Branch 251/
S3E2: The Walls Have Eyes


In this episode, we’ll be talking about how power, security and fear interrelate and co-produce militarized cityscapes, or security cities. In particular, we will talk about Syria, the kingdom of silence, where walls have ears, and buildings have eyes, and everyone looks around them before talking. Cities where everyone is being watched and considered as a threat to be eliminated if they tried to speak up and reclaim their rights against those in power.

This episode was written by Naya Skaf, with editorial help from Fritz Streiff and Saleem Salameh.

For more information and regular updates on the trial, follow us on Twitter

Cities Under Siege by Stephen Graham

Fearscapes: Urban Space and the Landscapes of Fear

VDC (Violations Documentation Center) Report on the Al-Khatib Branch

ECCHR trial reports

Syria Justice and Accountability Centre's monitoring of the trial

Logo design by -- Photo by James Lawler Duggan/AFP/Getty Images.

Music via Blue Dot Sessions

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

Episode Transcript

Naya: According to Lewis Mumford, a famous historian and philosopher, cities are naturally in a state of perpetual war with other cities, but simultaneously, they are in a natural state of self-defense. This is evident through fortifications, defense mechanisms, and surveillance technologies that cities use against external enemies, especially since wars were taking place outside of city walls. The goal of these mechanisms is to maintain security and reassure the population by protecting the borders from external enemies. Historically, this was represented by the construction of walls, lookout windows, and towers that overlook the city gates to decide who could enter and who could not.

Noor: In the 20th century, cities, their spaces, and infrastructure became not only the battleground but also the weapons of wars themselves. They became a space for exercising power and domination, a place to manifest fear, to control and subjugate threatening and subversive elements. During the last 100 years, these practices were weaponized against the inhabitants of the cities themselves if they represented a threat to the ruling authority of the city or the country.


Naya: One of the recent examples is what happened in Syria in November 2012, after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, and in an attempt to control the infiltrators as saboteurs as seen by the state, the Syrian authorities cut off the internet and telephone networks for more than 48 hours. This measure was condemned by Reporters Without Borders, which puts Syria as one of five countries on its list of enemies of the internet in March 2013.

Countries on that list, which includes China, Iran and Syria have governments that are engaged in strict surveillance of news platforms, they try to control as much as possible what is published on public and personal pages. This led to massive violations of freedom of information and speech with measures including interception of Skype calls, virus and malware attacks, and others. As a result, a very large number of activists were arrested and tortured in order to extract information from them.

Noor: Welcome to the second episode of this season of Branch 251. My name is Noor Hamadeh


Naya: I'm Naya Skaf.


Noor: To understand more about the Al Khatib security branch, we have to go back a bit in time and try to understand the formation of the militarized city or the security city in general, and more specifically, the militarization of Damascus. Throughout history, countries were governed by different types of power and authorities. Among them is the power of the ruler that established disciplinary societies that are required to be obedient to the ruling regimes. These regimes regulate people's activities, behaviors, and habits. They discipline, control, and monitor their movements like army barracks, prisons, and even schools.

The power of the ruling regime was visible in the form of monumental architecture that glorifies rulers. European countries reached their modern governmental form in the 16th and 17th centuries and because of their absolute authority, and their colonization of many other countries, their cities were expanding. Expanding cities created a need for strategic urban planning to ensure the security of the state and its ruling regime. This is how the old military city emerged, with castles, towers, and walls, built to support practices of control, oppression, and torture, not only in the colonizing country itself but in the colonized countries as well.

At that time, the European regimes met any revolution, uprising, or liberation movement with tyranny and brutality and demonized, suppressed, and dehumanized the revolutionaries, either by using violence or annihilation. This happened whether the revolutions were societal, demanding the rights of minority groups or independence movements.

Naya: Stephen Graham, the author of the book Cities Under Siege says that these countries' regimes were testing the characteristics of the power of sovereignty and militarization practices through what is called the boomerang effect, meaning they tested them in colonized cities first, and then applied them in their local cities afterwards. In the 19th century, the so-called third world, including the region Syria is a part of, the Middle East and North Africa, was a testing ground for security measures and targeting practices, and the field of experiments for techniques of control, classification of revolutions, militarization of cities, and surveillance of citizens.

They were tested in the third world, then used in the rebellious neighborhoods in the local cities, which is what happened in Algiers, and the suburb of Paris. In Algeria, Marshal Bugeaud replanned entire neighborhoods in Algiers, after completely and brutally demolishing them as a part of his strategy to stop the victories of the resistance. He used the same scheme in Paris to weaken its revolutionaries by planning broad military avenues to stop their advances. Avenues that the French urban planner Osman, introduced in the renewal planning of Paris in the 19th century.

Noor: In Syria, specifically in Damascus, during the Great Syrian revolution of 1925, the revolutionaries settled in Ghouta and attacked the brigades and buildings of the French occupation and in old Damascus. The French authorities at the time tried to control the city and ensure its stability. They surrounded it with barbed wire, allowing a limited number of entrances.

