The Times says Assad's snipers target unborn babies: but is this horrifying photo real?

Experts have raised doubts over a shocking image, used by the Times, purporting to show a foetus which has been shot in the womb.

On Saturday, the Times published a deeply disturbing account from a British surgeon, David Nott, who volunteered in a hospital in Syria and who said that snipers had been targeting pregnant women. According to Nott, the pregnant women he saw “were all shot through the uterus, so that must have been where they were aiming for”. The article claimed that one baby had a bullet in its brain, and an X-ray image accompanying the piece appears to show a foetus with a bullet just above its eye socket.

New Statesman was a little puzzled by the image – there seemed to be no damage to the baby’s skull and no visible entry wound. So I asked Igor Sutyagin, of the Royal United Services Institute, a military think tank, to look at the image for me. Igor Sutyagin is a Research Fellow in Russia Studies at RUSI, has a physics background and researches anti-ballistic missile defence systems. He warned me that his conclusions are only tentative – he would need more time to investigate his suspicions before drawing firm conclusions. He did, however, have some doubts about the image.

Sutyagin flagged up that the bullet appeared slightly asymmetric, which “is impossible in the case of a real bullet”. Similarly “the brain is rather soft at that stage of foetus development – so it should be splashed about if bullet really strikes it [sic]” – instead the skull seems intact. He also points out that the foetus doesn’t appear to be in the right position if the X-ray was taken while the foetus was in the womb.

I called Syria Relief, the NGO that provided the Times with the photo. Yashar Kassar, the head of fundraising, said that the photo was taken in Aleppo by the Syria Relief media team that accompanied Dr Nott and others to the field hospital. “It is a real picture, taken by one of our team, and we can guarantee that,” he told me.

He added that Syria Relief also took a photo of the same baby after an operation to remove it from the mother’s womb, which he agreed to send to me. The photo is too graphic to post online, but it neither corroborates nor disproves the X-ray image above, as there is no evidence of any wound to the foetus’s forehead. It is on its side, so only the left hand side of its head is visible. There is a possibility that the bullet wound is obscured on the right-hand side of the baby’s head - although if that is the case, it would have made more sense for the photo to depict this. 

There isn’t sufficient evidence to come to a decisive conclusion either way. And in any case, even if the X-ray photo is not genuine, that does not mean Dr Nott’s testimony is false. And I certainly don’t want to generate the impression that atrocities aren’t being committed in Syria – it’s indisputable that the Syrian civil war has caused immeasurable human suffering. But it’s essential that journalists don’t suspend their scepticism when presented with these emotive and disturbing images.

This is important because both the Syrian government and opposition groups have been guilty of crimes against civilians, and both are taking their battles online, keen to influence international opinion in their favour. Unpicking the truth is even harder when journalists cannot operate safely in Syria. There have already been a number of slip-ups with misused images – including in 2012 when the BBC incorrectly used an image from the Iraq war in 2003, claiming it showed the bodies of children in Houla, Syria. It's vital to act with caution.

 

 

An image of an X-ray used by the Times, provided by the NGO Syria Relief, who say it shows an unborn baby that has been shot in the head. Image taken from Syria Relief's website.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.