" “In Adra on the northern outskirts of Damascus in early 2014, I witnessed [Nusra] forces storm a housing complex by advancing through a drainage pipe which came out behind government lines, where they proceeded to kill Alawites and Christians.” Cockburn was witnessing a war crime.
But there is a problem. The atrocity might or might not have happened but Cockburn certainly didn’t witness it.
Long before he placed himself at the center of the episode, Cockburn wrote about it in his January 28, 2014 column for The Independent. By his own account, he arrived in Adra after the alleged massacre and he was told the story about rebels advancing through a drainage pipe and massacring civilians by “a Syrian [regime] soldier, who gave his name as Abu Ali.”
For Cockburn, the situation in Syria is stark: you are with the regime or you are with the terrorists. He is an enthusiast for the war on terror—Bashar al-Assad’s war on terror. He criticizes the U.S. for excluding from its anti-ISIS coalition “almost all those actually fighting ISIS, including Iran, the Syrian army, the Syrian Kurds and the Shia militias in Iraq.” “The enemy of our enemy”, he insists, “must be our friend”—and those who reject this formula are “glib” and “shallow”.
He even gets to speak to “a local FSA commander” (at that point, Cockburn was still acknowledging the FSA), who tells Cockburn that he changed sides “because of general disillusionment with the uprising.”
Only later are we told: “Listening to [the FSA rebel] impassively were Syrian army officers.”
Cockburn gives no indication that he is troubled by the officers’ presence while he interviews a surrendered soldier. Far from it. The trip leads him to conclude: “The only way to bring the political temperature down is by local ceasefires and peace deals.” Syria would be at peace, in other words, if all Syrians just re-submitted to regime rule.
Cockburn is only following the precedent of his illustrious colleague Robert Fisk who, in August 2012, after a massacre of 400-500 people in Daraya, rode a Syrian Army armoured personnel carrier to the scene, interviewed survivors—“in the company of armed Syrian forces”—and concluded that, contrary to initial reports, “armed insurgents rather than Syrian troops” were responsible for the massacre.
Veteran war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, however, visited the town unaccompanied and interviewed survivors without the menacing presence of the Syrian Army. They told di Giovanni that the massacre was carried out by the regime, a conclusion corroborated by Human Rights Watch.
At their best, journalists exhume truth, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in My Lai. At their worst, they try to bury it, as Seymour Hersh did after the massacre in Eastern Ghouta. Six months after a clumsy attempt at mass-crime revisionism, Hersh blurbed Cockburn’s book. Generous praise from Hersh would once have counted as an honour; after Syria, it has turned into an indictment."