They responded to the rebel attacks by wiping out a part of the Al-Oukaibeh neighborhood and established instead several wide streets like the three of King Faisal and Baghdad Street. It's also where Branch 251 is located now. This was an order to cut off the supplies of the Ghouta rebels and keep them away from the Old City. At the time, when the French occupation forces were able to control the resistance, the first act of Urbicide occurred in the modern history of the city.

Naya: Urbicide means the complete or partial destruction of cities. It's an act of violence and the goal is to achieve a political or military victory.

Noor: The old city of Damascus was bombarded for two days by aircraft and with artillery installed on Al-Mazzah mountains. Several significant neighborhoods in the Old City were destroyed such as the famous Sidi-Amoud neighborhood, which has been called Al-Hariqah since then, as well as the strait street in Medhat Basha Souq.

This means that the colonized and the colonizer cities say, for example, Algiers and Paris have some specific characteristics in common. They tend to have borders, checkpoints, gates, fences, protected areas in prisons, as well as neighborhoods of an ethnic and sectarian nature. You're likely to find military bases around the financial districts, in addition to the buildings of wide boulevards and panopticon prisons, which are our focus for today.

Naya: The panopticon is a design concept for institutions of mass surveillance, quarantine, and imprisonment, developed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham. It's a circular building composed of cells located in the circumference of the cells that are under the constant and close watch of guards that sit in a central tower. That tower represents the source of absolute power. The panoptic prison guarantees several things such as surveillance, maintaining security, isolation, and transparency. All these things are necessary to track the movements of the prisoners, record their habits are psychological states and keep this information for later.

The concept of the panopticon, also called panopticism, expressed strongly and clearly how space can be controlled. Panopticism is architecture of dominance, where security apparatuses spread through the city and gained power because, like guards in a panopticon, they are omnipresent, but you're never quite able to tell if the guards are watching.

The architecture of panopticism is familiar to many Syrians because of the presence of security branches that imprison citizens for the slightest suspicion. In a sense, security branches control the entire scene in Syria, and specifically the city of Damascus. In a way, each and every neighborhood was under surveillance but what has controlled the sky above Damascus is a regal panopticon, the presidential palace which is located at the top of Mount Qasioun, a landmark mountain that overlooks the city of Damascus. It was designed by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange in the 1980s, in a way that allowed the country's present yet invisible leader to see his prisoners from his tower overlooking the imprisoned cities; imprisoned until proven innocent.


Noor: During the 20th century, the need to fortify cities increased. The new military urbanism emerged as the spaces of daily life and civilians themselves became either targets or threats to the security apparatuses. This became the argument for expanding surveillance measures, targeting and controlling the everyday networks and spaces. The idea of this new military urbanism revolved around fortifying the city and intensifying the military and security aspects of urban life.

This means that militarization, security, and fear became the key elements of cities. Today, we're focusing on security and fear as they're closely related to Syria's many security branches, including branch 251. The security of Western cities in the 20th century was associated with military regimes, and national security was the justification for every military operation until now.

With the high rates of attacks all over the world, the principle of defense for security has been normalized. Exclusion and suspicion have become an integral part of security measures, or at least an indispensable feature. The distinctions between peace and war between police, intelligence, and the military at their local, national, and global levels have disappeared. Of course, east and west share these features now.

Naya: But then, what is security exactly? Security basically means protecting society from any deliberate criminal acts. Although it starts with lofty values, it doesn't really care much about laws or human rights. The only thing that matters to those in charge of security is the pursuit of individuals or groups that are considered threatening, subversive, or intrusive, and treating them as objects of information and intelligence about their participation in any allegedly criminal or illegal activities.

All of this happens under the name of national security, but lofty goals supposedly justifies any techniques, practices, or actions of a brutal nature. This much is clear in Syria. On the other hand, security is related to society, its social structure, and its culture. Security is nourished by and nurtured on a primal feeling that is fear. Fear is a currency used to justify any cause. The militarization of cities has fueled the politics of fear which in turn, reinforce the exclusion of the other, getting people to fear each other, all in the name of security. This dynamic has deeply affected Damascus which many know as the kingdom of fear.


Noor: “The walls have ears” is a phrase that accurately explains the situation in Syria. Fear in Syria was born out of daily life, out of people's feelings and obsessions, desperately trying not to challenge the authority of the Assad family and the Baath party. Fear is linked to propaganda, the misinformation, and disinformation practices, and the intimidation by identifying and sentencing those who are threatening.

That involves stigmatization, marginalization, and the exclusion of those who are deemed to be a threat as well. Take for example, revolutionaries or opponents of Assad's rule who used to live in now regime-controlled areas whether it was in Darayya, Jobar or Qudssaya, they were criminalized, isolated, and excluded, and their areas were wiped out. The government's messaging makes these people sound like terrifying criminals when all they did was exercise their right to protest.

Nay: Fear is a tool for regimes to control the people. It's a group of feelings created by the authority in order to paralyze opposition movements, the thinking, and agency of the people. What better way, they would say, to expel fear of person and national fear than with security. With fear, cities are entrenched with internal boundaries which create communities within communities.

