Fritz Streiff: For the time being, we've left Khaled al-Halabi, the Syrian Brigadier General, allegedly guilty of serious crimes against humanity, in a hotel room in Austria in 2015. Now let's go back in time. Back to Syria. To the year 2000. It's the turn of the millennium and the country is going through a moment of transition.
This is The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General. I'm your host, Fritz Streiff, and this is Episode Two. Just a Cup of Coffee. Please be aware that this episode contains a description of torture. Please take care while listening.
Leila al-Shami: The year 2000 was the time when the former president, Hafez al-Assad, died and his son inherited the dictatorship, Bashar, who is the current president.
Fritz Streiff: Leila al-Shami is a British-Syrian human rights activist.
Leila al-Shami: I moved to Syria in 2000, which was primarily to get to know my family, get to know the country where my father's from. Find out more about my heritage. The reason it was the year 2000 was my father was a communist. He was a former political prisoner in Syria. So that was a period when there was an opening and many exiles were returning to Syria from abroad.
Fritz Streiff: After seizing power in a coup in 1970, Hafez al Assad's rule had effectively turned Syria into a police state. Only one political party was allowed, the Ba’ath Party and one family was in charge - the Assads. An emergency reform had suspended the constitutional rights of all Syrians and greatly empowered the security forces. These intelligence services kept a tight control over the civilian population, using fear and the threat and actual use of violence to ensure any inkling of internal political dissent was squashed.
Rashid Satouf: I'm Rashid Satouf and I was born in 1958 in Ar-Raqqa. I became a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Labour Party in 1982. By 1984, the security services were out to arrest me and I was being followed. I hid under a pseudonym and forged my papers until April 1987, when I was arrested in Al-Hijaz Café in Damascus. I was taken to the Palestine branch.
Fritz Streiff: Palestine Branch, or Branch 235, as one of the oldest branches in the Syrian intelligence services. It's in Damascus, the capital of Syria, and belongs to the military intelligence division, one of the sections of the Syrian intelligence services.
Rashid Satouf: Colonel Mazhar Faris with the head of the branch. He contributed personally to my torture. He was a short man with a belly, and he would jump on my chest. He broke many of my ribs. I would be handcuffed and naked, and I was transferred to hospital twice in a coma.
I was sentenced to 15 years. I spent five of them in Tadmor prison and ten years in Saydnaya prison.
Leila al-Shami: Many of those people from my father's generation ended up in prison, never to be seen again. Every family had stories of people who had disappeared into the regime's detention centres, stories of horrific torture that cumulated in the massacre of Hama, where estimates of some 20 to 40,000 people were killed, when Hafez al-Assad sent his air force to crush an uprising there. So for me, the Syrian state, the Assad estate has always meant violence and repression.
Fritz Streiff: Whilst under no illusion that the Assad dictatorship would continue under Hafez al-Assad's son Bashar, many Syrians had hoped that with this new president, there would be an easing of the violent oppression and an acceptance of opposition thought.
Leila al-Shami: Bashar was initially seen as a reformer. So it was a period of hope at that time. People thought that he was a moderniser. Certainly in his inauguration speech, he gave indications that he would open up the country. We later came to learn that that was more on the economic level, not on the political level. So exiles were returning. There was the formation of some small civil society organisations for the first time in years, and I was part of that movement at that time.
Fritz Streiff: This period came to be known as the Damascus Spring. Rashid Satouf was still in prison as the dictatorship transferred from Assad father to Assad son. But as part of the apparent political opening, some political prisoners began to be released.
Rashid Satouf: The first time that leftist detainees were released was in the year 2000. All of our friends were released except for us - the eight or nine of us who made up the Central Committee of the Communist Party. We remained in prison until 2001. At the end of 2001, they took us to an interrogation branch and there was a security committee there made up of people like Hisham Bekhtyar.
When I first walked in, Hisham Bekhtyar was speaking. He was going on about the changes that the country was undergoing and that we would be able to see. I told him that I still saw this regime as tyrannical, corrupt and unlawful. I remember that he laughed at me and he told me something I remember to this day. He said that you will go out and see for yourself that we no longer view any opposition as blasphemy. I was released at the end of 2001.
Fritz Streiff: While some prisoners like Rashid were released, and it seemed as if some opposition groups were being tolerated, Bashar was not the liberal reformer many Syrians had hoped for. It became clear very quickly that Syria was going to be run as it had been before - with one ruling family, one ruling party, and a strict intolerance of any kind of dissident thought applied.
Rashid Satouf: Unfortunately, nothing actually changed within the structure of the regime. This was just the regime's attempt at improving appearances. Security forces were still the essential force of the regime and the mastermind behind everything.
