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The Syrian predator

Members of Reporters Without Borders demonstrate outside the Syrian Embassy in Paris on World Press Freedom Day, 3rd May 2011. The poster reads “It’s ink, not blood that should run”. Photo: Thibault Camus/AP/Press Association Images

“There was a group of four Syrians in Manchester,” says anti-Assad campaigner Malik al-Abdeh. “Two of them cousins. They were sitting down having a meal, and one of the cousins cracked a rude joke about Bashar al-Assad. Everyone laughed, but when the meal had finished and the other two had gone home, one cousin said to the other: ‘I hope you don’t take this personally, but I’m going to write a report to the embassy saying you told a rude joke.’ The other one said, ‘What do you want to do that for?’ And the first one said, ‘If I don’t write a report and the other two do then I’m going to get into trouble because then they’ll think that I agree with you about Assad.’”

A Syrian would be unlikely to be targeted while they were in the UK. But, says Al-Abdeh, “there’s always that fear that when you go back home, at the airport, someone’s going to say, ‘Oh, we need to have a word.’ You might be beaten up, you might be humiliated, or someone from your family might be hurt. That way the regime of terror operates whether you live inside or outside.” You don’t make jokes about the regime, even among friends and family, even when you are far away from Syria.

This private self-censorship, inculcated in Syrian citizens from an early age, has been as central to the Ba’athist regime’s chilling psychological warfare against its people as its public clampdowns on the media. To be aware of it is crucial to understanding why the opposition that is now struggling to formulate a coherent plan for a post-Assad Syria is so fractious and deeply divided.

Standing up to Assad

Al-Abdeh, a bearded, soft-spoken 30 year old, made a gesture of defiance against Assad’s regime of terror when he became a founder member of the pro-democracy Movement for Justice and Development in 2006 (his brother is the chairman). In 2009 he also co-founded an opposition satellite TV station, Barada TV, from which he has recently stepped down as editor-in-chief. Run out of London and Jordan, it is funded by the American NGO Democracy Council. Its purpose: to broadcast independent news, political discussion and satire into a country where all are forbidden.

Malik al-Abdeh, Barada TV co-founder. Photo: Rob Greig

Malik al-Abdeh, Barada TV co-founder. Photo: Rob Greig

“To begin with we mainly did political discussions – straightforward stuff in British TV terms, a bit like ‘The Politics Show’. When we started, people asked what the point was staging discussions about Assad; everyone was supposedly too busy making a living to be bothered about politics. But I believed that – like in 1984 – the people who pretended to be most loyal were the ones who inside were most rebellious. We were sure that the Syrian people were against the regime, and we were proved to be right.”

Naturally, Assad’s government was swift in trying to discredit Barada TV, which along with Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera have come – in his supporters’ eyes – to represent the great evil of foreign powers waging a media war on Syria. In February 2012, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (Sana) went as far as to declare that satellite channels were inventing massacres by the army in order to influence public opinion in the West, and that terrorist groups were dressing up in Syrian army uniforms and taking potshots at residents of Homs. Dr Adnan Mahmoud, Syria’s minister of information, released a statement saying that ‘the terrorist channales [sic] such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are accomplices in these heinous crimes…those which these channels proclaim to be correspondents in Homs and other areas are gunmen and terrorists who participate in these crimes and record them.”

The Messi gambit

With such a level of conspiracy operating on a day-to-day level in Syria’s state media, it’s unsurprising that disinformation sometimes descends into farce. In March 2012, for example, the pro-government Addounia TV superimposed the Syrian map onto a screen showing a Barcelona v Real Madrid match. The map “revealed” that Lionel Messi and the team, representing smugglers, had used the ball to show how a weapons shipment could be smuggled from Lebanon to Syria.

We were sure that the Syrian people were against the regime, and we were proved to be right” – Malik al-Abdeh

As Messi set up the goal that his teammate Pedro went on to score, the commentator announced: “Here we see the first stage where arms are loaded from Lebanon. Then they pass through Homs and are delivered to another terrorist. We also see how they warn that they will face some obstacles until they reach Dayr Al Zawr.” As Pedro completes the move for Barcelona, which – highly significantly for the Addounia – has a shirt sponsorship deal with the Qatar Foundation (Qatar has poured a lot of funding into arming the Syrian opposition), the commentator concludes: “Then they are transported by bus to the final destination, located in Al Magadin.”

