NOOR: On the 24th of May 2011, a 73-year-old doctor joined a protest outside of the Syrian Embassy in Washington. He’d left Syria 40 years earlier. Now he wanted to show his support for the reforms that protesters back home had started demanding so loudly and passionately just weeks earlier.
NAYA: And it so happened that he, together with four other protesters, was invited into the embassy to meet with the ambassador himself. To discuss the issues, supposedly.
NOOR: Just a few hours after the meeting, the doctor received word from his brother back in Syria. The mukhabarat had been at his doorstep. They wanted to warn him that his [quote] ‘American brother’ was [quote] ‘causing trouble in the USA.’
NAYA: A few weeks earlier, in the UK this time, another Syrian was invited into the embassy he was protesting in front of. This Syrian ambassador assured him that the attacks on his city that he’d heard of, were all media lies. Meanwhile, he noticed someone was secretly taking pictures of him.
NOOR: Around the same time, a family in Syria received a visit from the mukhabarat. They were presented with a picture of their family member at a demonstration back in the US. ‘Tell your boy not to bring snakes into the family nest.’
NAYA: These are all examples from a 2011 report from Amnesty International, which details the experiences of members of the Syrian diaspora. As the uprising began, they took to the streets in solidarity with their fellow Syrians back home. They protested in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Sweden and many more countries. Countries with high standards of free speech and other civil liberties.
NOOR: After all, for some diasporas, moving to a different country offers new opportunities for advocacy. You’re less likely to be forcibly disappeared by the mukhabarat in a country like England than you are in Syria. And yet, all these people in the report suffered consequences. Their families back in Syria were interrogated, abused and monitored. Their social media feeds were hacked. Somehow, the Syrian regime found them wherever they were.
NAYA: In this episode, we’ll be exploring what Amnesty International at the time called ‘the long reach of the Mukhabarat’. We’ll be looking at the limitations of escape and to what extent a Syrian refugee actually finds refuge in other countries.
It’s a wildly underreported and challenging topic. Even still, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that ten years and thousands of miles from Syria later, Syrians abroad are still being blackmailed, intimidated and threatened. A report issued by the EU’s Asylum Support Office as recently as June of 2021 confirms it. Ten years later, Syrians all over the world still get phone calls with demands or warnings. For some, fleeing the country wasn’t enough.
NOOR: Even those Syrians who aren’t directly targeted by shadowy figures aligned with the regime- even they can never really escape. Simply because of the fact that a number of Assad's henchmen live among them. In sleepy German villages, in cities in the Netherlands. Their oppressors have become their neighbours. Many lay low, moving through life in anonymity. But then some still honor their loyalty to Assad, gathering information, monitoring and reporting on their fellow countrymen.
NAYA: What is it like to live like that? To live in fear even after you’ve settled in a new country? What is the reality behind the reports? There is no one answer to this. Even if there was one, it would be: ‘it depends.’ However, a recent investigation published in a renowned Dutch national newspaper, NRC, does shed some light on this question. At least on the situation for Syrians in the Netherlands. And so we’ll look at the Netherlands for now as a sort of case study.
NOOR: First, let’s talk about scale. The Dutch article focuses on the Netherlands, but it does suggest that potentially hundreds of regime loyalists with varying degrees of blood on their hands are currently living in Western Europe. After 2011, when the regime violence escalated some felt that things were heating up too much and many of them entered Europe, dispersed and dissolved into a new society. We’re talking specifically about shabiha here. Shabiha are members of pro-regime militias. Not army officials, not intelligence agents, but state-funded groups of men who do Assad’s dirty work. They drag opposition figures from their homes and beat up protestors.
NAYA: Shabiha perpetrate the kind of violence that led many Syrians to flee in the first place. Crimes against humanity even, in some cases. The article features an interview with a shabih who is thought to have recruited child soldiers. He speaks openly about his ties to the pro-regime militia, and he visited Syria as recently as 2019 to maintain his ties to the regime.
You can imagine how distressing it is for Syrian refugees to be confronted with shabiha.
Unfortunately, Syrians in the Netherlands rarely report these people to the authorities and even if they do, they’re not guaranteed a response.
Instead, they have created websites on which to identify and warn each other about potential perpetrators in their new country of residence. To ward off potentially traumatic encounters.
