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Behind the Syrian Network for Human Rights: How an opposition front group became Western media’s go-to monitor

Top media outlets turn to the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) for figures on deaths and detentions, never noting the group’s seamless connection to Syria’s opposition, the support it receives from states that waged war on the country, or its open lobbying for US military intervention.

by Max Blumenthal

Part 2 - An ‘independent monitoring group’ run by the Syrian opposition

On May 11, The New York Times published an exposé claiming to provide new details of a “secret, industrial-scale system of arbitrary arrests and torture prisons” in Syria. Filed from Turkey by reporter Anne Barnard, this article centered around the eyebrow-raising claim that 128,000 people have never emerged from Syrian prisons, “and are presumed to be either dead or still in custody.

The Times’ source for this shocking statistic was the Syrian Network for Human Rights, which Barnard described as an “independent monitoring group that keeps the most rigorous tally.

SNHR also supplied key data for a June 2 report by Washington Post reporter Louisa Loveluck on the arrests of Syrian refugees who have returned home. The group insisted that “2,000 people have been detained after returning to Syria during the past two years.

In the past few years, SNHR has been uncritically cited by major news outlets, from The Guardian to The Intercept to The Daily Beast. Western journalists have unquestioningly regurgitated SNHR data to provide statistical heft to gut-wrenching reports on the Syrian government’s alleged abuses.

Even Amnesty International turned to the group for help on a widely promoted report on Syria’s Sednayah Prison. On its website, SNHR boasts that it was the second-most cited source in the US State Department’s 2018 report on the human rights situation in Syria.

When it is cited in mainstream media, SNHR is almost invariably characterized as a neutral observer without any agenda beyond documenting death and abuse. In Barnard’s article, the group was described as “independent,” absurdly implying that it was not affiliated in any way with governments or individuals that have participated in the Syrian conflict.

While there may be little doubt that the Syrian government presides over a harsh police state apparatus, it has also been the target of one of the most expensive and sophisticated disinformation campaigns in recent history.

Seeking to stimulate support among a war-weary Western public for US military intervention, a collection of billionaires and foreign governments has leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars into a high-tech information war waged by NGOs, insurgent-linked civil society groups, and mainstream corporate media. 

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has emerged as one of the most important cogs in this operation. Posing as a professional human rights organization, SNHR has functioned as a publicity arm of the Syrian opposition, operating out of Doha, Qatar and collaborating with the opposition’s “embassy” there under the direction of Syrian opposition leaders.

On SNHR’s board of directors sits Burhan Ghalioun, the longtime leader of the Western- and Gulf-backed Syrian National Council, which was founded as an opposition government-in-exile.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has a reputation for warping numbers to support its ulterior regime change agenda, while relentlessly downplaying the crimes of Salafi-jihadist militias, including ISIS and al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra.

What’s more, the group’s leadership has openly clamored for Western military intervention, most recently after it issued a dubious report in May on alleged Syrian government chemical attacks that turned out to be sourced to an al-Qaeda affiliate comprised entirely of foreign fighters.

In a report on its website, SNHR acknowledges that it is “funded by states,” though it does not disclose which ones those are.

Given the ideological composition of its leadership and their basing in Qatar, it is easy to deduce that those government funders are the same ones that have bankrolled an Islamist insurgency in Syria to the tune of several billion dollars, costing many thousands of lives and helping to fuel a refugee crisis of titanic proportions.

So why have so many journalists who depended on SNHR omitted vital context like this while attempting to pass the group off as “independent”? Perhaps because providing readers with the full truth about the organization would raise questions in their minds about its credibility – or lack thereof – and expose yet another journalistic narrative designed to trigger Western military intervention.

Citing the Syrian Network for Human Rights as an independent and credible source is the journalistic equivalent of sourcing statistics on head trauma to a research front created by the National Football League, or turning to tobacco industry lobbyists for information on the connection between smoking and lung cancer. And yet this has been standard practice among correspondents covering the Syrian conflict.

Indeed, Western press has engaged for years in an insidious sleight of hand, basing reams of shock journalism around claims by a single, highly suspect source that is deeply embedded within the Syrian opposition – and hoped that no one would notice. 

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