The Assad Files: Capturing the top-secret documents that tie the Syrian regime to mass torture and k
Some half a million people have been killed in Syria’s civil war. An additional five million have fled, emptying the country. CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE MCQUADE
The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.
He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.
In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.
Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.
The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty.
Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. Stephen Rapp, who led prosecution teams at the international criminal tribunals in Rwanda and Sierra Leone before serving for six years as the United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, told me that the CIJA’s documentation “is much richer than anything I’ve seen, and anything I’ve prosecuted in this area.”
The case is the first international war-crimes investigation completed by an independent agency like the CIJA, funded by governments but without a court mandate. The organization’s founder, Bill Wiley, a Canadian war-crimes investigator who has worked on several high-profile international tribunals, had grown frustrated with the geopolitical red tape that often shapes the pursuit of justice. Because the process of collecting evidence and organizing it into cases is purely operational, he reasoned that it could be done before the political will exists to prosecute the case.
Only the U.N. Security Council can refer the crisis in Syria to the International Criminal Court; in May, 2014, Russia and China blocked a draft resolution that would have granted the court jurisdiction over war crimes committed by all sides of the conflict. Nevertheless, Wiley told me, the commission has also identified a number of “quite serious perpetrators, drawn from the security-intelligence services,” who have entered Europe. “The CIJA is very much committed to assisting domestic authorities with prosecutions.”
Counting Syria’s dead has become nearly impossible—the U.N. stopped trying more than two years ago—but groups monitoring the conflict have estimated the number to be almost half a million, with the pace of killing accelerating each year. The war has emptied out the country, with some five million Syrians escaping to neighboring countries and to Europe, straining the capacities of even those countries which are willing to provide asylum and humanitarian aid. The chaos has also played a fundamental role in the rise of ISIS, the bloodiest of the jihadi groups that have used Syria as a staging ground to expand the reach of terrorism.
Last fall, Wiley invited me to examine the commission’s case at its headquarters, on the condition that I not reveal the office’s location, the governments assisting with document extraction, or, with few exceptions, the names of his staff.
In December, 2010, a twenty-six-year-old fruit seller in rural Tunisia, fed up with a life of harassment and extortion by venal government officials, doused himself in paint thinner, struck a match, and unwittingly ignited the Arab Spring. Hundreds of thousands of citizens in the Middle East and in North Africa, sharing his rage and despair, rose up against an assortment of autocrats and kings. They demanded democratic reforms, economic opportunities, and an end to corruption. In late January, 2011, Bashar al-Assad told the Wall Street Journal, “What you have been seeing in this region is a kind of disease.” Syria remained stable, a fact that Assad attributed to his attention to the “beliefs of the people.” He added, “This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people’s beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbance.”
In fact, Assad’s confidence was likely rooted in the proficiency of Syria’s security-intelligence apparatus, which had kept his family in power since 1971. Other autocrats in the region placed similar trust in their own security forces. Then Egypt’s dictatorship collapsed, and the U.N. Security Council voted to refer the situation in Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi had ruled for forty-two years, to the International Criminal Court. In March, NATO forces launched a bombing campaign in Libya. In Syria, people began calling for concessions by the government—timidly, at first. The country had spent forty-eight years under martial law, and the notion of public demonstration was unfamiliar. The protests were met with tear gas and bullets, but were soon attracting tens of thousands of people.
On March 30, 2011, Assad addressed the nation from the rotunda of the Syrian parliament building. He had just sacked his cabinet, and many people expected him to announce liberalizing reforms. Instead, he declared his intention to suppress dissent in the brutal tradition of his father, Hafez al-Assad. “Syria is facing a great conspiracy, whose tentacles extend” to foreign powers that were plotting to destroy the country, he said. “There is no conspiracy theory,” he added. “There is a conspiracy.” He closed with an ominous directive: “Burying sedition is a national, moral, and religious duty, and all those who can contribute to burying it and do not are part of it.” He emphasized, “There is no compromise or middle way in this.”
Two days later, protests across the country grew larger. Assad had already formed a secret security committee, called the Central Crisis Management Cell, to coördinate a crackdown. Its chairman was Mohammad Said Bekheitan, the highest-ranking official in the ruling Baath Party, after Assad; the other members—who were all Assad-dynasty confidants—were routinely shuffled among the top positions in the military, the ministries, and the security-intelligence apparatus.
Every night, the Crisis Cell met in a drab office on the first floor of the Baath Party Regional Command, in central Damascus, and discussed strategies for crushing dissent. This required detailed information about each protest, so the cell requested reports from security committees and intelligence agents in the most rebellious provinces. The group decided to hire someone to process all the paperwork.
