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Did Someone Fake this Picture of Restrained Men in Damascus?

December 7, 2018

By Bellingcat Investigation Team

Translations: Русский, Español

Has the Syrian government been forced to chain young men together to recruit them into the military? An image purporting to be from Damascus certainly gives this impression, showing several young men being forced into a van, apparently tied together with a chain or rope, with soldiers standing by.

The controversial image

The image and the explanation for what it allegedly portrays are making the rounds nearly two months after a presidential decree by Assad on October 9, 2018, granting a general amnesty for four months to men who have illegally avoided conscription.

The apparent detention of men for military service depicted in this image caused considerable controversy on Syrian social media. Questions regarding the treatment of conscripts were brought up in discussions within pro-government networks on social media and even surfaced on pro-government media.

After this photo emerged, a version of the image without any restraints on the men also began to circulate. These users claimed that the picture without the restraints was the original and the version with restraints had been manipulated in an attempt to smear the Syrian government.

This article will assess the context around the different versions of the picture in an attempt to identify which one is more likely to be the original. It does not use techniques such as Error Level Analysis, which is unlikely to be an effective tool to analyse these images due to their low quality. It should be noted that this investigation uses currently available sources of information, and further information regarding this matter may yet emerge.

As timestamps on social media posts vary depending on platform, all times given will be in UTC.

Location

We are confident that the location depicted is indeed in Damascus, in a neighbourhood named Mezzeh. This video shows the same area during a protest in 2012, which we can then use to geolocate the original photo to a place immediately outside the Zahra Mosque.  

Geolocation — Note the structure of the windows and the posters on the right. (bottom: photo, top: video from 2012):

Geolocation – Note the shape of the central structure (top: video from 2012, bottom: Google/Digital Globe Imagery):

This can be further confirmed using this dashcam video from 2018, in which the vehicle drives past this exact spot.

We can also establish that this location seems to be some kind of assembly point for conscription. Images and a video which can be geolocated to the park immediately to the south-west claim to depict men who are about to start their compulsory military service.

Facebook post with the caption: “Tens of young men required to join the [mandatory] military service are joining daily at the military service branches. Picture from Mezzeh branch”

Screenshot from Youtube video with the caption: “Young men from Daraa and Swaidah in front of the Mezzeh branch reporting for military service”

 

Which Version Came First?

The earliest version of this image we could identify which showed no restraints on the men was posted at 0318 UTC on December 4, 2018 by Maram Susli, also known as PartisanGirl, a notably pro-Syrian government activist based in Australia.

Susli also claimed that the image featuring restraints, to which she was responding, had been photoshopped. We asked Susli if this was the original image and where she had obtained it. She replied that she had “found it online” but declined to share an exact source, stating that someone else had posted it online before her.

PartisanGirl Tweet

The earliest version of the photo showing restraints which we identified during our investigation was posted on Facebook by @waqee3sory, what appears to be a pro-government page, at 2105 UTC on December 2, 2018.

However, this image was of relatively low quality. The earliest good quality image we identified was posted by a pro-government Facebook page named “syrian.martyres2” at 2128 UTC on December 2, 2018 — still notably earlier than the one posted by Susli.

Post by @syrian.martyres2:

A comparison of the two versions of this image reveals information which indicates that the version featuring no restraints is less likely to be the original. The best indication of this is that the version posted by Susli is slightly smaller than the version shared by syrian.martyres2 on Facebook.

Comparison of the two versions

The above image is a comparison between the two versions of the photo. The dark area indicates where the images match. The obvious difference is the restraints, but this does not tell us anything by itself; it merely shows that one version has the restraints and one does not.

The thin strip of image between the dark area and the blue box is the important part of this analysis. It shows content that is present in the version featuring restraints, but not in the version without the restraints. This indicates that the version without restraints has been slightly cropped, suggesting it is less likely to be the original. This cropped area is identical to that seen when comparing the version with restraints to another version of the image without restraints, posted by Souria4Syrians, with the exception of Arabic writing.

This can be clearly seen in the Gif below, which overlays the two versions, note how the version with restraints clearly shows more of the scene than the the version without.

