Uncovering Syria (I): Tales of a Spying State

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A pro-Syrian regime protester with a tattoo on his chest of Syrian President Bashar Assad, left, and his brother Bassel Assad, right, in Beirut. (Photo: Haytham al-Moussawi)

By: Basheer al-Baker

Published Thursday, August 25, 2011

Intelligence is a term that has woven itself into the daily lives of the Syrian people. It has acquired many names, become synonymous with ‘terror’, and its agents have been featured as the protagonists of novels, films, and television programs. Every Syrian living in the Assad era has his or her own story. Very few have been spared exposure to interrogations, beatings, detentions, compromises, pressure and travel bans. This spider-like apparatus follows its own rules, determined not by law but by an obedience fostered through coercion.

Sultan and Vengeance

When Sultan died in Paris in early 2008, his wife and daughter were at a loss over his burial. He had asked that his remains be transported to Daraa in Syria, but security clearance was not granted by the government. Sultan had passed away after a long and dignified battle with cancer and his family was caught between the desire to fulfil his last wishes and the stubbornness of a security apparatus that was entirely oblivious to their suffering. For days they held off the funeral, waiting for an answer. Prominent residents of Daraa sought the intervention of his cousin who was a government official. At first he vowed to resolve this “humanitarian crisis,” but soon relented upon learning of the Intelligence Service’s position on the matter.

Sultan’s wife sobs over the grave of her husband as she lays him to rest in a foreign cemetery. Their two bewildered French-born daughters who know nothing of Syria ask, “Why all this severity? What heinous crime did our father commit for him to be exiled in death also? What would it have cost the Syrian state to allow his remains to be transported to his hometown? Can the page not be turned, even in death?”

They will receive no reply, and, even in the presence of death, no definitive answer with which to sooth the family’s pain. Someone ventures, “It is about vengeance. They see this as revenge, his penance for escaping prison.” The dour faces seem to mutter in unison: the Intelligence Service is heartless.

Farouq’s Story: There is Only One Syria

Before Sultan, there was Abou Yasar, and after him there was Farouq, who passed away upon his return from a protest celebrating the departure of President Hosni Mubarak. The tragedy repeated itself when Farouq’s wife tried to repatriate his remains for burial in his hometown of Hama. She thought the situation had changed because she had visited Syria several times. The authorities allowed her an annual visit after an initial two-week detention period by the Intelligence Service.

When she returned to France after her incarceration, she told her neighbours tales from the Syrian ‘House of the Dead’ that made the women cry as if they were at a funeral. French, Moroccan, Algerian and African women listened in disbelief to this woman who only longed to visit her hometown and country. She endured two weeks of interrogations and intelligence checks before being deported to Paris, strictly because her husband was a dissident.

Her French neighbour asked her with intense suspicion, “Did you participate in anti-regime activities in your country? Who is your husband? Is he a new Mandela for you to be subjected to all this torture?”

The confounded Syrian woman could not muster an answer, sighing: “the Intelligence.” Her husband was a Nasserite, not a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or a Radical Communist. He was studying in France and planned to return home, but he was mixed up in protests demanding the release of political prisoners and he signed a few solidarity petitions. She never learned how or why the Intelligence had branded him a threat. Farouq used to mock the simple-mindedness of an apparatus that spends its time pursuing peaceful opponents.

His condition represented a peculiar type of Syrian, because he was an active participant in what was known as the Coordination Committee, rather than in the Damascus Declaration. The committee had taken it upon itself to condemn the US Administration’s attempts to pressure Syria in recent years. It gained broad sympathy from other communities by focusing attention on the fact that Syria was being targeted by external forces. But despite its activities, the committee did not win over the regime, mainly because it was composed of dissidents. In the eyes of the State security apparatus, the regime is the sole bearer of the honour of patriotism and there is only one Syria; the Syria of the State security spparatus.

