The Aerial View of Homs: Diagram of Investigation

This infographic plots the line of inquiry and methodology we adopted to investigate a widely-circulated aerial shot of Homs.

An amended version of our investigation “Panorama of Destruction: The Story Behind the Aerial View of Homs” was published this week in the book Forensis: The Architecture of Public Truth (Eyal Weizman and et al., Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014, pp. 471-480.)

Aerial_Homs To read the original piece, please click on the aerial image (direct link).

For a larger view, click on the infographic below (direct link).


By Hisham Ashkar

Follow us on Twitter: @edbbeirut & @hisham_ashkar

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Motives behind the chemical strikes: the theory of a rebel advance


Syrian opposition fighters in Jobar, Eastern Ghouta, 13 April 2013. (Laurent van der Stockt/Le Monde)

Following the August 21 attack on Eastern Ghouta, which the US and a number of other states say were carried out by the Syrian regime using nerve agents, skeptical observers have questioned the absence of a discernible motive for the regime to commit such a brazen violation of Obama’s stated “red line,” right under the nose of UN chemical weapons inspectors.

After all, they say, there was no military necessity to employ such weapons given the regime’s advances in recent months using conventional weaponry and amid the likelihood of provoking a response from the US.

By any measure, it appeared a reckless move and colossal miscalculation.

Syrian regime allies on the other hand deny the regime’s responsibility on grounds that it would have been “utter nonsense” for government troops to use such tactics in a war it was already winning, to borrow a phrase from Vladimir Putin.

Were rebels threatening the regime in Damascus?

Some commentators and opposition supporters have countered that the Syrian government was, in reality, on the defensive against opposition forces in recent weeks, and that rebels have been making steady gains since late July from Eastern Ghouta – where the chemicals were then unleashed – toward the capital’s center.

The main source to support this claim appears to be an August 9 piece by Elizabeth O’Bagy titled “The opposition advances in Damascus,” published on the website of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW.)[1]

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Panorama of Destruction: The Story Behind the Aerial View of Homs


The aerial image that went around the world

“It may be that the quality of photographic transparency, once presumed dead, has simply shifted from the picture to the picture maker. In such a practice, subjectivity and truthfulness are no longer at odds, and the acknowledgement of point of view is itself a precondition of photographic honesty. (Marcia E. Vetrocq)

Following an 18-month siege by regime forces and weeks of intense clashes, al-Khalidiya neighborhood of Homs, which had been under the control of opposition fighters, was recaptured by the Syrian army on 28 July 2013.

Syria’s third largest city, Homs had largely fallen off the international media’s radar since the early spring of 2012, when rebels lost a months-long battle for control of the Baba Amr neighborhood.[1] Since July 2012, after opposition forces launched a campaign to capture Aleppo, foreign journalists entering Syria through Turkey have largely been converging on the northern city, as well as opposition-controlled areas in Idlib province.

On July 27, after regime media announced that they had “secured” al-Khalidiya, aerial images surfaced which for the first time evinced the colossal scale of destruction.

Throughout the siege, local photographers and photography collectives such as Lens of a Young Homsi have been uploading thousands of street-level images from Homs revealing entire blocks reduced to rubble. And a few days before al-Khalidiya fell to regime forces, images circulated on social media sites showing the eleventh century Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque billowing smoke and exhibiting extensive damage.

But the aerial images, taken from an estimated height of 120 meters[2] and capturing an area spanning at least 0.6 square kilometers, put those individual snapshots into perspective: as far as the eye can see, entire swaths of the city have been laid to waste. Dusty unpaved avenues, shell-pocked crumbling structures, not a soul in sight.

The aerial shots were picked up by international news media and credited to AFP/Getty Images. But nowhere was any mention made of how and by whom these images were obtained.

Did the regime take these photos and circulate them? Do opposition forces have airborne surveillance capabilities – commercial or otherwise? And which area are we in fact seeing?

The trajectory of circulation

The aerial view purporting to show al-Khalidiya appears to have first been published on 27 July on the Facebook page of Bab al-Sbaa media center (a neighborhood south of the center of Homs),[3] and later that day by al-Khalidiya Local Coordination Committee using the logo of Bab al-Sbaa media center.


Aerial images published by Bab al-Sbaa media center on 27 July 2013 ( 1 – 2 – 3 )

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On the deadliness of “non-lethal” toxins & the banality of red lines


Anwar al-Eissa, 2013, Pacifier

[This post is intended as a starting point for exploring the distinctions between “lethal” and “non-lethal chemical” weapons, and the deadliness of the latter.  The post will be updated.]

In August 2012, US President Barack Obama issued a much-cited (and consequently much-ridiculed) warning that the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons would constitute “a red line”:

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus,” Obama said. “That would change my equation. . . . We’re monitoring that situation very carefully.”

Since then, at least 20 chemical weapons attacks have been alleged by opposition supporters, as well as by the regime, causing limited fatalities.

That was until yesterday, 21 August 2013, when an apparent chemical weapons attack on multiple suburbs of Damascus caused fatalities ranging from 200 to 1,400.

As the New York Times reported, the attack was  “marked by the telltale signs of chemical weapons: row after row of corpses without visible injury; hospitals flooded with victims, gasping for breath, trembling and staring ahead languidly; images of a gray cloud bursting over a neighborhood.”

Chemical, but not “Conventional Chemical Weapons”?

The Times was the first major western publication to cast doubt on the claim that “conventional chemical weapons” had been used.

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