Comparison of the two versions (Gif)

It should be noted that some users have noted that the restraints in both photos appear different lengths between the individuals. Since we do not know exactly what these restraints are, and the resolution of all images is too low to examine them properly, we cannot be sure precisely why this is the case. It may be that the wrist connections are merely placed at irregular intervals, or if the connections are formed around the main line, allowing them to slide along it. There does of course remain the possibility that these restraints were edited in, although for the reasons below we believe this is unlikely.

The Contextual Evidence

There remains the possibility that the version showing restraints has been manipulated. However, by assessing what we believe to be the provenance of the original photo, this appears relatively unlikely. As we stated earlier, the earliest posted version of the photo we found had been posted by waqee3sory, a pro-government page. The text, quoted in part below, which accompanied the picture expressed dismay at the manner in which these men were being detained and argued that it was incompatible with a decree made by President Assad.

We all rejoiced when the President issued a decree pardoning all the military reserve absconders, in Syria and abroad. All the young men, inside and abroad, were happy. Some decided to return within two months to settle their situation and see their families. The young men here breathed a sigh of relief
But the joy lasted only a week 😊. Only one week later, the first reserve batch were summoned
How is it possible that a presidential decree can only last a week!!!
The President issued a brave decision to drop all requests for military reserve
The Minister of Defense confirmed, through the parliament, that the decree and the order came from the Supreme Commander, and that requests for military reserve are only issued according to need – and currently there is no longer a need. Then he said that if men answer the call, mandatory military service should suffice, and there will be no need for reserves in the near future, nor on the long run.


I took this photo yesterday in Tale’t il Iskan in Mezzeh. Young men in their prime, seized at checkpoints, whose names are on the lists of either mandatory military service or reserve…. Observe, see how they are tying them like cattle and jamming them in a closed van like criminals…. How is this [man] supposed to defend the country!!? He knows he’s going to his death… With such a public display, how are they going to encourage the people to join the army?!! So they would defend so and so, and their sons…

Come back, Syrians in the diaspora, come back”

However, we do not believe that waqee3sory is the original poster of this image and message. We found an identical post by another pro-government Facebook page which identified the original poster by name.

To protect the original poster, we will refer to him using the pseudonym “Adnan.” We checked Adnan’s Facebook page and identified that he was clearly pro-government, and had posted explaining that he had deleted a recent controversial post. We believe that it is a strong possibility that this controversial post was the primary origin of this photo. The explanation was posted on December 3, 2018, at around 2130 UTC, and Adnan stated he made the controversial post “yesterday,” making that post the most likely earliest example of the original image.

Adnan was supportive of the Syrian government and seemed to have been frustrated by the failure of the military to abide by the decree made by President Assad, as well as the failure of the Syrian diaspora to return to fight for the government. Although we understand this makes verification difficult, we have chosen not to link to Adnan’s Facebook page or identify specific details within his post as we do not wish to amplify information which could put him in danger of retaliation.

If Adnan is the primary source, then his apparently sincere intentions indicates that this photo is less likely to have been manipulated. Indeed, to find or create a fake image critical of the Syrian military and then post it on a personal Facebook page seemingly associated with the genuine identity of a person living in Damascus would be virtually suicidal.

The Second Image

A second image has also emerged, showing the same scene shortly before the first photo was taken. The details are virtually identical, but this second photo was taken from a very slightly different angle, and showed the procession at a slightly earlier stage, with the first man visible before entering the truck.

A feature is also noticeable at the bottom of the photo which resembles the bottom edge of a car window. This would fit with the location, as both photos were taken is in the middle of the road heading to the right as you look at the photo: the plants which are visible form part of the central reservation, which can be clearly seen in this video of the same location.

Here is the second image

The resolution of this second image is much lower, but the details mark it as being unique. The earliest version we found of this photo is from a pro-government news report, which posted a cropped and slightly higher resolution version at 1531 UTC on December 3, 2018 (time zone unknown). This second photo supports the argument that the image depicting the restraints has not been manipulated, and is in fact the genuine version. Thus far we have not seen a version of this second photo without restraints, although it should be noted that this second photo’s provenance was not possible to verify.

