It's amazing what holy orders can do for fascism.
Mother Superior Agnes Mariam de la Croix, a 61-year-old Lebanese-born nun, is not so much working with the Assad regime in Syria as working for it. She is now embarked on a week-long "speaking tour" of the United States, beginning in Tucson, Arizona and continuing into several cities of California before she hops it to Canada. This tour has been organized by something called the Syrian Solidarity Movement, which would more accurately be presented as the Assad Propaganda Lobby.
The US State Department has evidently not flinched in offering this humble, pot-smoking emissary of God a visa, a courtesy that for some reason it did not choose to extend to Paul Conroy, the Sunday Times photojournalist who was badly injured covering the siege of Baba Amr and who has recently published a book about the last days of his colleague Marie Colvin's life that he'd like to tell Americans about.
Mother Agnes' track record is familiar to anyone who has observed the slow-motion destruction of Syria over the past three years. She is the most recognizable embodiment of one of the regime's earliest, and now most successful, misinformation campaigns: that Assad is the protector of minorities in Syria and that his foes are all Sunni jihadists looking to kill or dispossess those minorities, his bombing of churches or state disenfranchisement of Kurds notwithstanding. As such, this diminutive nun has cultivated quite a strong following of her own in the West, divided almost evenly between your conspiracist or "anti-imperialist" cranks who glimpse the invisible hand of the United States and Israel behind every war crime in the Middle East, and your fairly ho-hum bigots who believe that there is no such thing as a peaceful or democratically-minded Muslim. Perhaps Alex Jones and Robert Spencer will be on the same JetBlue flight to meet her.
Yet more discerning observers have not been fooled. The Swiss newspaper Le Courrier has described her as "comfortable among [Assad's] security services," which may account for why she previously blamed the Houla massacre, a pogrom that killed more than 100 civilians and was perpetrated by the Syrian military and shabiha mercenary forces, on anti-Assad rebels. Caroline Poiron, the widow of Gilles Jacquier, as well as Jacquier's colleague Sid Ahmed Hammouche, have accused Mother Agnes of complicity in the murder of the French photographer who was killed in Homs in January 2012: She was the "fixer" on their bus expedition into the besieged city.
Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit priest who supported the protest movement and has now likely been killed by al-Qaeda, put it starkly: "Mother Agnes knows how to dose the words and she is only, I repeat and I emphasize, the [able] clerical expression of the deceitful manipulation action of the Syrian regime. Mother Agnes is a self-proclaimed leader of a movement that does not exist on the ground, Musalaha ["Reconciliation"], and it is a real problem because for her interpretation of the facts is always selective and one-sided: that the revolution is terrorism."
Syrian Christians for Peace, meanwhile, has labeled her an agent of the regime who first gained attention at a press conference in Beirut for claiming that there were no peaceful protests in Syria, "despite having been seen (a mere few hours before) in one of those peaceful demonstrations in Qalamoon, rubbing shoulders with other Syrians as they marched." This group also questioned the final destination of Mother Agnes' alms collection for Christian expatriates.
More recently, Our Lady of Useful Idiocy has earned international notoriety for suggesting, in spite of overwhelming forensic evidence and the findings of dozens of governments, that the August 21 sarin gas attack on the Ghouta district of Damascus was "staged" and "scripted." She's even offered up her own interpretation of that dark episode, making her history's first CSI missionary - no matter that she was nowhere near Ghouta at the time and that her findings have been debunked by a professional forensic investigator associated with Human Rights Watch. Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, which likes to arrest or expel Catholic missionaries in Russia on the pretext of espionage, has taken kindly to the Carmelite and her amateurish "evidence" as proof that Assad is not guilty of unleashing chemical weapons in his capital city.
As for a regime that drops barrels of TNT on bakeries, slaughters infants in their cradles, and shoves rodents into the vaginas of women prisoners, this is how Mother Agnes views it: "I've never seen a state like this one, a state interacting with the crisis facing its populace regardless of their political affiliations, a state that is trying to end the bloodshed and trying to heal all the wounds."
She has lately taken to some wound-tending herself, or at least that's what she'd like everyone to think.
In the last two months, Mother Agnes has served as the public face of a series of "evacuations" of beggared, starved civilians from the town of Moadamiyah, a suburb in Ghouta that was hit with sarin on August 21 and has been, for close to a year, completely surrounded by regime forces and denied the admittance of food or humanitarian aid. Residents have resorted to eating tree leaves, olives, and grass to subsist. They are subject to a state-imposed terror-famine.
The last evacuation took place on Tuesday, October 29. I wrote about it here, citing a rebel spokesman Qusai Zakarya, based in Moadamiyah, who told me that he had recorded conversations with Mother Agnes that prove her close collaboration with the Syrian security services and the false assurances she'd given about the treatment of evacuees. He has since released these audio files to NOW:
Mother Agnes: "It is better if unarmed civilians surrender and turn themselves in."
Zakarya: "Even if they are young men?"
Mother Agnes: "Even if they are young men, yes."
Zakarya: "And inshallah nothing will happen to them."
A curious phrase to use - "turn themselves in" - in reference to unarmed civilians purportedly being removed from a war zone for their own safety. And, as it happens, much did happen to them.
When I first interviewed Zakarya on Wednesday, October 30, he told me that as many as 300 male residents of the town between the ages of 15 and 50 had been arrested and taken either to Mezze airbase, which is controlled by the Fourth Armored Division, or to a school-turned-detention facility in another part of Damascus. There were reports coming back into Moadamiyah that some of these detainees were being conscripted into the Syrian Army or shabiha mercenary gangs to fight their brethren.