NOOR: But the culture within the Syrian community in the Netherlands isn’t naturally one of solidarity and support. If anything, a climate of distrust prevails among Syrians abroad, fueled by fear. You can never be sure of someone’s history. And even if you are, maybe their past isn’t in the past after all.
Because just as there are shabiha living anonymously in Europe, unpunished for horrible crimes and eager to remain that way, there is evidence to suggest that a section of the Syrian diaspora in the Netherlands coordinates with the Syrian authorities.
They are the eyes and ears of the Assad regime.
NAYA: The presence of people who are in touch with the Syrian regime has a few notable effects on Syrians in the Netherlands. Firstly, it fosters this feeling of mutual distrust. Secondly, it stifles advocacy and activism. Fewer people dare to show up to demonstrations because they run the risk of being filmed by mysterious men. Thirdly, it means that dissenting voices are heard no matter where they are. There are known cases of people criticizing the regime only to then receive footage of their loved ones beaten up back in Syria. And lastly, there are disturbing accounts of Syrians in the Netherlands receiving phone calls from unidentified men, blackmailing them, demanding large sums of money or else their loved ones will get harmed.
NOOR: Practices like these are also called transnational repression. And it’s something we actually know happens in more countries than just the Netherlands.
NAYA: Mohammad Al Abdallah is the executive director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, SJAC for short. SJAC is a Syrian-American NGO that works on issues relating to justice and accountability in the Syrian context. Mohammad believes that the situation in the Netherlands is not unique. And he has good reason to. In 2019 SJAC obtained and analyzed a batch of sensitive documents belonging to the Syrian regime.
MOHAMMAD: “the documents were collected through different periods of time throughout the conflict. The first batch was around 2013 to 2014, and the second was around 2015, 2016. [...] Later we did extractions our own where we got almost exclusive access to documents from Idlib. More importantly honestly from Raqqah, from Tell Abyad from the northeast area where no other documents are extracted from that area. The documents has one clear characterization that it came from areas all bordering on the border of Syria because that's the areas the government forces left quickly. It was easier to extract the documents to the other side.[...] Not all the documents are post 2011, some of them belong prior to the conflict. [...] Not all of them showing direct linkages to war crimes, or crimes against humanity. A lot of the documents are routine paperwork, bureaucratic processing, sometimes security reports about some areas, nothing really special about them.”
NAYA: Some of the documents provided proof that the Syrian authorities were spying on Syrians abroad. The embassies in both Spain and Saudi Arabia specifically.
MOHAMMAD: “[...] actually the embassy is collecting names, the Syrian embassies abroad, and sending them to Damascus.”
NAYA: It’s important that the documents showed that both these Syrian embassies operated similarly in such different countries. It supports the theory that this type of repression is widespread.
MOHAMMAD: “It came from two different far apart countries Saudi Arabia and Spain, where you cannot actually say these were only the embassy in Saudi Arabia did this on their own because they're Arabic speaking or because Saudi Arabia was against the government. No, clearly this is a systematic effort the Syrian embassies abroad are engaged in. They try to collect as much information about dissidents outside, about activities. [...] This is what the Syrian embassies are doing.”
NOOR: So embassies were, and to the extent they still exist, continue to be, extensions of Assad’s security apparatus. Useful tools to keep an eye on Syrians abroad. Many Syrian embassies around the world have closed since 2012, though. So what about other actors?
MOHAMMAD: “The cell phone carriers, the landline phone services, basically, any communication the Ministry of Communication is involved, clearly embassies, and without say the intelligence themselves. Basically, they record and save everything. The Syrian government had at some point also called Syrian Electronic Army, which is a group of hackers.”
“First of all, but as what we know from documents, from personal experience- for hard evidence: intelligence agencies, the cell phone carriers and the Communication Ministry but also, the embassies abroad”
NOOR: What Mohammad describes here is formal monitoring. It involves institutions such as the cell phone carriers and embassies. But the regime also relies on informal monitoring. This involves individuals reporting on each other to the intelligence services.
