COVENTRY, England (Reuters) - Rami Abdulrahman, a Syrian shop-keeper in a bleak English city, has become for many the face of Syria’s revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. He is a lone warrior.
Thousands of miles away from home, in a small rented house in Coventry, Abdulrahman runs Syria’s most prominent activist group which has become central to the way the uprising is being reported - and understood - in the world.
With foreign observers and journalists banned from Syria, his network of more than 200 activists scattered around the nation’s most violent corners is now the most cited, and yet the most disputed, source of information on the year-long conflict.
Every day reports of death and violence trickle out of Syria through his clandestine network of anonymous contacts, from safe-houses in the rebel hotbeds of Homs and Idlib straight into Abdulrahman’s two-bedroom home in the faceless sprawl of suburban Coventry.
His group is known globally as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, yet he works almost entirely on his own, with just a handful of aides to take witness statements, cross-check data and scrutinize amateur videos from scenes of clashes.
In the lonely quiet of his study, telephone conversations with contacts on the ground are often punctuated by the sound of gunfire and explosions on the other end of the line.
“I am a simple man,” said Abdulrahman, who does not use his real name to protect his family and who sells clothes.
“I work in my office, here is my laptop, here are my phones. I don’t need many people.”
Perched in front of a computer, his eyes focused fiercely on the screen, he says he lives in a world full of enemies.
Attacks come from all sides. Assad’s government says he is lying and its powerful propaganda machine has unleashed a campaign against Abdulrahman on Syrian state television. Assad supporters have publicly threatened to kill him.
A constant feeling that Assad’s agents are probably watching, even in Britain, overshadows his work. A British citizen, Abdulrahman is bombarded by menacing emails.
“When you are attacked from many different sides that means you are on the right track,” Abdulrahman said. “When you say the truth, you have many enemies.”
But paradoxically, he is also under fire from his own camp.
Some opposition supporters accuse him of being too cautious with casualty figures. Others blame him for including Assad forces in his figures, which they say has marred their cause.
Abdulrahman, 40, says he feels confident, not least because he has the backing of international rights groups such as Amnesty International which have strongly endorsed his work as reliable. Most foreign news organizations also use his figures.
“Along with a number of other similar organizations, we exchange human rights information with Rami Abdulrahman at the Syrian Observatory on a regular basis,” said James Lynch, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa press officer.
“As a rule we find the information he provides us to be well-sourced and balanced.”
Bickering among exiled Syrian figures in Britain and elsewhere has come to symbolize wider political divisions among Syria’s fragmented opposition movement, particularly over the issue of military intervention and humanitarian aid delivery.
One of Abdulrahman’s fiercest opponents, a Syrian doctor-turned-activist named Mousab Azzawi, has set up a rival observatory in London to document violations in Syria, and has challenged Abdulrahman’s credibility. Divisions run deep, undermining efforts to unify the opposition movement.
“I agree that unifying powers of human rights activists is better,” Azzawi told Reuters. “(But) if I can’t trust my colleague ... why waste my time?”
He added: “During the course of any revolution there would be some kind of polarization. The opposition in the American civil war was not united, the French resistance against the Nazis was not united, the Libyan opposition was not united.”
Syria appears to be sliding towards civil war, making the work of human rights activists and aid workers increasingly tough. Opposition strongholds come under daily bombardment by Assad forces, and the civilian death toll is rising fast.
As the world ponders how to stop one of the most protracted and bloodiest of all the Arab revolts, the accuracy of death toll figures becomes central to the international debate on whether military intervention may be inevitable at some point.
The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died in the uprising. Its refugee agency said 230,000 people had fled their homes during the past 12 months.
As the debate rages, Abdulrahman’s own methodology has come under growing scrutiny. But with only a handful of independent reporters working on the ground in Syria, it is virtually impossible to verify any data trickling out of the country.
He has defended his accuracy strongly. A team of contacts he set up in 2006 has expanded gradually to more than 200 people, whom he describes as “fighters not by gun but by human rights”.
Abdulrahman, who moved to Britain in 2000 after serving a jail term for political activism, says it is a trusted and well trained force. He says he releases information only if it has been verified by at least two independent sources.
