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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 6 - Regime change journalism, hosted by Democracy Now, endorsed by Hillary Clinton

As a former Beirut bureau chief for the New York Times who now enjoys a fellowship at the notoriously hawkish Council on Foreign Relations, Barnard would be hard to describe as a progressive muckraker. Yet her curiously sourced report on Syrian prisons earned her an invite nonetheless from progressive news program Democracy Now.

Barnard told Democracy Now host Amy Goodman that the Syrian government was “vacuuming up people literally including followers of Gandhi,” suggesting that the rebellion was entirely peaceful while ignoring evidence that the opposition engaged in lethal violence just weeks into the revolt.

In a subsequent question-and-answer session at Reddit, Barnard described a militarized Syrian insurgency that saw the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra assume a leading role in taking over large swaths of the country as “a movement for reform and democracy.

Barnard appeared upset that the United States had failed to intervene directly to affect regime change. “President Barack Obama spoke loudly, calling for Mr. al-Assad’s ouster,” she said, “but carried a small stick. He backed off from even symbolic enforcement of the red line he had set.

Barnard’s article ultimately earned an endorsement from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who called it “a remarkable piece of journalism.

To gather data documenting the staggering human toll of Syria’s “secret prison network” the New York Times reporter turned to the SNHR, calling it an “independent human rights group” that keeps “the most meticulous count” of prison deaths.

In an interview with the New Yorker, Barnard vouched for the credibility of SNHR and the rigor of its research methods. “Their numbers are actual counts of reports that they get,” she said. “They have people on the ground and people outside Syria, and they basically just take phone calls, and they also have a form on their Web site that you can fill in. They go through the detailed report to them, they verify what they can, and they take this actual tally.

After opening her piece with bracing testimony from a Syrian who described himself as a former prisoner, Barnard introduced a staggering statistic to demonstrate the scope of brutality by the Syrian government: “Nearly 128,000 have never emerged [from Syrian prisons], and are presumed to be either dead or still in custody, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group that keeps the most rigorous tally.” 

Nearly 14,000 were “killed under torture,” she wrote, citing the same SNHR report.

Again, there is little debate that the Syrian government has used brutal methods to counter an extremist insurgency that has been funded, armed, and trained with billions of dollars from numerous foreign nations. What is in dispute are the actual numbers — and the magnitude — of deaths and victims of these tactics. And SNHR’s have been comically absurd.

SNHR claimed in the blog post linked by the New York Times that nearly 14,000 people were tortured to death by Syrian government forces, yet it provided no evidence or documentation beyond a single cartoon chart. At the same time, the group claimed that only 32 people were tortured to death by the genocidal extremists in ISIS, and just 21 by the rebranded al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

The notion that ISIS and al-Qaeda tortured only 53 people to death in Syria over eight years is risible. However, Barnard and her editors at the Times seem to have accepted this claim as indisputable truth, regurgitating it without a hint of skepticism.

Barnard did not respond to emailed questions about the SNHR.

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