MOHAMMAD: “There's a lot of Syrians abroad, and unfortunately, there's a history of Syrian- I’m not sure if you're familiar with this expression, Noor, saying: [Arabic language] somebody has a nice handwriting. Usually, that means you write reports, you're an informant. You report to the intelligence, and it used to happen in handwriting before and that's when somebody refers to somebody like, "They have nice handwriting." It's like they're reporting to the intelligence, basically. A lot of people who were arrested in Damascus Airport or asked to report to intelligence upon arrival from abroad were reported by their peers, by their classmates or roommates, Syrians studying with them outside.”
NAYA: Mohammad mentioned that the motivations of people who report on each other could be fueled by fear as much as anything else.
MOHAMMAD: “That's why everybody abroad- that's why Syrians doesn't talk to each other when you live abroad. You don't want to talk to other Syrians, because you either have to report them, or they will report you to something. Nobody talks to anybody, nobody trusts anybody, it's a very isolated community.”
NOOR: The presence of people who cooperate with Syrian intelligence branches, or who are intelligence officers themselves, poses a real threat to Syrians abroad. A New Yorker article that was published in September 2021 described how a high-ranking intelligence officer named Khaled Al-Halabi infiltrated a group of Syrians in Europe who were trying to set up civil-society projects in rebel-held territory in Syria. He kept trying to find out things about them. Their names, their activities, their phone numbers. Al-Halabi is believed to have been responsible for war crimes, including rape, torture and murder.
NAYA: It’s clear that the regime and its network of informants, agents and institutions is particularly interested in stifling dissent. For that reason, it’s often activists who are most at risk.
AHMAD: “I’m Ahmad Helmi. I’m a Syrian non-violent activist and human rights defender.”
NAYA: Ahmad himself is a member of the Syrian diaspora. He knows that Assad’s henchmen are active outside of Syria. They pose a risk to the safety of activists and of their loved ones back in Syria.
AHMAD: “It’s definitely a valid point for activists, because those Syrians who are still in relation with the intelligence, they are writing reports back to Damascus and sometimes they are even active in relation to threats, or at least bothering the activists.”
NOOR: A risk that Ahmad is acutely aware of.
AHMAD: “Actually, I believe that the Syrian regime is following closely not only me but all the activists, all the Syrian activists around the world. But so far I haven’t encountered any accidents, neither me or my family. But I think there will be some day that they will have the time to deal with those people and then they will start. With the Syrian regime nothing passes with time, nothing is forgotten. They record everything. So someday they will threaten my family, there will be threats on the safety and security of my family. It didn’t happen yet, but I’m pretty sure it will happen once the Syrian regime and intelligence have the time for that.”
NOOR: We asked him how this belief affects his life.
AHMAD: “I mean, I have...um...for me- I’ve taken this decision to move on in this movement. To fight for democracy and human rights in Syria, regardless of whatever the consequences will be. And I have informed my family of my decision since day 1. I know there will be risks, but I don’t have the luxury to assess those risks or to do anything about it. Because I can’t stop. Like- stopping the activism and advocacy and campaigning is not an option, it’s only a luxury. I don’t have it.
And for me- I have been through enough, like on my personal safety I have been through enough, so nothing else scares me, to be honest. I have been shot by a sniper during one of the non-violent, peaceful demonstrations and I’ve been also detained, tortured, forcibly disappeared for three years. So I think there isn’t much more they can do and even if there is. I mean- I’ll try it, but really, it’s not about... it’s not about me. What scares me the most is my family, but as I told you, stopping now is a luxury. It would mean that everything I have been through and every loss my family, my community, Syria has lost will go away, will go with the wind.”
NAYA: We’ve learned that the reach of Assad’s security apparatus affects activists. But how does it affect activism?
AHMAD:“Actually, it’s interesting how it’s developed. It’s definitely a thing. Lots of survivors and activists that we contact these days for participation in advocacy, they are mostly not willing to participate unless they are using fake names. And when it comes to participation in person they will not because they are afraid their face or voice will be recognized and that will be reported back to Damascus and Damascus will keep the record etcetc.
But the interesting development here is that, before 2015, it was the opposite. People had the courage and people were not afraid of using their own names or participating in activities, advocacy, convening in person, live or in media, social media etc. because there was a chance, or at least hope for Syrian people that the situation in Syria will change. That the Syrian regime will change or will fall. We felt that they were weak. But now, people are seeing the Syrian regime is regaining power all over Syria. [...] So people are more afraid now. With every week that passes, I feel like we are losing more activists. More people are turning to be more quiet.”
