Shoppers walk through a historic bazaar in the central Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Photo: AFP/ Yasin Akgul
Shoppers walk through a historic bazaar in the central Sultanahmet district of Istanbul. Photo: AFP/ Yasin Akgul

Eight years after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, the security apparatus in Damascus continues to keep tabs on its citizens in neighboring Turkey, by relying on a network of vulnerable informants.

Ahmed (not his real name), a young Syrian, told Asia Times he fled to Turkey with his wife several years ago after the living conditions, lack of jobs, and insecurity in Damascus became unbearable. But they also decided to hedge their bets.  

“I was actually a supporter of the Syrian regime and I wanted to return to Damascus one day,” he explained. “My wife and I decided, before our departure for Turkey, to contact a friend who works in intelligence. I told him that we wanted to be delegates for Syrian intelligence in Turkey.”

Delegate is code for secret informant. Ahmed’s friend arranged a meeting for him with an official in Damascus, so when the young man left for Turkey, it was with the understanding that he and his wife would carry a second, hidden agenda.

Workplace gossip

Ahmed and his wife Amira (not her real name) quickly found work in Istanbul. Their jobs, in suburbs popular with Syrians, put them in daily contact with compatriots.

“I know that the Syrian regime is criminal, but the opposition was not convincing either. I was in a grey area and I knew I would go back to Damascus one day, so I agreed to work with my husband as an informant,” said Amira.

Her work gave her opportunities to chat with fellow Syrians about their daily lives, enabling her to pick up information that could be useful to her security contact in Damascus.

“I had a weekly phone call with someone in Damascus and I would tell him the details of life in Istanbul,” Amira told Asia Times. The young woman says she began to feel confident enough in the connection that she would stress to her contact the impact of government policies on fellow Syrians. 

“I even told him about the problems of the mothers of detainees. I started to think of him as a friend,” she said. 

Ahmed, whose work brought him into contact with Syrian men, had a similar role.

“Every month, I had a phone call with a contact in Damascus. He wanted to know the details of the lives of Syrians in Istanbul and the problems that they faced. He was particularly interested in Syrian defectors in Turkey and asked me for a list of their names and addresses,” he recounted.

The young man says that, to placate the official, he gave him only one defector’s name.

Syria’s Baathist regime, since its establishment in 1963 by former President Hafez al-Assad, has functioned as a police state held together by a number of security bodies that control everything from security affairs to the details of daily life. Arbitrary arrests and torture spanning decades was one of the driving forces behind the nationwide mass protests that broke out in 2011. The revolution’s call for the fall of the regime meant, among other things, a call for dismantling the security apparatus.

But eight years since the start of the war, intelligence officials are still keeping tabs on their citizens, at home and abroad.

People like Ahmed and Amira, despite operating informally and with no salary, form a critical component of this network. The existence of people like them helps dissuade Syrians abroad from engaging in opposition activities or criticism of the regime and serves to divide emigrés by sowing mistrust, making refugee communities more open to manipulation.

Information for sale

In return for their work, the young couple received valuable services and assistance from the government. Since 2011, half of the Syrian population has been either internally displaced or forced to flee the country, leaving many compelled to reach out to family and contacts back home to obtain documents critical to their new lives. These include everything from birth certificates to higher education diplomas. 

Eventually, Ahmed and Amira decided to use their connections with Syrian intelligence to supplement their income. What they had to offer to Syrians in Turkey was verified information, such as whether Syrians who had been involved in the uprising were still wanted by the security services, and details on the status of detainees in Syria. 

Ahmed’s friends in Istanbul were also convinced that because his father held a respected position in Damascus, he would have a second layer of protection, information, and influence.

“Our friends in Turkey told us that my father had strong ties to powerful people, and since then I’ve been working as a broker between the intelligence services and [exiled] citizens. Security was happy to get information on Syrians living in Istanbul so they didn’t ask for money, except in cases of releasing detainees. I succeeded in securing the release of two detainees for a reasonable fee,” Ahmed said.

Amira said the couple charged only token amounts for their services.

“We charged $100 for verifying the security status of people who wanted to return to Damascus and [needed] to make sure they were [no longer] wanted,” she said.

Everything changed for the couple late last year, when Ahmed’s father was arrested by members of the security apparatus, who demanded money for his release. 

The family was unable to pay the bribe, and the couple have since cut their ties to the Syrian security forces.

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