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The Battle for Syria

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No Claims of Ignorance, Please

April 7th 2012

Sat photos of damage
credit: US State Department Human Rights Bureau

In 1995, U.S. spy satellites photographed telling moments in the massacre over four days of an estimated 7,800 Bosnians by Bosnian Serb forces near the town of Srebrenica. But these photographs were not publicized by U.S. officials until nearly four weeks after the massacre had ended. Intelligence analysts did not circulate the evidence to senior officials for 22 days, even though two U.S. diplomats had picked up and circulated warnings about the killings on the first day and again 12 days later (“New Proof Offered of Serb Atrocities,” The Washington Post, Oct. 29. 1995).

It was an embarrassing disconnect between top policymakers and officials in the U.S. intelligence community, which jointly missed the chance to sound an alarm about a horrific, genocidal crime—the largest mass killing in Europe since World War II—while it was still under way.

In 2012, the public picture of what’s happening in Syria—where more than 9,000 people have been killed so far, according to the UN—literally looks different, due to an unusual agreement brokered by White House aides between the intelligence community and the State Department. For more than a month, U.S. intelligence analysts have been declassifying satellite photos depicting the movement of Syrian armor and the destruction of Syrian villages so the department’s Human Rights Bureau can plaster them on its website.

The photos do not depict atrocities, but they convincingly show the massing of Syrian armor and some of the damage caused by the shelling that government forces have made a hallmark of their military campaign against the rebellion. Several display damage to a mosque, school, medical clinic and other buildings in Homs; others display crater concentrations in the rebellious city of Homs and town called Zabadani.

The idea for the display came from officials on the National Security Council, including some with Bosnia experience. Samantha Power, a senior NSC director for multilateral affairs and human rights, is a former reporter in Bosnia who wrote a much-praised book about genocide; she has been a strong advocate for U.S. intervention to stop humanitarian crises. Derek Chollet, a senior NSC adviser for strategic planning who will shortly move to the Pentagon, is a former speechwriter for U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke and the author of a book about the Bosnian peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio.

Some policymakers were initially wary about the idea. They worried—as counterparts did during the Bosnian crisis 17 years ago—that displaying evidence of attacks against civilians might inflame political appetites to intervene directly in the fighting. NSC spokeswoman Erin Pelton did not want to speak about internal deliberations but said that “we believe that it is important to reveal the facts of the Assad regime’s outrageous actions against the Syrian people. This type of evidence counters Assad’s false claims, and reveals for the world the true character of the regime.”

The State Department’ human rights bureau has robust competition in presenting the most compelling face of Syria’s repression—or attention-getting evidence of human rights abuses anywhere. Recall, for example, the international attention garnered by the brief film of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death in 2009 after a pro-government militia member shot her during a demonstration in Iran; that film won a Polk Award. Websites featuring evidence of human rights abuses around the world have begun to proliferate; one called the Satellite Sentinel Project, financed by the film actor George Clooney and others, has innovatively used commercially-obtained satellite imagery to document shelling and the destruction of villages by government forces in Sudan.

The United Nations Institute for Training and Research, an autonomous group in the UN system with a mix of government and private support, has begun posting satellite photos of refugee camps and graphic maps of cumulative deaths in Syria. And video evidence collected by international news outlets continues to expand; on April 4, for example, a persuasive, depressing interview with a 13-year old boy tortured by Syrian security forces before fleeing to Lebanon appeared on Globalpost’s site.

The Human Rights Bureau’s display of Syrian satellite photos can best be described as a work in progress. It was updated in the past week by slide-show presentations of satellite photos taken in March, but still presents only a single photo linking what can be seen from the sky to what rebels and their supporters have been photographing and transmitting from the ground.

State Department officials have been trying to obtain imagery more quickly from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), whose expert analysts are working with State’s Syria desk to label tanks, troops, and shelling damage on the photos. The agency is reluctant to acknowledge its role, despite its humanitarian purpose. An NGA spokeswoman, Karen Finn, declined to say how many analysts were engaged in the work or even to confirm they were helping. “I don’t have an on-the-record statement for you,” she said.

Anthony Pahigian, a spokesman for the State Department, explained that until the bureau started its postings, “the only thing that people were seeing was wobbly phone camera pictures, locally sourced and put onto YouTube. What people don’t see is pictures from afar showing, day X tanks massing outside a town; and day Y four days later, many buildings have been destroyed.” He said that the department is not trying to publish data of tactical use to the rebels, but to “tell the story in a visual way.”

According to labels on the photos, some were produced for the government by the commercial satellite firms, Geoeye and Digitalglobe; others lack any recognizable markings, leaving open the possibility that they were derived from “national technical means” in space. The effort may fit into a broader State Department campaign to compile evidence of human rights abuses in Syria that can be turned over to international or local courts, a cause to which it has just committed $1.25 million.

“You can see some changes,” said Michael Dobbs, a fomer Washington Post correspondent and fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum who has been chronicling the trial of Ratko Mladic on genocide charges for Foreign Policy magazine. “It seems to have become easier bureaucratically to release some of this stuff … They have learned some of the lessons from Srebrenica.”

R. Jeffrey Smith writes for iWatch News, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, from where this article is reprinted.


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