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Syria Threatens Dissidents Around Globe, U.S. Says

Posted by on Aug. 17, 2011 at 8:32 AM
  • 1 Replies

Syria is taking its war against President Bashar al-Assad's political opponents global, using diplomats in Washington, London and elsewhere to track and intimidate expatriates who speak out against the Damascus regime, according to Syrian dissidents and U.S. officials.

Syrian embassy staffers are tracking and photographing antiregime protesters and sending reports back home, Syrian activists and U.S. officials say. Syrian diplomats, including the ambassador to the U.S., have fanned out to Arab diaspora communities to brand dissidents "traitors" and warn them against conspiring with "Zionists."

A half-dozen Syrian-Americans interviewed by The Wall Street Journal in recent weeks say that as a result of their activities in the U.S., family members have been interrogated, threatened or arrested in Syria. The Obama administration says it has "credible" evidence that the Assad regime is targeting relatives of Syrian-Americans who have participated in peaceful U.S. protests.

In an interview Tuesday, Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador, dismissed the allegations by Syrian dissidents and U.S. officials as "slander and sheer lies."

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One Syrian-American scientist in Philadelphia, Hazem Hallak, said his physician brother, Sakher, was tortured and killed in May by Syria's intelligence agencies, the mukhabarat, after he returned from a medical conference in the U.S. Syrian agents in Aleppo were obsessed with obtaining a list of Syrian activists and U.S. officials the brother had allegedly met during his stay, Hazem Hallak said.

"They want to intimidate us wherever we are," said Mr. Hallak, who said he believes Syrian agents or regime sympathizers tracked his brother inside the U.S. Mr. Hallak said his brother wasn't involved in anti-Assad activities.

The State Department recently publicly rebuked the Syrian ambassador, Mr. Moustapha, for allegedly intimidating activists and confined him to a 25-mile radius around Washington.

Associated Press

Queen Elizabeth meets with Syrian ambassador Sami Khiyami.

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Syriaops

"We received reports that Syrian mission personnel under Ambassador Moustapha's authority have been conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States," the State Department said. "The United States Government takes very seriously reports of any foreign government actions attempting to intimidate individuals in the United States who are exercising their lawful right to freedom of speech as protected by the U.S. Constitution."

The Federal Bureau of Investigation, meanwhile, is investigating allegations that Mr. Moustapha and his staff have threatened or harmed Syrian-Americans, according to three individuals interviewed by the FBI in recent weeks. An FBI spokesman said the bureau won't comment on any possible investigation into the Syrian embassy's activities.

Ambassador Moustapha is having none of it. "The Embassy of Syria challenges the State Department to provide a single shred of evidence that the embassy has harassed or conducted surveillance on anyone," he said by telephone from Damascus, where he said he is on vacation. "We challenge any authority or organization that has extended such a ridiculous and preposterous claim to provide proof."

Asked if he was aware his travel inside the U.S. had been limited to a 25-mile radius around Washington, Mr. Moustapha said, "This is true, and we did the same to the American ambassador here" in Damascus. He called the U.S. move "reciprocity."

[SyriaOPs]Agency France-Presse/Getty Images

Syrian-American pianist Malek Jandali says his parents were attacked in Syria.

Some of the most explosive allegations against the Syrian government come solely from family members of alleged victims. However, the Syrian Human Rights Committee, a group based in London, published an account of the Sakher Hallak case and blamed his death on the "Syrian security apparatus." It cited a Syrian coroner's report that determined torture and strangulation by rope as the cause of death. And it said family members had been told Mr. Hallak had been killed by the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. "No one believed it," said the report.

Syria has long had a reputation as one of the most repressive regimes in the world. President Assad inherited power from his late father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000, pledging to open up Syrian society and embrace political change—an implicit rejection of his father's hard-line ways. His diplomats overseas, particularly Mr. Moustapha in Washington, have cast Mr. Assad as an agent for positive change in speeches before foreign audiences.

Even as Arab revolts began early this year in Tunisia, then spread to Egypt, the younger Mr. Assad kept positioning himself as a reformer. "If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late," he said in January.

The revolts reached Syria in mid-March, and that prompted an increasingly violent response from the Assad government. The United Nations estimates that more than 2,000 civilians in Syria have been killed. The State Department gauges that 30,000 Syrians are in detention.

U.S. and European officials said intelligence shows Syria's closest strategic ally, Iran, has been assisting Damascus in its crackdown against opponents both at home and abroad. The officials said many of the tactics used by Mr. Assad's security forces mirror those utilized by Tehran in 2009 to stamp out a public revolt against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's rule following a disputed election.

In recent months, Tehran has sent to Mr. Assad's government scrambling devices used to disrupt satellite-phone communications among activists inside Syria and overseas, according to U.S. and European officials. Iran has also dispatched advisers to Damascus to tutor Syria on how to use social-networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, to track communications among opposition figures.

Agency France-Presse/Getty Images

Protests in Beirut against Syria's regime.

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SyriaOps

This spring, Syria's intelligence agency recruited dozens of information-technology specialists for their ability to crack online pseudonyms and trace computer Internet addresses, according to online activists. A few weeks later, Mr. Assad lifted a government ban on social media and set the information-technology specialists to work spying on those who used the sites, and particularly on Syrians who communicated with activists abroad. The government accused the activists of being Islamists or Western-backed agents.

"Iran seems to have provided Syria with the playbook on how to combat dissent," said a senior European official. Iran has repeatedly denied assisting in Syria's crackdown.