Conclusion

The one point we can be absolutely sure about is that at least one version of this image has been manipulated.  Although we cannot be entirely certain that the version with restraints is the original, the context in which it was posted and the existence of a second, separate photo depicting the same scene suggests that it is more likely to be genuine.

The amplification of a version of the image without restraints by Susli and Souria4Syrians created doubt about the original photo, despite both of them being noted sources of disinformation (Souria4Syrians has been banned as a source on the Syrian Civil War subreddit, while Susli believes Ebola may have been created as an American bioweapon). As a result, journalists and activists pulled back from the original photo, deleting posts and tweets publicizing it, an entirely rational course of action to take.

Although it is not possible to reach an absolute conclusion in this case, it does highlight the nature of the information ecosystem around the Syrian conflict as a whole, where malign actors, primarily but certainly not limited to those connected to the Syrian government or Russian military, inject doubt using misinformation in an attempt create confusion. Evidently in this case those actors have succeeded, whichever version of the image they created.

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29 Comments

  1. francesca

    note how the version with restraints clearly shows more of the scene than the version without.

    details please
    I’ve studied it carefully, and the only difference is intensity of lighting
    Please itemise which details show more of the scene in the version with restraints.
    Also what happens to the chains inside the building?
    Looks like things could get a little tangled
    Congrats on your “integrity initiative” gig,money trumps true journalism any time huh?
    History is not going your way I’m afraid, and Bellingcat will make a great text book example of propaganda in years to come.
    your grandchildren will be so proud!

    Reply
    • Mac

      Look at the area above the portrait of Assad, for example; on the version with restraints you can see part of the wall above it, while the version with no restraints it cuts off at the top.

      Likewise on the car on the right, the mirror disappears in the version without restraints.

      They’re getting into a truck, not a building.

      I assume inside they will all sit down, still in chains. I don’t see the complication with this.

      Reply
    • Eric Von Zipper

      How much more details do you want? Be more specific? It is very apparent that you are not interested in the details but only claiming he (Bellingcat) is faking it! He has given YOU the analysis. Now try to refute it with YOUR own research! Seems you have no idea what true journalism is! I went and looked at the link from “partisongirl” – and her only comment was she got it from the internet….OK, if I was a journalist, and I said..I have proof I got it from the internet but don’t have the documentation to show it. IF YOU are going to basically call his research fake, calling it fake without providing any background would tell me you either can’t, don’t want too, or are too lazy. BTW – if you crop a picture, unless you have the original version….you can’t go back. Once you crop out portions of a picture you can’t put them back…..without the original. I am afraid you have no credibility, where Bellingcats uses tried and proven methods to provide his proof. The text book is already written with Bellingcats methodology, where you…You are the propagandist. So congrats to YOU! and your so called reply1

      Reply
    • Eric Von Zipper

      What?? How about you being more specific about what you are asking? Why are you even asking what happens when they get into the building?? His research is about proving which picture is the earliest version. Not what happens when they go in the building.
      And partisangirl?? I clicked on the link to her twitter page. Her whole rebuff is “I gave him what he asked for. Go find it yourself (bellingcat). “ The claims of the ones where they are linked together is fake…” That is her rebuttal…So which is more believable? Someone (bellingcat) that uses proven methodologies to research and come to logical conclusions, or someone that provides no proof it is fake but calls it fake? Methodologies vs. accusations.
      Cropped images cannot be “un cropped” without the original photo.
      Bellingcat has provided you with everything you need to know, to follow through and provide your own conclusion, by showing your evidence. Asking a question that is irrelevant to whether the picture is fake or not. Is not following a methodology to provide a valid conclusion. That tells me either that you are either too lazy, too ignorant, or really just do not care to do your own research to draw your own conclusion. Otherwise, calling it fake has no basis, and provides a flawed and incorrect conclusion.

      Reply
      • John

        Cropped images can be uncropped. All you would need is to train a neural network what an image looks like before it is cropped. It would be easy to create the training data for that.

