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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6 reader comments

  1. Robert McRedmond says:

    Hmmm, it may be hollowed out Mr. Thomson, but as you will appreciate far better than I given all your travels to the world’s hot spots, the most brutal regimes are usually the ones that survive, not sure if this is a paradox or not.
    However, it is a fact that ever since October 1789 when Louis XVI only had one regiment of truly loyal soldiers to protect him and a few guards, all despots have known that to stay in power what they really needed was a brutal and utterly ruthless large-scale state security apparatus. If they had enough bad men who were absolutely loyal to them, then they could kill as much as they liked. This is a depressing reality, just look at the failed revolutions: Iran, crushed by the Basij, Syria and let us not forget how China deals with dissent. Very sad to say, savage violence against their own people by a loyal state security force works, it keeps these regimes in power, Hosni Mubarak may be pondering this as he awaits his sentence on June 2nd.

  2. Paul N says:

    What is different about Syria from Libya ?
    I am not clued up at all on middle east politics and western government Foreign Policy,but it seems the West were falling over themselves to assist the rebels in Libya yet can only muster a few stern platitudes with regard the Syria rebellion.
    Are Syria a tougher nut to crack or something ??

    1. Mike Waters says:

      Well, Paul, it’s just that Syria is a nut with almost zero oil content, unlike Libya and Iraq!

  3. anthony mcbrearty says:

    Alex, when that old geezer called you habibi, was he smiling/leering? when I lived in Tripoli, you really did not want a male calling you that!

    1. Fred says:

      Here in Jordan, men say Habibi to other men all the time. No problem.

  4. Taghrid says:

    Men in Syria don’t call strangers and especially foriegners Habibi so casually. As for the word fahafi I’m surprised it got you through. There is no such word in Arabic. For your next check point please try the word Sahafi instead!

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