Since America began its campaign to overthrow Assad/"destroy" ISIS in Syria over a year ago, one human rights group, "The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights", has been cited more frequently than any other. In 2012 and 2013 it served as the backbone of many reports on the human rights abuses of Assad, and in 2014, it has pivoted to do the same in regards to ISIS.
From just the past few weeks:
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 162 people had joined Islamic State training camps in Aleppo province since Sept 10.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many militants were killed, though the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 120 fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces in Syria’s east.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said at least 70 Islamic State fighters were killed in strikes that hit at least 50 targets in the provinces of Raqqa, Deir al-Zor and Hasakah.
Heads on sticks: Sick ISIS video emerges showing 50 beheaded Syrian soldiers being impaled on poles and held aloft in Raqqa
The Syrian Human Rights Observatory said at least 50 of the soldiers had been executed - many of them beheaded - as horrifying footage began circulating online which appeared to show the bodies.
And just today:
"It is under IS control, and is the largest in Syria," director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Rami Abdel Rahman said Sunday.
The "Syrian Observatory for Human Rights", as it turns out however, is not NOT just a human rights group, it's not even a group. It's one man: Rami Abdul Rahman. And maybe not even this.
As an April 2013 profile in the The New York Time makes clear:
Yet, despite its central role in the savage civil war, the grandly named Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is virtually a one-man band. Its founder, Rami Abdul Rahman, 42, who fled Syria 13 years ago, operates out of a semidetached red-brick house on an ordinary residential street in this drab industrial city.
The Times here, as usual, is being generous. It's not "virtually" a one-man band. A one-man band is, by all objective accounts, exactly what it is. The only other members are - like the figures and "news" he cites - entirely based on his, and only his, assertions. The Times continues:
He does not work alone. Four men inside Syria help to report and collate information from more than 230 activists on the ground, a network rooted in Mr. Abdul Rahman’s youth, when he organized clandestine political protests....
Activists in every province belong to a Skype contact group that Mr. Abdul Rahman and his aides tap into in an effort to confirm independently the details of significant events. He depends on local doctors and tries to get witnesses...
With government soldiers, he consults contacts in small villages, using connections from his youth on the coast among Alawites, the minority sect of Mr. Assad, which constitutes the backbone of the army.
But, of course, all of this is based entirely on Rahman's claims. Maybe it's true, maybe it's not. The Times - presumably because Rahman is a scrappy democrat taking on the big, bad Assad - isn't really concerned with finding out. His word is good enough for the Paper of Record™.
To make matters even weirder there's a bit of history the Times neglects to mention: In 2012, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, once comprised of a whole two people, allegedly separated into two "groups", resulting in a rather bizarre and bitter divorce that climaxed with Rahnam's co-founder claiming Rahman, well, was a total fraud:
In November, rumours emerged that Rami Abdulrahman was a pseudonym of SOHR’s founder. Many who doubted SOHR’s credibility cried “smoking gun.” When a professional-looking letter published last week by a rival group, claiming to speak on behalf of SOHR, accused Abdulrahman of falsifying his name and hijacking SOHR’s identity, suspicions turned into certainty...
The moving force behind the rival group (www.syriahr.org) who issued a letter attacking Abdulrahman’s group (www.syriahr.com) is a London-based Syrian exile and medical doctor named Mousab Azzawi.
That's correct. According to a letter by Abdul Rahman's ex-SOHR co-founder, Mousab Azzawi, the current, media-cited organization isn't just run by one person - it's run by a fake person. His letter would alledge:
Firstly, there is NO individual by the name of Rami Abdul Rahman. This is just an alias that was being used by all SOHR members and mainly by the founders of the SOHR when articles were being originally published.
There is however a gentleman based in Coventry whose primary profession is installing satellite dishes who volunteered at the SOHR in late 2010. This gentleman is called Mr Osama Ali Suleiman and as a volunteer he contributed in publishing the Arabic language news articles on the SOHR website www.syriahr.net.
Having had many a dispute with co-founders I can certainly understand a bit of bitter accusations, but accusing them of being total frauds? That's a rather libelous and explosive claim that, like a lot of SOHR's history, just sort of slipped into a memory hole and - sans a few mentions in the Arab press - never rose close enough to the media surface to call into question SOHR's broader credibility. Though the linked article would also go on to question Azzawi's own checkered past and the knotty web it entailed - the whole strange episode, again, didn't even merit a mention or follow up in the New York Times' otherwise glowing profile of Rami Abdul Rahman and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Even potential evidence that Rahman was working on behalf of the European Union or one of its member nations was reduced to a throw away line:
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.
Well, did the Times bother looking into it? Even if one doesn't think this fact calls into question his credibility, ask yourself one question: had Rahman admitted he received "small subsidies" from Putin or Iran would any of the American press still be citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights so uncritically and without qualification? Of course not.
The reality is there is no Syrian Observatory Human Rights "Group" for one simple reason: a group implies an organization rather than just one person. Searches on multiple charity databases- public and private alike - reveal no such group exists. No tax number. No public finances. No incorporation date and no jurisdiction. Just one private citizen and a few glossy press pieces.
We know, based on the last Iraq invasion, what happens when too much weight is put on the word of one ex-pat:
In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, the man behind the "intelligence" that "proved" Saddam's WMDs confessed:
Maybe I was right, maybe I was not right," he said. "They gave me this chance. I had the chance to fabricate something to topple the regime. I and my sons are proud of that and we are proud that we were the reason to give Iraq the margin of democracy."
Whether or not this is case with Rahman is, of course, very much in dispute. But given our last war hinged so much on the claims of a single partisan who - like Rahman - had everything to gain by American intervention and everything to lose by the status quo, perhaps we shouldn't rely so much on sources whose entire visible staff could fit on a bicycle seat.