Writing in the Mail on Sunday, journalist Peter Hitchens commented last month on the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR): ‘Talking of war, and Syria, many of you may have noticed frequent references in the media to a body called the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights”, often quoted as if it is an impartial source of information about that complicated conflict, in which the British government clearly takes sides. The “Observatory” says on its website that it is “not associated or linked to any political body”. To which I reply: Is Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office not a political body? Because the FO just confirmed to me that “the UK funded a project worth £194,769.60 to provide the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights with communications equipment and cameras”. That’s quite a lot, isn’t it? I love the precision of that 60p. Your taxes, impartially, at work.’
This figure was confirmed in communication with the Foreign Office by independent political journalist Ian Sinclair. (Email to Media Lens, May 17, 2018)
In 2011, Reuters reported that Rami Abdulrahman is ‘the fast-talking director of arguably Syria’s most high-profile human rights group’, SOHR: ‘When he isn’t fielding calls from international media, Abdulrahman is a few minutes down the road at his clothes shop, which he runs with his wife’.
Given the tinpot nature of the organisation, SOHR’s influence is astonishing: ‘Cited by virtually every major news outlet since an uprising against the iron rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in March, the observatory has been a key source of news on the events in Syria’.
Described by Reuters as an ‘opposition group’, SOHR is openly pro-regime change: ‘After three short spells in prison in Syria for pro-democracy activism, Abdulrahman came to Britain in 2000 fearing a longer, fourth jail term. “I came to Britain the day Hafez al-Assad died, and I’ll return when Bashar al-Assad goes”.
In December 2011, Stratfor, an influential research institute formed of former US security officials, cautioned: ‘Most of the [Syrian] opposition’s more serious claims have turned out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue … revealing more about the opposition’s weaknesses than the level of instability inside the Syrian regime’.
Reports from SOHR and other opposition groups, ‘like those from the regime, should be viewed with skepticism’, Stratfor argued: ‘the opposition understands that it needs external support, specifically financial support, if it is to be a more robust movement than it is now. To that end, it has every reason to present the facts on the ground in a way that makes the case for foreign backing.’
The Los Angeles Times described SOHR as ‘a pro-opposition watchdog’. And yet, as Reuters reported, Abdulrahman claims neutrality: ‘”I’m between two fires. But it shows I’m being neutral if both sides complain,” he said, insisting he accepts no funding and runs the observatory on a voluntary basis.’
Two years later, the New York Times described a modified funding model: ‘Money from two dress shops covers his minimal needs for reporting on the conflict, along with small subsidies from the European Union and one European country that he declines to identify’.
Thanks to Hitchens, we now know that the country in question is Britain and the funding in 2012 was £194,769.60.
In 2013, we compared the reflexive respect afforded SOHR with the earlier casual rejection of reports on the death toll in Iraq published in 2004 and 2006 by The Lancet, the world’s leading medical journal: ‘Figures supplied by SOHR, an organisation openly biased in favour of the Syrian “rebels” and Western intervention is presented as sober fact by… the world’s leading news agencies. No concerns here about methodology, sample sizes, “main street bias” and other alleged concerns thrown at the Lancet studies by critics.’
In 2004, one of the Lancet co-authors, Gilbert Burnham of the prestigious Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, told us: ‘Our data have been back and forth between many reviewers at the Lancet and here in the school (chair of Biostatistics Dept), so we have the scientific strength to say what we have said with great certainty. I doubt any Lancet paper has gotten as much close inspection in recent years as this one has!’ (Dr. Gilbert Burnham, email to Media Lens, October 30, 2004.)
Despite this, the Lancet reports were subjected to ceaseless attacks from the US and UK governments, and dismissal by corporate journalists. David Aaronovitch wrote in The Times: ‘And Harold Pinter invents a statistic. “At least 100,000 Iraqis were killed by American bombs and missiles before the Iraqi insurgency began.” This is probably some mangling of a controversial estimate of Iraqi civilian fatalities published in The Lancet in 2004 and based, it was claimed, on standard epidemiological methods.’ (Aaronovitch, ‘The great war of words,’ The Times, March 18, 2006)
An op-ed in the Washington Times commented in December 2004: ‘Or how about the constantly cited figure of 100,000 Iraqis killed by Americans since the war began, a statistic that is thrown about with total and irresponsible abandon by opponents of the war.’ (Helle Dale, ‘Biased coverage in Iraq,’ Washington Times, December 1, 2004)
As we described at the time, the ‘mainstream’ hosted all manner of confused and baseless criticisms of this kind.
By contrast, a recent BBC article noted of the Syrian war: ‘Over seven years of war, more than 400,000 people have been killed or reported missing, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.’
No-one, it seems, would dream of challenging such a high figure supplied by a clothes shop owner supporting regime change in Syria from Coventry. Nobody challenges SOHR’s methodology, or complains of statistics being thrown about with irresponsible abandon. Why? Because the 2004 and 2006 Lancet reports seriously undermined the US-UK case for conquering Iraq, whereas a high Syria death toll is used to damn the Assad government and to make the case for Western ‘intervention’.
In a 2015 interview with RT, Abdulrahman was asked how he could trust the hundreds of ‘activists’ supplying information from Syria. Claiming that ‘I know all of the activists working for the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights’, Abdulrahman said that he had last visited Syria in 2000. He added: ‘But I know some of the Observatory activists through common friends.’
