The Syria Trials/
S2E4: Escape from Raqqa


It's March 2013 and Raqqa is celebrating. Opposition forces have taken over the city and the Syrian regime is no longer in control. That means no more intelligence forces, no more security branches, and no more Head of State Security Khaled al-Halabi. As the citizens of Raqqa look towards a new future, where has Halabi escaped to?

The Syria Trials is a 75 Podcast production. This episode is hosted by Fritz Streiff, and produced by Sasha Edye-Lindner, with research and editorial support from Mais Katt. The voiceovers were provided by Cyril Nehmé, Muhammad Bakri, Amr Hussien and Alaa Ehsan. It was mixed by Tobias Withers.

Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.

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Episode Transcript

Thaer Dandoush VO: It was truly incredible. We were singing and crying. I do not know what else to say, but those weeks, those months, were some of the best days of my life. You know, the regime had no control. And for the first time, everyone spoke their minds out loud without fear. 

Mais VO: You mentioned that you were singing. What were the songs?

Thaer Dandoush VO: We would sing the Revolution songs, Mais.

Mais VO: Do you remember any favourites of yours? 

Thaer Dandoush VO: Paradise. Paradise. Paradise.

Fritz Streiff: The city of Raqqa is celebrating. For the first time in their lives, its citizens can walk in the streets expressing how they really feel about the country they live in, and the ruling Assad family. They can sing and call out loud for freedom and democracy, something that mere days ago would have meant risking their lives. 

Muhammad VO: It was an indescribable joy. You could walk freely without fear of a security agent coming at you from behind, or a car stopping next to you, and forcing you into it. I cannot find the words to express the feeling. These were the moments that I had been imprisoned for, the moments I had been dreaming of experiencing in real life.

Fritz Streiff: The people of Raqqa can do this because in early March 2013, a group of opposition forces made up of the Free Syrian Army and various Islamist groups freed the city from the control of the Syrian regime. That means that President Assad is no longer in control. That means no more security branches, no more intelligence officers, and no more Khaled al-Halabi. But while the heads of the other intelligence branches are known to have either been captured by the opposition, or helicoptered out of Raqqa and back to the safety of Damascus, the capital, head of State Security Branch 335 Khaled al-Halabi is nowhere to be found. 

Welcome to The Syria Trials, The Disappearing General. I'm your host Fritz Streiff, and this is Episode 4 - Escape from Raqqa. Please be aware that this episode contains descriptions of violence and torture. Please take care while listening. 

So where had Halabi disappeared to? 

Rashid Satouf VO: Based on the information I have, there was a plan made with Khaled al-Halabi that he would defect from his position and leave the city.

Fritz Streiff: As these rebel forces encroached on Raqqa, those that worked for the regime, like Halabi, were forced to consider their options - and quickly. But luckily for him, it appears that there were people in Raqqa who thought well of Halabi, despite the fact that he was the head of General Intelligence. People like Rashid Satouf, the Communist Labour Party member. Rashid had met Halabi in person at his office at State Security Branch 335, and thought of Halabi as a decent and polite man. 

Rashid Satouf VO: Based on what I know, many members of the community in Raqqa had a positive impression of Khaled al-Halabi. He had relationships with public figures as well as social relationships. No one held a grudge against him or viewed him in a really negative light. That's why many social figures and people from the opposition were ready to help him escape. 

Fritz Streiff: It seems that Halabi, still relatively new to a city that was built on the foundations of deep tribal affiliations, would benefit from the kindness of the people of Raqqa. Remember what lab technician and activist Muhammad said?

Muhammad VO: There is a saying that we love strangers, and when a stranger comes to Iraq, they receive a warm welcome and support from the people. 

Fritz Streiff: Activist Abdallah was in Raqqa when the regime lost control of the city.

Abdallah: When the FSA and Ahrar al-Sham start to enter the city, they went to the branches, they surround the branches. 

