Branch 251/
S2E9: Factory of Fear


In this episode, Fritz and Asser explore the historical ties between Germany's intelligence services and Syria's Mukhabarat. How did they come about and what did Syria learn from Germany? And how does Koblenz fit into this? Guests: Jaber Baker and Noura Chalati.

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Episode Transcript


Fritz Streiff: Germany, the country that for the first time put Syrian regime officials on criminal trial, has historical ties with Syria. Those ties include some well, let's say from a historical perspective, "interesting episodes." That's what we want to talk about on the podcast today.


Welcome to this episode of Branch 251. My name is Fritz Streiff.

Asser Khattab: I'm Asser Khattab.

Fritz Streiff: During the reading of the oral verdict against Eyad A. back in February, presiding Judge Kerber emphasized the role of the Mukhabarat. The role that the Mukhabarat had in the structure behind the crimes against humanity that the court found to have taken place. The Mukhabarat, we've heard it so often now that name. Let's start with that, Asser. What does Mukhabarat actually mean? and is it specifically a Syrian term?

Asser Khattab: Well, no. The term itself is used widely in Arabic and it describes the same thing in other Arab countries. Namely the intelligence services. It has a very similar connotation in those countries, but yes, in another way, the mukhabarat, as we have used the term on this podcast, and more generally in the context of this trial, that is very much a Syrian story.


Unlike what many people, think the roots of the police state in the country don't lie in the 2011 revolution. It wasn't invented by Bashar al-Assad when he came to power after his father's death in 2000 either. Even during his father Hafez al-Assad's three-decade reign over the country from 1970 to 2000, the Mukhabarat wasn't new. It had been around for a long time.

Fritz Streiff: The era of the Syrian police state, although it has continued to change over the decades, can be traced back to the mid-fifties. It is widely believed that the assassination of prominent Syrian army general Adnan al-Malki in 1955 was used to unleash the Secret Police onto the Syrian people and allow them to start dominating the lives of Syrians. From that moment, the power and cruelty of the Secret Police kept steadily increasing.

Asser Khattab: In 1963, The Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party came to power. The party stood for a highly ideological mix of socialist anti-imperialist and pan-Arab nationalist principles. With them in power, the dominance of the Mukhabarat continued to increase. The incoming Ba'ath government made the Secret Police rise above the state itself and its establishments.

The military and security institutions became bigger and more powerful than the state itself, rather than being a powerful component of it. The state allowed the Secret Police to become so big because the Secret Police was really the state's secret weapon. It helped them hold onto power. When Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1970, the Mukhabarat, as we know it today, started to take shape.


Fritz Streiff: In the verdict against Eyad A, the Koblenz Court referred to the Mukhabarat as a quote “an essential element of the Assad rule, which had as its goal, the decomposition of society and a climate of mistrust”. That word decomposition is the most accurate translation of the German word that Judge Kerber used, which is zersetzung. That word originates from-- It's used by the East German Intelligence Services, the Stasi.

Decomposition, that is what the Stasi called a psychological warfare technique it used against its own people. Judge Kerber used it in comparison with how the Mukhabarat works. From the early days of the Hafez al-Assad rule, torture, both physical and mental was administered by the Mukhabarat to reach those goals.

Asser Khattab: We spoke to Jaber al-Bakr, who is a Syrian journalist and researcher who has worked extensively on the history and the present of the Syrian Mukhabarat and its complexities.

Jaber: [Arabic language].

Translator: The Syrian regime is a nebulous regime and that it is everywhere, but its presence is not tangible. It's more liquid than solid and enters all the junctions of the Syrian state's establishment without it being tangible.

Jaber: [Arabic language].

Asser Khattab: There are numerous Mukhabarat branches in Syria. Their differences and similarities can't be laid out clearly because the nature of their remit is not quite specified to start with. Some of those branches are more military and linked to the army, such as the Military Security Branch, which is one of the most notorious ones and doesn't limit its work to military affairs at all. There are also branches that are supposedly more civilian, such as the General Intelligence, more commonly known as the State Intelligence, which is most known to Syrian civilians as it has a major role in policing them.

This is the very intelligence apparatus that the Al-Khatib Branch is part of, and where both Anwar R. and Eyad A. worked. Another major division is the Air Force Intelligence. While the name might prompt one to think that this branch only has to do with aerial intelligence gathering, their influence goes far beyond that. This is all part of the nebulous nature of the Syrian regime as Jaber has put it. The names imply different jurisdictions and areas of interest, but they all have the shared goal of keeping the regime in power and they could all crackdown on people's basic rights in similar ways as Jaber explained to us.

There is this kind of competition between them, which helps the Syrian regime control them better and makes them more efficient

Jaber: [Arabic language].

Translator: Who anchors the security operators is often overlooked by Syrians who consider that it has a purely military duty, the Military Police. But, with time and with the Caesar photos and other files that are emerging, we are discovering that the military police have a very important role like that of the oil and engines.

Jaber: [Arabic language].