Communication is done over Skype, an encrypted phone service which is difficult to tap. Like in other clandestine organizations, activists do not know each other’s real names or whereabouts to protect the integrity of the structure.
International human rights bodies say they have no reason to doubt his credibility. “We have worked with Rami Abdulrahman since at least 2007 so it is not like he has come out of the blue,” said Lynch.
According to Abdulrahman’s count as of March 12, 6,403 civilians including rebels have been killed. The number for security forces is 2,370 including 443 defected servicemen.
“I don’t (release) names for anyone. It’s to protect their security,” Abdulrahman said. Six of his contacts on the ground have been killed since the start of the uprising.
Yet, his critics are relentless. One blog post on the Internet accused him of receiving funding from the British intelligence service as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Another Internet statement revealed Abdulrahman’s real name and described him as a “gentleman based in Coventry whose primary profession is installing satellite dishes”.
Some call him a propagandist seeking a prominent role in a future post-Assad government. Others have questioned his methodology itself, saying his numbers and data are inaccurate.
Russia - a staunch ally of Assad - has added fuel to the fire by describing Abdulrahman’s group as untrustworthy.
“This (group) is headed by a certain R. Abdurahman (sic) who has no training in journalism or law or even a complete secondary education,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich told state-owned RIA-Novosti news agency.
Abdulrahman has denied all accusations, including rumors about his funding. “The Syrian regime says I get money from MI6 (Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service), others say I get it from the Gulf. I don’t receive funding from anyone in the world,” he said.
“I don’t want to get money from any country ... No one gives money for nothing. I want to be independent. When you are independent you can say what you want to say.”
Abdulrahman says his biggest headache is Azzawi, a London-based consultant pathologist and an outspoken opposition figure who has campaigned for the enforcement of no-fly zones over Syria. He has denounced the Coventry group as dishonest.
Much of the feud appears to be personal but it has polarized the Syrian community in Britain, with sparks of accusations buzzing constantly between London and Coventry.
It reflects wider splits within the Syrian opposition in exile, particularly over the issue of military intervention.
The Syrian National Council, an umbrella group representing the opposition, has called for Western intervention and air strikes but many opposition figures like Abdulrahman disagree, saying Assad should be toppled by the Syrian people.
Their nerves already on edge as bloodshed intensifies in their hometowns, the row has only added to the growing sense of paranoia among the diaspora. With Assad’s grip on power still strong, many also fear infiltration by security agents.
“There are Assad supporters here too ... They are watching,” said Mohammed Bader Aden, a Syrian community member whose restaurant in London has been pelted with water bombs on several occasions. “Some people have received threats.”
Speaking to Reuters in a cafe in West London, Azzawi, who moved to Britain in 2008, denounced Abdulrahman’s work passionately, saying that the fact his Coventry rival does not publish victims’ names has raised suspicions.
“If I report (only) numbers, ... then I am not giving you a chance to challenge me in the future,” said Azzawi.
Asked to explain the nature of the row, he appeared vague. “I don’t want the issue of the Syrian uprising to be (undermined) by internal disputes,” he said.
Azzawi’s group says it has more than 200 activists on the ground. Its total death toll is roughly the same. It has set up a rival website with a similar name. It does not have the same prominence as Abdulrahman’s Observatory and is less quoted.
And most painful of all for Abdulrahman, his family, wary or suspicious of his work, has turned against him.
“All my family stopped talking with me. My mother is not talking to me anymore,” he said, rubbing his bloodshot eyes.
Visibly exhausted, an assortment of mobile phones ringing constantly on his desk, Abdulrahman said many in his home town of Banias were scared and brainwashed by state propaganda.
“My brother has spoken against me on Syrian television. Another brother who lives here in the same city (Coventry) is scared to visit me in my home,” he said, adding that only his 88-year-old father has endorsed and supported his work.
He paused, glanced at the tightly drawn curtains of his study, and added: “At the end of the day I am happy because I think I am doing a good job for the Syrian people. So when you die, you know you did something good in your life.”
Writing By Maria Golovnina, editing by Peter Millership