Leila al-Shami: The Damascus Spring didn't last very long. It lasted about a year. I think in Autumn, the following year, many of the key leaders of that movement had been arrested and imprisoned, including many of my colleagues and people I was working with. I was very young when I moved to Syria and very naive. I didn't really understand the context very well when I first started working, and it was over time that it became apparent actually how dangerous this work was, how many of my colleagues were ending up in prison. I always felt somewhat protected by my British passport. But things got increasingly dangerous for me. I mean, I was being followed a lot. I felt the pressure, and that's mainly the reason why I left.
Fritz Streiff: So where was Halabi in all of this? Khaled al-Halabi had chosen a military path for himself, graduating from the Syrian Military Academy in Homs in 1984. He later earned a law degree from the University of Damascus in 2000, and in 2001, as the short lived Damascus spring was under way, he was transferred out of the military and into the intelligence services. He first worked for the General Intelligence Directorate in Damascus. It's worth noting here the intelligence services in Syria are divided into four sectors.
Steve Kostas: The four are Military Intelligence, Air Force Intelligence, Political Security and State Security or General Intelligence.
Fritz Streiff: Steve Kostas is a lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Steve Kostas: The State Security or General Intelligence Directorate, they're the same, different names. And general intelligence, as I understand it, was carrying out intelligence activities within Syria, for the most part about the political parties, the state employees, and coordinating with the other intelligence agencies. For the General Intelligence Directorate, there are something like 11 branches in Damascus and 14 branches in the governorates, or 14 regional branches. And the 11 branches in Damascus, some have specialised functions, so some are engaged in espionage and other things like that. And I believe that Halabi is reputed to have worked initially at the espionage branch in Damascus. Then he was at some point made the head of the Tartous branch of the General Intelligence Directorate. So it's an area of Syria that's very close to Lebanon. It's known as a very Alawite part of Syria. So very sort of close to the regime.
Fritz Streiff: The Alawites are a religious sect who form a minority in Syria, around 18% of the population. The Assad family are Alawites, and they have often placed others from the Alawite sect in high ranking positions within the regime structure and intelligence services. Despite holding the high ranking position of head of an intelligence branch, Halabi is not an Alawite. He is a Druze, an even smaller religious minority in Syria than the Alawites. It's difficult to get accurate statistics, but the Druze form around 3% of Syria's population. Halabi’s roots are in the town of Suweida. As a writer and journalist, Kenan Khadaj’s.
Kenan Khadaj: Suweida is a city just 100 kilometres to the south of Damascus. It's a small city, actually, demographically it’s very different from the rest of Syria, because it's the only city that's mostly populated by minorities. It's 90% Druze and 5% to 6% Christians.
Fritz Streiff: But does Halabi being a Druze, give us any insight into his personality or what kind of man and intelligence officer he was?
Kenan Khadaj: We are known to be stubborn. Druze are known to be stubborn in Syria. Druze are known to be more of an isolated group. They have been always living in mountains and somehow they are an agricultural based group. They are reliant on themselves. The regime depicts themselves as a protector of minorities in Syria, but actually they need the minorities to protect themselves. They only exist because of the minorities.
Fritz Streiff: Could Halabi have been loyal to the regime because he saw them as exactly this, as the protector of Syrian minorities such as himself? Is it unusual that as a Druze, Halabi was in a high position inside the intelligence services, a position that might usually have gone to an Alawite? We can only really speculate the answers to these questions. So how much attention should we really pay to the fact that Halabi is a Druze? Bill Wiley is the executive director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, also known as CIJA. Bill has been investigating war crimes for nearly 30 years. He believes the sectarian narrative shouldn't be overemphasised.
Bill Wiley: The regime hammers anyone who opposes it. I know there's a belief in some parts of the opposition of the diaspora from Syria that the regime is harder on Sunni. We have in CIJA a decade and more expertise dealing with this, the regime hammers anyone who opposes it or is believed correctly or otherwise to be a threat to it. The regime is a power political structure. It is not a sectarian structure. It is dominated by Shia, in particular by Alawites. But anyone loyal to that regime has a place in that regime.
Fritz Streiff: In 2009, after two years as Head of the General Intelligence Branch in Tartous, Halabi became Head of General Intelligence Branch 335 in Raqqa, also known as State Security Branch 335. Remember, they mean the same thing. Raqqa is a city in the northeast of Syria, the same city Rashid Satouf is from.
Rashid Satouf: Raqqa is located in the northeast of Syria. It's where the Euphrates Valley lies and there is a lot of wheat, cotton and petroleum. It is one of the richest Syrian areas in terms of resources, but it was an area that was kind of forgotten about.
Fritz Streiff: Lab technician Muhammad was born in Raqqa in 1981.
