Syria intimidating expats abroad, threatening relatives back home
Syrian diplomats are intimidating expatriates who speak out against the regime, and reporting back home where dissidents’ relatives are then threatened and arrested, according to Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, as the Syrian troops continued their violent crackdown on protesters.
The Obama administration told the Journal it had “credible” evidence that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is using the reports from its embassies abroad to target relatives of those living overseas, particularly Syrian-Americans who have joined peaceful US protests.
The daily, citing interviews with six Syrian-Americans, said embassy staffers were tracking and photographing protesters, and that Syrian diplomats including the ambassador to Washington have gone to Arab Diaspora communities to brand dissidents as “traitors.”
“They want to intimidate us wherever we are,” Philadelphia-based Syrian-American scientist Hazem Hallak told the daily.
Mr. Hallak said his brother Sakher was tortured and killed in May by Syrian intelligence after he returned from a conference in the United States. Mr. Hallak said agents in the Syrian city of Allepo sought to obtain a list of activists and US officials that Sakher had allegedly met during his US stay, and that Syrian agents tracked his brother in the United States.
He said his brother was not involved in anti-regime activities.
The Journal, citing three people interviewed by the FBI in recent weeks, also said the Federal Bureau of Investigation was probing allegations that Syrian Ambassador Imad Mustapha and embassy staff have threatened Syrian-Americans.
The US State Department publicly rebuked Mr. Mustapha last month after reports that embassy staff were “conducting video and photographic surveillance of people participating in peaceful demonstrations in the United States.”
On Tuesday in an interview with the Journal, Mr. Mustapha dismissed the allegations by Syrian-Americans and US officials as “slander and sheer lies,” and that “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.”
The paper cited several incidents of intimidation by Syrian officials against dissidents in the United States, as well as in Europe and Latin America.
Rights groups say the ongoing crackdown in Syria has killed 1,827 civilians since mid-March, while 416 security forces have also died, according to AFP.
While no sanctions are announced, while there are no orders or directions from the government, we are obliged to fulfill our contractual obligations, which we are now doing
Anatoly Isaikin, Rosoboronexport
Hundreds of Syrian security services raided homes in the port city of Latakia on Wednesday, pressing their crackdown on dissent in defiance of rising condemnation abroad, activists said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, contacted from Nicosia, said more than 700 members of the security services took part in the operation in the southern district of Al Raml, arresting people on lists.
“Heavy gunfire continued in most opposition neighborhoods” overnight, the Britain-based group said, according to AFP.
On Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague stepped up the pressure and warned that President Assad was “fast losing the last shreds of his legitimacy.”
And US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Arab heavyweight Saudi Arabia and Syria's neighbour Turkey to push Assad to step down.
But the head of Russia’s arms export agency, cited by the Interfax news agency, said Wednesday Moscow was continuing to supply weapons to its traditional ally Damascus.
“While no sanctions are announced, while there are no orders or directions from the government, we are obliged to fulfill our contractual obligations, which we are now doing,” Rosoboronexport chief Anatoly Isaikin said.
"Crime against humanity"
Syrian tanks fired on low-income Sunni Muslim districts in the port city of Latakia on Tuesday, the fourth day of an assault which has killed 36 people and forced thousands of Palestinian refugees to flee, activists said.
A senior Palestinian official described the military offensive in the city as “a crime against humanity,” adding to Arab condemnation of President Assad’s crackdown on popular demonstrations calling for his overthrow, according to Reuters.
After five months of unrest, Mr. Assad, from Syria’s minority Alawite community, has broadened and intensified the military assault against main urban centers of protest since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on August 1.
The Local Coordination Committees said President Assad’s forces killed at least two people in Latakia, including 13-year-old Mohammed Shohan, hit by sniper fire in the Raml Al Filistini slum district, bringing the death toll to 36 in four days.
The activists’ group said the death toll was probably higher, but roadblocks and disrupted communications made it hard to gather information on casualties in the stricken city.
Syria has expelled most independent media since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify reports from the country.
Attack on Al Raml
A security official cited by Syria's official state news agency said security forces backed by an army unit had completed a mission in Latakia’s Al Raml neighborhood against “armed terrorist groups who have terrorized the citizens.”
A Latakia resident, a university student who did not want to be named, said tank machinegun fire could still be heard in the neighborhood and that tanks and armored vehicles moved deeper into the city, including the main Port Said street.
“We can only hear the tank fire. Anyone who goes near Al Raml Al Filistini risks being arrested or shot,” he said, according to Reuters.
The United Nations agency which cares for Palestinian refugees said on Monday four had been killed and 17 wounded.
Syrian forces killed a 16-year-old boy when they fired on a protest in the eastern city of Deir Al Zor, residents said, hours after the authorities said the army was pulling out.
Nibras Al Sayyah was hit by bullets fired by military intelligence personnel to disperse hundreds of people who marched at night after Ramadan prayers, the residents said.
Witnesses said most tanks and troop carriers had pulled out of Deir Al Zor, which they attacked on August 7, and moved to the outskirts. Many troops remained in the city and were storming houses looking for wanted dissidents, they said.
“The regime seems intent on breaking the bones of the uprising across the country this week, but the people are not backing down. Demonstrations in Deir Al Zor are regaining momentum,” one activist in the city said.
Apart from Deir Al Zor and Latakia, Syrian forces have already stormed Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre by the military under Mr. Assad’s father, the southern city of Deraa and several northwestern towns in a province bordering Turkey.
Syrian authorities blame others for the violence, saying anti-government forces have killed 500 soldiers and police. Rights groups say at least 1,700 civilians have been killed by security forces since protests erupted in March.
Mr. Assad has been repeatedly told by the United States, European Union and Turkey to halt the bloodshed but said last week his army would “not relent in pursuing terrorist groups.”
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council will hold an emergency session next week to decry Syria’s military crackdown after enough states backed the initiative, diplomats said, according to Reuters.