Syria: The Republic of Fear

A portrait of Syrian President Bashar al Assad on a Damascus street. Verzone Paolo / Agence Vu-Aurora

His name is a pseudonym, adopted when he ran afoul of the secret police, his movements and whereabouts similarly a secret. The photo he uses for public consumption evokes an eerie sense of familiarity, but isn't real. A computer-generated amalgam of many men, it is everyone and no one at all. Even his virtual presence is a specter, concealed behind encryption.

In a country where people have lived under surveillance and emergency law for decades, such precautions are necessary to stay out of prison, says Malath Aumran, a Syrian dissident who leads a phantomlike existence, trying to elude the government's spies. The secret police, he says, "approach me in so many ways."

Phony BBC reporters have contacted him to speak with activists on the ground. He has been approached by "honey traps"—agents who pose as pretty female activists, trying to ensnare him. Aumran was close with another activist for months before discovering that the man was a government mole. Making friends or connecting with other dissidents means taking a deadly risk. Paranoia is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

As unrest built in Syria in recent weeks, a reporter from an Arab radio station called Aumran and asked for his take. "Give me a second to prepare the recording," the reporter told him, and Aumran heard a click indicating the tape was rolling. Day after day, the reporter called for an update, and Aumran obliged, analyzing the dissent that has ranged from small sit-ins in Damascus to massive protests in the southern city of Daraa and beyond. On a recent afternoon, Aumran got curious and decided to check out the station online. After an extensive search, he realized that his interlocutor wasn't a reporter at all. The radio station didn't exist.

On the surface, Syria is a welcoming country, with an appealing mix of old and modern. The Great Mosque of Damascus is surrounded by a fragrant, sprawling bazaar where brawny men in dishdashas sell cardamom and sumac from bursting sacks made of burlap. In another part of the capital, a luxurious Four Seasons Hotel towers over a glass and marble shopping mall, where skinny women sell colorful, cloudlike Versace dresses that barely weigh down the polished racks.

But what tourists may fail to notice is the sinister, ubiquitous presence of the Mukhabarat, the secret police of the Baath Party, led by Bashar al-Assad, the lanky British-educated optometrist who, after the death of his father and brother, unexpectedly found himself the leader of the Syrian Arab Republic.

Like the inhabitants of Iraq, East Germany, and the Soviet Union before them, Syrians live in a house of mirrors, wondering who among their neighbors are really government spies. "People adopt two faces," says Ahed Al Hendi, a former student activist who fled Syria four years ago. "One face they reveal to their families and their circles of trust. And the other they show people they don't know because they assume they're secret service. It's like living in a prison. Every single word could be counted against you."

Human-rights groups estimate that thousands of political prisoners currently languish in the country's many jails. But while hundreds have been killed during recent demonstrations, so far at least Assad's government hasn't shown a penchant for systematic brutality. Still, memories of political violence run deep. The last time people tried to rebel, Assad's father, Hafez, waged war on an entire city, killing more than 10,000 people, according to some estimates.

For Aumran, who has spent the last three years trying to organize other activists online, social-media tools can be useful, although few Syrian activists use their real names and the regime has proven particularly adept at subverting Facebook and Twitter. By now, Aumran knows that many of the new cyberdissidents who contact him are not who they seem to be. He's no longer surprised by the female activist with the pretty profile picture who, after a bit of political small talk, falls in love and wants to meet. "All of them are usually in a hurry. They want to catch me in two days," Aumran says. "One of them…used Julia Roberts's picture. I swear."

Someone has created an unauthorized Facebook page for Aumran that lists him as an Israeli spy, and on pro-government websites he has come across articles, supposedly his own, in which he blasts his fellow activists.

When demonstrations broke out in Daraa recently, phony activists on Twitter blasted out videos of massacres, which were duly picked up by dissidents including Aumran. The videos turned out to be fakes, discrediting the type of social-media elite who were crucial news sources in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. State television, meanwhile, has broadcast selective footage of pro-government rallies around the country. "We know how to keep the devil's whispers away from us," one of its reporters recently intoned while on air. As this disinformation campaign has picked up in tandem with the popular protests, it's hard for Syrians to know what to believe.

"Sabeen," a university student who has taken part in anti-government protests, says she has found herself arguing with longtime friends who believe the government's propaganda instead of their own eyes. "People are…panicked," she says. "And it's not normal fear. It's paranoia."

Adding to the atmosphere of distrust and disorientation are rumors of murky power struggles between Assad and family members including his brother Maher, who heads the country's most powerful security unit. Some analysts see this as one more way for the president to keep his opponents off balance. "The Syrians feed on this stuff because there's no press. And they're conspiratorial. And they're being told that there are conspiracies," says Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, one of America's leading Syria scholars.

The regime has also fanned the country's sectarian fears and suspicions of its neighbors, which include Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel. In a rambling speech last week, Assad hinted that the unrest had been sparked by foreign agent provocateurs. "We are not in favor of chaos and destruction," the president said, warning of "plots being hatched against our country."

Whether pro-government rallies express genuine support for the regime is hard to tell. Thuggish-looking men in black leather jackets often seem to lead the crowds, and on a recent afternoon, cameramen from a state-controlled TV station could be seen directing the protesters' chants and movements like conductors at play in a symphony hall. Even the city itself is a kind of mirage, ever shifting. Overnight, billboard ads around Damascus were replaced with Syrian flags as, simultaneously, massive pro-Assad posters suddenly appeared in store windows.

Some activists have tried to evade security forces by assembling in the mosque, a traditional political space in the Middle East. But a few weeks ago, when worshipers began to chant for freedom in the Great Mosque, police barricaded the doors of the mosque, trapping the protesters inside. Some were beaten and thrown into the square outside, where pro-Assad demonstrators were waiting. "Every time they threw someone outside, after beating him up, people started chanting for the president," one witness said.

This Friday afternoon, dozens of men in leather jackets sat in the courtyard in front of the mosque, halfheartedly peddling trinkets, waiting. Their eyes darted back and forth.

Given the danger of standing out, only a few political activists are bold enough to use their real names in public. "It's very risky to have a big meeting in one place," Razan Zeitouneh, a well-known lawyer and opposition figure in Damascus, told NEWSWEEK. "You cannot make a lot of phone calls; it will draw attention to you. So you need to always be in small numbers and not draw the attention of the authorities."

Zeitouneh and Mazen Darwish, who heads the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, helped organize the first substantive protest in Damascus, a small sit-in in front of the Interior Ministry. On the eve of the demonstration, Darwish told NEWSWEEK he believed authorities would try to pick off the protester organizers "one by one." "Just by having a different opinion than the regime, I'm already entering a risky area," he said. Days later, Darwish was summoned by security forces. He has been in and out of prison since.

With reporting from Damascus