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Syria’s security services flourish while people starve; what sort of ‘president’ is Assad?

Displaced Syrians wait for their food at a refugee camp in Syria on 10 May 2020 [DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images]
Displaced Syrians wait for their food at a refugee camp in Syria on 10 May 2020 [DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images]

It is no surprise that the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre has released documents revealing that Syrian Embassies around the world spy on their own citizens on behalf of the Assad regime. Every Syrian who has travelled abroad for any reason knows that the regime’s embassies and consulates are nothing but branches of the security services, and that intelligence gathering is their main task. Commercial, economic and consular services are mere accompaniments to the security mission. Syrian diplomats, meanwhile, know that the top official in their embassies is the “security attaché” not the ambassador.

However, what is striking in these documents is that such surveillance has continued throughout the crisis affecting the regime and, indeed, the whole country. It is logical that the regime’s interest in exiled dissidents should take second place behind the major revolution in which hundreds of thousands of Syrians have played a direct role. The Syrian security services have never faced such a challenge before and do not have enough trained staff to deal with it. If they don’t have the tools to control events on the ground in Syria, how can they hope to monitor people overseas who are not that important in the great scheme of things when compared with revolutionaries on the doorstep of the presidential palace and the headquarters of the same government agencies?

In less than three months after the start of the revolution, security officials issued lists of hundreds of thousands of wanted people who participated, one way or another, in the revolution. It is known that between 2011 and 2013 the Syrian security services arrested hundreds of thousands of people and put the names of more than a million people on the “wanted” list. This reveals the extent to which the agents penetrated Syrian society, with large networks across the country through which they were able to collect a huge amount of information about the regime’s opponents.

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In information leaked later, it became clear that Iran had provided Bashar Al-Assad’s security services with modern cameras to photograph demonstrations to pinpoint key people. Many protesters who were arrested in the first few months mentioned that interrogators showed them their photos taken during the demonstrations. Nevertheless, the bulk of arrests were made apparently at random, sometimes without suspicion, when regime forces were combing villages, streets and areas in the cities. Some of the regime’s informants and militiamen were also arrested, and some of them were killed under torture by mistake.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, Syria on 7 September 2020 [Russian Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus, Syria on 7 September 2020 [Russian Foreign Ministry/Anadolu Agency]

It is no secret that the Syrian intelligence services do not use modern methods in their work, such as analysis of data and real information. Instead, most of their work is based on written reports prepared by officials with very little education and inappropriate training. Confessions are always obtained through torture and are also forged, with detainees then forced to sign them. Signatures are not always obtained, because the detainees are most likely going to be killed in any case.

From the beginning of 2013 until 2017, the Assad regime’s control declined to less than 20 per cent of Syria, and its security networks were dismantled across the country. Protecting the head of the regime and his cronies in Damascus became the main priority of the Syrian security services. Despite this, the security machine continued to operate with incomprehensible intensity and efficiency, following exiles, planting spies and informants, and openly moving its people around in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and even Turkey to boost demonstrations in support of the regime. Some even dared to threaten refugees that their families and friends in Syria would be punished if they didn’t collaborate. Organisations and clubs were set up for refugees so that the security services could monitor their movements and activities.

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It is worth noting that in France there are large numbers of Syrian doctors, university professors, merchants and currency exchange workers, most of whom studied in France before the revolution. French universities offered “scholarships” which were allocated to those close to and trusted by the regime in Damascus. We do not know whether these people returned to France by order of the regime to perform a specific task, or if they fled from the war, but it is certain that they support the regime enthusiastically.

Assad and his regime are unable to provide any solution to the economic crisis affecting Syria, which has reached the point where famine is very likely, and yet they still have the time and resources — human and financial — to spy on ordinary citizens through a so-called “electronic army”. This demonstrates that the “Syrian republic” of Assad is nothing but a police state, with all government institutions subject to the diktats of the security services. At a time when all aspects of normal life in Syria are disrupted to the point of disintegration, the security services continue to flourish. What sort of “president” does that make Bashar Al-Assad?

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 8 October 2020

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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