NOOR: It was surprising to hear, of all people, an activist speaking so openly about disheartening facts like these. But Ahmad pointed out that activism is becoming increasingly dangerous, especially for people who have family in Syria. And not because of Assad’s secret activities, but rather the legitimizing of the regime by others. He lays the blame for that particularly with the international community.
In October 2021 the American magazine Newsweek put a portrait of Assad on their cover with the bold headline: ‘He’s back’.
And in Denmark there has recently been a push to declare Syria safe to return to. And in the beginning of October 2021, Interpol, the global policing organization, let Syria back into its communication networks. A move which is especially dangerous for activists abroad.
AHMAD: “Lots of activists are really scared. Lots of even non-activists, victims and survivors and former activists, they are scared that their legal situation wherever they are, in the EU or other countries will be jeopardized.” [...] “We are still trying to assess the risk and how to deal with it, but it will definitely affect, you know. It might not lead to the arrest of me or other activists, but I think it might at least affect a visa application or an asylum application.”
NOOR: When the Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni went shopping in his local Turkish supermarket in Berlin in 2014, he spotted a man that he vaguely recognized but couldn’t immediately place.
The penny dropped only later, when he mentioned the encounter to a friend. Anwar Al Bunni had of course spotted Anwar R.
NAYA: The reason we don’t say his last name, and haven’t for the last one-and-a-half years, is because German authorities decided to prosecute Anwar R. and he is now officially a defendant in a criminal procedure.
NOOR: And the reason that we’re making a podcast about it, is because this German trial is the worldwide first criminal trial against regime officials.
In the context of everything we’ve talked about today, it’s worth pausing on that for a moment. The NRC article from the Netherlands argues that there are dozens of shabiha living there. And have been living there undisturbed for years.
NAYA: And yet the first Dutch trial against regime officials or shabiha has yet to start. So far, the Dutch authorities have been focussed on jihadists; people who fought with groups like ISIS and al-Nusra.
It’s a testament to the different ways in which countries’ authorities tackle the problem of Syrian regime presence within their borders.
And a testament to the political will of different countries’ governments. Because there probably are a lot of parallels between the plight of the Syrian community in the Netherlands and say, Syrians in Germany, and Sweden, and France, and so forth.
But it is only in Germany and only in 2020 that we see case-building and investigations in these countries resulting in a criminal trial against former regime officials, albeit against two relatively low-ranking accused.
NOOR: At best, European countries are just slow because they are trying to be careful and precise. But there are hints of incompetence, indifference and as some critics would argue, plain opportunism as well.
Remember the shabih living in the Netherlands that allegedly recruited minors for his militia? The reason why he agreed to do an interview with a Dutch national newspaper in the first place, was because the Dutch immigration services already investigated him, but didn’t take any action.
And the intelligence officer accused of war crimes that the New Yorker wrote about? He was initially refused asylum in France. In fact, under the Refugee Convention clause that states that asylum can be denied to those suspected guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity. However, according to the New Yorker article he was whisked away to Austria with the help of Austrian and Israeli intelligence services. They saw him as an asset. He apparently ended up under Austrian protection, with a flat in Vienna and a €5000 euro monthly stipend. No one knows where he is now.
NAYA: In any case, many Syrian refugees who should be safe where they are, are not. And the efforts of the authorities of their new home countries to protect them, too often fail the millions of survivors of oppression, persecution, torture and violence.
NOOR: Yes, Koblenz is a step in the right direction, but what if the road is longer than we thought? What if it runs through our own backyard?
PAULINE: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcasts production. Today’s episode was hosted by Noor Hamadeh and Naya Skaf. It was written, produced and edited by me, Pauline Peek, with editorial help from Fritz Streiff and Noor Hamadeh. A big thanks to Mohammad Al-Abdallah for being so generous with his time and expertise. Special thanks to Ahmad Helmi for sharing with remarkable openness his experiences and views. Our special thanks also goes out to Esther Rosenberg and Melvyn Ingleby from NRC for their in-depth reporting on this issue and to Mariana Karkoutly for her insight. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office funds that are provided by IFA’s Zivik Funding Programme.