Burhan Ghalioun and Taking Money from the Dead

Burhan Ghalioun, the Sorbonne University professor and renowned renaissance thinker, has had many encounters with the world of security – some funny, others woeful. Circumstances compelled him to carry a Mauritanian passport for several years. During one of his travels and on his way out, the hotel receptionist told him that there was a student delegation from his country requesting a meeting with him. He of course accepted, thinking they were Syrian students, but then was surprised to find that they were Mauritanian.

In another story, and during one of his visits to Syria, he was asked to call on one of the State Security branches before returning to Paris. He hailed a taxi and gave the driver the address. Throughout the journey, the driver stole sympathetic glances at him while muttering Quranic verses. Then when they arrived, the driver refused to take the fare, saying: “I don’t take money from the dead.”

Burhan asked for an explanation. “You don’t seem to know where you are going,” said the driver. “Whoever goes into this security branch never comes out alive. But don’t worry, I have read the Fatiha [the first verses of the Quran] for your soul.” Miraculously, Burhan came out alive.

The Palestine Branch: ‘You think you’re special?’

The security branch in question is the Palestine Branch. I once asked one of its survivors why it was called the Palestine Branch. “Perhaps because it is frequented by Israeli agents,” he replied bitterly.

Adel, who had never joined a political party, was studying in France. For no clear reason, he was summoned by the Palestine Branch on every visit to Syria. If he grumbled, the officer would retort: “Do you think your French nationality protects you? Go home and come back tomorrow at 7am.”

People shout and wave a flag of Syria during an opposition rally in front of the consulate in Geneva. (Photo: AFP - Fabrice Coffrini)People shout and wave a flag of Syria during an opposition rally in front of the consulate in Geneva. (Photo: AFP - Fabrice Coffrini)

“Why have you come so early?” the guard would ask him the next day.

“The officer told me to,” Adel would reply.

“By God you look like a good dutiful citizen,” the guard would remark.

Hours later, when he arrived, the officer would call out to the guard. “What is that jackass doing outside?”

“You asked for him sir,” the guard would say.

“Tell him to come back tomorrow. Does he think he’s special or something? Tell him to prepare a report about his acquaintances in France.”

This narrative would repeat itself over several days until the officer was satisfied that Adel did not have any useful information. He would let him leave, on condition that Adel provide him with intelligence from time to time; and that on his next visit, he would visit without being summoned, armed with a comprehensive report about all his colleagues, including members of the Baath party. “We want to know if they are truly committed,” the officer wryly responded.

My Story: Champagne and the Coffee Invitation

My son and daughter have long mocked me, calling me a “hypothetical” Syrian.

“We’ve only once ever visited your country and we’ve never met your family. We don’t know your mother, father and siblings, or where you were born. We are 18 years of age and we still don’t have Syrian papers,” they would remark.

I used to always say to them that the situation in Syria was approaching détente.

“And what did you do for us not to go there?” they would retort.

I would respond with a sheer frankness that bordered on naivete: that I wrote articles and participated in solidarity events supporting friends who were writers and human rights activists. I expressed solidarity with the likes of Riyad al-Turk, Michel Kilo, Aref Dalilah, Fayez Sara and Anwar al-Bunni. I did little more than that and I had always rejected attempts to encircle and besiege Syria. I fell out with many activists who attempted to divert human rights activities to political party ones and then seek to represent the foreign-based opposition through meetings with the Americans. I retreated from activism altogether when some began to move in that direction.

When I took that decision, many of my friends had broken the boundary and gone to Syria. I was encouraged by the thought that everything below the bar of treason was considered an opinion and a stance; so a difference in opinion was unlikely to land me in jail. I might be harassed and made to pay for my opinions, but that would be the worst of it.

In April 2008, my friend Nabil, the Syrian News Agency correspondent in Paris, invited me to an Independence Day party at the Syrian Cultural Centre. I accepted the invitation. That day, I found myself holding my first glass of champagne that had been paid for by my government. To the bartender’s astonishment, I downed it instantly. He didn’t hesitate to ask: “What’s the rush?”

“This the first glass of champagne that I have raised to my country,” I replied.

He laughed loudly, attracting attention, and added: “Then you owe us lots of patriotism, and we owe you rivers of champagne.”

