Syria files reveal embassy and intelligence spy on citizens

Syria files reveal embassy and intelligence spy on citizens
The Syrian regime has used embassy staff and intelligence to compile reports on citizens living abroad, the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre has said.
4 min read
05 May, 2023
Thousands of files reviewed by the SJAC showed that embassy staff and intelligence departments in Syria collaborate to spy on the diaspora [Getty]

The reopening of Syrian embassies could lead to the intimidation of activists abroad and hamper the fight for justice, a new report by the Syrian Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC) has warned.

Thousands of files reviewed by the SJAC also prove what Syrians abroad have long suspected – embassy staff and intelligence departments in Syria collaborate to spy on the diaspora.

This means that moves by several Arab governments to normalise ties with the regime could pose further threats to activists or ordinary Syrians abroad due to the risk of increased surveillance, intimidation, and threats from embassy staff if diplomatic missions are reopened or expanded.

The dangers are more heightened in countries such as Lebanon - which is actively deporting Syrians back to Syria, where many could face detention, torture, or death for suspected involvement in opposition activities.

"Foreign surveillance is a pillar of the Syrian state's foreign policy and is facilitated by a coordinated network of embassy staff, intelligence sources, and security agencies," the SJAC report said.

"With many regional and international governments clamouring for the return of Syrian refugees, documentation presented in this report offers clear evidence of the threats they face upon return - the Syrian government has amassed substantial information on opposition activism abroad and has a track record of using such information to repress dissent ruthlessly."

The report showed how embassy staff from Egypt to Japan had compiled information about activists living in their host countries including details on political meetings, information about their families back home, and even attendance at mosques.

Documents showed communication between embassies and intelligence departments asking for information on individuals believed to be linked to activism and their families.

The SJAC collected 483,000 classified documents between 2013 and 2015 from abandoned Syrian state facilities, with 19,000 classified as high priority.

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Around 14,108 pages were analysed for the SJAC report 'The Mechanics of Foreign Surveillance' offering a harrowing insight into the Syrian regime's intelligence apparatus' reach overseas.

Intelligence reports by state security and embassies highlighted the level and depth of information the Syrian government had gathered on citizens living abroad and the dangers it could pose to them or their families, due to the regime's zero tolerance approach to opposition.

There have been numerous cases of Syrians who have returned home - whether willingly or otherwise - being disappeared and other cases of the families of dissidents in Syria being intimidated or worse.

The web stretches from countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan - where millions of Syrians are living as refugees - to far-off Japan with a tiny Syrian expatriate population. The Tokyo embassy had still gathered an extraordinary pile of data intelligence on Al Jazeera journalists and activists in Japan, the report said.

One document reveals a letter from Syrian chief of the Political Security Directorate to heads of the local intelligence branches asking for information on "inciters" living in France, Belgium, Turkey, Russia, and Lebanon.

"[Attn]: Heads of Political Security Branches in the Governorates.

"We have received a list from the National Security Bureau that includes the names of the instigators from outside the country including the following: [list of redacted names and origins or details]," the circular said.

"Kindly provide us with the information you have on any of the names above so that we can take the necessary steps against them,” the letter ominously requested.

The information gathered on Syrians living abroad highlight the depth and scope of these spying operations.

"Across the board, the documents corroborate a claim made by Syrians for years – surveillance of the diaspora is conducted systematically across all of Syria’s foreign embassies," the report said.

"In doing so, the documents unequivocally repudiate the Syrian government’s repeated denial  of engagement in foreign surveillance."

The report follows an uptick in the normalisation of ties between the Syrian regime and Arab states, particularly after the February 6 earthquake that devastated large parts of Syria.

The UAE, Jordan, Bahrain and Oman have all recently extended or re-established diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime, while Saudi Arabia's foreign minister met Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus last month.

A crunch meeting between regional foreign ministers this weekend could decide whether Syria is reinstated in the Arab League after its membership was frozen in 2011 during the regime's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the country.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in the Syrian conflict since 2011 and the regime has disappeared tens of thousands of political prisoners.

SJAC urged governments to make it easier for Syrians to claim asylum, offer greater protections for those at risk at harm, and to resist calls for premature normalisation with the Assad regime.

It also said that efforts to bring regime officials to account for suspected war crimes could be hampered by the opening of embassies, with possible intimidation of witnesses by staff or other efforts to evade justice.

"Foreign governments and prosecutors should be aware that normalization will markedly increase risks of witness intimidation and may undermine prospects of securing convictions in universal jurisdiction cases, a crucial avenue towards justice and accountability," the report concluded.