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Is Assad trying to silence Syrian dissidents based overseas?

President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad is welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen) in Sochi, Russia on 17 May, 2018 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]
President of Syria Bashar Al-Assad is welcomed by Russian President Vladimir Putin (not seen) in Sochi, Russia on 17 May, 2018 [Kremlin Press Office/Anadolu Agency]

There are fears that anti-Assad activists around the world are being targeted for assassination by the Syrian regime following the brutal murder of a prominent businessman now living in Germany. Mohamed Joune, 48, collapsed on a street in Hamburg on Tuesday night after stumbling out of a nearby building. He was barely conscious when paramedics rushed him to hospital with serious head wounds and one of his fingers cut off. Forensic experts who examined his body post-mortem believe that an axe had been used to inflict the terrible injuries.

The pharmacist owned several properties in Harburg in the south of Hamburg where he also ran a humanitarian aid charity called the Union of Syrians Abroad. Founded in 2011, the charity’s mission statement says that it aims “to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people, especially women and children, both in Syria and in neighbouring countries.” His friends believe that Joune’s involvement in the charity and his vocal opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad could be the reason why he was targeted. “The likelihood is that Mohamed was killed for his political activities,” one told the Bild newspaper.

Joune was talking about organising a demonstration to mark the 8th anniversary of the uprising against Assad. German police say that they are looking into all possibilities but, if true, this would not be the first time that the Assad regime’s tentacles have stretched into Europe to spread terror and fear among political opponents.

The truth is that Syrian intelligence is used to meddling in foreign affairs and has a long and dark history of doing so, regardless of the human cost. In 1986, following a series of terror-related incidents in Britain, Italy and what was then West Germany, western intelligence agencies hinted that the investigation trail was leading them to the regime of Assad’s father, President Hafez Assad. The evidence exposed a close relationship between Syrian intelligence and the Jordanian citizen arrested in London for attempting to blow up El Al Flight 016 on 17 April, 1986 as well as with his brother, who confessed to bombing an Arab-German club in West Berlin three weeks earlier with explosives provided by the Syrian Embassy in East Berlin.

In Britain, Nezar Hindawi, 31, attempted to blow up the Israeli aircraft leaving Heathrow Airport by planting explosives on his pregnant girlfriend. Syria provided a considerable amount of help to Hindawi, including a false Syrian passport for use when entering Britain and a letter from the Foreign Ministry in Damascus to obtain a visa. Hindawi has said that he used a Syrian-owned safe house in London and had extensive contacts with Syrian Embassy officials before and after the El Al flight incident.

Immediately after leaving his Irish girlfriend to board the plane at Heathrow Airport, Hindawi boarded a bus to catch a 2pm Syrian Arab Airlines flight for Damascus, until he heard on the news that the bomb had been discovered at London’s main airport. He went to the Syrian Embassy and the ambassador passed him over to the security team, who took him to their lodgings, where they tried to change his appearance by cutting and dyeing his hair. Early the next morning, for some unknown reason, he gave himself up to the Metropolitan Police. Meanwhile, his brother, Ahmed Nawaf Mansour Hasi, 36, who was living in West Berlin, planted a bomb at La Belle discotheque in the city on 5 April; an American soldier and a Turkish woman were killed in the explosion, with 230 wounded.

President Hafez Assad was also held responsible, directly or indirectly, for the assassinations of Lebanese Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt in 1977 and Lebanese President-elect Bashir Gemayel in 1982, and for abetting the Shia who blew up the US Marines barracks in Beirut in October 1983, killing 241 soldiers.

The then Syrian President is thought to have chosen the El Al flight as a target in revenge for being humiliated by Tel Aviv after Israeli jets forced a Libyan executive flight carrying nine top Syrian officials to land in Israel for a search and inspection on 4 February, 1983. The Israelis said that they had targeted the jet in error. Israeli warplanes intercepted it in international airspace en route from Libya to Syria; it was held on the ground for five hours while it was searched. According to a military spokesman in Israel, the plane was diverted in the belief that “persons involved in planning an attack against Israel” were on board.