This allows those in power to control them, manipulate their interests, and negatively affect the social fabric of the city. After that, exclusionary city planning policies, and you've got full-on panic.

Noor: In Damascus, the spaces of fear or what's called the fearscapes are numerous and clear. They embody the modern military urbanism of the city. One of the most important fearscapes are spaces of control which exercise the same power of the panopticon, but using cameras and sensors. In a control area you're closely watched, recorded, and scrutinized by a verified but invisible power.

CCTV has invaded urban spaces all over the world, especially after the development of technologies that made the devices cheaper, smaller, and more efficient, but many people would argue that instead of instilling a feeling of security, they feed into fear of terrorism. The Syrian regime is not as digitized as Western regimes yet this means that it has not adopted modern security methods, modern surveillance procedures, and techniques.

Instead, it relies on the naked eye of informants to ensure stability. This is due to unreliable electricity and communications devices.

While it differs from the cities of the developed world in this way, they both share the creation of small panopticon units in every neighborhood in every street. In Syria not because of cameras, but because of informants. People feel that they're being watched by the ever-present eye of the regime all the time. Hafez al-Assad established strong security apparatuses through which he controlled Syria.

He appointed confidence and deployed informants, all of whom were targets for monitoring themselves. According to Human Rights Watch, there are 27 security centers in Syria of which seven are main security agencies. These centers have branches and prisons spread throughout the country. What's particularly shocking is that each of them operates completely independently of the other agencies, and each has its own investigation rooms and its own interrogation techniques.

There's no coordination or clear boundary between the different forms of information gathering. Not only that, unions, public institutions, and offices of the ruling Baath party were also centers for monitoring and tracking citizens in and around them. Even the kiosks located in streets and next to parks, monitor and eavesdrop on people's meetings and gather information about them, like many security branches, or many panopticons scattered throughout the city.

Naya: In Damascus, there are many security apparatuses under different authorities, one of which is the State Security Branch or the State Security Department. According to a Syrian human rights organization, there are at least 10 powerful security branches affiliated with the State Security Department where detainees are taken to and any information about them stops at the door of the branch.

Of course, before the revolution, before reports from human rights organizations come flooding in, before anyone testified whether before a journalist, researcher, a camera, or German judge, hardly anyone knew what went on in these branches. There were no detailed accounts of what the building even looked like from the inside. With what we see from the outside speculations were always made, but no one knew for sure.

All of this has changed and because of survivor's testimonies, including the witnesses in Koblenz, we have a clear picture of the ugliness of the branches and those who work in them. We now are beginning to understand how far their barbarism and brutality can reach.

Noor: Branch 251 or Al-Khatib branch is named after its location near Al-Khatib square, and located next to the Baghdad Street in Damascus. Al-Khatib branch is a building located in a dense residential area that was constructed in the 1940s. The Al-Khatib area, like any other area, has services such as a mosque, a school, and a hospital. The Branch’s street is called “the Intelligence Lane” among residents. The neighborhood was always closed for cars with roadblocks until 2000. Well, one could always walk there, at least until the revolution changed that as well. 

Security measures tightened during the years of the revolution and it became impossible to navigate sprawling checkpoints. The branch building consists of three floors, just like the neighborhood buildings in the al Khatib area, which are inhabited by middle-class people. The branch has an extension, an additional floor, in addition to an unused garden. Before it became a security branch and a detention center, al-Khatib branch was a residential building that was repurposed. And like any panoptic prison, it is believed that there are underground floors housing many cells.

Naya: According to testimonies of detainees, branch 251 contains around 29 cells, 24 of which are for solitary confinement with inhumane dimensions and five for collective detention. Both types suffer from inhuman conditions. They do not have windows or fans for ventilation. The only lighting comes from a bulb that is illuminated 24 hours a day so that detainees lose their ability to distinguish between day and night. The area of each collective cell is similar to any residential room, that is 15 square meters, but the difference is the number of people who are in it.

In the estimation of one of the witnesses, the group cell for men crammed in around 150 people at times, which meant that the space available for one person is only 10 square centimeters, which is 10 times less than the normal space of a person standing comfortably. We mentioned this to highlight the pain that arises just from taking away the personal space of detainees. This results in other problems like skin and respiratory infections and diseases, so, how about the torture itself? 

As we mentioned before, all this information would have never been available without the stories we heard from survivors, especially those who testified during the al-Khatib trial in Koblenz. The Koblenz trial's witnesses are people who defied the fear despite the fact that the cause of that fear is still present and continues to feed into it. And that cause is Syrian security.


Noor: In our next episode, we'll hear from Hannah again. She'll tell us where the trial stands and what to expect next. Since we've been away from you for a while, make sure you get the chance to listen to our last episode. You'll be up to date on all that happened inside the Koblenz court from the month of May til today. If you haven't heard it yet, you can find it wherever you get your podcasts.


Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcast production. This episode was written by Naya Skaf and presented by Naya Skaf and Noor Hamadah Production editing and mixing by myself; Pauline Peek. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office Funds that are provided by IFA's zivik Funding Programme. This episode is an editorial piece by one of our authors and includes personal opinions and conclusions.


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