In the ransacked and burnt-out remains of various security headquarters in al-Bab lie many clues to the means used by Bashar al-Assad’s government to stay in power, revealing why life under the regime had become increasingly intolerable for its citizens.
In the widely-hated building of military security, the formerly locked cupboards containing files on the town’s “suspect” citizens and how to “manage” them are now all emptied of their contents. The caretaker there, a man who used to work in the Post Office and telephone exchange that is located on the ground floor – probably to faciliate alleged routine phone tapings – told us that some Free Syrian Army fighters had taken the files and burnt them.
But in the office of Political Security, the situation is different. There, the cupboards are still stuffed with manila files and brown envelopes containing years of records documenting government-condoned snooping.
Mostly handwritten, the files are the fruits of an East German style surveillance state. In Syria, it is believed that one third of the adult male population was in one way or another working for the government as “intelligence” agents. Informants were vetted for their loyalty to the regime, either because they were card-carrying members of the Ba’ath Party, or they proved themselves “helpful” by carrying out acts for the security services.
Many of the documents have the same format: So-and-so “is a good man because he told us” such-and-such. So-and-so “can be relied upon to provide us with information”.
For people in the town of al-Bab, the greatest shock has been finding out that the situation was worse than their worst suspicions. Many people liked and believed to be “good men” by the town’s residents have been revealed as long-standing collaborators with the regime’s security services.
It was a massively corrosive process: A situation in which for decades trust was sold in exchange for money and influence.
In an economy where there was no fair distribution of wealth or equitable access to services, any means of getting ahead became normalised. With the people governing at the top regarded as a “mafia elite”, the trickle-down was a kind of rotting amorality, where so much corruption was prevalent that there was no longer a social imperative to behave decently – even to members of one’s own extended family.
Osman Alosman is a local businessman in al-Bab, a successful pharmacist with two shops. He is one of the town’s respected citizens, and while he could have sought a position with more power, he refused, he said, because he did not know how the regime might seek to use his promotion. He was told that to take on his new “leadership” role, he had to join the Ba’ath Party. He went through the motions, but did not attend the meetings.
Despite this, he managed to keep his business going. “I come from a large tribe and have many friends in Aleppo province. I was charitable and generous – the regime could not shut me down, but I would never be extremely successful without being a member of the Ba’ath Party”.
Osman had never been a supporter of the regime. His family was historically allied with the Muslim Brotherhood, dating back to his grandfather’s time. In 1982, at age 17, Osman went to Libya himself for two years, to escape political persecution.
He himself is not involved in Muslim Brotherhood politics – he had long before turned into a general campaigner for freedom and representative democracy – but his family history, plus the fact that he has two wives – one Syrian and one Russian – was enough to put him at odds with Syrian security services.
Once the uprising began, he was one of the primary suspects in al-Bab.
He was arrested twice, the first time on July 24, 2011 by the Political Security Branch on suspicion of involvement in the uprising. After being held for one day, he was freed because his tribe gathered in al-Bab to demand his release.
The second time was by the military security branch on November 8, 2011. He was taken to Aleppo and held in solitary confinement, blindfolded, for eight days. They threatened him with violence, accusing him – not without grounds – of fomenting revolution in al-Bab. Again, pressure from his own community secured his release.
From then onwards, he never spent two nights under the same roof. He fled Syria at the end of April 2012, realizing that if he was arrested again, he might not be released. He only came back in July as the regime started to lose its grip in Aleppo province.
When the state security offices were overrun on July 19, Osman immediately went to the buildings and salvaged as many files as he could. He knew that contained within those records was the story not just of his own political persecution, but also the clues to how the regime maintained its rule of fear over all Syrians.
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A family mystery solved: Osman’s distant cousin Hussein Osman al Rashid – a journalist working for SANA, the state news agency – had gone missing in the 1980s as part of the purge of Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers, many of whom were implicated in an assassination plot against Hafez al Assad, the current president’s father. A small scrap of paper in Osman’s personal file held some final remarks about the missing journalist: “He was executed.”
It is the only official information on his disappearance the family has ever seen.
“I wanted to find out how the security apparatus worked in this country,” he said. “Who made reports, how they were used. Who was doing these subversive activities. This is the story of the history of my country.”
At one of his apartments in al-Bab, one room is now given over to document storage, with piles of files all over the floor. He has only examined about 10 per cent of them so far, and he’s still collecting more.
Piece by piece, Osman is in the process of discovering who informed on him and what they said.
The documents he has found so far are written by various security agencies, including the military security and general security in Damascus, and political security in Aleppo and Tartous.
Political Security, Tartous, January 3, 2012
“We have received information that a number of people in the province of Aleppo are members of the terrorist armed gangs and they are participating in the incidents which are taking place in Syria… One of them is Osman from Aleppo uses the following mobile phone … He is a drug dealer and he incites people to participate in demonstrations and create chaos … ”
General Security Branch 322, March 14, 2012
“Today there was a meeting in a shop in al-Bab belonging to … Osman Alosman was one of the people attending. He is a member of the activist network and one of the most prominent coordinators of opposition and the brother of the hidden terrorist Abdul Osman [a Free Syrian Army leader].”
The document goes onto describe the discussion at the meeting and what the men attending said in detail. There were five men at that meeting, but clearly the author – anonymous in this intelligence report – was there to report on the proceedings. Osman still does not believe it could have been one of the five, as they were all very close friends.
In another document, written on September 10, 2011 by the military security, Osman is described to be “evasive, crafty, clever, with an has an ulterior motive and a grudge because he lost his cousins and uncles in the Brotherhood organisation and he has a track record in buying smuggled medicines.”
The real shock came when Osman saw the name of the principal informer: Muhammed, one of his distant relatives.
“He was one of my friends before the demonstrations began. But we had a difference of opinion. We have different ideologies. We went our separate ways. But I had no idea he was helping the intelligence services until I read this document.”
Osman said he saw Muhammed after seeing the files. “I could have him arrested”, he said. “I could just ask one of the [Free Army] battalions and they would do it straight away. But I choose to forgive him.
No one exempt
In al-Bab, it seems that no one escaped surveillance. Another file deals with the town’s “notable citizens”. A “Top Secret” cover letter from the head office of political security in Damascus, addressed to the local office, instructed them to place the senior officials in the district – party officials, MPs, military officers, and religious figures – under surveillance, and to report back four times a year.
It reads: “The report must include the performance of the character in terms of commitment to the rules of the Ba’ath party and disciplines, and any negatives aspects, like meetings, favouritism, illicit bribes and corruption, the promotion of relatives, abuse of powers, pursuits of personal interests, visits in secret, how open they are to citizens.. and what the individual’s reactions are to TV channels like Al Jazeera. “
There was even a letter of instruction to spy on the head of the al-Bab Ba’ath Party, who was himself the head of the intelligence agencies in the town.
Despite all this, Osman tried to keep a positive outlook. “I’m actually surprised about how polite the intelligence services were about us. In many documents they talk about me as ‘a man of good reputation, or ‘an intelligent man.’” As he smiles, he says, “At least they didn’t write lies about me.”
When I ask him how one fixes a society where neighbour has informed against neighbour, he said: “I have no answer to this. In every country there is evil as well as good. What to do?”
Then, he smiles again: “All this security, all this controlling … and still we did it. Still we succeeded in our revolution.”