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The Activists Assad Hates Most Are Now Obama’s Problem

For Western critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is the quintessential resource for documenting his regime’s mass atrocities. But as the United States undertakes direct military involvement in Syria, the monitoring group’s methodical casualty counts and network of local sources have become a double-edged sword for Barack Obama’s ...

Photo via Getty Images
Photo via Getty Images

For Western critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is the quintessential resource for documenting his regime’s mass atrocities. But as the United States undertakes direct military involvement in Syria, the monitoring group’s methodical casualty counts and network of local sources have become a double-edged sword for Barack Obama’s administration.

No longer just a PR problem for the Assad regime and radical Syrian rebel groups, the monitoring organization has begun publishing allegations of civilian deaths at the hands of the U.S. military. And the observatory’s founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, says he’s not going to stop.

"We are going to continue to document all crimes committed against the Syrian people as long as there are hearts beating inside all of us because we do not follow any government or any international intelligence apparatus," Abdul Rahman told Foreign Policy.

The Syrian Observatory’s most recent allegations against Washington came on Sept. 29 when the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State militant group conducted eight airstrikes in villages in northern and eastern Syria. According to the group, one strike hit a grain silo in the town of Manbij, killing two civilians. "There was no ISIS inside," Abdul Rahman told the Associated Press, using an acronym for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The two victims brought the coalition’s civilian death toll to 19, according to the group, a statistic that is damaging to regional perceptions of America’s role in the conflict.

At the time of the strike, U.S. Central Command said the silo was a "logistics hub and vehicle staging facility" used by militants. Later, the U.S. Defense Department announced it was investigating reports of civilian deaths in the strike. Now the Pentagon will neither refute nor substantiate the Syrian Observatory’s claims about the deaths in Manbij — or anywhere else in Syria. "We still cannot verify these reports of civilian casualties," the Pentagon’s spokesman, Rear Adm. John Kirby, told FP.

Founded in May 2006 in a red-brick house in Coventry, England, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is really just Abdul Rahman, a small staff, and a network of hundreds of activists in Syria. Armed with a computer and an array of mobile phones, Abdul Rahman spends countless hours talking to human rights advocates, corroborating casualty counts, and sending out updates about the human cost of the civil war in Syria.

In his own words, Abdul Rahman founded the observatory to "monitor, document, and disseminate the violations of human rights committed by the regime." That mission has expanded to include statistics on casualties caused by rebel groups, such as al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and other militants. Originally named Osama Suleiman, Abdul Rahman’s pseudonym was born out of his years of opposition activism in Syria. According to a New York Times profile in 2013, Abdul Rahman’s early opposition to the Syrian government came from his exposure to the widespread preferential treatment of Alawites in Syria at the expense of the country’s Sunni majority. In 2000, Abdul Rahman fled to Britain after two of his associates were arrested.

His updates, coming in a constant stream, have been cited by virtually every major media outlet covering the war in Syria, often prompting controversy. The Syrian Observatory has been accused of bias by nearly every side of the Syrian conflict, including rebel groups that say his strict verification process underestimates the magnitude of Assad’s brutality. The Russian government, a key patron of the Assad regime, condemns Abdul Rahman as a charlatan "who has no training either in journalism or law or even a complete secondary education." (In reality, he completed high school and studied marketing at a technical school.)

The only major player in the Syrian conflict that hasn’t criticized the monitoring group is the U.S. government, which actively cites and disseminates the group’s data. In the State Department’s most recent human rights report on Syria, officials relied on the watchdog’s casualty count and cited its data on episodes of prisoner abuse carried out by the Assad regime. Some of the most aggressive purveyors of the monitoring group’s data are the government-run news agencies Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

But as the Obama administration seeks to sell its own version of events on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Observatory is playing an increasingly adversarial role.

In a Sept. 25 report, the Syrian Observatory said coalition airstrikes of three oil refineries in the southern countryside area of Hasakah led to the death of five civilians. Another report from September claimed that strikes against the Khorasan Group, a cell of al Qaeda terrorists in Syria, left eight civilians dead. The Pentagon says it cannot confirm those reports because it lacks the local intelligence resources necessary to do so.

"This is the consequence of the U.S. stepping up its participation in the conflict and of the U.S. being in an especially ambiguous position," said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). "The U.S. is intervening in Syria and not necessarily against the Assad regime. Anything Washington says is going to be held to account."

Besides publicizing civilian casualties, which threaten to jeopardize local perceptions of America’s role in the conflict, the Syrian Observatory’s accounts also offer perspective on American depictions of individual airstrikes. In an overnight bombing in Deir Ezzor province in September, for instance, U.S. Central Command said the offensive successfully struck two military vehicles. The monitoring group said the entrance of the province’s largest gas plant was hit but with little damage to the facility, according to the Associated Press.

Reports of civilian deaths at the hands of coalition bombing, which have also come from Human Rights Watch and eyewitnesses, have raised difficult questions for the Obama administration. Last month, the White House acknowledged that the strict standards it put in place last year to prevent U.S. drones from killing civilians around the world do not apply to the campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Announced by Obama last year, the policy bars all U.S. drone strikes unless there is a "near certainty" that civilians won’t be killed in the attack. But in an email to Yahoo News in September, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden stated that the "near certainty" standard was intended to apply "only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities.’"

"That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now," she added.

Part of the success of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) is Abdul Rahman’s reputation for authoritativeness and accuracy.

"SOHR plays such a key role in everything related to media information on the Syrian revolution — death statistics, battles, you name it," said Joshua Landis, director of University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies. "I rely on his information as much as the next person and often repeat what he publishes."

Landis, a steadfast critic of U.S. military involvement in Syria, has publicly and aggressively disputed the United States’ Syria policy with Tabler, the WINEP scholar and an early advocate of U.S. intervention in the conflict.

Yet both experts agree that the Syrian Observatory is an essential source for tracking the human toll that Assad and anti-Assad forces are taking.

"They’ve gone to great lengths to verify deaths, and not just for rebels but the regime as well," said Tabler. "It’s not perfect: A full account will come when the war is over, whenever that happens. But it’s been an enormously important clearing house for death tolls, and I think it’s been fairly impartial to the Syrian people over all."

For his part, Abdul Rahman says his organization will never stop monitoring under his watch. "Our objective has been to establish the state of freedom, democracy, justice, and equality as well as to monitor, document, and disseminate the violations of human rights committed in Syria in order to hold to account persons who committed these violations," he said. "If you notice one day that we cease disseminating information and news, that means we are gagged."