x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syrian activist in Britain keeps grim toll of civil war

Founder of Syrian Observatory for Human Rights criticises the 'hypocrisy' of the international community in focusing on chemical weapons and overlooking the 'endless bloodbath' in Syria.

TFounder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman operates from the English city of Coventry. Leon Neal / AFP
TFounder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman operates from the English city of Coventry. Leon Neal / AFP

LONDON // The founder of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, rages at the “hypocrisy” of the international community in focusing on chemical weapons and overlooking the “endless bloodbath” in war-ravaged Syria.

Day after day, from a base in the drab English city of Coventry, the exiled Mr Rahman and his volunteers have counted the human toll of Syria’s civil war since the conflict erupted in March 2011.

“In Syria, out of more than 120,000 people killed, 500 were killed with chemical weapons. Are these more horrendous deaths than the others?” Mr Rahman said in an interview in London.

Mr Rahman, who is in his forties and wears a dark suit, gestures feverishly with his hands to show his disgust at the situation.

“Nothing has changed at all. The clashes continue. Blood continues to be spilled and the intensity of the conflict increases,” he says, speaking in Arabic through a translator.

President Bashar Al Assad last month offered to give up Syria’s chemical weapons in a Russian-brokered deal aimed at staving off a possible Western military strike.

But Mr Rahman says that according to his figures the conflict is still killing 4,000 to 5,000 people a month.

The Observatory’s gruesome tally is followed by all major international news organisations and by foreign governments.

“The regime commits dozens of atrocities every day,” says Mr Rahman, but he adds that the other side is also responsible for war crimes, as Al Qaeda-affiliated groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the Al Nusra front try to establish an “alternative dictatorship”.

From dawn until late at night, Mr Rahman is glued to the telephone. When there is a major incident he will deal with two calls at the same time, a phone to each ear.

The former businessman was born in Baniyas to a Sunni family. He was locked up three times by the Assad regime for links to Amnesty International before he finally fled in 2000. He set up the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in 2006.

He says the organisation has “230 activists within its structure. Teachers, lawyers, doctors, journalists, as well as news provided by more than 5,000 people across the country.”

They include officials from the Assad regime, soldiers, rebels and Islamist militants, he says. Six of them have already been killed.

The Observatory has to sift the facts from propaganda and disinformation. Accuracy is vital, given accusations from some quarters that the group is, variously, a Qatari mouthpiece, an agent of Western powers and a part of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Our only agenda is defending human rights and reaching a democratic state,” Mr Rahman says.

He says they have to be as accurate as possible in compiling the details of the violence, whether it is a deadly blast in southern Deraa province, a rebel assault on Aleppo’s central jail, fights between rebel groups, the burning of Catholic churches or the destruction of a statue deemed idolatrous by the Islamists.

With his work for the Observatory taking up most of his time, he has left his day job of running a clothes shop to his wife. His family life has also suffered.

“I don’t have time for my daughter, who is seven,” he says.

“Since I was young, I have always dreamed of democracy and freedom from oppression. Hopefully one day I will see that.”

But the immediate future is bleak, he says.

*Agence France-Presse