The video Bashar al-Assad wants you to see

In the last few days, supporters of Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria have been circulating a video that they claim shows regime opponents in Syria dumping the bodies of soldiers into the Orontes River in or near Hama, where the Syrian Army is currently engaged in a brutal punitive campaign against civilians who say they're defending themselves only with rocks and wooden sticks.

Syrian TV has made great hay from the clip, citing it as devastating proof that the protesters are in fact "armed gangs" bent on sowing destruction and chaos and terrorizing law-abiding, patriotic citizens who love their wise leaders.

Here's the video, which is not for the squeamish, as aired on Russian propaganda channel Russia Today. Someone has added English subtitles to this version:

And here's CNN's report on the same clip:

CNN cites a Syrian activist who confirmed the video, but other Syrian activists strongly dispute that it is from Hama. One of them, who goes by the pseudonym Edward E. Dark, summarizes the local coordinating committee's complaints about the video here:

1) The Assi river has been dry for a month and a half now because the dams at Rastan have not been opened to allow water to flow.

2) There is no such bridge in Hama.

3) There is no background noise whatsoever in the video Not even a splash. Nothing.

4) the way this video was distributed by unknown sources and the timing, suggests that it was released by the regime to justify an attack on Hama. This video was most likely taken in Jisr el Shughur, and shows pro-regime militia disposing on civilian bodies.

They go on to say that after four months, the regime can come up with no valid accusations against Hama, so they have resorted to making some up. 

Pro-government Syrians reply that there is such a bridge, located at the coordinates 35.151942,36.733099 in Google Earth, just north of town. Here's an image someone uploaded to Panoramio:

 

 

It's hard to tell if it's indeed the same bridge, but the fence is similar to the one in the video. It also appears to be about the right height, but what about the sheer cliffs shown in the video?

And even if it is the same bridge, how can we take the regime's story at face value? The Syrian government has very little credibility at this point. It's entirely possible that the bodies shown are those of protesters -- they are in civilian garb, after all -- and it's the security forces dumping them into the water. Another point skeptics of the video make is that phrases heard on the recording like "fuck your religion" are words Islamists would be unlikely to use. They point out that in June, Syrian state television told a similar story, claiming that armed gangs "mutilated some of the bodies [of security forces] and threw some into the river" near Jisr al-Shughour, but never provided any persuasive evidence.

In the end, it's simply impossible to confirm either side of this story without being able to report freely from Syria, something the Syrian government manifestly does not allow. Meanwhile, there is plenty of evidence that a massacre is underway in Hama, with tanks now occupying the city's central square and civilians reportedly fleeing in large numbers. The overwhelming bulk of protests in Syria have been peaceful, precisely because the activists know that taking up arms would give the regime an excuse to slaughter them -- though it's perfectly capable of fabricating one out of whole cloth.

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Will Mubarak's trial bring down the Egyptian regime?

The sight of Hosni Mubarak, lying prostrate on a gurney inside a cage in a makeshift courtroom while his sons Alaa and Gamal stood dutifully by, electrified the Arab world Wednesday, raising the prospect that the ousted Egyptian dictator may soon be held accountable for his crimes.

Yet for all the palpable excitement over Mubarak's trial, as well as that of several other top regime figures like former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, the chaotic scenes in the courtroom -- and the rock fight outside of it -- did not exactly inspire confidence in the Egyptian justice system. In one particularly bizarre moment, a lawyer speaking on behalf of Mubarak's victims claimed that the man in the cage was an imposter, and that the real president of Egypt died in 2004. At other points, Mubarak was caught on camera picking his nose. Dozens of lawyers on both sides crowded the bar and shouted their demands, forcing the judge to shut them up.

The trial, which will resume tomorrow for Adly and for the Mubaraks on Aug. 15, is being held under the military rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that deposed Mubarak in February at the height of a popular street uprising demanding his ouster. Although the SCAF adamantly denies meddling in the civilian court system, its claims of neutrality are about to be put to the test: Mubarak's lawyer is demanding that Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the defense minister who is now Egypt's de facto ruler, be called to the stand, along with former intelligence cheif Omar Suleiman, who briefly assumed the vice presidency during the 18 days of the revolution.

Interestingly, Mubarak's defense team claims that it was Tantawi who was technically the ruler of the country from Jan. 28 onward, meaning that the infamous Feb. 2 "Battle of the Camels" in Tahrir Square happened on the field marshal's watch. That strategy seems dubious, however, given that this legal status was never communicated at the time -- and it was not until Feb. 11 that Suleiman appeared on state television to announce that Mubarak had "resigned his position as president of the republic." [UPDATE: Al Jazeera's Evan Hill says that the defense is actually arguing that Tantawi was in charge of security, not that he was running the country.]

Still, it will be fascinating to see if Tantawi, Suleiman, and other senior figures like former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq will be dragged into the courtroom drama. The Egyptian regime was, and still very much is, a police state backed by the military. The circle of criminality and repression goes far wider than just a few dozen people. Mubarak isn't being tried for the 30 years of dictatorship, stagnation, and ruin he brought upon his country, but for the actions his subordinates took, allegedly under his orders, during the three weeks that brought him down. But there are no doubt many dark secrets that will come out during this trial, if the SCAF will allow it. Ironically, it might be the Big Man himself who, in trying to save his own neck and that of his sons, brings the rest of the system down with him.

Egyptian State TV