I have since been informed by a different source that the actual figure is much higher than 300 - orders of magnitude higher.
Although civilians leaving Moadamiyah are offered humanitarian care by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), once they're in the custody of regime forces, their condition and whereabouts are entirely up the regime. During Tuesday's evacuation, SARC attempted to negotiate a transfer of wounded civilians to hospital or to SARC-run medical facilities. The request was rejected by the regime.
Interestingly, even Mother Agnes herself acknowledges the previous arrest of civilians she claims will be well cared for. Here's the transcript of another recorded conversation she had with Zakarya:
Zakarya: "Are these guarantees from the Syrian leadership?"
Mother Agnes: "Ali Mamlouk. Yes, they are saying - what's his name - it's enough it's the Brigadier General Ali Mamlouk."
Zakarya: "Did Jamil Hasan say anything about this?"
Mother Agnes: "Yes, I was with him, because of Wael's son, he told me he was happy with this exchange even though our secretary is not happy."
Zakarya: "Why is Jamil Hasan not happy?"
Mother Agnes: "Because the prisoners are now outside the circle of danger."
Zakarya: "Very good."
There are few things to note about this exchange. Ali Mamlouk is one of Assad's remaining top security chiefs after the assassination of Assef Shawkat in July 2012; he would almost certainly inherit the regime if Bashar or Maher al-Assad were killed tomorrow. Jamil Hasan, the head of Air Force Intelligence, was allegedly assassinated by an FSA brigade in August 2012, although the regime denied it immediately. So here is definitive proof that he is indeed still alive. "Wael's son" refers to a boy, aged 15, who was abducted by the army following the first evacuation of Moadamiyah earlier this month. Mother Agnes clearly knew about his case since she went to Hasan to discuss it. The nun's first reply is that Hasan is "happy" with the current evacuation - the one taking place October 30 - but that the "secretary," whom Zakarya says is an unknown yet high-ranking figure in the regime, is not. Zakarya then asks Mother Agnes why Hasan is not happy, as if confusing his identity with that of the secretary. Her response this time is taken to mean that now that civilians have been removed from Moadamiyah - "outside the circle of danger" - they can no longer be obliterated by Syrian Army bombardment.
I have asked Zakarya to clarify or contextualize this discussion. He told me that he pressed Mother Agnes about Hasan's disposition knowing that the mukhabarat boss has been responsible for some of the most barbaric atrocities against Syrian civilians since the conflict began. Zakarya claims that she "slips" in admitting that Hasan is in fact not happy about the evacuation as this diminishes his capacity to indiscriminately powder the area from afar to create maximum casualties. Such an attitude, Zakarya insists, is perfectly in keeping with the character of the head of Air Force intelligence.
One journalist, Lyse Doucet of the BBC, was present during the October 29 evacuation. Here's what she saw:
"The people coming out who had to be stretchered out, they were too weak to walk, old women collapsing in the arms of the waiting. Officials of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society were holding out water and bits of bread. We saw children, toddlers, dragging suitcases behind them and then holding out their hands to get bread. Several mothers said to us that they hadn't seen bread in nine months, they'd been eating grass and leaves."
Doucet also interviewed Mother Agnes, who again lied and claimed that all civilians have been removed from Moadamiyah - only the fighters "have decided to remain." In reality, there are still around 8,000 civilians left in the town. However, Mother Agnes then makes this interesting disclosure:
"When we knew that it was better for [civilians] to go out, we made an appeal to the government to let them go out, but the problem is that the government considers all those people to be a supportive environment. And maybe, you know, you have the rebel, you have his mother, you have his wife, you have his child - it means you had also from the other part a lot of difficulty to enter into this initiative."
In other words, the regime considers the entire population - women and children - to be accomplices to the armed opposition and therefore suspect. This ought to underscore for anyone other than a tendentious and compromised cleric that there is absolutely no guarantee that any civilian taken out of Moadamiyah will not be arrested, tortured, or killed by Assad's security apparatus, as many already have been.
Now compare the above to what Agnes and another nun, Carmen, told Zakarya, this time about a hypothetical rebel who might wish to surrender:
Mother Agnes: "If he turns himself in to the army, it is better, right, Carmen?"
Carmen [Agnes' assistant]: "Yes, of course it is better."
Mother Agnes: "We spoke to the army, they gave us the green light and told us that it is strictly forbidden to hit any of the guys even if the guy had killed 100 people."
Another word for this is rebel amnesty, which of course doesn't apply to the rebels of Moadamiyah any more than it does to rebels anywhere else in Syria.
Actually, Mother Agnes herself qualifies on prima facie evidence as a supporter or accomplice of "terrorism," if we use the standards of Damascus. The following video was filmed during an earlier evacuation and shows her commingling contentedly with civilians of Moadamiyah who are quite clear in their view of the people ostensibly holding them hostage:
"You see Mother Agnes? I told you. We told you we are the land of olives. The land of peace, Moadamiyah is the land of peace. And I will even taste the olives before you do, see? This is what we are eating now. This is our breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
"God bless the FSA, [everyone chanting] God bless the Free Syrian Army! Allah Akbar, [chanting] FSA forever, stepping on Assad's head!"
"Say it, say it, say it, chant it with us, Mother Agnes!"
"You have to say it, we are stepping on his head!"
"Why so sacred! God is with us!" [Chanting]
Mother Agnes gives this display the thumb's up, which would be considered treasonous by the Fourth Armored Division or mukhabarat if it came from anyone else.
It's a miracle she gets away with it.