Middle East

Observatory in the crosshairs for its coverage

Syrian residents walk near a highway as they flee their homes following clashes between opposition fighters and forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Adra area, east of Damascus. (REUTERS/SANA/Handout via Reuters)

BEIRUT: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the leading sources of information about the war in Syria, has received death threats over its work from members of the opposition, the group said Monday.

The Observatory, which is based in the United Kingdom and relies on a range of sources from inside the country, said it was being targeted by a “methodical campaign” by activists that reminded it of the methods of the Syrian regime.

The organization provides nearly hourly updates of armed clashes between the warring parties, as well as the shelling and airstrikes conducted by government forces, and the acts of violence undertaken by some rebel groups, particularly when they target civilians.

It has also publicized the grisly videos of summary executions conducted by the most hard-line rebel groups, such as the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria.

In a statement posted on its Facebook page, the Observatory said it had recently received a large number of messages of intimidation and death threats, sent to both its official Facebook page and the accounts of a number of activists working with the group.

Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP that the threats originated from Islamist extremists, declining to specify which ones.

“These groups are trying to locate our sources in the regions under their control,” he said, particularly in the north and east of the country, as well as in parts of Damascus province.

“These sources are being threatened,” he said.

However, the Observatory has come in for harsh criticism by mainstream opposition supporters, particularly in the wake of two recent incidents in the province of rural Damascus.

These took place in Adra, an industrial suburb in Damascus, and near the town of Nabk, in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital.

In Adra, which was stormed by rebel units earlier this month, the Observatory said that more than a dozen civilians – mainly from minority religious sects such as Alawites and Druze – had been slaughtered during the offensive.

But pro-opposition sources quickly countered the version of events. They said that the rebels, which included the hard-line Nusra Front Al-Qaeda affiliate, did kill people in Adra, a sprawling industrial area that also contains a notorious prison.

However, the casualties were regime soldiers and “shabbiha” paramilitaries, they insisted. The rebels went door to door carrying lists of wanted people, but were after combatants and not innocent civilians, the opposition sources maintained.

In the days following the incident, even pro-regime media came around to the activists’ version of events.

A photograph of a toddler was widely circulated on pro-regime social media as being one of the victims of the “massacre” by hard-line Islamist fighters.

But in the newer versions of the story, the pro-regime media identified by name at least four army officers who perished in Adra – by committing suicide, to prevent themselves from falling into the hands of the rebels.

In some pro-regime versions of the events, the regime officers detonated hand grenades when cornered by the rebel fighters.

A pro-opposition source told The Daily Star that some of the officers involved also killed their wives and children in the standoff.

The source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, is from one of Syria’s religious minorities.

A significant problem surrounding the work of the Observatory, he said, involved its reporting when it comes to the issue of religious communities.

“It’s just like any news organization. It’s trying to gain popularity for itself, both inside and outside Syria,” he said.

When a mass killing takes place, he continued, the Observatory highlights the killing of members of Syria’s minorities, such as Alawites, Druze and Christians.

“That’s what the West wants to hear about,” the source said.

“A given item by the Observatory will say that hard-line extremists killed members of sects A, B and C. But when the killing of Sunnis takes place, this is treated as something normal, or routine. The killing of minorities ends up receiving coverage that is considerably more prominent, and the international media pick up on this.”

The practice has generated a sharp division in the ranks of pro-opposition activists, the source continued.

“Some people support Rami Abdel-Rahman and others really hate him,” he said, about a figure widely labeled as pro-opposition.

The regime Sunday said it had engineered the evacuation of some 5,000 residents of Adra, as the Islamist fighters remain holed up in some sections of the sprawling area on the outskirts of the capital.

Another controversial incident took place in the Qalamoun mountains, where fierce fighting has pitted government troops and paramilitary allies against a number of local rebel groups and fighters from the Nusra Front. The Observatory reported that government troops ambushed and killed dozens of rebels, while pro-opposition sources countered this with the claim that the dead were mainly civilians.

In its statement, the Observatory issued a firm challenge to its detractors.

“Isn’t it strange that until now, after a number of days have passed, no filmed footage or pictures or names have been published – not even of a single child or woman – of those who were martyred in this ambush?” the Observatory asked.

The Observatory said that throughout the conflict, it had sought to remain objective by focusing on the documentation of incidents of violence, no matter who was behind them.

“We are well aware of the difficulty of the task we are carrying out and we have been keen to remain at the necessary distance from the parties to the conflict,” the Observatory said. “However, because of our position as a defender of the victims of [rights] violations, we were labeled an organization in opposition to the Syrian regime by leading media early on.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2013, on page 8.




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