Middle East

National Hospital siege spin goes into overdrive

A 15-minute YouTube video purports to show more than 100 corpses from the Jisr al-Shughur siege.

BEIRUT: Supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime spent the weekend digesting the details – and declaring victory – in the wake of Friday’s dramatic end to the siege of dozens of government troops in the National Hospital in the town of Jisr al-Shughur. Regime troops began to leave the complex early that morning, under the cover of airstrikes on rebel positions, but the majority of them appear to have been killed by the insurgents.

Forty-eight hours later, claims continued to be made that groups of stragglers had finally made it to safety. Late Friday, state media outlets declared the end of the siege a resounding victory for the government side, while the rebels called it one of the most demoralizing defeats for the regime during the course of the war, now in its fifth year.

President Bashar Assad telephoned to congratulate the colonel who was described as the “commander” of the defenders, although he might have been the highest-ranking officer to survive the ordeal.

With state media declaring the developments a victory but failing to provide further details, both loyalists and supporters of the opposition went into overdrive to make up for the shortfall in information.

Some regime supporters said more than 100 troops made it to safety, traveling in several different groups and arriving in different locations.

And Sunday evening, state media ran an item that claimed yet another group of “civilians and defenders of the National Hospital arrived in Latakia, after holding out against the siege by terrorists” in Idlib.

The item gave no further details about the group’s actual number, and the presence of women and small children raised suspicions that they were in fact among those who held out in the National Hospital for 27 days.

Some opposition sources said that despite the various lists of soldiers being circulated via social media and informal news outlets, not more than a dozen or so troops actually survived, although other accounts maintained that the figure could be as high as 55.

Official media outlets provided only small doses of information about the widely followed developments, and the pro-regime militia the National Defense Force filled the gap.

The militia’s media arm interviewed three of the survivors as they recovered in hospital in Latakia.

They spoke in the same vein about the rebel force being composed “entirely” of non-Syrians, as they rattled off the nationalities – Turkish, Chechens, Afghans – of the attacking force.

One of the soldiers who was interviewed acknowledged that the decision to leave the facility Friday was taken because the rebels were busy tunneling under the National Hospital, and might have been able to detonate explosives and end the siege on their own terms.

Supporters of the opposition, meanwhile, opted to respond by publishing the name and hometown of each casualty, saying that they had merely compiled the information from pro-regime social media and come up with a total of 208 killed.

They also listed the officers by rank: major general (one), brigadier general (11), colonel (11), lieutenant colonel (three), major (nine), captain (19) and first lieutenant (24).

And in a 15-minute video posted on YouTube Saturday, pro-opposition journalist Hadi al-Abdullah examined the route taken by the fleeing troops, encountering more than 100 corpses along the way.

The video has received more than 310,000 views since it was posted and widely circulated – in some cases on pro-regime social media – although some loyalists said the corpses appeared to have been too decomposed to be those of the Jisr al-Shugur defenders.

In the video, Abdullah and the cameraman linger quickly on most of the faces of the dead, to provide what they said was proof that the regime was covering up the magnitude of the disaster.

In a separate media appearance, Abdullah said that some 40 soldiers had been taken prisoner by various rebel groups, and that confusion still swirled around the precise number.

For the most part, supporters of the regime offered their congratulations to the army over the arrival of a number of soldiers to safety, which provoked understandably agitated reactions. “You idiots, why are you celebrating? More than half of their comrades were martyred, so why the celebration?” one regime supporter asked.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 25, 2015, on page 5.

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