The Syrian Observatory: The Inside Story
By: Asa Winstanley
Published Thursday, January 26, 2012
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has become the most quoted, and most disputed, primary source of casualty figures in Syria. Al-Akhbar investigates the political disputes, personal gain and prejudice, and media role behind a recent row over its ownership.
Over the course of the Syrian uprising, the security situation went from bad to worse and the regime tightened its noose around journalists not willing to toe the official line. Propaganda coverage filled the airwaves. Independent verification of what was taking place became increasingly difficult. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) rose to become the primary source of information regarding human rights violations inside the country. Providing daily casualty figures, the Observatory is often quoted by news wires such as AFP and Reuters, as well as media outlets like CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera English, among many others.
By the end of last year, the Observatory’s founder and public face, who identified himself as Rami Abdulrahman, had been featured in the press and cited as the architect behind the endeavour.
But as the uprising progressed, SOHR’s numbers became a bone of contention with its critics, with some genuinely interested in its credibility and many others simply eager to downplay the regime’s brutality. The reported daily toll of dozens killed was at the heart of the debate over whether humanitarian intervention was justified.
In November, rumours emerged that Rami Abdulrahman was a pseudonym of SOHR’s founder. Many who doubted SOHR’s credibility cried “smoking gun.” When a professional-looking letter published last week by a rival group, claiming to speak on behalf of SOHR, accused Abdulrahman of falsifying his name and hijacking SOHR’s identity, suspicions turned into certainty.
The politically motivated debate about SOHR clouded a much needed examination of all the facts involved. A closer look at these facts suggests that the pseudonym issue is the least significant element of the controversy. More than anything else, the row between the two rival groups laying claim over SOHR seems to reflect a wider political feud brewing between the two main Syrian opposition camps: the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), both increasingly at odds with each other over the call for foreign intervention.
Who’s who: more than a name game
The smear campaign launched by Azzawi seemed to have undertones of classism.
Abudlrahman was depicted in the letter as someone who is “unable to communicate professionally in English language [sic.],” has a “very modest level of education,” and whose “primary profession is installing satellite dishes” but happened to help out with posting Arabic articles for the Azzawi-led site. Despite these “humble” credentials, Abdulrahman was linked to Rifaat Assad, exiled uncle of Syrian President Bashar Assad and a current dissident widely resented by pro- and anti-regime forces alike. Most damaging in the letter, perhaps, was the revelation of Abdulrahman’s real name – Ossama Suleiman.
But, apart from using a pseudonym, Abdulrahman denied these charges well before the letter surfaced. As far as his name was concerned, Abdulrahman appeared last November on a London-based Arabic satellite channel al-Hiwar showing what he said was his British passport and Syrian ID papers with his real name, Ossama Suleiman, to the cameras. He did so after a critical article on an opposition website had disclosed the name. He also denied any links to Rifaat.
Abdulrahman says that as a longtime opposition activist who organized demonstrations at the Syrian Embassy in London, he has always preferred to use a nom-de-guerre, something he points out is common among political leaders.
During the al-Hiwar interview, Abdulrahman said he joined the Syrian military service in the early 1990s and was a member of the army’s 11th division. He said he later co-founded the Observatory with the wife of a prominent Syrian dissident.
On the use of a pseudonym, he told Al-Akhbar: “I put my correct name on Syrian television, on France 24, I've shown my Syrian passport and British passport, everybody knows my correct name.”
In a phone interview with Al-Akhbar, Azzawi said he is a consultant pathologist who lectures at two universities, though he preferred not to name them. The General Medical Council (GMC) register shows that although a Mousab Azzawi with an MD from a Syrian university is licensed to practice medicine in the UK as of 2009, he is not on the specialist register. The GMC press office told Al-Akhbar that while the National Health Service (NHS) requires all its consultants to be on the specialist register apart from locum work: “the term ‘consultant’ isn’t in itself protected, and could, hypothetically, be used differently by private providers.” Azzawi said he practiced as a consultant pathologist privately, and did some locum work for the NHS.