In May, hundreds of Syrian-Americans descended upon Damascus's red-brick mission in an upscale Washington neighborhood to challenge Mr. Assad's rule. Attendees at the event said they were unnerved when embassy staff took photos of their faces and wrote down license-plate numbers. The dissidents said they saw men in upstairs rooms monitoring the crowd.

Mr. Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador, eventually invited a five-person delegation into the mission to present its grievances, according to attendees. One of the men, a 70-year-old doctor, hadn't lived in Syria for 40 years and surprised protesters by revealing to the ambassador that his six brothers and other family members still resided in Deraa, the province where the anti-Assad revolt took root. The doctor stressed that the Assad regime needed to fall because of its history of human-rights abuses, according to a family member. Within a day, Syrian intelligence agents appeared at the man's family home and interrogated his brothers, according to a family member. One of them was killed weeks later by pro-government militiamen, the family member said.

Mr. Moustapha is related through marriage to the deputy chief of staff of the Syrian army, Gen. Assef Shawkat, President Assad's brother-in-law. Mr. Moustapha has been a large presence on Washington's diplomatic circuit in recent years. He has hosted dinners for prominent politicians and journalists and written a blog commenting on everything from art and Mozart to the George W. Bush administration's alleged foreign-policy blunders.

Associated Press

Mr. Moustapha at Carnegie Mellon University in 2008.

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SYRIAOPS

This year, Mr. Moustapha has taken his message of support for Mr. Assad to Arab-American communities in Detroit, Atlanta and Cleveland. He has stressed to audiences the need for political reform in Syria, but also that efforts by the Syrian diaspora to challenge Damascus's writ is treachery and places them on equal footing with Zionists, a serious charge as Syria is technically at war with Israel.

"You are the ones that show the true face of Syria, not those other traitors that go to U.S. Congress demanding Congress to impose sanctions on your nation, on our nation," Mr. Moustapha told a gathering of pro-Assad supporters in Washington, according to a video posted on YouTube.

Malek Jandali, a Syrian-American composer and pianist, performed his song "I Am My Homeland" at a rally in a park across from the White House on July 23. The piece includes the lyrics "Oh homeland, when will I see you free?"

Four days after the event, Mr. Jandali said, his parents were attacked and beaten in Homs, Syria. Two plainclothes agents handcuffed Mr. Jandali's 73-year-old father as he approached his home, duct-taping his mouth and nose, and then forcing him to open his front door. Mr. Jandali said the men then assaulted his mother, breaking her teeth and punching her in the eye.

"They were referring to me—saying things like, 'This is what happens when your son makes fun of us,'" Mr. Jandali said in an interview.

Syria's intimidation campaign has reached into Europe and Latin America in recent months, according to Syrian protesters.

In the U.K., a handful of Syrian-Britons said they are planning to submit a formal complaint to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about threats and harassment by staff of the Syrian embassy in London and what they see as the inadequacy of the Foreign Office's response. They said embassy staff members have taken photos of them at rallies and warned them that continuing to demonstrate would harm their ability to return to Syria or put their families in uncomfortable situations.

Syria's embassy in London said Tuesday those allegations are completely without foundation. The embassy said it continues to receive delegations from protesters and opposition groups "in a spirit of peaceful and open dialogue."

The Foreign Office on June 28 called in the Syrian ambassador, Sami Khiyami, to express concern over allegations that a diplomat at his embassy had been intimidating Syrians. A spokesperson for the Foreign Office said officials there are continuing to investigate.

In Chile, Naima Darwish, a fashion designer, said she got a call from the Syrian embassy's chargé d'affaires in Santiago two days after she created a Facebook invite for a protest denouncing the regime's violence. She agreed to meet the diplomat at a cafe, where she said he warned her to stop organizing antigovernment actions if she ever wanted to return to Syria.

The Syrian embassy in Chile didn't respond to requests for comment.

In U.S. district court in Washington, seven Syrian activists have sued the Syrian government, charging it with killing members of their families during the current crackdown. Named in the suit, according to court records, are Mr. Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad, a brigade commander under U.S. and European Union sanctions for his role in the crackdown, Mr. Moustapha and another diplomat at the Syrian embassy in Washington.

In his phone interview, Mr. Moustapha said the allegations in the lawsuits were lies.

Syrian-Americans have also assisted the FBI in what they describe as an ongoing investigation into the actions of the embassy in Washington.

Amr al-Azm, an anthropologist at Shawnee State University in Ohio, previously worked as a consultant for Syria's first lady, Asma al-Assad, looking into ways to modernize Damascus's government. In June, he went to Turkey for the first major conference that brought together Syria's opposition groups.

Getting word of Mr. Azm's trip, Mr. Moustapha sent an email to the academic in June where he sarcastically criticized the anthropologist for breaking with Damascus. "You have single-handedly changed the ugly fundamentalist face of those convening there to that of a secular, enlightened and progressive opposition led by a former presidential advisor," the ambassador wrote, according to a copy of the email viewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The FBI, subsequently, sent agents twice to visit Mr. Azm at his rural Ohio home and voiced concerns about his security. Mr. Azm said he got the impression that the FBI had seen intercepted communications that suggested Syrian activists could be targeted inside the U.S.

Mr. Moustapha scoffed at the notion that any Syrian-Americans are under the protection of the FBI. "They should be protected from the FBI," he said.

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904823804576504260399843094.html



Thoughts?





Everyone is a genius. But, if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will think it is stupid.
by on Aug. 17, 2011 at 8:32 AM
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stormcris
by Christy on Aug. 17, 2011 at 9:18 AM

I hope people will pay attention to this it could become a very bad situation.

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