Fritz Streiff: The FSA, being the Free Syrian Army. Ahrar al-Sham was one of the Islamist brigades that banded together with the FSA and took over Raqqa. 

Rashid Satouf VO: When the opposition's armed factions entered the city, the Security Committee was gathered in the governorate building. 

Fritz Streiff: The Security Committee comprised the heads of the four intelligence directorates, plus a representative from the Governor's office and the local head of the Ba’ath Party - Syria's only political party. Since the uprising began in 2011, nearly two years earlier, a key task of the Committee was to decide how they would carry out their orders from Damascus to arrest and torture peaceful demonstrators. Now, the Committee were the ones being targeted. But as the rebels entered Raqqa and the Committee gathered, there was a notable absence. 

Rashid Satouf VO: Khaled al-Halabi didn't join them. His defection had already been planned. There were specific arrangements made within the Branch. These arrangements made it necessary for Halabi to remain in the city until the last few hours. He was then smuggled out, thanks to the cooperation of certain figures from Ar-Raqqa. I will not say the names of the people who knew the details of his escape. 

Fritz Streiff:  Halabi's friends in the Raqqah community had links with the opposition forces that were taking over the city now. 

Abdallah: Khaled al-Halabi, he went to a family that he knows in Raqqa. This family, they have some members at the FSA. As I remember, he went with his weapon. He sit at the family, and he put his gun.  I know the family. I know everything about this story. And I think this is wrong decision by the family to help. But the family, they said if anyone rang our door as a tribal thing and he ask for help, we will help. But I'm against this because I see Khaled al-Halabi as a criminal. 

Fritz Streiff: I've known about and even worked on the Halabi case for years and I still can't get my head around why Halabi decided to escape Raqqa, rather than retreating with his fellow intelligence officers back to the relative safety of Damascus. Maybe he thought he'd be punished for losing Raqqa to the rebels. Maybe he'd got fed up with his job and thought that now was as good a time as any to stop working for the regime. But it's also possible that as the rebels approached, Halabi had seen the inevitable coming. Kenan Khadaj is a Syrian writer and journalist, a member of the Druze religious minority. He is from the same town as Halabi, Suweida, in the south of the country. 

Kenan Khadaj: The city was gonna fall. It was a matter of time. Maybe he'd give it a push, but it wouldn't have survived more than six months. If you look from a more neutral perspective, I think him surrendering Ar-Raqqa avoided a bloodshed. If I was in his place, in his shoes in 2013, I would have done the same thing.

Fritz Streiff: As the head of the State Security Branch for the entire Raqqa governorate, an area run by military and intelligence generals like himself, Halabi held a lot of power. And if, as Rashid says, his escape had been planned before, the rebels actually took the city. And if, as Kenan says, he wanted to avoid bloodshed. Could Halabi have essentially handed over the keys of the city to the opposition forces? Saving his own skin in the process?

Kenan Khadaj: So I spoke to this officer in the Free Syrian Army. I'm not allowed to say his name, but I just give him a call. Do you know the guy? Yes, I knew him. And when did you hear first about him? He said when I first deserted and I was in Deir Ez-Zor, which is a city near to Ar-Raqqa. I was hearing that there is an officer from Suweida that was helping the rebels. Proceeded to say, like I was actually a good person, a nice person who had helped a lot of people, but also decided to stay in the shadows. 

Fritz Streiff: But Abdallah thinks that Halabi arranged a deal with opposition forces simply because he hadn't managed to escape with the other regime officials in time.

Abdallah: I think Khaled al-Halabi didn't succeed to reach the 17 brigade at that time.

Fritz Streiff: The 17th Brigade being the division of the Syrian Arab Army, so the regime's army, that controlled the north east of Syria. It was there that many of his colleagues escaped to, as the regime lost control of the city. 

Abdallah: If he reach it, will see him at the Assad regime now continuing his work.

Fritz Streiff: Despite the deep mistrust of anyone working for the intelligence services, Rashid has an idea why the opposition would have decided to help Halabi escape. 