Translator: The Syrian security operators and the Mukhabarat all have a specific task, keeping the regime in power. This requires those apparatuses to infiltrate every single detail of life in Syria, whether in military or civilian circles. Starting with having collaborators who are street vendors to appointing ministers and diplomats and ambassadors.

Jaber: [Arabic language]

Translator: There's a kind of competition between those apparatuses to prove their loyalty to the regime, which is the reason that they're under continued existence.

Jaber: [Arabic language]

Fritz Streiff: According to the Koblenz court's first verdict, Hafez's son, Bashar took over the existing Mukhabarat structures and used them to his advantage. The presiding judge said that I quote again, "The Mukhabarat played a decisive role in oppressing the uprising after it started in March 2011". In fact, Bashar al-Assad I quote, "Used the Mukhabarat to suppress and annihilate the uprising."

Jaber: [Arabic language].

Translator: This duty of the Mukhabarat to infiltrate civilian life, is part of the state of socialization terrorization that the regime has practiced since the '70s against the Syrian people in order to perpetuate its existence, because the Syrian society is vibrant and resistant.

Jaber: [Arabic language].

Fritz Streiff: The court learned from Syrian expert witnesses during the trial, that the main goal of the torture practice of the Mukhabarat before the uprising was to get information next to general infiltration and intimidation purposes. Then in response to the uprising and ever since, the main goal is direct intimidation, punishment, and killing.

Asser Khattab: Those are the words of the court. The court in Koblenz, Germany. What's interesting though, is that this same country has historic ties to this intelligence service called the Mukhabarat. Ties that go back at least to the post World War II years, when former Nazi officials came to Syria as intelligence advisors. A different Germany, very different but Germany, nevertheless.


Fritz Streiff: After the fall of Nazi Germany, many former officials in the Hitler regime tried to flee from Germany. They wanted to hide their identities and establish new and low-key lives in other countries. Many famously relocated to countries in Latin America, but some of them actually ended up in Syria, where they were granted new lives and protection. Why, though? Why would anyone protect these people who had had so much blood on their hands? We asked Noura Chalati about this. Noura is a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin and a research fellow at Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient also in Berlin.

Noura: Declassified CIA documents talk about German military advisors in Syria who were former Nazis and served in the Schutzstaffel SS. The main timeframe we are talking about here is from 1948 to 1954. During that time, several 100 officers came to Syria to modernize the Syrian army and they also got involved in reorganizing Syrian Military Intelligence. These officers were mainly recruited in Germany, Austria or Switzerland or from prisoner of war camps in Italy or Egypt as it seems. For their travel, they were provided with the visas and travel documents.

Syria was considered a convenient destination because after World War II, many of these officials were both jobless and afraid of potential prosecution, and thus, Syria provided a welcome safe haven and a lucrative place to work in.

Asser Khattab: Former high-ranking Nazi officials could find refuge in Syria in exchange for advice on how to improve Syria's intelligence services, Syria's Mukhabarat. Perhaps the most famous of such cases is that of Alois Brunner. Brunner is said to have been the right hand of Adolf Eichmann. He was in charge of a concentration camp in Darcy during the occupation of France. Brunner is accused of having caused the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews during World War II. Brunner settled in Damascus where he was allegedly known as Dr. Fischer.

He reportedly provided consultations to the Syrian regime on the Mukhabarat sector, but Brunner was not as safe as he might have hoped. While he was consulting the Syrian regime, the Israeli's apparently tried to have him killed through their own intelligence services of course, the Mossad. They sent him a letter bomb that exploded in his hands and although it caused him considerable damage, it did not kill him.

Fritz Streiff: Brunner was not the only Nazi that relocated to Syria. A declassified CIA document from November 1948, states that a total of at least 235 former Nazis came to Syria.

Asser Khattab: It is impossible to say how influential former Nazi officials advising the Syrian intelligence services really were. The declassified CIA documents speak of a timeframe of former Nazi officials in Syria between 1948 and 1954 but that is not where the story of German intelligence advisors in Syria stops. According to Jaber; detention survivors testimonies from the 80s included them saying that they heard people speaking in German, in prisons such as the Palmyra prison.

Fritz Streiff: Who were these Germans in these Syrian prisons in the 1980s?

Noura: In the beginning of the 1960s and 1963, there was a coup in Syria which brought the Ba'athist party to power. There was a change in policy, or there was a change in ideological direction. The Stasi involvement in Syria started before Hafez al-Assad came to power. The first formal cooperation request that I know of is from 1966. It was a letter from the head of foreign intelligence in the GDR, Markus Wolf to his superior Erich Mielke, which mentions that the Syrian Interior Ministry, which was to get in contact with the Stasi, because the Syrians were very interested in training their political police.

Asser Khattab: When political landscapes change, new alliances or at least new relationships can be formed. That was the case between the newly found East German State and the New Syria after the coups in the 50s and 60s.