Muhammad VO: Raqqa is a relatively small city. Before 2011, the population was less than 1 million. The people of Raqqa are known for their kindness and their willingness to help others. There is a saying that we love strangers, and when a stranger comes to Raqqa, they receive a warm welcome and support from the people. We say that whoever experiences the waters of the Euphrates River feels a lasting connection to it. Everyone in Raqqa knows each other, as Raqqa is a tribal area, there has always been a network of connections and relationships that exists within and between clans.
Abdallah: My name is Abdallah, I am from Raqqa City. I born in Raqqa city. And I love this beautiful place.
Fritz Streiff: Tell us about the Raqqa. What kind of place did Raqqa used to be like, geographically, culturally, socially?
Abdallah: Raqqa is like a small city. Raqqa is like, quiet place, open people, simple. It's a good place to live. I can't express a lot about that. But you have to visit first and then we'll talk about it. At that time that the government, they don't care about the city.
Fritz Streiff: What do you mean they don't care?
Adallah: They just get what they want from the city. They don't give any service. The TV, the satellite, they don't allow us to use the satellite before. It's illegal. And the intelligence they cut you, they put you in the jail. And there is a lot of special rules for the northeast. They run the northeast by the military generals, intelligence. In Raqqa, there was a guy called Colonel Aziz. Most of the people they is like scared from them till now, just hearing his name.
Fritz Streiff: His move to be in charge of General Intelligence in Raqqa, how should we see that in terms of the power politics internally in Syria at the time? So we're talking about before the uprising started. Is that a promotion? Is that a demotion? Is that a sidelining?
Bill Wiley: We have some information that al-Halabi hated Raqqa. Raqqa is a conservative part of the country. Outside the city, it's sparsely populated. Al-Halabi likes drinking, a bit of a party, is our understanding. Raqqa is not the place for that. The selection of nightclubs and whatnot would be quite limited. I don't know. I was never in Raqqa before the war, but I'm guessing because there wasn't demand for that. So he didn't move his family there. Is it a demotion? I don't think so. It's a serious post. First of all, he's promoted to Brigadier anyway. Brigadier Generals are a dime a dozen in the Syrian Arab Army. You can make him Brigadier General and in charge of nothing in Damascus. So you would not put someone in that post who was not trusted to look after the security interests of the regime.
Fritz Streiff: During that time before the revolution, the years before, did you know who Khaled al-Halabi was? Had you heard this name before?
Abdallah: Yes, actually, the head of all the branches, the intelligence branches, you know all of them. Even you know the officers under them. You know Khaled al-Halami, you know Colonel Jasem, the Head of the Political Branch you know all of them. You know them from their cars. You know, these Mercedes and Jeeps, you know, so we know them.
Fritz Streiff: You can see them.
Abdallah: You can see them, but you can't even look to their eyes at all.
Fritz Streiff: Steve Kostas.
Steve Kostas: So he was the head of the entire governorate and there was a main site in the town of Raqqa. And then there were, I think, at least five external branches in other towns. So he oversaw all of that.
Fritz Streiff: But there are some who lessen the significance of Halabi’s particular position and branch.
Thaer Dandoush VO: I am Thaer Dandoush, a civil activist and a schoolteacher from Raqqa governorate. Khaled al-Halabi did not really have a presence in Raqqa like the dominant figures in the Military Security or Air Force intelligence had. These agencies had much more control and influence, whereas State Security had a more limited role. Individuals from the political security division, to be honest, have more of a criminal reputation. They are known to be oppressive and authoritarian figures, extortionists too. Khaled al-Halabi was not among the prominent figures known in the Raqqa region.
Kenan Khadaj: The head of a Branch in a city is very important. But let's keep in mind it's one of several branches of the secret service, and it's Raqqa, which is a remote city, that was considered not as important as being a general in Homs or another city.
Fritz Streiff: Kenan Khadaj.
Kenan Khadaj: My father is a mathematician and in the seventies he was a communist and he was very politically active. My uncles were all in different parties in the left wing, and he spent his whole life being active against the regime. So as a young child, I was somehow aware how brutal this regime is, how dangerous it is. But I'm aware also that you shouldn't talk. My uncles, just disappeared because they only talked, they didn't do anything more than talking. And this joke or this lame joke that it's always said in Syria, they will invite you for a cup of coffee, and this cup of coffee could be 20 years.
Fritz Streiff: It may be a joke, but this is somewhat revealing about how certain intelligence officers like to portray themselves. The friendly persona that some of them like to present to those that they were detaining and interrogating, perhaps in an attempt to come across as more human. It seems Rashid Satouf got exactly this impression from Halabi.
Rashid Satouf: One day, I got a house visit from an assistant who worked at the State Security Branch. Khaled al-Halabi was fairly new to town.