        Reply
        • Asdfghjkl

          Why wouldn’t you just use the uncropped version? There would be no use for machine learning in this context. Plus, the only photo that shows evidence of cropping is the one that has been cropped. The most parsimonious explanation is not that the photo with restraints was uncropped, that suggestions really only serves as a red herring.

          Reply
  2. Nick

    It’s so obvious that this picture is fake and manipulated. These young men aren’t chained, or even restricted in any way, other wise and in this world of cell phone videos in everyone’s position, we would have undoubtedly seen some video of this so called chained men!! People aren’t that stupid to believe in such phony and blurry picture!

    Reply
  3. Noah

    I am an ex-prisoner from Damascus.

    I was put in this chain several times. It is called {جنزير}{ Janzeer}. It is used by police and security forces to transfer mass prisoners. it consists of two parts. the first is wrist metallic band that is locked when the chain passes through a hole on its outer edge. and a sole long chain that is locked by two lockers at the first and the last prisoners. In this way, the wrist’s band can slide freely and there is no fixed distance between the prisoners. Those civilians will be transferred to [AL Qaboun] military prison and will spend between one and two days there before they are transferred to where they will receive military training.

    Any Syrian ex-prisoner know this chain.

    Reply
  4. Mutasem Abou Alshamar

    “which posted a cropped and slightly higher resolution version at 1531 UTC on December 3, 2018 (time zone unknown).”
    I think belling cat investigation team has no facebook account or they have no access to it. December 3rd, early in thr morning many activists facebook accounts published the photo.

    Reply
  5. Dave

    If you zoom in on the PartisanGirl no-chain photo (0318 UTC on December 4, 2018) and the syrian.martyres2 chain photo (2128 UTC on December 2, 2018) you will see many more JPEG compression blocks in the CHAIN photo. What introduced these artefacts and why wasn’t this discussed in the article? Isn’t resaving one source of JPEG compression artefacts? Re-saving for what purpose? Manipulation? Or was the photo just copied using a different JPEG parameter setting?

    Reply
    • Servus

      Hi, most likely explanation is that the “chain photo” was modified (chain removed) and then saved with more compression or that it was uploaded to a social media that by default compresses images (this is very common).
      Reducing the image quality by compression could be also a way to make it more difficult to analyse and detect the modifications.

      Reply
      • Dave

        Maybe you misunderstood – it’s the photo *with* the chain that has more compression artefacts. So, if we follow your reasoning (which is plausible), a fake chain would have been *added* then the photo saved with more compression. Or, like you say, there were differences in the way these photos were uploaded.

        Reply
        • Servus

          Hi Dave, yes you are right.
          Well, if the photo was taken by a mobile phone camera, it’s almost always by default saved highly compression. One can lower the compression explicit but the photo size increases then.
          This photo’s size is round 100kB , uncompressed would have been tens of MB.
          Depends on the phone, but I would doubt that one can save a jpeg photo with no compression at all. A real camera is a different story, one can save a raw format or choose…no loss compression jpeg, but it’s still compression, actually the jpeg format is …a specification of compression.

          Reply
          • Mad Dog

            Damn, somebody with some intelligence here. Funny how many people are unaware of what a JPEG file really is all about. Far too much reliance on Cell Phone Photos without understanding why your memory doesn’t explode with all your selfies!

          • User

            Wait, that doesn’t answer his question at all. The orignal photo (whichever that may be) was taken on a smartphone, someone downloads that image, alters it, then uploads it again. Since social media platforms will compress the image each time, that means that the altered image would have more compression (therefore artifacts) than the unaltered one, thus, if Dave’s analysis of the artifacting is correct, that shifts doubt onto the photo with chain.
            I think it’s also important to note what Mutasem Abou Alshamar said, which implies that the photos investigation team claims are the earliest that have been posted, well, aren’t…which, unfortunately, would invalidate this article’s claims.

          • Servus

            Dave says that picture with chain has more “compression artefacts” , well how do you count these artefacts ? The common definition of the CA (wiki “A compression artifact (or artefact) is a noticeable distortion of media (including images, audio, and video) caused by the application of lossy compression.) is rather descriptive and I doubt that it allows for any “counts”….and wouldn’t it require known original to distinguish the introduced distortions?
            So, Dave’s analysis is IMHO very superficial and simply incorrect.