One of the applicants was Abdelmajid Barakat, a twenty-four-year-old with slicked-back hair. Barakat, who had recently finished a master’s degree in international relations, was working for the education ministry. At his interview, in April, a high-level official named Salaheddine al-Naimi examined his résumé and asked whether he could use a computer. Next, Naimi asked how he would resolve the developing crisis. Barakat replied that, in order to avoid an armed response, the government should make some concessions and enact moderate reforms.
Barakat was surprised to be hired. In college, he had been questioned by military-intelligence agents about suspicions that he and his friends were involved in anti-government political activities. Early in the unrest, he had joined one of Syria’s first organized revolutionary bodies. Now, in the regime’s haste to make the Crisis Cell more efficient, it was employing a member of the opposition to process confidential security memos from all over the country. On most days, more than a hundred and fifty pages arrived at Barakat’s desk, cataloguing the minutiae of perceived threats to Assad’s rule—graffiti, Facebook posts, protests—and, eventually, actual threats, like the existence of armed groups. Barakat read everything and drafted summaries, which Naimi delivered to the members of the Crisis Cell to guide each meeting.
Barakat was never allowed into the meeting room, but he saw the members walk in, and Naimi kept detailed minutes on Baath Party letterhead. Occasional guests of the group included high-ranking Baathist officials, Syria’s Vice-President, and Assad’s younger brother, Maher, a short-tempered military commander, whom the European Union identified in a sanctions list as the “principal overseer of violence against demonstrators.”
At the end of each meeting, the Crisis Cell agreed on a plan for every security issue. Then Bekheitan, the chairman, signed the minutes, and a courier delivered them to Assad at the Presidential palace. Barakat learned that Assad reviewed the proposals, signed them, and returned them to the Crisis Cell for implementation. Sometimes he made revisions, crossing out directives and adding new ones. He also issued decrees without consulting the Crisis Cell. Barakat was certain that no security decision, no matter how small, was made without Assad’s approval.
Shortly after Barakat began working for the Crisis Cell, he started leaking documents. Though the regime publicly claimed that it was allowing peaceful demonstrations, security memos showed that intelligence agents were targeting protesters and media activists, and shooting at them indiscriminately. Barakat photographed the memos in the bathroom, and sent the pictures to contacts in the Syrian opposition, who forwarded them to Arabic news organizations. His plan was to steal as much information as possible and then leave the country. But each leak heightened suspicion within the office, increasing the chances that, sooner or later, the regime would discover that he was the mole.
One day in October, 2011, while Bill Wiley was visiting a Libyan exile in Niger, he received a phone call from a friend, relaying a request from the British government: as the crisis in Syria spiralled into civil war, it was looking for someone to train activists to document human-rights violations. Wiley told the caller that plenty of groups were already cataloguing the abuses. But he had a counter-proposal: he could train Syrians to collect the type of evidence that would better serve a prosecution, tracing criminal culpability up as high as it went. It was a novel approach—instead of raising awareness of crimes, he intended to pin them on state actors, whether or not the international community sanctioned the investigation. The British government approved of the idea.
Wiley’s career had intersected with a resurgence of the field of international criminal law; since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, there had been no major international investigations until the atrocities in the Balkans, in the nineteen-nineties, led to the Yugoslavia tribunal. Wiley, who had completed a Ph.D. in international criminal law at York University while serving in the Canadian Army—he wrote his dissertation on war crimes and the evolution of international humanitarian law—became an analyst at the tribunal. In 2002, he travelled to Kigali to investigate war crimes in Rwanda, and the following year he moved to the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he was the first investigator retained by the International Criminal Court.
Wiley, who considers himself “a field guy, not an office guy,” is tall, with reddish-blond hair, and handles the considerable stress of his profession with Cuban cigarillos, gallows humor, and exercise. (At the age of fifty-two, he bench-presses more than three hundred and fifty pounds.) While working for the I.C.C., he came to believe that the international court system was often afflicted by upper-management “incompetence.” Since its launch, in 2002, the I.C.C. has opened nine investigations, spent more than a billion dollars, and secured convictions against three men: two warlords and a former politician, all from Congo. After two years, Wiley became disillusioned, and he applied to become a human-rights monitor for the United Nations, in Iraq.
On October 19, 2005, Wiley sat in a hangar at a military base in Amman, Jordan, awaiting transport to Baghdad. A television showed Saddam Hussein in a heated exchange with a judge, insisting that he was still the President of Iraq. It was the former dictator’s first day on trial. “I paid no attention to it whatsoever,” Wiley recalled. The multinational coalition had established a special tribunal, staffed by Iraqi judges and prosecutors, to hold legal proceedings in accordance with international standards. But the Iraqi government replaced judges who seemed sympathetic to the defense, and, days after Saddam’s lawyers appeared in news broadcasts, two of them were assassinated.
