On Tuesday, the top story on Middle East Eye was particularly attention-grabbing. Under its sensational title, “‘Raped below a picture of Assad’: Women describe abuse at hands of Syrian forces,” the article focused on a recently released report from a hitherto-unknown, Turkey-based NGO called Lawyers and Doctors for Human Rights (LDHR).
The report, which is LDHR’s first, centers on the testimony of eight anonymous women who were allegedly subjected to repeated rapes and torture at the hands of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). While the stories contained within the report are harrowing, questions regarding how the report was funded, the time it took to create, and the LDHR’s connections to other individuals and organizations are cause for concern.
Titled “Voices from the Dark: Torture and Sexual Violence against Women in Syrian Government’s Detention Centres,” the report consists of the eight anonymous testimonies referred to above — which, according to the LDHR website, took five years to put together. Interestingly, over that long period of time and of the “tens of thousands of Syrians” the LDHR say have been detained in such centers, this NGO managed to gather testimonies from only eight individuals, despite its assertion that the phenomenon is widespread.
LDHR also claims to have based its report on “expert medical documentation of torture and sexual violence in Syria,” yet the report itself includes no such documentation, only testimonials. Furthermore, the report appears to have been funded by a single donor, who is graciously thanked for funding the report but is left unnamed.
Though the LDHR states that this report was a labor of five years, the NGO behind it has existed for only a matter of months, as LDHR first launched its website and social media accounts on July 13 of this year. Based in Gaziantep, Turkey – an hour’s drive from the Syria-Turkey border – LDHR’s website boasts several partnerships with other NGOs, primarily active in “rebel”-held areas of Syria, such as UOSSM and the Adaleh Foundation.
The most prominent of LDHR’s partners is a group called for Synergy for Justice, which contributed to their recent report. Synergy for Justice is a London-based NGO with only five employees and no website. One of those employees, Ingrid Elliott, has been deployed to countries surrounding Syria (e.g., Turkey) numerous times since 2013 to “train, mentor and support a network of expert medical documenters (teams of doctors and lawyers) who prepare expert reports on cases of torture and sexual violence committed during the Syrian conflict.”
Her trips to these countries have been entirely funded by the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO). The minister of the FCO, Boris Johnson, as well as the U.K. government in general, has long been vocal in his support for military intervention and his desire to see a premature end to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s term.
Given Dr. Elliott’s connections to Synergy for Justice and LDHR, it is highly likely that she personally trained the “medical experts” who collected the testimonials for the recently released report. Dr. Elliott’s Twitter account shows that her personal views regarding the Syrian conflict are very much in line with those of the U.K. FCO. Rarely tweeting herself, she frequently retweets such pro-regime-change accounts as an account associated with the Free Syrian Army, the official account of the al-Qaeda-linked White Helmets, and that of the U.K.’s special representative to Syria, Gareth Bayley.
LDHR operational only in “rebel”-controlled territory
Synergy of Justice is not the only U.K. connection linked to LDHR. According to the Middle East Eye article covering the report, the London-based international law firm Guernica 37 “is offering legal support to LDHR on the cases” detailed in the report. Those who have been following the propaganda constructs surrounding the Syrian conflict for some time may remember Guernica 37 for having launched a criminal complaint against nine members of the Syrian security forces in a Spanish national court earlier this year. The case was largely built upon the infamous “Caesar” report.
The “Caesar” report was compiled by an alleged defector of the Syrian Army who went by the pseudonym “Caesar.” It purported to contain photographic evidence of Assad’s cruelty against his own people as well as institutional torture programs run by the Syrian government. It was released just two days before negotiations regarding the Syrian conflict. Once the report was released to the public, several observers noted that most of the photos showed the opposite of its allegations and also noted several other major issues with the “Caesar” report, among them clear signs of CIA involvement.
Though the aforementioned connections between LDHR and the U.K. government, as well as the incongruities of the LDHR itself and its report, are enough to raise concern, the most troubling aspect of LDHR is that it operates exclusively in areas of Northern Syria that are under control of the Syrian “opposition.” According to the LDHR website, the only outreach it conducts as an NGO is through its training courses. All training courses listed on the LDHR website, including one on “human rights principles,” “take place in opposition-held areas in Northern Syria and some governorates in Turkey.
Most of Northern Syria under “opposition” control is within the Idlib province, an area even mainstream media outlets such as the Washington Post have acknowledged is dominated by al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, al-Nusra Front, now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Idlib has been the site of numerous atrocities targeting civilians, which were conducted by the very opposition groups controlling the areas of Syria where LDHR operates — including the April massacre of an estimated 126 Syrian civilians who were attempting to leave “rebel”-held territory.
LDHR’s blind eye to inconvenient atrocities
Given the LDHR’s proclaimed commitment to human rights, it is highly unusual that they would choose to offer training courses only in areas overrun by al-Nusra terrorists. Though the LDHR report does detail heinous – albeit unverifiable and unconfirmed – acts, the atrocities committed by al-Nusra and other members of the Syrian “opposition” are very well-documented.
