On November 24, with the devastating assault on rebel-held eastern Aleppo in full-swing, the Russian embassy to the United Kingdom tweeted:
Accompanying the text was a photograph showing IS fighters. IS has no presence in Aleppo and is opposed by rebel groups in the city.
The Twitter handle mentioned here is that of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a London-based operation that collects reports from the Syrian civil war and is regularly cited by Western news agencies.
The statement came as a surprise to many observers of the war, as the SOHR has made no mention of “human shields” being used by rebel fighters in Aleppo in any of their news bulletins, which are posted on their website in both English and Arabic.
Polygraph.info spoke to the SOHR, who informed us that they had never accused rebel forces in Aleppo of using human shields as a tactic, explicitly rejecting the Russian embassy’s assertion.
It appears, given the timing of the tweet, that the embassy distorted reports given to several news agencies by the SOHR on November 23 and 24.
In comments to Agence France-Presse and The Times, the SOHR reported that civilians had been prevented from passing from rebel-held territory into the Kurdish YPG-controlled Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood in northern Aleppo.
From The Times:
“On Tuesday night around 100 families gathered near a passage from the [rebel-held] Bustan al-Basha district to cross to Sheikh Maqsood,” Rami Abdel Rahman, the SOHR’s director, said. “But when the civilians tried to cross to the other side gunfire broke out.” The rebels, he said, were behind the attack.
The Times report also cites a Sheikh Maqsood resident, Hajj Mohammed al-Jasim, whose uncle’s family attempted to make the crossing:
“They’ve wanted to cross for a while because the circumstances have become very difficult,” Jasim said.
He added that his relatives were advised by three rebel groups to wait until dark. “Then in the evening, [the rebels] began to fire at the crossing,” Jasim said. About 50 families were waiting to cross.
On November 25, SOHR told AFP that, while four children had been able to flee into Sheikh Maqsood that day, rebel fighters had “prevented ‘dozens of families’ from [neighboring] Bustan al-Pasha from leaving.”
It is worth noting that on November 23, the SOHR published a news report describing “clashes between rebels and YPG around Sheikh Maqsood.”
However, the SOHR told Polygraph.info that civilians had been able to leave rebel-held areas of Aleppo at other crossing points during this time period.
Furthermore, the SOHR told us that “thousands” of civilians had subsequently either fled willingly into regime-held territory, or remained in areas seized by the regime from rebel fighters.
Failure to allow civilians to cross the front line in one, fiercely contested neighborhood, does not, according to the SOHR, equate with the use of human shields.