This commentary was published in The Independent on 29/04/2011
There are thieves with steel-tipped rubber coshes on the Damascus airport road at night, and in the terminal the cops ask arriving passengers to declare iPods and laptops. In the village of Hala outside Deraa, Muslim inhabitants told their Christian neighbours to join the demonstrations against the regime – or leave.
Out of the darkness of Syria come such tales.
And they are true. Syrians arriving in Lebanon are bringing the most specific details of what is going on inside their country, of Fifth Brigade soldiers fighting the armed units of Maher Assad's Fourth Brigade outside Deraa, of random killings around Damascus by the ever-growing armed bands of Shabiha ("the mafia") from the Alawite mountains, of massive stocking up of food. One woman has just left her mother in the capital with 10 kilos of pasta, 10 kilos of rice, five kilos of sugar, box after box of drinking water.
In Deraa – surrounded, without electricity or water or supplies – the price of bread has risen 500 per cent and men are smuggling food into the city over the fields at night.
But it is the killings which terrify the people. Are they committed by the Shabiha from the port city of Lattakia – created by the Assad family in the 70s to control smuggling and protection rackets – or by the secret police to sow a fear that might break the uprising against Assad? Or by the murderers who thrive amid anarchy and lawlessness? Three men carrying sacks of vegetables outside Damascus at night were confronted by armed men last week. They refused to stop. So they were executed.
The Syrian government is appealing to the minorities – to the Christians and the Kurds – to stay loyal to the authorities; minorities have always been safe in Syria, and many have stayed away from protests against the regime. But in the village of Hala, Christian shops are shut as their owners contemplate what are clearly sectarian demands to join in the uprising against Assad. In an attempt to rid Syria of "foreign" influence, the ministry of education has ordered a number of schools to end all English teaching – even banning the names of schools in French and English from school uniforms. Even the kindergarten where the President's two young children are educated has been subject to the prohibitions.
There are bright lights, of course, not least among the brave men and women who are using the internet and Facebook to keep open the flow of information from Syria. The Independent can reveal that a system of committees has been set up across the cities of Syria, usually comprising only 10 or 12 friends who have known and trusted each other for years. Each of them enlists 10 of their own friends – and they persuade 10 more each – to furnish information and pictures. Many were put in touch with each other via the cyber kings of Beirut – many of them also Syrian – and thus "circles of trust" have spread at the cost of the secret police snooping that has been part of Syrian life for four decades.
Thus there now exist – in Damascus alone – "The Co-ordination of Douma", "The Co-ordination of al-Maydan" (in the centre of the city), "The Co-ordination of Daraya", "The Co-ordination of Harasta" and others. Some of them are trying to penetrate the mukhabarat secret police, to get the brutal cops to work for them on the grounds that – come the end of the Assad regime, if that end ever comes – they will be spared the trials and revenge punishments to come. One Beirut blogger says that several of the cops have already declared themselves for the uprising – but are unwilling to trust them in case it is a trap to discover the identity of those behind the committees.
Yet Syrians in Lebanon say that the Syrian security police – often appointed through graft rather than any technical or detective abilities – simply do not understand the technology that is being used against them. One Syrian security official sent three Facebook posts. The first said: "God, Syria and Bashar al-Assad or nothing." The second read: "It's the time to declare war for Allah." The third announced: "The legacy of God on earth is an Islamic Republic."
"The fool was obviously supporting Bashar – but then wanted to frighten people by suggesting Islamists would take over a post-Assad Syria," one of the Syrian bloggers in Beirut says. "But he didn't realise that we could tell at once that they all came from the same Facebook page!" The same man in Beirut found himself under interrogation by Syrian state security police several weeks ago. "He was a senior officer – but he didn't even know what Google was." Many of the Syrians sending information out of their country are anxious that exaggerations and rumours will damage the credibility of their reports. For this reason, they are trying to avoid dispatches which cannot be verified; that two Iranian snipers, for example, have arrived to help the security police; that one man was actually interrogated by two Iranians – a friend suspects that the cops were from the north and spoke in the Kurdish language, which the detainee misidentified as Iranian.
More serious – and true – is the report that Khaled Sid Mohand, an Algerian journalist working for France Culture and Le Monde, was arrested in Damascus on 9 April and has disappeared into a security prison. A released detainee says that he saw Mohand in Security Section 255 in Baghdad Street in the capital some days later. But this story may not be correct. Diplomats have been unable to see the missing journalist.
There are also reports that two young European women working for a Western embassy were arrested and gagged when they left a party at 3am several days ago, and only released several hours later after interrogation. "It means that there is no longer any immunity for foreigners," a Syrian citizen said yesterday. "We heard that a North American had also been taken from his home and questioned by armed men."
Especially intriguing – because there are many apparent witnesses of this episode – is a report that Syrian Fourth Brigade troops in Deraa dumped dozens of weapons in the main square of the city in front of the Omari mosque, telling civilians that they could take them to defend themselves. Suspecting that they were supposed to carry them in demonstrations and then be shot as "terrorists", the people took the weapons to the nearest military base and gave them back to the soldiers.
The rumours of army defections continue, however, including splits in the Fifth Brigade at Deraa, whose commander's name can now be confirmed as General Mohamed Saleh al-Rifai. According to Syrians arriving in Lebanon, the highways are used by hundreds of packed military trucks although the streets of most cities – including Damascus – are virtually empty at night. Shops are closing early, gunfire is often heard, checkpoints at night are often manned by armed men in civilian clothes. Darkness indeed.