Rashid Satouf VO: He was treated as someone who was defecting from the regime and not running away from the city. At this point, any defection was welcomed. If an officer defected from an important position, he was welcomed by the opposition.

Fritz Streiff: Abdallah sees things very differently. He doesn't consider what Halabi did as a defection. 

Abdallah: He didn't join. He didn’t join the revolution. And he didn't support the revolution. He just ran away because he has no other choice at that time. 

Fritz Streiff: Neither does his fellow activist, the lab technician, Muhammad, who had been held at Halabi’s Branch in 2011. 

Muhammad VO: He supposedly defected from the regime. But when did he defect? The moment the Free Syrian Army entered the city. This doesn't make him a defector. He served the regime, until the very end. After the Free Army has arrived, what am I defecting from, brother? It's over for me. I cannot do anything anymore. 

Fritz Streiff: However he had done it, Halabi had managed to escape from Raqqa. But where did he go once he had made it out of the city?

Muhammad VO: We received information that Khaled al-Halabi had reached Tal al-Abyad. 

Fritz Streiff: Tal al-Abyad is a two hour drive from Raqqa. It's a town right on the Syrian border with Turkey, the closest gateway into the country from Raqqa. Was he planning on escaping Syria altogether? 

So he had some connections that helped him get out? 

Abdallah: Yes. 

Fritz Streiff: Do you know when he got out?

Abdallah: In March. When the FSA take control of the city, he spends like some days there. Then he went to Turkey.

Rashid Satouf:He was smuggled out northwards to Turkey.

Fritz Streiff: So Halabi left Syria, leaving behind his family and a very high ranking position within the regime. He seems to have decided that whatever fate had in store for him if he stayed in Syria, was not worth the risk. He had decided instead to venture into the complete unknown.

Despite his whereabouts being unaccounted for, the people of Raqqa were not going to let one missing general stop them from celebrating their new freedom. 

Abdallah: For the people who believe in the Syrian revolution, I think this is the most beautiful time in my life. 

Fritz Streiff: Why? Tell me. Why was it beautiful? 

Abdallah: Because there is no scared at that time. You just think about the future. How you will build. We formed local councils. We formed NGOs. 43 NGOs in Raqqa. 18 local councils. And you feel free, you know. There is no intelligence, no police, nothing to scare about. You know, I feel this feeling at that time. I am free. 

Fritz Streiff: And I can imagine because this is between early March, so also you have the spring time, maybe?

Abdallah: Exactly. Exactly. And sitting on the street and smoking nargila with your friends and, you know, planning about the future, you know, the Syrian flag everywhere and the city like looks like different. 

Fritz Streiff: Like a flower blooming.

Abdallah: Fresh. Exactly. 

Fritz Streiff: Thaer Dandoush, a schoolteacher and activist, was also celebrating in Raqqa. 

Thaer Dandoush VO: Those days were some of the best days we ever experienced. There were so many beautiful things happening. We formed civil gatherings and brought together the sons and civilian youth of liberated Raqqa. We even cleaned the city and started painting it. 

Fritz Streiff: As Raqqa celebrated, news of the abuses that have been occurring in Syria since the uprising had begun was starting to seep out of the country. Lama Fakih had started working at the international NGO Human Rights Watch in 2011, the year the uprising had started in Syria. As the conflict in the country deepened, she travelled to southern Turkey, where thousands of Syrians had fled.

