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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 7 - Providing sourcing for US State Department, Amnesty, and The Intercept

The New York Times is not the only mainstream institution to have depended heavily on dubious allegations by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. The group brags that it came in second place for citations in the US State Department’s 2018 report on the human-rights situation in Syria.

SNHR’s report on human-rights violations by the Kurdish-led anti-ISIS coalition was promoted enthusiastically by the Daily Beast’s Roy Gutman, a longtime critic of the Kurdish YPG. However, unlike virtually every other mainstream reporter, Gutman at least hinted at SNHR’s alignment with the Syrian opposition, noting that it was a “Qatar-based human rights group, echoing the position of the Turkish government…

In September 2018, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussain and Mariam Elba relied on SNHR for numbers of those disappeared into “the sprawling prison network maintained by the Assad government.” (Oddly, the number of secret detainees they cited was 82,000, which means that the Syrian government would have had to have disappeared a whopping 46,000 people in an eight-month period to reach the figure Barnard quoted in the New York Times.)

It was one of many instances in which The Intercept cited SNHR as a credible “watchdog group” without disclosing its seamless ties to the Syrian opposition and the state backers of the Islamist insurgency.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights has also been a go-to source for The Guardian, which relied on the group and various other opposition-tied outfits like the Violations Documentation Center to claim that Russian airstrikes in Syria have been more deadly than those by the US-led coalition, which is reported by those groups to have killed 1,600 civilians in Raqqa alone. (The Guardian referred to SNHR merely as “a UK-based organization.”)

In her article for the New York Times, Barnard relied on a widely discussed 2017 Amnesty International report to claim that Syria’s Saydnaya Prison was a “mass execution center” where “thousands were hanged after summary trials.” That report, headlined with the tabloid title “Human Slaughterhouse” and supplemented with CGI-style storytelling graphics, also relied heavily on unsourced claims provided by SNHR.

According to Amnesty, anywhere from 5,000 to 13,000 prisoners were summarily executed at Saydnaya. However, the international NGO provided no data to support this claim, conceding in a footnote on page 17 of its report that its data was based entirely on hypothetical calculations.

Later, on page 40, Amnesty acknowledged that “the exact number of deaths in Saydnaya is impossible to specify.” The NGO then revealed that it documented only 375 deaths at the prison over a five-year period, and thanks to allegations “verified” by SNHR.

Like virtually every other organization that depended on SNHR’s claims, Amnesty referred to the SNHR simply as a “monitoring group,” not noting its intimate connection to the Syrian opposition.

In Barnard’s New York Times report, SNHR was cited alongside an interconnected array of NGOs and individuals with documented ties to the Syrian opposition. As with SNHR, absolutely no context was provided to inform readers about the political agenda of these organizations, or about the direct support they received from states that have fueled the extremist insurgency in Syria.

Through omissions like these, regime change propaganda has been carefully repackaged as news that’s fit to print.

Part two of this investigation will examine another widely cited, opposition-tied source that has been widely cited by US mainstream media in coverage of Syria. It is the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). With a tightly-knit coterie of lawyers, faceless Salafi-jihadist insurgents, and an intelligence network spanning from Washington to Doha, this group of so-called “document hunters” is honing the latest tactic in the West’s regime-change toolbox.

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