It’s almost impossible not to see this as an exercise in satire. But the fact that satire and truth can cohabit so easily indicates the Orwellian levels of distortion that have come to represent normality in Assad’s Syria. The more credible leaked emails from Assad and his wife Asma, exposed by The Guardian in March 2012, showed her shopping for jewellery, Harry Potter DVDs and fondue sets while Syria burned. Assad, meanwhile, sent Asma puppyish love messages and song lyrics, including Blake Shelton’s ‘God Gave Me You’ – “I’ve been a walking heartache/I’ve made a mess of me/ The person that I’ve been lately/Ain’t who I wanna be.”

Censorship and slaughter

The Syrian crisis – whether through the killing of reporters like the Sunday Times’s Marie Colvin, or the government’s routine arrest of cyber activists – has proved once again that suppression of the word goes hand in hand with the killing of humans. As Heinrich Heine had it, “Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.” In July 2012, Reporters Without Borders announced that the regime’s attempt to create a total media blackout in the country meant that 33 professional and citizen journalists had been killed in Syria between March 2011 and the end of June 2012.

Certain strands of the repression have come with a distinctive 21st-century twist. Infamously the uprising began after the arrest and torture of young boys in the southern city of Deraa, who had graffitied the slogan ‘The people want to topple the regime!’ on to a wall. Further stoking the government’s paranoia about the influence of foreign media, they had copied their words from images they’d seen on satellite TV of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

Syria, like all the countries involved in the Arab Spring, has now seen a rash of graffiti artists spreading across its cities as part of the protest movement. Many upload their work onto YouTube and Syrian social networking sites to ensure its immortality. Known collectively as “The Sprayman”– because of a short Syrian film made about a graffiti artist in 2008 – some of these artists have paid the ultimate price. In July 2011 Mohamed Rateb Al-Nimr (“the Tiger”) was shot dead by security forces in Homs. In April 2012 another graffiti artist, Nour Hatem Zahra – a leading member of a group that had declared “Freedom Graffiti Week” earlier in the month – was shot in the leg by security forces while speeding through a checkpoint, and bled to death.

The death of the Damascus Spring

One of the tantalising aspects of Bashar al-Assad’s psyche is that when he took over from his father Hafez in 2000, it initially seemed that he wanted to open up debate and the media. In what’s now referred to as the Damascus Spring, hundreds of political prisoners were released, and salons flourished as leading economists, writers, poets, and artists met to debate how the regime could be reformed. The Syrian political cartoonist Ali Ferzat – celebrated across the Arab world, not least for his satirical portraits of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi (for which he was banned from both their countries) – went as far as to start up an independent newspaper with the government’s blessing. Yet despite the fact that Assad had gone out of his way to court the cartoonist (along with other intellectuals) in the years before he came to power, within weeks of the paper being launched the censors had moved in, and in 2003 it was closed down.

Cartoonist Ali Ferzat shows his work in August 2011, days before an attack in which his hands were broken. Photo: Muzaffar Salman/AP/Press Association Images

Cartoonist Ali Ferzat shows his work in August 2011, days before an attack in which his hands were broken. Photo: Muzaffar Salman/AP/Press Association Images

“When did I realize Bashar al-Assad’s no better than his father?” asks Ferzat, when I meet him in London. “When he closed al-Domari [Ferzat’s newspaper] in 2003. When he arrested all the people leading the Damascus Spring movement. When he closed down Economic Tuesdays [a salon focused on discussion of reforms]. When he had all these other campaigns for arresting people. Then I realised there is nothing different.”

There is little about his appearance to suggest what the wiry, charismatic Ferzat has been through. Yet on 11th August 2011, as the habitually nocturnal satirist was leaving his Damascus studio in the small hours, masked men threw him into the back of a van and smashed his hands before beating him round the head in an attempt to stop him ever drawing again. The cartoon that supposedly triggered the incident depicted Assad running along the side of a road to hitch a lift in a getaway car with Gaddafi. Ferzat has now mostly recovered. Grimly, as he knows all too well, he is one of the lucky ones. In June 2011, the folk singer Ibrahim Kashoush, who had written songs for protesters to sing in Hama, was discovered dead in the Assi river. Symbolically his Adam’s apple and vocal cords had been cut out.