Lama Fakih: So we spoke with some combination of defectors, so individuals that had themselves been members of the army or different intelligence branches, as well as those that had been detained. We spoke to children, women, adult men, all of whom described really horrific torture. People described being held in stress positions. They described being confined in group cells that were overcrowded, you know, so much so that people had to take turns sitting down or lying down. They described a device called bsat al-reeh, which is a wooden board that a detainee would be strapped down to. And it was used to contort the detainee’s body. And at the same time incapacitate them so they couldn't protect themselves when they were being beaten. Electrocution, including of genitals. We documented as well cases of sexual assault and sexual violence in detention and also just suffering from deprivation. You know, people didn't have adequate access to food, so their bodies were deteriorating in detention. They did not have decent sanitation. And so there were diseases that were spreading in the facilities. And, you know, even from the beginning, we started receiving reports of death in detention as a result of the ill treatment and poor conditions that people are suffering from. One word that comes to mind is ruthless. The government was really willing to do anything to eliminate the protest movement and to retain control of the country. 

Fritz Streiff: As 2013 unfolded, Lama began conducting investigations inside Syria itself. And the liberation of Raqqa provided a rare opportunity to explore a place that had been freshly vacated by the regime.

Lama Fakih: My first trip to Raqqa was in the spring of 2013, and it was shortly after Raqqa had fallen out of government control. So I travelled from Beirut. I flew to southern Turkey, and from there we travelled down to the border. I was with a colleague and we also had a videographer who was working with us. The three of us entered via the Tall al-Abyad crossing. 

Fritz Streiff: The same crossing that Halabi had travelled through in the other direction, mere weeks earlier. The Human Rights Watch team arrived in the newly liberated Raqqa, a city that was still finding its feet. 

Lama Fakih: It wasn't a planned part of the trip, but once we were in Raqqa, we passed by a couple of the intelligence facilities. Seeing it and asking, you know, who was in charge of it? Could we enter? And when we were told, yes, we decided that, you know, of course, we would have to go and see. And again, because I spent so much time documenting abuses in the detention context, I was really interested to see for myself what these facilities looked like and to see what more we might learn or understand about how this apparatus of torture and arbitrary detention was running. 

Fritz Streiff:  The Branch Lama and her team had come across was State Security Branch 335 - Halabi’s branch. It was located on a main road next to a roundabout. Lama was struck by just how normal the branch looked from the outside, just like a regular office building. 

Lama Fakih: From the outside, you wouldn't necessarily appreciate what the structure was except for the name that was on the awning outside of the building. It was the first time I saw an intelligence branch, and when we entered, it was disarray. I remember, you know, somebody kind of guarding it from the outside who was sort of half-sleeping in his chair. You just walk in and there are reams of paper strewn across the floor, different files of individuals. There were empty weapons crates. There was, you know, graffiti on the walls, you know trash. And things upturned. It made it clear that somebody had made a hasty exit. And I was able to go as well and see what were clearly cells. Places where people had been held. Group cells as well as solitary confinement cells. 

Fritz Streiff: These cells would have been where activists like Muhammed and Thaer were held. 

Lama Fakih: One of the cells that I entered had a bsat al-reeh torture device in it. And it was a device that when people had been describing it to me, it’s sort of hard to imagine. You know, they would describe it as like a crucifix that you would be tied to, and it would bend in the middle. And it was just lying there, in the middle of the room. Just discarded. It brought a reality to the abuse just seeing the device there. You could see graffiti on the walls. People had written their names or messages. It was all just, you know, remnants just revealing what had transpired. 

Fritz Streiff: For Lama, being inside an intelligence branch for the first time brought into stark reality the stories that she'd heard from the Syrians who had fled the country. And it also presented an opportunity. An opportunity to collect evidence of the crimes that had occurred inside Branch 335.

Lama Fakih: The facilities were not secured. So I don't know who had access between the time the government left and when we visited. But one of the things that we were trying to press for in our work around these facilities was that the information inside be secured. 

Fritz Streiff: This huge trove of documents spread all over the Branch, could hold damning evidence of what had gone on under Halabi’s command. But there was just too much inside Halabi’s Branch to look through all the files properly and catalogue them correctly. 

