldiers do not seem to have been killed. A single mass grave turned up 10 dead soldiers. Four had their heads cut off. This would seem to have been done by the militia of Jisr, which had some success in fighting the soldiers initially sent to pacify them.

On the question of a scorched earth policy, both sides are claiming that the other is burning crops and threatening innocent civilians with retribution and the destruction of their farms if they side with the enemy. The Syrian government issued these interviews with people from Jisr. My last few posts have linked to accounts from refugees in Turkey that insist that the Syrian authorities are burning crops to punish local inhabitants of Idlib province from giving assistance to the assistance.

The refugees in Turkey told stories of revolt, mutiny and mayhem.  Government stories that 120 members of the police and military were killed were explained by the opposition as security forces shooting themselves. The Syrian government then published tapped phone calls of activists in Jisr that it collected on the eve of the initial combat. If they can be taken at face value, the activists establish a plan to send all the women and children of the city to Turkey. They were instructed to tell foreigners that Syrian military personnel shot each other. When enlisted men refused to shoot on unarmed demonstrators, their Alawi officers mowed them down – that was the story to be told to the Western press.

Meanwhile, the men of Jisr organized an ambush. One phone call between two activists goes over how to bury the dead; they discuss whether to bury them in a one grave or divide them up an bury them two by two, so as to better conceal the fact that the opposition had abandoned passive resistance in order to take up arms. They discuss how not to be photoed during prayers so as not to give the regime a pretext to claim that they were Salafists. They wonder how to combat tanks with dynamite.  Above all they are anxious to get their story out to the West in the most favorable light so as not to reveal they they have established an armed insurgency and to blame any killings on the Syrian army.

The Syrian army has exaggerated the number of its dead in order to justify ever harsher repression of the inhabitants of Jisr and Idlib province. The governent is thrashing about in a failed effort to stop the demonstrations from spreading. Syrian authorities have utterly failed to get out their version of events and have lost the media contest to demonstrate that they stand for anything good. The West is entirely convinced that “the people” stand with the opposition and favor revolution. Government attempts to explain to Western authorities that they stand with the people and are serving anything other than bloody-mindedness with the repression of the revolt, have been such a failure that Rim Haddad, the head of the government’s media effort has been fired.

Ausama Monajed, A leading Activist resident in London, writes (9 June 2011):

Despite all talk of army defections, we really have to remember that, until recently at least, they remained minor and would not pose a serious threat to the regime. In the few instances when the number of defectors amounted to few dozens, defectors simply tried to play a protective role of the local population rather than going on the offensive. We don’t know what’s happening in Jisr Ashoughour at this stage. The eyewitnesses we contacted don’t seem to support the theory that a major defection has taken place. In this light, the troops-buildup in the northern region could be construed as theatrics meant for domestic consumption. The more tension, the great the fear, the less likely that people will take to the streets in Damascus and Aleppo.

See the excellent article – “Syria on the Boil, US Warship in Black Sea” by Amb. M K Bhadrakumar in the Asia Times, excerpted below.

Syria Comment - Joshua Landis

Joshua Landis maintains Syria Comment and teaches modern Middle Eastern history and politics and writes on Syria and its surrounding countries. He writes “Syria Comment,” a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 3,000 readers a day. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis regularly travels to Washington DC to consult with the State Department and other government agencies. He is a frequent analyst on TV and radio.

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