The Syrian Observatory For Human Rights (SOHR) claims to be a one person shop in Coventry, Britain. But that is only the front story. It is part of a larger organization and the intelligence infrastructure used to wage war on Syria.
A few commentators have recently criticized that I used SOHR as a source in some of my pieces. Here is why.
SOHR is not a pure propaganda operation like the White Helmets are. It is relatively truthful in its reporting of events and casualties in Syria. The total casualty count of the war SOHR gives is likely too high due to some estimates it uses in its bottom numbers. But an early check of its detailed accounts showed that its reports from incidents on the ground were mostly correct.
SOHR’s numbers have been quoted by about every news outlet in the world, usually in pro-rebel propaganda pieces. But it is not the observatory that turns the information it collects into propaganda. The media do that when they quote SOHR without the necessary caveats or when they disregard it where its information contradicts the official story. The examples below show that this is now often the case.
One of the first descriptions of the one man who allegedly runs SOHR is in a Reuters portrait from late 2011:
With only a few hours sleep, a phone glued to his ear and another two ringing, the fast-talking director of arguably Syria’s most high-profile human rights group is a very busy man.
“Are there clashes? How did he die? Ah, he was shot,” said Rami Abdulrahman into a phone, the talk of gunfire and death incongruous with his two bedroom terraced home in Coventry, from where he runs the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
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.
The idea that one man alone could keep track of all casualties in Syria, or stay in contact with so many local contacts on the ground, never made sense. It is simply too much work for one man who also runs a shop and cares for a family. It was obvious that there was more behind it.
SOHR’s main function was to keep a current casualty count of the war in Syria. The Reuters piece noted:
According to the observatory’s latest figures, 3,441 civilians and 1,280 security forces have been killed.
The overall number in the casualty count SOHR gave did make sense. The categorization of the numbers did not. The numbers led casual readers assume that only one side of the war in Syria was armed. The numbers could not explained how the security forces were killed. It took a while before people woke up to that mismatch and asked SOHR. It willingly answered the question. But only few reports, like this one from June 2012, used the answer and explained the mismatch to their readers:
Those killed since March last year comprised 9,862 civilians, 3,470 soldiers and 783 army deserters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The Britain-based watchdog counts rebel fighters who are not deserters from the army as civilians.
This was a technical correct but crude mislabeling of killed “civilians”, most of which were in fact anti-government fighters. But SOHR did not hide its dubious categorization. Anyone who asked was provided with the caveat above. But only few journalist asked despite the obvious mismatch in the casualty numbers and even fewer put the caveat into print. You will hardly find it in any current news piece that uses SOHR numbers.
Patrick Lang, a trained military spy and former Middle East chief of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, asserted several times that the “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” is run by MI6, Britain’s foreign intelligence service.
Peter Hitchens recently reported that SOHR is at least partially financed by the British Foreign Office:
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.
MI6 is subordinated to the British Foreign Office. The paltry sum of £195,000 pounds was surely not the only money Rami Abdulrahman received for more than seven years of daily work. There must be a rather large organization behind the dozens of news items and tweets the observatory puts out each and every day.
The SOHR reports often contain valuable information.
Over the last year, as the Syrian government side regained more and more ground, a new phenomenon arose. SOHR appeared less in western media reports on Syria. Its version of events was often missing in stories that involved U.S. operations. The reason was simple. SOHR continued to report somewhat truthful versions of events while the propaganda moved further away from reality.
Here are several incidents of many more where SOHR contradicted the official western propaganda tale. In reports about these incidents in the New York Times and elsewhere the SOHR’s version of the events was simply ignored.
On October 13 2017 the U.S. coalition made a deal with the Islamic State to give free passage for ISIS fighters from the besieged Raqqa to south-east Syria. The U.S. military, which leads the coalition, loudly denied that it was involved.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights received information from Knowledgeable and independent sources confirming reaching a deal between the International Coalition and the Syria Democratic Forces in one hand; and the “Islamic State” organization in the other hand, and the deal stated the exit of the remaining members of the “Islamic State” organization out of Al-Raqqah city.
In January 10 2018 SOHR reported that the U.S. coalition released 400 ISIS fighters from prison and that at least 120 of them joined the Syrian Democratic Forces led by Kurdish fighters and U.S. special forces. It confirmed several U.S. attacks which had killed dozens of civilians in east Syria. The U.S. military denied that it let ISIS fighters go and it denied all civilian casualty claims.
On April 8 2018 the White Helmets propaganda organization claimed that a chlorine gas attack in East-Ghouta had killed dozens.
SOHR disagreed. It reported of people suffocating after their shelter came down on them. It did not report of any gas incident or casualties:
[A]mong the casualties there are 21 civilians including 9 children and 3 women were killed as a result of suffocation caused by the shelling which destroyed basements of houses as a result of the violence bombardment that stopped about an hour ago on Douma area.
Witnesses on the ground and especially the doctors in the field hospital in east-Ghouta also spoke of suffocation and breathing problems caused by dust clouds after intense aerial bombing and artillery strikes.
On April 16 the U.S. launched a large cruise missile attack against Syria “in retaliation” for the fake gas attack in east-Ghouta. It claimed that all 105 cruise missiles hit the three intended targets.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights managed to monitored interception by the regime forces to tens of missiles which targeted their positions and military bases in the Syrian territory, where several intersected sources confirmed to the Syrian Observatory, that the number missiles that were downed, exceeded 65 missiles, of the total number of missiles fired by the Trio Coalition …
SOHR also said that eight targets were attacked but only three received hits. The SOHR report is consistent with witness reports, earlier published U.S. targeting plans and with statements by the Syrian and Russian military.
On May 24 2018 Syrian positions in east Syria near the T-2 pumping station were first attacked by ISIS and then by U.S. airplanes. The U.S. denied to have attacked there.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights learned from several reliable sources that the airstrikes that were carried out on sites of the pro-regime gunmen in Desert Deir Ezzor; have caused human losses, where the Syrian Observatory documented the killing of at least 12 pro-regime gunmen of non-Syrian nationalities, as a result of the airstrikes that were carried out by warplanes believed to belong to the International Coalition, which targeted positions of the above-mentioned forces near the 2nd Station “T2”, which is more than 65 km away of al-Bokamal city in Deir Ezzor Desert, while others were injured with varying severity, and the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.
The Russian, Syrian or Iraqi air force are generally not operating in the east, southwards of the Euphrates. Only U.S. coalition planes are flying there. It is thus very likely that the SOHR report is correct.
Patrick Lang, the former DIA Middle East chief and a trained spy, always urges to distinguish between information and its source. A reputable source can give bad information. A source with a bad repute may nonetheless make correct claims.
There are a few simple rules I use to come nearer to the truth:
One has to compare bits of information from different sources.
If a reports cites another source one must go to the original to check if the quote is correct, complete and not out of context.
If it does not sound or feels right the information is probably wrong.
One must apply logic and reasonability checks to further weed the good from the bad.
If an alleged act of a rational entity is against the interest of that entity it probably did not happen.
If a claimed behavior of an entity is inconsistent with earlier observed behavior of that entity, the claims are likely wrong.
SOHR, despite being an intelligence outlet of a government hostile to Syria, can be regarded as a relatively reliable source. Some of its reports may well be wrong or slandered. But that should not prevent one from using it.