Who can we trust on Syria?

Another gruesome video from Syria raises questions about the reliability of 'facts' on the ground.

On Sunday, shocking footage emerged from the Syrian city of Homs in which a man appears to be shot in the head by a sniper.

The video (which some viewers may find distressing) seems to show the cameraman being fired on by a sniper hiding in the shadows. The screen goes blank, then moaning can be heard, along with cries for help.

It is a chilling depiction of senseless violence against a (reportedly) unarmed civilian. Activists say Syrian forces are now targeting those seen filming on mobile phones.

This footage marks the latest in a series of horrifying images, videos and facts that have been trickling steadily out of Syria since Bashar Assad's regime began its crackdown in March this year. Other videos to have emerged recently include scenes of a teenager being wounded during protests in Hama, and graphic footage of the mutilated body of a 13-year-old boy (which again may be found distressing by some viewers). But because foreign journalists and human rights groups have been banned from the country, it is nearly impossible to authenticate the sources of such information.

A quick glance at the comments on the YouTube page of the sniper video is enough to see that scepticism and distrust is rife -- in Syria as much as in the wider international community.

One commentator dismisses the video as a fake, saying: "r u [sic] guys serious.. I can perform better even though I'm not an actor... I have seen a lot better fabricated films.. the quality is getting worse, running out of money may be..[sic]"

Events in Syria are demonstrably dangerous, and president Assad appears happy to do whatever it takes to cling on to power -- but it is telling of both the regime's propaganda machine and the wider problem of verifying information that such footage has not simply been taken at face value.

Although the videos may well be authentic, it is very difficult for anyone outside Syria to know that as yet. Online activists will not be quick to forget the lesson of Amina Arraf, the gay Syrian blogger who turned out to be an American graduate student living in Scotland.

A separate video, also posted at the weekend, seems to show the killing of activist and blogger, Diyya al Najjar, as security forces clash with protesters in the al-Qarabis neighbourhood of Homs.

For Assad, the evidence seems to be steadily mounting against him -- but we in the international community must also be wary of believing everything that we hear, and keep our eyes and ears open to the truth.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

0800 7318496