I immediately became a curiosity to some guests, who bombarded me with questions. I must have successfully passed the initial interrogation because a few days later, I received a call from a security official at the Syrian Embassy inviting me for coffee. I immediately accepted. There was no reason for me to make the connection between a cup of coffee in Paris and ‘a cup of coffee’ in Damascus, especially since we had agreed to meet at a café near my house one Sunday afternoon in May.

The man was affable at first, but suddenly became aggressive, listing a series of accusations against Syrians living abroad. He painted them all with the same brush: traitors who had hurt the nation, agents of the West, they spent their time loitering at the gates of Western embassies. According to him, they received cheques from Western intelligence agencies to distort the image of their country; they were conspirators, and so on and so forth.

When he was out of expletives, I asked him, “Why have you asked us to meet? Is it to make me listen to this broken record? I am not interested. I don’t know any so-called traitors. I have never met any of them in Paris or London. The people I know are university students, writers, journalists and artists. All of these people opposed international pressure on Syria between 2003 and 2006, and none of them participated in any conspiracy. Most escaped Syria’s corruption, and come to the West to live freely. Fortunately, the right to life and living here is not subject to compromise. These people may have built themselves up in the West and become citizens of the countries that opened their doors to them, yet they remained loyal to their country of origin and to the causes of the region--from the Palestinian cause to the Lebanese resistance to the occupation of Iraq. They harbour no political ambitions, but only want to maintain their connection to their country and to enjoy their rights. No more, no less.”

The man nodded sympathetically. Then asked, “So tell me. Who is at fault here, you or Syria? To put it simply, who turned his back on the other all this time, you or your country?”

“Both of us,” I said. “I left and never returned. I had no desire to return because circumstances were not appropriate. My country did not make me feel that I could return without taxing me beyond my means. But today, since some of my friends have partially returned, I would like to do the same.”

He repeated the question. “Tell me, did you leave of your own volition or were you evicted from your country?”

“No, I left of my own volition, because I wanted to save myself.”

He interrupted me gruffly. “No need to explain further. We both understand. You want to visit Syria. There is a problem, and you know what you need to do. You are a writer and journalist. Why don’t you reconcile with your country through your writing? I’ll state it plainly. I can give you an entry visa tomorrow if you write your biography, and I don’t mean a literary and poetic narrative. I want you to write about everything that has happened with you since the day you left Syria, and until this moment.”

“You want me to write a report about myself? Aren’t the reports that other people have written about me enough?” I gasped.

“No I don’t want a report. We don’t deal with reports. You writers are unfair towards state security. The Intelligence Service does not deal with reports, we just want to verify information. That’s another thing I would like to agree with you on – and please don’t take this the wrong way. I need to meet with you from time to time to gauge your opinion of certain events and people.”

“I apologise for this meeting, it will be our first and last,” I said. “I have nothing against you or your occupation in principle, but I cannot help you. This does not concern me. I am a writer and you can gauge my opinion through my writings. I have nothing to hide after 30 years of absence from my country. And if I want to return, it is not to work for you and certainly not to be silenced. I want to return as a citizen with rights and obligations. Syria is not yours because you are in power, it belongs to all its children.”

Part II: We are All Baathists

This article is translated from the Arabic Edition.


I'm a regular reader of Al-Akhbar in Arabic. What's nice about Al-Akhbar is that it can align itself with resistance against Israel and against imperialism but at the same time defend the basic human right of freedom. I am a Baathist, and I can claim that I am more Baathist than any of these pseudo-Baathists who are defending the regime's killing of protestors for the sake of the greater good. Remember: "Freedom, Socialism, Arab Unity." I am not going to say that Freedom comes before Palestine, but that both should at least equally important.

It appears that Al-Akhbar took the extra step of defaming Syria to the world. What is the meaning of publishing old articles? The Regime in Syrian is not perfect, what is under-attack now by the colonial powers and their protecterates in the Gulf and their media arms is not the cruelty of the Regime in Syria but its alliances with resistance forces, supposedly Al-Akhbar is aligned with the resistance against the colonial powers of West, who is Al-Akhbar is trying to impress?

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