Human Rights Watch Shifts Focus to Syria

Shifting From Israel, Groups Become Key Information Source

Broken City: The streets of the northern city of Aleppo have been decimated by battles between government troops and rebel fighters.
Getty Images
Broken City: The streets of the northern city of Aleppo have been decimated by battles between government troops and rebel fighters.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 06, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 3 of 3)

After discovering the video, HRW’s Syria researchers passed it along to their satellite imagery expert. By matching stills from the video with satellite photos, the analyst identified the bombed town within days. It’s called al Dabaa, HRW says, a village just north of Al-Qusayr, a rebel-held city that has been the site of heavy fighting in recent months. HRW is now asking its Syrian contacts to visit al Dabaa to determine whether anyone was killed in the strike.

In interviews with the Forward, HRW officials described the methods by which the organization has continued to obtain information from inside Syria as conditions have worsened. Those methods include covert visits to Syria by HRW researchers, interviews with refugees outside the country and contacts with sources inside.

Traveling inside Syria involves serious risks. In August, HRW researchers Anna Neistat and Ole Solvang were visiting a hospital in the rebel-held city of Aleppo when rockets fired from government aircraft flattened a house two buildings over, killing residents. The hospital itself had been bombed by government jets days earlier in a clear violation of the laws of war. “We think they might have been aiming at the hospital,” Solvang told the Forward.

Neistat, a lawyer who has worked as a journalist in Russia, wears a hijab when inside Syria to try to blend in. Solvang, who holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University, is Swedish. “To some extent, they tried to dress me up,” he said. “I had a couple of people who told me I looked exactly like their Syrian cousin, but I wasn’t quite convinced.”

The two take extensive security precautions in the country, encrypting digital information they carry and trying to transcribe and destroy written notes as quickly as possible. That is partly to protect the researchers, but mostly to protect the sources who cooperate with them.

Those sources have been cultivated over many years. “We’ve been working on Syria for so long; I’d been doing it for six years when the uprising started,” said Nadim Houry, HRW’s Beirut-based deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division. “We already had contacts with quite a few activists and had been able to establish trust and assess accountability over a few years.”

Whatever the risks run by Neistat and Solvang and other HRW staffers who come into and go out of Syria relatively quickly, they’re minimal compared with those faced by some of the in-country sources.

“They want to get their story out,” Houry said. “They realize that by talking to us, the victims in their region, their area, will get a lot more attention.”

That attention can come quickly. Houry said that sources had been describing cluster bombings in conversations for some time, leading the group to ask for videos of the bombs. The videos HRW eventually obtained, refuted the Syrian government’s denials that it was using the banned munitions. The videos’ release led to wire stories reprinted around the globe.

“We’re definitely not cowboys,” Houry said. Still, he said, “There’s no zero risk in this job, and definitely no zero risk in a place like Syria.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or on Twitter@nathankazis


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.