            The image with the chains is more precise, has more details, (for example, look at the faces or tree leaves details) than the unchained one.
            So, the picture with chains can be a source of the picture without one, but not the other way around. I’m not saying that it is, but we can be certain that the unchained picture is NOT a source of the chained one.

  6. Alexander Seredin

    Bellingcat is a Zionist stooge, who kisses the arse of Trump he will make up anything to get praise from his masters. Syrians are the most patriotic people on the planet, they just need to be asked to fight for their country

    Reply
    • Servus

      Would it be possible to remove blatant idiocies? Or maybe it’s good to keep it and have a contest for most “stupid entry of the year”.

      Reply
    • anon

      Bellingcat has published like 6 articles now referring to the right wing as “fascist.”
      They truly are not kissing Trump’s ass. But of course I don’t expect someone of your political values to be able to separate domestic political affiliation with honest international events’ investigations.

      “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” -Aristotle

      Reply
    • anon

      Bellingcat has published like 6 articles now referring to the right wing as “fascist.”
      They truly are not kissing Trump’s ass. But of course I don’t expect someone of your political values to be able to separate domestic political affiliation with honest international events’ investigations.

      “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” -Aristotle

      Reply
  7. Bashar

    Yes, lets cry about bunch of slackers / potential islamist terrorists being or not being chained and detained to face legal consequences of their action. Just another drop in the sea of and Syrian propaganda, just wonder who is paying for this one piece? USA? SAUDI? ISRAEL? SOROS?

    Conscription is a NORMAL THING, even in totally FREE AND DEMOCRATIC NATIONS (Finland says hello, among others) and if you try to avoid it, there is legal ramifications for it, including fines or and prison.

    Bunch of fucking entitled slackers and closet nusra/daesh (AQ) members crying about it, being “activist” agaisnt it.

    Reply
    • Servus

      …so you confirm that the photo with no chains has been doctored and is the the real one ?

      Reply
    • Richard

      Finland is a democracy, it does not bomb its own citizens, nor does it use poison gas against them. Assad is not only a despot, he is magnitudes worse than Pinochet or Franco.

      Reply
  8. Julia Glenstone

    I am wondering about the physics of the chains. It seems that if the chains were edited into the photo, it would be difficult to replicate the proper arc of the chains drooping between individuals.

    If you were to obtain similarly-gauged chain, and do a test in which the same number of individuals, each of similar height to the individuals in the photograph, and have them stand in the same order and at the same distance from each other as in the photo, then you’d see where the chain actually falls and you’d have an approximation of the true, physics-based arc of the segments hanging between individuals.

    Or, a physicist might be able to provide a range of possible arcs, and you could compare those to the restrained version of the photo and see if it’s even possible that the image is accurate.

    Of course, this may or may not prove dispositive. If the chains in the image fall within a possible range, it could simply mean that whoever edited the photo took great pains to make sure it was accurate in terms of physics. On the other hand, if it’s outside the range of possibilities, that would be valuable information.

    You could also determine how difficult it would be to approximate this for purposes of editing a photo, and what level of training the individuals who edited it would need to have, or have at their disposal, in order to feasibly replicate chains in an edited version, if such editing occurred.

    I imagine a similar analysis could be performed on the wrist restraints. If you can ascertain the approximate weight and size of those, you can also determine where they would fall on a human wrist given the position of the arms shown in the photo.

    Reply
    • Servus

      Hi, thought about exactly the same issue with adding a chain. But, some segments of the chain in the picture seem to be straight with no arc, stretched out, so the arc analysis is possible with one or two segments only.
      The wrist attachment is supposed to glide on the chain so it’s doubtful that it creates any strange wrist positions.

      Removing the chain is of course easier and Photoshop can easy extend the background over any unwanted element of the image. Then one could “remove noise” to correct any accidentally left pixels.
      Adding a chain would be much more difficult but not impossible.

      Reply
  9. İbrahim Canbulat

    Check the curve of the rope
    Under it’s dead load the curve is always “catenary
    If not fake

    Reply

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