A Video That Captures the Horror and the Inscrutability of Syria

The shaky footage, at once damningly explicit and maddeningly unverifiable, is symbolic of how the outside world perceives this bloody but often opaque conflict.

In case you're not able to endure all 16 bloody minutes of the video, uploaded this morning to YouTube, here is what it shows: a group of fatigue-clad, gun-carrying men mill around in front of some houses, smiling, pumping their fists in the air, and kicking at the dozens of bloody corpses that blanket the ground. Many of the dead have their hands tied, and appear to have been shoot in the face. The camera moves into one of the houses, which is so filled with more bodies -- some of whom appear to be women, some with their pants pulled down -- that they are piled two or three high. Some look like children, though the camera moves so fast and the quality is so poor that it's difficult to tell. The men laugh and shout at the corpses as they drag them inside. "Get him in, get him in. Yalla, leave him here to be shot and it's done," one of them says, according to the Guardian's translation. Later, the camera goes dark for a minute, and a series of gunshots are audible. When the video returns, we're back outside, but the camera shakes so much it's hard to follow. Dozens of soldiers are standing around, as if waiting for something. We move over to a van, where a young man dressed in civilian clothes is sitting, hunched over as if he is bound or in pain though it's hard to tell. The cameraman starts shouting at the young man, and you can hear his fist making contact. Then more milling. Someone says, "The tanks just arrived." After a few more minutes of bored-looking soldiers standing around, the camera turns to the house where the bodies had been stacked. There are two explosions and the house begins to smoke, then burn. The men watch for a bit and start walking away.

That is all we can say for sure about the events portrayed in the video. Its YouTube description and social media reports say that it was filmed in March in Hammameh, a town in Idlib province, but from outside Syria it's difficult or impossible to verify any of this. Syria-watchers on Twitter say the men, heavily armed and clad in military gear but apparently lacking official insignia, might be members of the dreaded pro-Assad shabiha militias. Whoever they are, the snippets of dialogue suggest they have tanks on their side.

Middle Eastern social media has been buzzing about the video all morning, fuming at what many people see as evidence of pro-Assad troops slaughtering civilians and then burning their corpses. NPR's Andy Carvin called it possibly "one of the most important videos to come out of Syria." But, as with so much social media out of Syria, we have few real ways to understand the details of what happened -- why did troops attack the village? did anyone fight back? who ordered it? When and where did it even happen? Though the details, as captured in these shaky but explicit images, seem damning, the larger context is largely a mystery.

This video is typical of much of our understanding of Syria's internal conflict today: fragmentary, difficult to decipher, but often suggesting a common trend of brutal violence by a regime crackdown that has reportedly killed over ten thousand civilians, including over a thousand children. Reports by more traditional journalists have tended to back this up. Just today, the Washington Post reports that the government has resumed shelling the rebellious city of Hama despite UN warnings not to, and the New York Times says that regime troops have prevented UN observers from investigating reported massacres.

Still, there are outliers, occasional stories that diverge from -- though do not necessarily contradict -- this larger narrative. A McClatchy reporter inside Syria says that rebels have secured spots in Syria's north, placing "a growing number of villages and towns effectively are outside government control." Alex Thomson, a reporter with the UK's Channel Four who is embedded with UN observers in Syria, believes that a group of rebels "deliberately set us up to be shot by the Syrian Army" by leading his car into a free-fire zone. "Dead journos are bad for Damascus," he reasons. "In a war where they slit the throats of toddlers back to the spine, what's the big deal in sending a van full of journalists into the killing zone? It was nothing personal." Thomson is only inferring that the rebels tried to get him killed, but he is a deeply experienced and respected war correspondent, so it's difficult to know how seriously to take his assertion. His story is another sketchy data point in the Syrian narrative, bloody and tragic and maddeningly inscrutable.

One of the few successes of Kofi Annan's otherwise troubled peace plan is the insertion of UN observers, who sometimes allow journalists to tag along. BBC Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar embedded this morning on a UN visit to Qubeir, a village outside the much-suffering city of Hama. Two days after an alleged massacre there, the UN had finally won permission to visit. Tweeting throughout, Danahar describes the destroyed homes, the tell-tale pools of blood and pieces of flesh, and perhaps most significantly, the total absence of bodies. In Syria, even the simple act of witnessing the obvious scene of a massacre is complicated by uncertainty and dishonesty. The tracks of military vehicles mean the army likely disposed of the bodies, the UN observers tell Danahar, who calls the signs of cover-up "calculated & clear."

Perhaps the greatest mystery for Syria is how the outside world can respond. Nobel Laureate and holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel summed up much of the world's frustration, writing in today's Washington Post, "The so-called civilized world isn't even trying to stop the massacre. Its leaders issue statements, but the bloodshed continues. A situation that has lasted 13-odd months is not about to end." Still, Wiesel's proposal for ending the conflict is tellingly vague: "Why not warn Assad that, unless he stops the murderous policy he is engaged in, he will be arrested and brought to the international criminal court in the Hague and charged with committing crimes against humanity?" It's hard to imagine ICC charges ending the bloodshed any more than has Annan's peace plan.

Could military force work? U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, asked about intervention at a press conference yesterday, answered by highlighting the lack of concrete plans for solving Syria's crisis with military force. "I have to know what the outcome is. You tell me what the outcome is, I can build you a plan to achieve that outcome," he said. "I can't build that plan unless I understand the outcome."

As the world struggles to understand what is happening in Syria and to find a solution, Syrians are still dying. Opposition groups typically report 20 to 30 civilian deaths daily. One Syrian user on Twitter, much-followed by journalists for his English and his frequent aggregation of Arabic-language social media from inside Syria, fumed this morning, "Regime prevented observers from Qubair. Today it allowed them. It will present liars as residents. Media will now tell us truth is complicated."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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