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Syria: Alawite activist movement was 'created by British government'

A Syrian man holds his national flag bearing a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Maalula, Syria on 14 April 2014 [STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A Syrian man holds his national flag bearing a portrait of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Maalula, Syria on 14 April 2014 [STR/AFP via Getty Images)

An online movement run by Syria's Alawite community targeting the Assad regime was created on behalf of the British government, it has been alleged by Middle East Eye, which has apparently had access to official documents.

Sarkha ("The Cry") claimed to be a grassroots movement created by "the Alawite community" — from which Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad hails — and was reportedly launched in the coastal city of Tartus in 2014. It emerged to protest against the high casualty rate of Alawite men serving in the Syrian army in the ongoing civil war.

With a Facebook page, leaflets, posters on the walls of the local area and its short videos showing the campaign's slogans being sprayed on walls, Sarkha reportedly spread to other areas along the coast. That is the heartland of Syria's Alawite community, especially the city of Latakia and the island of Arwad.

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The campaign grew and expanded to other parts of the country. Its Facebook page attracted around 100,000 likes and the movement established its own website.

The documents seen by Middle East Eye, however, revealed that Sarkha was actually created by an American company named Pechter Polls of Princeton, which worked under a contract with the British government. It was previously being managed by the Ministry of Defence in Whitehall under a unit named Military Strategic Effects, but was then handed over to another company associated with the government called the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund.

In the past few years, Sarkha has been cited by media outlets as a credible movement "launched by civil society activists" while the British government's role remained hidden.

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The movement's message was focused primarily on the high casualty rate amongst Syrian Alawites fighting in the Syrian army, saying that the regime — although being led by a fellow Alawite — was discarding the young men for its own aims and interests. It also reported that many of the community's men drafted into the army were deserting and many were being detained in regime prisons.

Sarkha advocated that the Alawite community should put aside any sectarian feelings and unite with other ethnic and religious communities across Syria, particularly with the majority Sunni population. Later on it rebranded itself as "Speak Up" and then "Same Pain" in 2017.

One former activist for the movement told Middle East Eye: "There is a financier who pays you and plans to end the sectarian problems in your country and raise the voice of the oppressed, and this is not bad. I am confident of my work and the message I did, whatever the source of the funding." He added that despite this, he did not think that it was completely successful. "When the campaign ended, the contact person for Alawites left for Europe."

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The claim that Sarkha had no real impact was echoed by others. According to one journalist based in Tartus, "This campaign had no actual impact or presence." An Alawite dissident claimed, "I have never heard of it."

The unnamed dissident was not surprised, however, as the totalitarian nature of the regime and its methods of suppression make many people "afraid to interact with them for fear of security issues." He added that, "There are many who agree with the campaign, but who cannot express their opinion or even sympathise with it."

The revelation of Sarkha comes three months after the news website also revealed that the British government installed and operated a network of civilian activists within Syria, paying them – unbeknown to them – through cover organisations to report on the situation within the country and use the information for campaigns against the regime. Sarkha was one of the five main programmes commissioned by Britain, giving a hint of how much some foreign intelligence agencies have been involved in Syria.

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