28 May 2012

The Syrian secret police, laid bare

Getting my hair cut this afternoon in Homs, the man being shaved in the chair next door leans over to me, risking the cut throat razor at his chin: “habibi, my friend! Tell me, in London, do they have government TV channels?”

“No. I don’t think people would watch them,” I tell him, “or they would laugh.”

And now my new habibi – my new friend – is laughing himself. “That is good,” he twinkles through a lather of shaving foam. “That is good”.

So, has a signal just been sent to me, or an invitation to be trapped by saying too much? In Syria, you never know. You never know if you’re being sounded out by someone who wants to criticise the regime so many hate (state TV channels included) or invited to say more than you should by “one of them”.

Back in the day, under Assad Senior, the Syrians went to East Germany to learn from the professionals, the Stasi, how to set up their own system of secret police.

Like the German democratic republic in its prime, the system here simply relies on the Stasi fear principle: you never know whether or not anyone is “one of them”.

That friendly bloke at the coffee shop? The woman who teaches your child? Your brother? The halal butcher… The baker… or indeed, the candlestick manufacturer?

A ‘welcome’ by the Ministry

The system remains bluntly obvious and almost disarmingly frank in some ways. I had scarcely entered my Damascus hotel room before the woman from the Ministry was on the phone “welcoming” me: “Yes,” she said. “They called me from the airport to say you had arrived.”

“How kind of them,” I replied, attempting to sound mutual.

“Mr Thomson, you will need to come to my office and speak to me. Then you will be able to take your pictures and we can assign someone to you, for your security.”

I played it airily and breezily as something on my to do list, something I’d surely get round to. At some point. Obviously.

Other aspects of this state run by securocrats, for securocrats, are even more obvious. The endless groups of goons, over-smart and smoking in cheap suits and even cheaper after shave, with nothing more to do, apparently, than hang around in hotel lobbies watching, noting and calling in on their phones.

A flagging regime

Yet in so many ways, this is now a regime looking and feeling increasingly hollowed out. They tell you everything is impossible without official permission which is itself impossible to get, yet the soldiers and police on the streets routinely wave you on through checkpoints.

We just have to say: “merhaba habibi – fahafi!” (Hello my friend – journalists!) Of course, when it doesn’t quite roll ’em over, I’m pretty stuck, because the Arabic is in danger of running out. But on the whole, they’ve been pretty reasonable so far.

And two hours north of Damascus, in Homs, you see this hollowed out regime laid bare. The buses still run in much of the city. The sprinklers water the municipal flower beds in the morning sun.

Yet this city is largely closed, so many of its people gone. Travel a mile or so from those sprinklers and flower beds, and you could be in a crumbled landscape of pulverised buildings from recent fighting. Or you can get a haircut, as I did, to the accompaniment of automatic gunfire and rocket propelled grenades ringing out less than a mile away.

Yes, the system is becoming more hollowed out by the day.

And in Homs, surely the most telling image of how hollowed out the regime of Assad Junior truly is: here you will find Syrian families who have fled the gunfire for the safety of the town’s Palestinian refugee camp a little way to the south.

Here you have it: Syrian refugees, seeking the shelter of Palestinian refugees, inside Syria. The regime is hollowed out indeed.

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