While disputing the personal identity and political connections of Abdulrahman, Azzawi himself seems to have offered misleading information about his credentials. While he identifies himself in the English version of the letter as a medical doctor and human rights activist, he signed an earlier Arabic version of the letter as a member of Amnesty International. Amnesty membership is open to anyone, and being a member is a far cry from being an active persona grata in the human rights organization, something most English readers are likely aware of.
Other endorsements of Azzawi’s letter by people slated as the trustees of the Observatory have yet to be confirmed. Al-Akhbar spoke to one of the reported signatories of the letter, Husam al-Din Mohammed. He was initially identified in the letter on Azzawi’s webiste as “chief editor” at Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in London, but later it was adjusted to “secretary to the editor” following the phone call.
Mohammed confirmed he had signed a statement in Arabic, but was reluctant to talk about the controversy, and suggested speaking to Azzawi. When asked how long he had been a trustee, he replied “I’m not sure.” When pressed, he said he had been involved with the Observatory since the start of the uprising. He did not reply to an email seeking clarification of whether an English statement with his name on it sent to Al-Akhbar was the same as the Arabic statement he had put his name to.
The row between Azzawi and Abdulrahman is not restricted to a question of personal identity and reputation, but also the role each played in the Observatory.
The Azzawi group’s statement played down Abdulrahman’s involvement in establishing the organization, saying he was “a gentleman based in Coventry whose primary profession is installing satellite dishes who volunteered at the SOHR in late 2010.”
The Azzawi group’s website only has posts stretching back a few months, though it says this is a result of Abdulrahman taking over the original website.
Azzawi claimed on the phone that the syriahr.com domain had been idle until August when Abdulrahman hijacked the website by taking sole control. The “dot com one was a spare domain” until August, he says. Prior to its use, the domain was merely redirected to another address, syriahr.net, Azzawi maintains. But an examination of the Internet Archive’s WayBack Machine – which preserves old versions of websites – casts doubt on this claim.
The Internet Archive has far more saved copies of syriahr.com than syriahr.net, suggesting the former site has been far more active over time. Furthermore, a 2007 version of the site now controlled by Azzawi was primarily in Arabic with the same design as Abdulrahman’s current site. After that, it appears to have been neglected until very recently, with nothing archived in 2010 or 2011.
This suggests that Azzawi may have registered an old domain name previously used by the Observatory in a successful attempt to direct English-language journalists to his website, and away from Abdulrahman’s. At the time of writing, Azzawi’s site appears as the first result on a Google search for the“Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” Abdulrahman’s site is the second result, which gives the false impression that Azzawi’s new site is merely the English site for the same organization.
Buried in all of this might be the heart of the disagreement between the two groups: the political message one draws from the statistics given the way numbers are churned and categorized.
Foreign Intervention: the political behind the personal
While both Abdulrahman and Azzawi stress their work is not influenced by political allegiances, their respective political positions correlate with a greater dispute between Syria's opposition groups on the question of foreign intervention and the military option.
The campaign led by Azzawi to discredit Abdulrahman seems to come on the heels of a major fallout between the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB). A controversial Cairo agreement struck in December between Haytham al-Manna of the NCB and SNC head Burhan Ghalioun collapsed on the very question of foreign intervention and the militarization of the uprising. The letter attacking Abdulrahman surfaced a few weeks after.
The SNC has openly adopted foreign intervention under a UN mandate as its official policy, and has deepened cooperation with the Free Syrian Army. The NCB, however, has condemned moves to militarize the revolution, and rejects foreign intervention, insisting on a pacifist revolution.
Abdulrahman told Al-Akhbar that some members of the Syrian opposition are waging a war against him due to his own opposition to NATO intervention, and his continued publishing of deaths of regular Syrian troops.
“Yesterday, somebody phoned me saying we want to stop this war against you, we have two demands: you have to request for NATO to come to Syria, and you stop talking about the deaths of the regular Syrian army,” he said in a phone interview last week.
“Somebody made a new website, put a false name, and says he speaks for the Syrian Observatory, which is incorrect, we only have one organization,” said Abdulrahman. “These people that are making a war against me, they don't want me to say the truth.”
Abdulrahman said the campaign against him started after he met NCB representative al-Manna in November.
Al-Manna has been a noted critic of the SNC and staunchly opposes their tacit and at times explicit support for foreign intervention.