He told me that the head of the Branch wanted to meet me. He told me it would be just an introduction, that he wanted to get to know the political figures in town. I told him I would not go to the Security Branch and he left. A week later, he came back and told me that the man in charge is insisting. He informed me that it would be casual and there was no problem with me at present. He left only to come back a third time. I felt that I did not need to make matters worse or to make an enemy out of someone I did not know. So I finally agreed to go and see what he wanted.
This was my first meeting with Khaled al-Halabi. He was very polite. I remember he had a very long desk, but he got up from behind it and met me halfway across his office. He shook my hand and did not return to his desk chair, but rather sat in the chair opposite me. He introduced himself to me. He said he is from Suweida. He talked briefly about his social status and personal history and about how he really respects the peaceful opposition, that he sees this opposition as necessary for any state. He said that if security decisions were up to him, he would not hinder any political figure working in a peaceful way. On the contrary, he would make room for political forces in parties. I told him my viewpoints and my position regarding the regime, how nothing has changed, and how the regime makes empty promises. That was our meeting. I mainly talked about the regime's corruption and the increasing suffering of the people.
Fritz Streiff: Was Halabi perhaps not as loyal to the regime as his position might have you think? Kenan has also heard that Halabi did not come across as a monster.
Kenan Khadaj: As I heard from very different sources, he was a very smart, intellectual, polite, and he was not the one who was using a lot of violence in interrogation. I also heard that from some colleagues of him from the Army, and I heard also from people from Raqqa, other prisoners that have claimed that he was somehow polite.
Fritz Streiff: What did people say about him? Like, did he have a reputation?
Abdallah: Most of them, when you go to sit with them in person, they will tell you stories about saving the country and they are being nice to you. When you go out, they will follow you. Exactly from the same moment.
Fritz Streiff: Double face.
Abdallah: Double faces, all of them. It's like this. As example I have friend, they put his name on Facebook page, just like this guy against our country and stuff like this. And he went with his uncle to meet Khaled al-Halabi and to say I'm doing nothing against you or against the country. And he said, Yes, we have nothing against you and you seems like a good guy. And of course you will not do anything against the country. And we are proud of you. And after like two weeks, they kidnap him.
Fritz Streiff: In some ways, Halabi sounds like a typical Schreibtisch Taeter, a desk criminal, a la Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi official who was one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. These types, that never get their own hands dirty and seem like perfectly nice guys, family people when you get to know them a bit. But the politeness masks the terrible, inhumane things that happen under their command that they are finally responsible for. Is that just generally the face of organised structural, bureaucratic evil?
Steve Kostas: Al-Halabi was the Head of the Branch and as we understand it, he was not only on paper in control, but in fact very much in control of the running of the Branch. And prior to the conflict, he was involved in the Security Committee for Raqqa, which is an organisation of the heads of each of the four intelligence branches, plus the representative from the governor's office and from the Ba’ath Party. And they would coordinate the security of the governorate or the province, including deciding who should be arrested. Identifying sort of house raids and other security measures that should be conducted. And then obviously, if you're arrested, you're often interrogated in an abusive way.
Fritz Streiff: So what should we believe? Was Halabi a decent, polite, intellectual man or a cold-hearted intelligence officer in charge of a Security Branch, that was the site of brutal interrogations and torture? And couldn't he be both at the same time?
Kenan Khadaj: I would say something. Nobody, no general in the Secret Service is innocent. It's a whole cruel structure that's based on arresting people and corruption and suppressing people. And it's a very cruel structure. Maybe there is. It's hard for me to believe that there is a general in the Secret Service that’s an innocent man.
Bill Wiley: It's individual criminal responsibility. It's Khaled al-Halabi, he held this rank, he had this appointment. These things happened under his command. Is he individually criminally responsible for that? Yes or no?
Fritz Streiff: A year after Halabi became head of Branch 335 in Raqqa, in December 2010, anti-government demonstrations broke out in Tunisia. By early 2011, protests calling for freedom and democracy were rising up not only in Tunisia, but Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Leila al-Shami: Well, I remember when the Arab Spring broke out and I was in Palestine and, you know, we were watching stuck to the television, desperate for news of what was happening in Tunisia and Egypt. And I remember Palestinian friends asking me, do you think this will spread to Syria? And my response was that I thought that the occupation of Palestine would end before Syrians had the courage to protest in great numbers on the streets.
Fritz Streiff: But would Syria be next? That's next time in Episode Three. Thank you for listening to Episode Two of The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General. Please do read and review our podcasts in Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever else you might listen. You have no idea how much that helps us connect with more listeners. And if you're an Arabic speaker or if you know any, do try out our sister series in Arabic. You can find us both at 75 podcasts.org