Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Syria: Intelligence service infiltrates every aspect of the lives of foreign visitors and locals

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Syria’s Not-So-Secret Police

By Francesca Green - The Arab Spring
Arab Spring No. 10,

To the average tourist, urban Syria - with its courtyard restaurants, sheesha bars and flower-filled parks - seems an ideal setting for social interaction, pleasant conversation and debate.

And it’s true that in recent years, Syria has emerged in the West as a fashionable destination, touted for the much-praised culture of Arab hospitality as well as its fine food and archaeological treasures.

The relative social liberality and stability of Syrian society have made the country an oasis for backpackers, European tour groups and in particular Arabic-language students - dozens of whom can be seen decorating the bars and cafes of Damascus’s Old City on any given day of the week.

But for most Syrians, even amongst the convivial setting of mosaic-tiled cafes and bustling bazaars, there remain a number of conversational minefields which must be carefully sidestepped in everyday encounters.

These entrenched taboos - what locals refer to wryly as the “forbidden trinity” of sex, religion and politics - have long defined the parameters of public discourse in Syrian society.

And while the first is being gradually corroded, it is the third proscription that is the most sensitive and, as has recently been confirmed, potentially lethal.

The bloody response by Bashar al-Assad’s regime to the recent popular rebellion has done much to shatter the tourist image of Syria as a tranquil jewel in the desert. In the space of a fortnight, the country jumped from the travel section to the international news pages of the papers, with images of brutalised protesters and mass discontent.

But to ordinary Syrians and foreigners like myself who have spent more than a few months in the country, the violent crackdown came as little surprise.

Shortly after the killings in Damascus, I found myself in an oblique discussion about the protests with a young Damascene friend on Facebook - which Syrians have been accessing through proxy servers for years, despite the ban on the social media site which was only recently lifted.

When I asked in veiled terms what people wanted from the regime, he responded, “Ha, what we want is to stay alive!” We promptly changed the subject.

I was not surprised by my friend’s reticence to broach the topic of political unrest. Even outside of times of revolutionary upheaval, there is good reason to watch your mouth in Syria. The adage that “walls have ears” is particularly relevant in a city like Damascus, almost as abundant in Roman walls as secret policeman.

With nearly 20 per cent of the population rumoured to have links to the secret services, the Syrian mukhabarat, or intelligence services, is amongst the most notorious and brutal in the region.

During the six months I lived in Damascus, I only ever heard one Syrian friend talk about national politics, referring briefly to the 1982 Hama massacre, when the army of the current president’s father quelled a revolt by the Sunni Muslim community by slaughtering an estimated 20,000 protesters.

In contrast, there seemed to be few holds on conversations about Iran, Israel or Gaza – topics which featured heavily in the lively arak-fuelled discussions of Damascus’s small bohemian sub-culture.

It was clear that it was not a lack of opinion that had silenced a generation of educated, politicised and globalised Syrians when it came to the subject of their government.

But there was noticeably little debate about the current regime of Bashar, whose portrait presides over communal spaces in households all over the country - even shabby foreign student dives like ours.

It was in our shared household of young Europeans, Syrians and Iraqis, that I was soon struck by the misnomer of “secret police” as applied to far from clandestine activities of the intelligence services which enforce the limits of free speech for the majority of Syrians.

Our designated secret policeman - every foreign-occupied home in Syrian is assigned an agent - paid almost daily visits to our home to get updates from our Iraqi caretaker, collect bribes or to apparently just pass the time of day. He was often accompanied by a coterie of suited men carrying briefcases and ordering copies of passports and documentation without feeling the need to provide the explanation or justification.

On a regular basis, I would find our agent stationed alone in the kitchen for long hours; making tea, chain-smoking, reading the newspaper, napping outside in the courtyard or apparently checking out the foreign female talent. His sense of entitlement served as a continual reminder of the power of the state, impossible to undermine with the usual cold-stares and curt “good mornings”.

The network of informers seemed to seep beyond our house, and any apparently private transgression taking place within our high walls – parties, conversations or other suggestions of impropriety – seemed to filter through our neighbours, back to the secret policeman, who would in turn come with demand for payment, information and orders to “keep the foreigners in check” from our beleaguered caretaker.

These banal, and indeed sometimes comic, encounters with the mukhabarat pale when compared to the iron rod of state control experienced daily by Syrians, and now more strongly than ever.

All of this underlines the insidious ease with which the state acquires information about the lives of ordinary Syrians. But, at the same time, they are often kept completely in the dark about what their own government is up to.

Upon hearing the BBC World Service announce Assad’s decision to sack his government recently, I got online to express my surprise at the news to a Syrian friend.

“Really? We have heard nothing about this,” he replied. “All we know is that we can’t go to work because the city is blocked by pro-government supporters.”

While Bashar al-Assad has made gestures towards easing the regime’s grip on the country, Syria remains a de-facto one-party state: the emergency rule enacted in 1963 is still in place, rigorously administered by a network of government agents engaging in arrests, unfair imprisonment and torture. It seems that fundamentally little has changed in the nature of the regime since the time of his iron-fisted father, Hafez.

During my time in Syria, I learnt of a popular joke amongst locals about the death of this former dictator. After God had sent the archangel of death to earth to summon the aging tyrant to judgement, the story goes, the messenger returned to heaven, limping and bruised after a beating by the secret police. “Oh no,” a horrified God responded, “I hope you didn’t tell them who sent you?”

Francesca Green is the pseudonym of a journalism student who has lived and studied Arabic in Damascus.