Azzawi accused Abdulrahman of being an actual member of the NCB, while denying his group had any links to the SNC. For his part, Abdulrahman denied that the SNC or the Muslim Brotherhood are behind attempts to discredit him.
Abdulrahman had said on al-Hiwar that the Observatory did not belong to any particular political group, including the Local Coordination Committees.
However, al-Manna said that Abdulrahman has warm relations with the NCB. Al-Manna vouched for Abdulrahman’s work, and said the latter is being attacked due to his insistence on accuracy.
“The Syrian Observatory was created by Rami Abdulrahman. It has also been coordinated throughout by Rami...Few other human rights activists give such importance to accuracy as Rami Abdulrahman does...So in that sense, Rami has become an irritation. He insists on accuracy and on checking facts,” al-Manna told Al-Akhbar’s Serene Assir in a phone interview.
Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Abdulrahman stressed his opposition to a Libya-like NATO intervention in Syria. “Even if they kill all my family in Syria, I will not request NATO,” he said. “I want democracy, I don’t want to destroy my country.”
Azzawi, on the other hand, called for a “buffer zone” on the border with Turkey that would be “an area protected by United Nations”, and approved by the UN Security Council. He also supports “anything that can protect the civilians,” including a No-Fly Zone.
Azzawi has placed increasingly greater emphasis on the need for military intervention, describing the situation to Australia’s ABC News Breakfast recently as “genocide,” saying there should “at least” be a No-Fly Zone and buffer zone.
“It should not be a military solution but if that is the only option, I think that they have to re-clone what happened in Libya,” he said.
He also told Al-Akhbar that an invasion by NATO troops would be “the last resort.”
In November, Azzawi appeared on CNN calling for international intervention “in the style of the Libyan scenario.” Marking a clear divergence between the two groups, Abdulrahman’s colleague and SOHR spokesperson Hivin Kako stresses that “we do not want a war...we do not want a Libyan scenario.”
Money and the stats to grind
The political dispute does not negate the fact that the process by which violations are documented remains difficult to assess. How the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has been able to produce regular updates on violence in a country completely closed to foreign media has certainly attracted interest in its methodology.
Abdulrahman describes his organization as a non-traditional one that doesn’t adhere to the classical methods of communication and publication adopted by human rights groups. This is largely due to the dangerous situation these activists are working under. Since the uprising started, Abdulrahman says his network of activists on the ground has swelled to over 200 people: “In Damascus, I have six members, but no one knows each other. If somebody is arrested, they can't out the others in the team.”
Some form of verification does take place, according to Kako. “Generally speaking we cross-reference the information so the information should come from more than one reference,” she explains. “We never put out a piece of news we don’t confirm, that’s why the credibility of the SOHR has increased over time.” Kako said the group tries to verify its information from multiple independent sources, with the aim of contacting at least three different people who have seen the same incident. “When they report the same news, we will know by cross-referencing who’s exaggerating and who’s telling the truth. Over time you build up your trust level.”
Kako also said that a single person with a video proving the claim would be accepted: “we don’t put it out [from a single source] unless he got maybe a video of it, for example, because a video cannot be denied if it is shown that it is a genuine video.”
When asked about the process for verifying the authenticity of such videos, and the circumstances in which victims were killed, Kako said: “When we get the video from our activists, we don’t take anything from any other sources.”
Both Abdulrahman and Azzawi’s groups deny rumors of Gulf funding, saying they are purely volunteer outfits. Kako says their network of volunteers in Syria are all unpaid, and Abdulrahman (who owns a clothing store) pays for expenses, such as the website maintenance, out of his own pocket. She herself is a volunteer who still holds down a part-time office job, while pursuing her own further education. On al-Hiwar, Abdulrahman said he turned down money offered from Arab and US sources, including an offer from a Lebanese American figure.
Azzawi’s group has published the list of those who have died in Arabic on their website. By contrast, Abdulrahman’s group shares its list of the dead privately with the UN, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but says it will not give it to the press. Ultimately, Abdulrahman says they are hoping to provide the full list of the dead for use in future prosecutions of those who have committed crimes against humanity.