Lama Fakih: We were very reticent to take materials out of the branch. Our purpose was to try and encourage that there be an effort to try to secure it through local officials and some assistance to try to collect the documentary evidence that was there. For example, one of the documents that we saw was a list of everybody that lived in the city that had a college education. And by virtue of being college educated, they somehow were on the radar of the intelligence branch. We’d see profiles of different individuals written up and in the State Security facility, we entered the office of the Brigadier General who headed up the Branch, and we saw his business cards strewn across the floor. The name of the General, Khaled al-Halabi, and his title, his phone number. You know, I have my business cards also sort of stacked up in my desk. It was just like this. You know, you could tell that this had been his office. It was one of these, you know, just a typical office of a mid-level employee in a government building with the large desk and bookcases behind and his business cards.

Fritz Streiff: For the moment, whatever evidence there was of what had gone on inside Branch 335 would stay there, including any evidence pertaining to Halabi himself. Outside the Branch, the citizens of Raqqa were still full of positivity for their new future. But with no one fully in control, Lama felt an increasing unease. 

Lama Fakih: It felt hopeful. It also felt lawless. There was not a clear authority that was in place. There were different armed groups running around with different motivations, different backers. People were uncertain about what was going to come next.

Fritz Streiff: The Assad regime might not have put up much of a fight when the rebels first took the city of Raqqa, but they were really flexing their muscles now. 

Abdallah: The Assad regime start to bomb the city. I think as I remember the first day of opening the schools, the Assad regime target the schools they target by warplane and they killed a lot of kids. 

Fritz Streiff: The regime had started to enlist the help of its allies, too. Charles Lister works at the Middle East Institute, an NGO based in Washington DC. 

Charles Lister: Iran's decision to intervene quite aggressively in the spring of 2013, that was a big turning point then. That showed really for the first time that the regime had a strategic partner or strategic ally in the region that was willing to go all in to defend the regime's survival. And that, of course, also coalesced with the beginning of the use of chemical weapons. I think that that period of time following the international community's failure to back up its red line on the use of chemical weapons had a fairly consequential effect on the shape of the armed opposition in Syria. 

Fritz Streiff: This was Obama's infamous red line on what could lead him to use military force in Syria. He had said, “if we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons being moved around or utilised.” But there was no military response from the US or its allies after the Syrian regime used chemical weapons on a number of occasions, including the attack in Eastern Ghouta in August 2013. More than a thousand civilians, including babies and the elderly, were killed that day. 

Charles Lister: The perception that the West in particular had betrayed the revolution and betrayed the opposition cause by not following through on its red line was a boon to Islamists and jihadists alike. Groups on the more extreme end of the spectrum gained the advantage. 

Fritz Streiff: The tide was turning as another force entered the war in Syria. The beautiful days of freedom in Raqqa were about to come to an end. You'll remember that the forces that took Raqqa from regime control were not just the Free Syrian Army. In order to be able to take the city successfully, the FSA had joined with Islamist brigades Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. But it was another Islamist group who was about to dramatically change Syria and the lives of the people of Raqqa, one that had been tied to Jabhat al-Nusra. ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, also known as Daesh. 

Charles Lister: ISIS and its leadership through Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi vehemently opposed Jabhat al-Nusra’s more subtle, more pragmatic approach to dealing with the revolution in Syria. ISIS wanted its presence in Syria to be like its presence in Iraq. Its presence should stand for fighting the sectarian regime, the Assad regime, and establishing areas of control solely under the rule of ISIS and its extremist interpretation of Islam, not in cooperation with the Syrian armed opposition, which ISIS viewed as apostates. So that break happened in 2013 and led ultimately to ISIS's brutal, brutal conquest of opposition areas, or at least its attempted conquest of opposition areas and ultimately its establishment of control in eastern Syria. 