Fritz Streiff: We're now at the beginning of the Cold War, a highly politically-tense period in modern history and of course, the age of spies and intelligence. The world was basically divided into two blocs that stood diametrically opposed to one another. The East German GDR State with its intelligence services was a key member of the Communist Bloc and Syria was part of the Non-Aligned Movement supposedly between the Capitalist West and the Communist East.

Asser Khattab: That did not keep these two states from interacting with each other, especially the East German Intelligence Service, the Stasi, and its Syrian counterpart, the Mukhabarat.

Noura: Mostly the cooperation took shape in mutually-sent delegations, exchanges of students and the training of personnel. The purpose of these exchanges was to learn from each other, especially about the functioning and the organizational set up, mostly of the East German institutions. As far as I can say, most requests for cooperation of exchanges come from the Syrian side. Surely during that time, personnel relations were established during these frequent visits and exchanges.

Occasionally, I do find some very detailed minutes of dinner conversations and that's always quite fun to read in a way. You wouldn't imagine how drunk all of these intelligence officers get all the time.

Fritz Streiff: After the hangovers passed, the gathered intelligence was put to work. The Mukhabarat started using the techniques and methods they learned from the Stasi, not just on Syrians in Syria. Noura found documents showing that Syrians living in East Germany at the time were followed and surveyed by the Mukhabarat including through bugging devices in their homes.

Asser Khattab: Inside Syria, the Mukhabarat quickly started using similar techniques on dissidents inside the country, but not just dissidents. Going back to Koblenz again, as presiding judge Kerber noted when reading out the verdict against Eyad A, the Assad rule started employing techniques to sow a general climate of mistrust with the aim of disintegrating society.

Noura: In my comparative analysis of the Stasi and the Mukhabarat, it is very interesting to see how both agencies used extensive surveillance mechanisms and eavesdropping monitoring of the civilian population, and so on and how are these techniques, these mechanisms were very similar with both agencies. This is definitely something that the Koblenz trial also brings to light.

It's one important aspect where I see similarities between my work and the Koblenz trial, what comes to light in the Koblenz trial. There's a lot of information about how the culture of fear influences individual activities, individual practices, individual behavior, whether it's called self-disciplining. How we self-discipline our behavior knowing someone is maybe listening in.

Fritz Streiff: Much of this was known already, but the Koblenz trial and especially the verdict against Eyad A really made it clear, again. The central role that the Mukhabarat played and still plays in instilling fear into Syrians and how people in reaction to that start self-disciplining, self-censoring.

Noura: One other thing that I'm thinking about now with regard to the Koblenz trial is that of bureaucracy. What I see in the relations is that they have been very bureaucratic, and not only have the relations been very bureaucratic with lots of minutes and protocols and paperwork and so on but also the topic of stipulations has been bureaucracies.The Syrian side was very interested in learning about bureaucratic structures, the bureaucratic apparatus in the GDR. For example, I have one document that states that the Syrian Intelligence was interested in learning from the Stasi about population registers. How the Stasi collects and keeps and maintains information about the population.

Interestingly, the Stasi was not willing to pass on this program, because they said it would take too much effort and time and money to reorganize or to rebuild that program in a way that the Syrians could use it as well. I think this is already an interesting hint at what the Syrians were interested in.


Fritz Streiff: We learned from Noura that Stasi-Mukhabarat relations ended around the mid-80s. Both states were in huge economic crises at the time and apparently, the Syrians were unable to settle certain bills with East Germany. Then, something remarkable happened that solved this problem in a rather extreme way. The East German State ceased to exist shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. All the records and files about this relationship went into the archives for us to now study and learn from.


Carl Sagen said: "You have to know the past to understand the present".

Asser Khattab: That's right. From Jaber and Noura's accounts, we learned that the Mukhabarat has had input over decades from German sources, from individuals and institutions that are no longer part of the modern German state, from a different period in international relations, and relations between intelligence services. 

Fritz Streiff: What remains, though, is that some of the key ways in which the Mukhabarat oppresses and controls its own people seem to, at least in part, originate from German teachings. The bureaucracy, the eavesdropping on your own people, the structure.

Asser Khattab: And so, just like many Germans were scared of the Gestapo, just like many East Germans were scared of the Stasi, the Syrian people are afraid of Mukhabarat. There is one central element to all of this in terms of what this produces among people and that is fear.

Fritz Streiff: It seems this fear is absolutely central to the workings of these intelligence services that we heard about today. It's both a method and a goal. Teaching the power of fear is how they influenced each other and learned from each other, creating a culture of fear to control the population and secure the tight grip on dictatorial power.


Asser Khattab: On the next episode of Branch 251, Hannah El-Hitami will give us the latest from the courtroom. See you then.


Pauline Peek: Branch 251 is a 75 Podcast production. This episode was written and hosted by Asser Khattab and Fritz Streiff. Production, editing, and mixing by myself, Paulina Peek. Saleem Salameh provided this episode's overdubbing. Special thanks to our guests, Jaber al-Bakr and Noura Chalati. Support for our podcast comes from German Federal Foreign Office Funds that are provided by IFA's zivik funding program.


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