The methodology Azzawi outlined on the phone was not very different from that stated by Kako. Azzawi said his group was an incorporated company, and all its members were volunteers. He claims to have 240 affiliates and members, 232 of which are in Syria. He said they have “good links with everybody, everybody” including the Local Coordination Committees.
“Affiliates work with all the activist groups in the country” and check their claims. Members will take the information without knowing who was responsible for it. Members then need to find two people on the ground to confirm this information. “For more than 90 percent of the cases” they approach family members, claims Azzawi.
As of January 24, Abdulrahman’s group puts the the number of dead at 4,382 civilians and 1,617 military (regular military, security members and defectors) excluding those who died in the Damacus and Kfar Sousa bombings or in Hama between August 3 and 10 of last year. Of the various groups cataloguing this information, this is one of the lower overall figures, but they have recorded higher numbers of casualties for the military. Azzawi’s group (as of January 14) claimed 5,746 civilians plus 529 military (“regardless their loyalty”) had been killed.
Campaigning group Avaaz released a report on January 9 that said the figure was “at least 6,874 victims” (this statistic is unclear on military dead). As widely reported at the time, on December 12 the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said the number of dead “now probably exceeds 5,000” not including regime soldiers. She said her information had come from a “variety of sources received by my office.”
On Wednesday, the UN said it had stopped compiling a death toll for Syria because it is too difficult to get information. "Some areas are totally closed, such as parts of Homs, so we are unable to update that figure. But in my view 5,000 and more is a huge figure and should really shock the international community into taking action," AFP reported Pillay as telling reporters.
But despite strenuous efforts to remain diligent in sourcing accurate information, holes still appeared.
In August 2011, Electronic Intifada editor Ali Abunimah investigated claims circulating on the Internet that newborn babies in a Hama hospital had been deliberately killed after their incubators were switched off by regime forces during a military crackdown on the city. Electronic Intifada concluded that the claims were a “hoax” circulated by CNN. A photo accompanying the claim on Twitter turned out to be of Egyptian babies, and was taken from an April story about overcrowding in an Egyptian hospital. While CNN cited the Observatory as their source for the report, on their website the Observatory in turn cited CNN as its source.
In follow-up emails, Kako stood by the report, but said they had not provided the photo: “the Observatory reported that during the military operation in Hama and due to the electricity cut-off at the time of the military operation and [because] there was no diesel to run the engine, those babies died. We did not say that they were killed deliberately.”
Media and human rights organizations: sharing the blame?
While much attention has been raised on the modus operandi of both groups, international organizations and media outlets quoting the numbers have largely gone unquestioned. Most seem to favor Abulrahman as their source.
Amnesty International has maintained a long relationship with Rami Abdulrahman. Al-Akhbar understands they have been meeting with him in person for years. “Amnesty International has been receiving information from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London based non-governmental organization, since its establishment in 2006,” an Amnesty officer said speaking on condition of anonymity. “Over the years the information provided by the Observatory has generally been credible and well researched and founded.”
The spokesperson added that it was “very important to clarify” this referred only to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights whose website is www.syriahr.com (in Arabic, with English translations on a linked Facebook page). Amnesty said it could not vouch for “a separate group” under the URL www.syriahr.org (Azzawi’s website, although the Amnesty spokesperson did not name him).
Amnesty also said it uses its own sources on the ground in Syria, in addition to its relationship with Abdulrahman. In an 18 January email they stated: “Amnesty International has received the names of more than 4,600 people, who are reported to have been killed in the unrest in Syria since mid-March. The vast majority are believed to have been killed by the army and security forces, many of them during protests and security operations in residential areas. Syrian human rights activists however believe the figures to be much higher.”
News wires that have heavily sourced the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights officially refused to comment when contacted by Al-Akhbar, but an inside source at a major news wire confirmed they investigated the allegations.
The source, wishing to remain anonymous, said they have been dealing with Rami Abdulrahman for years and knew him prior to the current crisis.
The lack of transparency regarding sources of casualty reports may have its roots in the difficult conditions activists are working under inside Syria. But short of a serious push to protect these sources and to insist on accountability by all sides, propaganda will continue to prevail over reality.
Antoun Issa and Bassam Alkantar contributed to this article.