During his 29 years in power, Assad senior created a vast, complex intelligence network, with up to nine secret service agencies providing logistical support, explosives and various forms of indirect assistance to terror networks active in Western Europe. It now seems that his son is benefitting from this extensive network and there are genuine concerns that contract killers are once more being deployed by Damascus to silence dissenting voices overseas; a trail of blood is evident once more.

On 22 September 2017, for example, a leading Syrian opposition activist and her journalist daughter were murdered in their apartment in Istanbul. Orouba Barakat, 60, a member of the Syrian Opposition Council, was reportedly investigating the use of torture in government prisons in Syria, especially against women. She had initially moved to Britain, then the United Arab Emirates before settling with her 22-year-old daughter Halla in Istanbul.

“The hand of tyranny and injustice assassinated my sister, Dr Orouba, and her daughter Halla in their apartment in Istanbul,” Orouba’s sister Shaza wrote on Facebook, adding that they were stabbed to death. “Orouba wrote headlines in the front page and she pursued criminals and exposed them. Her name and her daughter’s name, Halla, now make front page headlines.”

Closer to home, on 23 November last year a prominent Syrian activist who led a protest movement against the Assad regime was assassinated by gunmen. Raed Fares, 45, was a vocal critic of both Islamist extremists in Syria and the regime in Damascus. He was said to be the driving force behind the pro-democracy campaign in the small town of Kafranbel in Idlib province.

As Syria’s civil war descended into chaos and violence, Fares and his supporters in Kafranbel became known as the “conscience of the revolution” for their determination to stick to the original, democratic ideals of the Syrian uprising. They held weekly demonstrations in the town calling out everyone who stood in the way of their ambitions for a democratic Syria. Eye-catching banners were written in Arabic, Turkish and broken English, but their messages were clear and direct and often linked atrocities in Syria to other incidents around the world, including the Black Lives Matter campaigns. “Charleston shootings are the other face of Assad massacres. Terrorism has no nationality, or religion” read one of Fares’s banners in 2015, following a mass shooting at a church in North Carolina, USA.

His final post was published on his Facebook page on 5 October 2018. “The people of Kafranbel are in Huriyah [Freedom] Square and voices are chanting: The people want the downfall of the regime. We started this in 2011 and we are continuing. Our loyalty to the martyrs and detainees has increased our determination.”

Syria, ever mindful of its reputation overseas, especially in the West, has always worked hard to avoid being implicated in political assassinations or terror plots on foreign soil. In the past it has seemed that wherever such crimes have been committed there has been confusion on the ground as to the identity of the culprits and suspects.

While some Al-Qaida backed militia are also suspected of targeting Raed Fares, other critics say that Assad’s intelligence network has taken advantage of the activist’s unpopularity with militant groups to cloud the issue of responsibility. Few, however, believe that the blame lies far from Damascus in the murders of Mohamed Joune in Germany or Orouba Barakat and her daughter Halla in Istanbul.

If Assad is out to silence his detractors overseas then the goal is to seek legitimacy for his position in the international community. Now that some governments are contemplating reopening their embassies in Damascus, following in the footsteps of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, it looks likely that Syrian dissidents around the world will be feeling more vulnerable than ever.

Of course, it doesn’t help when high profile delegations from Britain’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, led by the likes of Baroness Caroline Cox, embark on so-called propaganda trips to legitimise a regime whose barbarism plumbs new depths daily. I, for one, am still haunted by the voices of the tortured women I spoke to last year after they had escaped from Assad’s prisons; and I’m even more troubled by the fact there are still 7,000 other women incarcerated without trial or charge by the Assad regime, along with 400 children.

Now it seems that Bashar Al-Assad will stop at nothing to silence anyone who works against him and his regime as he continues to embark on a charm offensive with gullible states or opportunist governments. Should we be afraid? Well it would be foolhardy not to take extra care over personal security, but Syrian intimidation will not silence us. Assad needs to be called out for what he is: a brute of a man who has absolutely no place in Syria’s future. Those who seek to rehabilitate him and his regime should know now that they will be on the wrong side of history when the books come to be written.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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