On October 27, someone posted a shaky YouTube video of a group of camouflaged men dropping a makeshift bomb out of a helicopter in the general direction of a Syrian town.
It looked like an indiscriminate attack on a civilian target — a likely violation of the laws of war. But the video didn’t identify the village, making the incident impossible to verify.
That’s where the U.S.-based international human rights organization Human Rights Watch came in. Within days the group’s experts believed they had figured out exactly where the bomb hit and dispatched sources to search for survivors of the attack.
For HRW, the yearlong rebellion and brutal repression in Syria have meant a marked shift in its allocation of resources. Long accused of focusing disproportionately on Israel in its Middle East work, the group has been reporting intensively on Syria amid notoriously difficult conditions. In doing so, HRW has emerged as a key source of information about the bloody realities of the civil war there.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa division, says that the focus on Syria has meant an accompanying relative shift away from Israel and Palestinian territories.
“Since Israel was involved in a war in Lebanon and a war in Gaza, of course it got a lot of attention,” Whitson said. As the group’s area manager, Whitson says, she now struggles to keep the work that the organization continues to do outside Syria from getting buried. Before the uprising, Syria “was such a moribund place, we couldn’t generate news…. The reality is, for us to report we needed to be documenting active measures of repression or active measures of abuse.”
If the group is expecting acknowledgement of its even-handedness from pro-Israel critics now, it could be left waiting.
“If that’s their methodology when dealing with us, when dealing with Israel, then how can I trust their methodology on anything else?” said Gerald Steinberg, executive director of NGO Monitor, an advocacy group that is highly critical of HRW. “For 10 years they had almost no serious reporting on Syria,” Steinberg said. “I think we would be in no different position if Human Rights Watch didn’t exist in terms of the knowledge” of rights abuses in Syria.
Founded in 1978, HRW originally focused, in large part, on the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries in Eastern Europe. As it has expanded its purview to include the Middle East and other regions, its critics have come to include HRW co-founder Robert Bernstein. In 2009, Bernstein, a prominent publisher, publicly split with the group, saying it had focused too much energy on criticizing Israel.
Now, the ongoing civil war in Syria has brought it bitter rebuttals from the Syrian regime. The government has allowed very few journalists to enter the country legally — a stance adopted by many countries engaged in conflict with populations under their rule, including Israel during the Gaza hostilities of 2008 to 2009. A handful of Western journalists, including Anthony Shadid and Marie Colvin, were fatal casualties of their reporting on the Syrian conflict.Newspaper articles about Syria are often bylined from Beirut and Abu Dhabi. That’s not kept HRW from issuing scores of reports since the uprising began last spring.
In recent months, the organization’s output has included reports on the use of illegal cluster bombs by government forces, reports on torture at government detention facilities and reports on summary executions by the Syrian army and pro-government militias.
The helicopter footage hasn’t yet resulted in a report, but it soon could. The video, shot on a cell phone, is grainy and vague. There’s a door gun, a quick view of light-brown countryside, then two men with crew cuts smoking. A long canister lies between them. One man seems to light a fuse on the canister with the end of his cigarette, then quickly shoves it out the side door of the helicopter. The soldiers watch it fall toward a town below.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@nathankazis
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.