LONDON: The founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel-Rahman, rages at the international community’s “hypocrisy” in focusing on chemical weapons and overlooking the “endless bloodbath” in war-ravaged Syria.
Day after day, from a base in the drab central English city of Coventry, the exiled Abdel-Rahman and his volunteers have detailed the human toll of the conflict since it erupted in March 2011.
“In Syria, out of more than 120,000 people killed, 500 were killed with chemical weapons. Are these more horrendous deaths than the others?” the mustachioed Abdel-Rahman asks.
Abdel-Rahman, who is in his 40s and wears a dark suit, gestures feverishly with his hands to show his frustration and disgust.
“Nothing has changed at all. The clashes continue. Blood continues to be spilled and the intensity of the conflict increases,” he says.
“With the focus on chemical weapons, we forget about the daily deaths of the Syrian people by shelling, tank fire, gunfire, car bombs, mortars falling on civilian areas.”
President Bashar Assad last month offered to give up Syria’s chemical weapons in a Russian-brokered deal to prevent a Western military strike.
But Abdel-Rahman says that according to his figures the conflict is still killing 4,000 to 5,000 people a month, from soldiers, militia members and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters to rebels, jihadists and civilians.
The Observatory’s gruesome tally is followed by major news organizations and by foreign governments, with journalists increasingly staying away from Syria because it is too dangerous.
“The regime commits dozens of atrocities every day,” Abdel-Rahman says, but he adds that the other side is also responsible for war crimes, as Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria and the Nusra Front try to establish an “alternative dictatorship.”
Many of the pictures and videos on the Observatory’s website are so gruesome they are almost unwatchable.
From dawn until late at night, Abdel-Rahman is glued to the telephone. When there is a major incident he will deal with two calls at the same time, a phone to each ear.
During his interview, he takes some 20 calls, while his phone pings constantly with the sound of email alerts.
The former businessman, whose real name is Osama Suleiman, has been exiled from Syria since 2000, and set up the Observatory six years later.
He says the organization has “230 activists within its structure” and relies on news “provided by more than 5,000 people across the country.”
They include regime officials, soldiers, rebels and jihadists, he says. Six of them have already been killed.
The Observatory has to sift the facts from propaganda and disinformation. Accuracy is vital, given accusations from some quarters that the group is, variously, a Qatari mouthpiece, an agent of Western powers and a part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“Our objective is to release the truth about what is happening in Syria. ... Our only agenda is defending human rights and reaching a democratic state,” Abdel-Rahman says.
Accuracy is of paramount importance, whether it is a deadly blast in southern Deraa province, a rebel assault on Aleppo’s central jail, fights between rebel groups, the burning of churches or the destruction of a statue deemed idolatrous by the Islamists.
In recent months, Abdel-Rahman says he has had to step up security.
“Because of the constant threat by jihadists, by the regime militias, by the regime itself and by warlords, I had to take extra precautionary measures.”
With the Observatory taking up most of his time, he has left his day job of running a clothes shop to his wife. His family life has also suffered.
“I don’t have time. My wife takes care of the shop. I don’t have time for my daughter, who is 7,” he says.
“I have two children – the Observatory and my daughter. Possibly, she was neglected.”
“I might look like I haven’t had much sleep and I have all kinds of illnesses, but our suffering is nothing compared to the sufferings of our people in Syria,” he adds.
Born in Banias to a Sunni family, the Assad regime locked Abdel-Rahman up three times for links to Amnesty International before he finally fled.
“Since I was young, I have always dreamed of democracy and freedom from oppression. Hopefully one day I will see that.”
But the immediate future is bleak, Abdel-Rahman says.
“If the situation continues, if there’s no changes, I see only civil war. I see Somalization, and a new Afghanistan.”