Innumerable ‘mainstream’ reports of atrocities blamed on Syrian government and Russian forces have used SOHR as a key source. One of the highest profile claims concerned an alleged massacre of 108 people, including 49 children, in Houla, Syria on May 27, 2012. The claim dominated the Independent on Sunday‘s front cover, which read: ‘SYRIA: THE WORLD LOOKS THE OTHER WAY. WILL YOU?’
The text beneath read: ‘There is, of course, supposed to be a ceasefire, which the brutal Assad regime simply ignores. And the international community? It just averts its gaze. Will you do the same? Or will the sickening fate of these innocent children make you very, very angry?’
As so often, SOHR loomed large in these accusations. The BBC reported: ‘The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 90 people had died in the 24 hours since midday on Friday.’
The Guardian described how SOHR was condemning Western ‘silence’: ‘The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights issued an unusually harsh statement in the wake of the deaths, accusing Arab nations and the international community of being “partners” in the killing “because of their silence about the massacres that the Syrian regime has committed”.’
But the picture was not quite so clear cut. Two weeks later, the BBC reported the head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, Major General Robert Mood, as saying of Houla: ‘the circumstances that led to these tragic killings are still unclear’. Mood commented significantly: ‘Whatever I learned on the ground in Syria… is that I should not jump to conclusions.’
On June 27, a UN Commission of Inquiry said that in apportioning blame, it ‘could not rule out any of these possibilities’: local militia possibly operating together with, or with the acquiescence of, government security forces; anti-government forces seeking to escalate the conflict; or foreign groups with unknown affiliation. In August of the same year, UN investigators released a further report which stated that they had ‘a reasonable basis to believe that the perpetrators… were aligned to the Government’. (Our emphasis.)
SOHR is omnipresent in the great Syrian atrocity claims that have gripped our media for years. On April 14, Donald Trump bombed Syria in response to an alleged Syrian government chemical weapons attack on Douma one week earlier. Reuters reported: ‘Heavy air strikes on the Syrian rebel-held town of Douma killed 27 people including five children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.’
On April 7, 2017, Trump launched a missile assault on Syria just 72 hours after an alleged chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun. Reuters reported: ‘The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attack killed at least 58 people and was believed to have been carried out by Syrian government jets. It caused many people to choke and some to foam at the mouth. Director Rami Abdulrahman told Reuters the assessment that Syrian government warplanes were to blame was based on several factors such as the type of aircraft, including Sukhoi 22 jets, that carried out the raid.’
In August 2013, Barack Obama came close to launching a massive attack on Syria in response to an alleged Syrian government chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. The BBC reported: ‘The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based group that gets its information from a network of activists across Syria, later said it had confirmed at least 502 deaths.’
The Los Angeles Times reported: ‘The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, generally regarded as one of the most reliable sources of information on casualty figures in Syria, says it has confirmed 502 deaths, including 80 children and 137 women.’
Last February, the BBC reported: ‘The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said at least 250 people had been killed in [Syrian government and Russian] air strikes and artillery fire since then. ‘It said it was the highest 48-hour death toll since a 2013 chemical attack on the besieged enclave.’
The power of these claims lies in the fact that Western journalists have been unable to report from ‘rebel’-held areas in Syria. Veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn made the point: ‘All wars always produce phony atrocity stories – along with real atrocities. But in the Syrian case fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War… The real reason that reporting of the Syrian conflict has been so inadequate is that Western news organisations have almost entirely outsourced their coverage to the rebel side.’
‘Rebel’ claims relayed by SOHR and others have been uncontested because they originated from ‘areas controlled by people so dangerous no foreign journalist dare set foot among them’.
Many atrocity claims relayed by SOHR and others have been sourced from the White Helmets group in Syria. Former Guardian journalist Jonathan Cook commented: ‘In the western corporate media narrative, the White Helmets are a group of dedicated and selfless rescue workers. They are supposedly the humanitarians on whose behalf a western intervention in Syria would have been justified – before, that is, Syrian leader Bashar Assad queered their pitch by inviting in Russia. However, there are problems with the White Helmets. They operate only in rebel – read: mainly al-Qaeda and ISIS-held – areas of Syria, and plenty of evidence shows that they are funded by the UK and US to advance both countries’ far-from-humanitarian policy objectives in Syria.’
In 2016, political analyst Max Blumenthal wrote: ‘The White Helmets were founded in collaboration with USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives—the wing that has promoted regime change around the world—and have been provided with $23 million in funding from the department.’
Liberal corporate journalists and politicians have been impressed by the fact that SOHR and White Helmets’ claims have been supported by ostensibly forensic analysis supplied by the Bellingcat website, which publishes ‘citizen journalist’ investigations. As we noted in a recent alert, Bellingcat is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which is funded by the US government and is ‘a notorious vehicle for US soft power’.
We could link to thousands of corporate media articles citing SOHR as a source. As in the above examples, the vast majority of these claims are directed at the same targets – the Syrian government and its Russian ally. To monitor the BBC website in 2013, for example, was to witness what appeared to be a relentless propaganda campaign promoting yet one more Western ‘humanitarian intervention’.
This would seem to be an extraordinary scandal, not just for the BBC, not just for British corporate media and democracy, but for media and democracy globally. And yet, our media database search finds exactly one national UK newspaper article containing the terms ‘Peter Hitchens’ and ‘Syrian Observatory’. That, of course, was the original May 13 piece in the Mail on Sunday in which Hitchens reported the UK government’s £194,769.60 funding of SOHR. His report has been ignored.
David Edwards is Editor of Media Lens.
First published in Media Lens, 4 June 2018.