For instance, numerous Christians fleeing “opposition”-occupied areas of Northern Syria have recounted chilling instances of kidnapping, rape and executions — carried out not only by groups such as al-Nusra but also by Western-backed groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Christians and other religious minorities have been specifically targeted by the “opposition” for being seen as pro-Assad and, in some cases, for not subscribing to the extremist Wahhabist beliefs of the “moderate opposition.”
Other groups — such as the Western-backed Ahrar al-Sham, which is very active in Idlib — have gained a reputation for slaughtering Alawites. On one raid on an Alawite village in May of 2016, Ahrar al-Sham killed 19 civilians, abducted 120 others, and posted a video to YouTube of them celebrating over the body of a bloodied woman sprawled across the floor. Other images posted on social media shows Ahrar al-Sham fighters standing above numerous female corpses. Despite the documented evidence showing the group’s penchant for kidnapping, murder, and sexual violence, the U.S. State Department refused to renounce its support of the group.
For those living under opposition rule, things are so grim that it begs the question how an organization claiming to champion human rights for all could exempt from its scrutiny and concern the violations occurring routinely in these areas. According to Aleppo residents who lived under opposition rule into late last year, when the Syrian government retook the city, the situation was at complete odds with what many Western media outlets had reported at the time. Journalist Eva Bartlett, who recently spoke to numerous Aleppo residents, found that the so-called “moderate rebels” had hoarded food and medicine, occupied hospitals and schools, and subjected residents to an extreme interpretation of Sharia law — sentencing many to jail-time in underground prisons or to execution.
Reports of atrocities driven by geopolitical agenda
LDHR is not the first “NGO” to accuse the Syrian army and government of torture and other atrocities. But previous accusations came almost exclusively from a group called “Women Under Siege,” which relies on unverified, hearsay reports as “evidence” of atrocities allegedly carried out by the Assad regime. The collected reports are clearly biased as they, for example, report 14 cases of the Syrian Army enslaving women for sexualized violence while reporting only one such case of Daesh (ISIS) doing the same — despite the fact that the terror group is well-known to have a policy of enslaving women for sexual purposes.
Women Under Siege is a project funded by the U.S.-based Women’s Media Center (WMC), an organization founded by former CIA asset Gloria Steinem. The parent organization of WMC is the Ms Foundation which is chiefly funded by the Soros-funded Open Society Foundations, Google, and the Ford Foundation – a “philanthropy” organization that has long funded the controversial Bilderberg conferences and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). All three of these groups have been tied to regime-change efforts in Syria.
Other accounts of torture programs and repeated rapes carried out by the Syrian Army have come from other discredited groups such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights or the White Helmets. Still, others are written by opposition figures themselves and present no evidence. These accounts have been published by groups such as the Atlantic Council, an organization partnered with NATO and funded by Wall Street and the world’s largest weapons manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing. Its current advisors include James Clapper, Larry Summers, Chuck Hagel and Rupert Murdoch.
Reviving a flagging humanitarian pretext for war
Though painting the Syrian government as rapists and terrorists — while attempting to whitewash the crimes of the “rebels” — has long been a strategy of those countries and entities supporting regime change in Syria, it has failed to generate the outrage that these groups seek to manufacture in support of a foreign military intervention.
Now, however, another concerted attempt to demonize the Syrian government and make yet another push for intervention is underway, likely in response to the recognition that the U.S. and some other Western governments have shifted their focus away from Syria. Thus, the painting of Assad as a “dictator” who “butchers” his own people and condones torture once again becomes necessary. This time around, new narratives are even being spun which attempt to link the North Korean and Syrian governments in a new “axis of evil.”
This is largely happening because some countries — driven by their vested interest in Syrian regime change and their investments in the terrorist-linked opposition — are simply unwilling to let Syria be. Chief among these countries is Israel, which recently threatened to assassinate Assad were Iran’s involvement in aiding Syria to reach levels considered “excessive” by Tel Aviv.
Israel, in other words, is willing to militarily escalate the Syrian conflict — and turn it into a much larger, potentially global war — rather than let the Syrian government reassert control over its own nation by pushing out foreign-funded terrorist militias. Given that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton essentially admitted in a leaked email that the U.S. was involved in overthrowing the Syrian regime because it was “the best way to help Israel,” it seems likely that U.S. involvement in Syria may soon pick up again.
But first, the “humanitarian” pretext for war must be given to the public — and new NGOs must created to gin up new, false narratives demonizing the Syrian government. Though LDHR is the latest example of such an effort, it is unlikely to be the last.
Top photo: A screenshot of the cover-page of “Voices from the Dark: Torture and Sexual Violence against Women in Syrian Government’s Detention Centres” by LDHR. The report, which relies solely on anonymous testimony from 8 women, is littered with dramatic stock imagery and contains no photographic evidence.