The fight online

Despite his experiences, Ferzat – who now lives in Kuwait – is hopeful that the communications revolution, even in the face of the Syrian government’s efforts, will be enough to overthrow the Ba’athists. I talk to him about Assad’s father, Hafez, who in 1982 notoriously ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of people in Hama, yet ruled till his death in 2000. If his political career could survive such an atrocity, I ask, why would Bashar not survive this?

Volunteers work from home, taking reports from a network of more than 200 people across Syria who deliver information over Skype”

“In Hama there was not one fax machine,” he replies. “TV was black-and-white and limited in its range. In Syria we only had television that was controlled by the government, so conveying the news was impossible. Now every citizen is a journalist, sending information across the globe before you even blink your eye. And that’s created a mechanism that cannot allow this kind of practice to continue.”

The role of citizen journalists in exposing the horrors of the Assad regime has been key to the last year-and-a-half’s developments in Syria. Two months before meeting Ferzat, I spent the morning with Mohammed Bader-Alden Antabli, one of the team working for the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been systematically recording deaths of Syrians at the hands of the government since 2006. There is no central office: all the volunteers work from home, taking reports from a network of more than 200 people across Syria who deliver their information over Skype.

“At first the West wasn’t interested,” he declares. “We were trying to get you on board for a long time, and it’s disgusting how long it has taken the UK to take a stance. For a long time it’s been clear that what’s going on in Syria is not what the government is saying. The problem is that we’ve given them the benefit of the doubt for 40 years. They haven’t changed a bit. They carried out a massacre in ’82. They massacred in the ’70s. They’ve killed thousands of people.”

Syrian youth stand in a building damaged by tank shells in a neighborhood of Damascus, April 2012. Photo: Anonymous/AP/Press Association Images

Syrian youths stand in a building damaged by tank shells in a neighborhood of Damascus, April 2012. Photo: Anonymous/AP/Press Association Images

Today the Syrian regime, under its tech-savvy president (who was head of the Syrian Computer Society in the ’90s), has unsurprisingly proved itself to be just as adept at spying on conversations online as it is in public meeting places. Syrians I meet in London tell me they know their Facebook accounts are being hacked – in May 2011 it was revealed the Syrian telecommunications ministry was monitoring Facebook traffic – and in Syria itself cyber dissidents have regularly been arrested throughout the conflict. In August, for example, Hanadi Zahlout, an Alawite women’s activist, was detained for her online activities. When she went to prison, her punishment included having friends tortured in front of her to force her to confess to organising demonstrations online.

Most notably, the last year and a half has seen the Arab world’s first publicly active group of hackers, the pro-regime Syrian Electronic Army (SEA), leap into life, attacking and defacing opposition websites. It has also carried out stunts including the “invasion” of the Al Jazeera and Harvard websites, in the latter case posting terror threats against America for its supposed encouragement of the uprising. Although not officially linked to the regime, the SEA was saluted last summer by al-Assad in an official speech. Glowingly he described them as a “real army in virtual reality”.

Now every citizen is a journalist, sending information across the globe before you even blink your eye”

Heather Blake, of Reporters Without Borders, tells me that although not a huge amount is known about this army, what it does do is re-emphasise the pro-Assad movement’s links with Iran. “Our research has shown that Syria is being helped and supported by the Iranian government with this. I don’t know how sophisticated the Syrians themselves are on this, but in 2008 the Revolutionary Guard created the Centre for the Surveillance of Organised Crime [to clamp down on internet use], which uses digital media in a very sophisticated way.”

Free Syria

One of the biggest questions to be asked is whether a regime that replaces Assad will create the kind of free media that people like Ferzat have been dreaming of. Before the Syrians get a chance to address that question, however, all the propaganda and media blackouts in the world cannot disguise the fact that there will be many more atrocities before the country’s people are allowed to express their opinions without fear of harsh retribution.

Meanwhile Ferzat – in one swift cartoon, doodled in front of me in five minutes – sums up the situation so potently that you can see why he was a cause of such fear for the censors. On it, the bottom part of a shirtsleeve and a hand with a wristwatch is displayed. But there are no numbers on the watch – just one of Assad’s generals standing at the midnight position holding his gun, the implication being that as the hours tick by he will kill all the other individuals standing around the watch face. Starkly inscribed on the shirt sleeve are the words “The World”. It is a cartoon that incriminates all of us, and it’s hard to look at it without feeling ashamed.

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