Abdallah: The first time I heard about ISIS, I was with friends sitting in a coffee called Al-Apple coffee in Raqqa city. At that time, I don't know ISIS. I don't know who. They put the masks. And they have heavy weapons with them. More than five cars and vehicles surround the Apples. I saw my friend Muhammed Musara and my uncle and other friend there were on their knees. I came and enter, who you are? They told me we are FSA. I told them no you are not because most of the FSA people, they know us. They know all the activists. I got fight with him. I told him you are not a Syrian. Even your accent. And if you are a real man and strong, take off your mask. And this is the first time I heard about the state. He told me we are the state. At that time I shocked. Because when we said to anybody, We are the state, my head go to the Assad regime.

Fritz Streiff: This is about June 2013?

Abdallah: Yes. 

Fritz Streiff: And when did ISIS take full control of Raqqa? 

Abdallah: I think full control, 14 of January 2014. 

Fritz Streiff: So there are so many changes happening from 2014, early 2014, as ISIS rule completely, what changed in terms of the daily life? 

Abdallah: We start seeing some foreigners with different accent, with different languages. Also in the same times we saw them, like trying to force the civilians to following their rules. As example, once there was a girl walking on the street, she put cover, normal cover. And Tunisian guy, he was holding a yoghurt with his hand and he threw it on the girl and he said, You are you are kafir because you don't close all your face. And we saw this start to interfere in the civilians. We knows that we are going to worst. 

Fritz Streiff: Abdullah al-Khalaf is a journalist who has lived in Raqqa since 2006. He hadn't been in the city when it fell, first to the combined armed opposition and then to ISIS. So when he returned to Raqqa in April 2014, he immediately noticed huge changes in the city. 

Abdullah al-Khalaf VO: If you wanted to go to the market, ISIS militants would be there watching you, looking for any mistakes you made so that they could humiliate you. Like if your beard was not long enough or if your attire was deemed improper according to their standards. They would berate you and lecture you on religious matters.

They'd argue that by opposing them, you are essentially opposing Allah and going against the divine law. They performed public executions. You would go out to the markets and come across a hanging head, just like that. It was a terrifying time. To be honest, I tried my best to stay confined to my home. 

Fritz Streiff: How would you compare the ISIS criminality generally to the experience before, of life under the regime? How would you compare those two? 

Abdallah: They are same. Both they kidnap. They arrest. They don't believe in democracy, both. They don't believe in change or sharing. Both of them. They killing the people. So for me, it's like same, nothing change. 

Charles Lister: I think there's absolutely no question that on a crime by crime basis, ISIS was a horrifically brutal, cruel terrorist organisation. That will always and forever remain the case. But we mustn't forget that, statistically speaking, ISIS has been responsible over the past 12 years of Syria’s crisis for, I think, 2 or 3% of the civilian casualties that have been caused throughout the past 12 years. And about 90% of those civilian casualties have been caused by the regime. And so statistically speaking, ISIS's crimes, whilst horrendous, are just vastly overshadowed by the scale of the regime's scorched earth strategy. You know, the regime didn't come up with it's Assad or we burn the country motto for nothing. They genuinely believed it at the time and they have genuinely practised it ever since. Although I think tragically what we've seen is Assad and we burn the country. 

Fritz Streiff: The war in Syria was getting more intense and more brutal by the day. The regime was attacking hospitals and schools with barrel bombs, large barrel shaped metal containers filled with explosives and sometimes shrapnel. Syria's second largest city and economic hub, Aleppo, was under siege by regime troops. Chemical weapons had been and were continuing to be used against civilians. And after making Raqqa the capital of their so-called caliphate, as 2014 progressed, ISIS was attempting to spread its extreme Islamist rule into more parts of Syria. 

Khaled al-Halabi had left all of this behind, crossing at the Tal al-Abyad Gateway into Turkey in spring 2013. Nearly a year had gone by. Where was he now? 

The Syria Trials: The Disappearing General is hosted by me, Fritz Streiff. You can find us on socials @75 podcasts or at our website, 75, where you can listen to season one of our series, as well as our sister series in Arabic. Please do leave a comment or review for us on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or wherever you usually listen. It'll help us reach more listeners and interested parties. Thank you very much for listening.