[Marxism] Behind Syrian War Casualty Data Is One Busy Man

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Apr 9 14:39:54 MDT 2013

NY Times April 9, 2013
Behind Syrian War Casualty Data Is One Busy Man

COVENTRY, England — Military analysts in Washington follow its body 
counts of Syrian and rebel soldiers to gauge the course of the war. The 
United Nations and human rights organizations scour its descriptions of 
civilian killings for evidence in possible war crimes trials. Major news 
organizations, including this one, cite its casualty figures constantly.

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.

Using the simplest, cheapest Internet technology available, Mr. Abdul 
Rahman spends virtually every waking minute tracking the war in Syria, 
disseminating bursts of information all day long about the fighting and 
the death toll. What began as sporadic, rudimentary e-mails about 
protests early in the uprising has swelled into a torrent of statistics 
and details.

All sides in the conflict accuse him of bias, and even he acknowledges 
that the truth can be elusive on Syria’s tangled and bitter 
battlefields. That, he says, is what prompts him to keep a tight leash 
on his operation.

“I need to control everything myself,” said Mr. Abdul Rahman, a bald, 
bearish, affable man. “I am a simple citizen from a simple family who 
has managed to accomplish something huge using simple means — all 
because I really believe in what I am doing.”

He does not work entirely 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. But he signs off on every important 
update. A fifth man translates the Arabic updates into English for the 
organization’s Facebook page.

Mr. Abdul Rahman rarely sleeps. He gets up around 5:30 a.m., calling 
Syria to awaken his team. First, they tally the previous day’s casualty 
reports and release a bulletin. Then he alternates between taking media 
calls — 10 on a slow day, 15 an hour for breaking news — and contacting 

He transmits his last e-mail around 9 p.m. and continues monitoring news 
reports and YouTube videos until at least 1 a.m. But urgent news 
developments frequently disrupt that schedule.

Recently, for example, rumors of the assassination of Col. Riad 
al-Assad, a founder of the rebel Free Syrian Army, erupted about 11 p.m. 
Mr. Abdul Rahman stayed up contacting activists near the eastern city of 
Deir al-Zour until 5 a.m. before confirming that the colonel was very 
much alive, but had lost a leg in a car bombing.

In March, when rebel forces near the Golan Heights kidnapped 21 United 
Nations peacekeepers from the Philippines, his phones rang incessantly. 
“I wanted to shatter my mobile,” said Mr. Abdul Rahman, who often sports 
a cellphone on each ear.

He said his ultimate goal was to hold accountable those responsible for 
Syria’s destruction. Focusing on human rights will eventually bring the 
country a better, democratic future, he said.

“We have to document what is going on in Syria,” he said, because each 
side is trying to “brainwash” the people to accept its version of 
events. “The country is headed toward destruction and division,” he 
added. “We have to try to preserve what hasn’t been destroyed.”

Mr. Abdul Rahman, who founded the observatory in 2008 to highlight the 
plight of activists arrested inside Syria, faces constant scrutiny over 
his numbers.

He has been called a tool of the Qatari government, the Muslim 
Brotherhood, the Central Intelligence Agency and Rifaat al-Assad, the 
exiled uncle of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, among others. The 
Syrian government and even some rebels have accused him of treachery.

“Rami’s objectivity is killing us,” said Manhal Bareesh, an activist 
from Saraqib who knew him before the war. But he and other activists in 
Syria credit him with working hard to document all the cases, and not 
hesitating to document potential war crimes.

Alexander Lukashevich, the spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, 
once described him to the state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency as a man 
with “no training in journalism nor law, nor even a complete secondary 

(In fact, he graduated from high school and studied marketing at a 
technical school.)

Mr. Abdul Rahman’s toll for the Syrian conflict just passed 62,550, 
somewhat below the United Nations figure of more than 70,000. March was 
the deadliest month yet, with 6,005 deaths, he said, more than the 
combined total of the uprising’s first nine months.

“I think our numbers are close to reality, but nobody knows the entire 
reality,” he said. “I make sure nothing is published before 
crosschecking with reliable sources to ensure that it is confirmed.”

The ultimate toll, he said, may be twice what has been documented, given 
Syria’s size, the number of skirmishes and communications problems.

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. On the telephone, for instance, 
speaking in his rapid-fire staccato style, he asked one activist to 
visit a field hospital to count the dead from an attack.

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.

Mr. Abdul Rahman has been faulted for not opening his list up for public 
access online, but the NGO world gives him mostly high marks. 
“Generally, the information on the killings of civilians is very good, 
definitely one of the best, including the details on the conditions in 
which people were supposedly killed,” said Neil Sammonds, a Mideast 
researcher for Amnesty International.

The intense workload has taxed Mr. Abdul Rahman’s family life. Amani, 6, 
his only child, springs from bed without so much as a “Good morning,” 
said his wife, Etab Rekhamea. “She asks, ‘What is the news from Syria? 
What is the news about the Nusra Front?'”

Mr. Abdul Rahman spends so much time locked upstairs in his tiny study 
that Amani figured out how to Skype him from the living room. Once when 
he agreed to a picnic, he showed up carrying his two cellphones and his 
laptop. “He has taken a second wife,” his wife said with a groan.

Mr. Abdul Rahman grew up in Baniyas, on the Syrian coast, but would not 
speak for the record about his family still there, lest that bring 
further unwanted government attention.

His exposure to politics started at age 7, he said, after his family’s 
landlord hit his sisters for sitting on the building’s roof. Neighbors 
who saw the altercation refused to testify because the landlord was an 
Alawite with a brother in military security.

Mr. Abdul Rahman owned a clothing store but secretly wrote pamphlets 
denouncing unfair privileges granted to a few while most Syrians had to 
line up for basic goods like a few rotten tomatoes. Born Osama Suleiman, 
he adopted a pseudonym during those years of activism and has used it 
publicly ever since.

When two associates were arrested in 2000 he fled the country, paying a 
human trafficker to smuggle him into England. The government resettled 
him in Coventry, where he decided he liked the slow pace. His main 
regret is having to drive 30 minutes to Birmingham for a decent Arab 

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 refuses to identify.

The war has dragged on far longer and been far more destructive than he 
ever anticipated, and for the moment, he said, his statistics are as 
much a tactic as a resource.

“The truth will make people aware,” Mr. Abdul Rahman said. “Hearing the 
number of people killed every day will make them ask the government, 
‘Where are you taking us?'”

Hala Droubi contributed reporting.

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