Chris Engels and Bill Wiley inside the evidence room of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability.PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN TAUB
In early 2006, the coalition hired Wiley to advise Saddam’s lawyers, whose principal argument was that the court itself was illegal. They regularly boycotted proceedings, leaving Iraq and watching the hearings on television. To Wiley, the trial was “not about Saddam, per se,” but “about sending a signal to a conflict-affected society that, from here on out, this nation will be governed on the basis of the rule of law.” He urged the lawyers to come back to Baghdad and defend their client.
Eventually, Saddam’s defense team returned to court, but shortly before the hearings concluded a third lawyer was kidnapped; his bullet-riddled corpse was found the next day. The remaining members of the team blamed the Iraqi government and did not show up for the closing arguments. Wiley drafted Saddam’s defense, and a court-appointed Iraqi lawyer read it out in court. Saddam protested, declaring, “A Canadian wrote this closing argument. I know he’s a spy.” It was clear that the court would convict Saddam, but Wiley argued that his life should be spared. Instead, seven weeks later, at a military base called Camp Justice, Saddam was hanged while Shiite guards taunted him. His body was delivered to the Prime Minister’s residence for display at a party.
Wiley stayed in Baghdad for another two years, filing defense motions for former members of Saddam’s regime. An American justice official told me that Wiley’s efforts to bring due process to the tribunal were “practically heroic.” When Wiley left Iraq, in 2008, he launched a private consultancy, called Tsamota, which assists Western governments and U.N. agencies in preventing war crimes in troubled countries by training police, as well as members of the military, security, and intelligence services, to act in accordance with international law.
In November, 2011, Wiley travelled to Istanbul with two Tsamota colleagues to train Syrians to collect evidence that would be useful in war-crimes prosecutions. A security consultant whom he knew had selected some young Syrian activists and lawyers, who were invited to recruit trusted friends. Wiley was impressed by their bravery, but he thought that their methods were ineffective. “Their tendency, in those days, was to run around with cameras, video cameras, smartphones, and photograph regime attacks in urban areas, and then put this stuff on YouTube,” he told me. “One of the first things we did was explain to them that, as criminal evidence, it’s basically useless” without corroboration. “You’re running tremendous risks—and, indeed, a lot of young people were getting killed and wounded generating video or visual images—really to no end.” Filming an air strike on a hospital, for example, offers no evidence that the attack was planned by the kinds of high-level officials who draw the interest of the international justice system. “One needs to establish their individual criminal culpability,” Wiley said.
Thousands of Syrian government troops had defected by then, joining ragtag brigades of local farmers, students, and hairdressers. Some fighters made their own explosives and launched grenades from giant slingshots. The Syrian Army bombarded what little territory these rebels controlled. Several of the activists attending the training session in Istanbul lived in besieged areas; Wiley and his colleagues taught them to photograph and measure artillery craters, assess angles of impact, collect shell fragments, identify the types of weapon used, and calculate launching points. But, he said, “the big thing we wanted them to focus on was documentation generated by the regime,” which he called “the king or queen of evidence in international criminal proceedings.”
After the first few training sessions, Wiley invited Stephen Rapp, at that time the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, to speak to the Syrians, who now numbered in the dozens. The two men had met a decade earlier, while working for the Rwanda tribunal. Over drinks in Istanbul, Wiley and Rapp discussed the prospect of creating a hub to house captured documents that could one day be used in trials. The United Nations had set up a commission of inquiry to investigate human-rights abuses in Syria, but its mandate didn’t extend to prosecutions, and, rather than dealing with documents, the U.N. relied mostly on witness interviews conducted in refugee camps and by Skype. “Almost all the evidence that they’re collecting won’t be available for prosecution,” Rapp told me, because the U.N. promised witnesses indefinite confidentiality, and trials are public.
When the activists and the lawyers—now investigators—returned to Syria, Wiley drafted a plan to create the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, and drew up a budget. Although Britain continued its support, finding other donors proved challenging. Western governments allot hundreds of millions of dollars to human-rights projects each year, but Wiley told me that their typical response to his requests for funding was “What you’re proposing to do is something that governments do, or the United Nations does, and the International Criminal Court does.” Eventually, with Rapp’s backing, the CIJA secured three million euros from the European Union. After that, Germany, Switzerland, Norway, Denmark, and Canada also pledged consistent funding.
CAPTURING THE DOCUMENTS
The war was going poorly for Assad. In 2012, the number of high-level defections from the military and from civilian ministries rose dramatically. The defectors joined the Free Syrian Army, a loose organization of rebel groups. They hoped to transform Syria into a democracy, but jihadis started appearing on the battlefields, too. Generally, they proved to be more capable in combat than the Free Syrian Army. Various insurgents captured key crossing points into Turkey, and pushed government troops out of much of northern Syria, including parts of Idlib and Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
By that February, the head of the Central Crisis Management Cell had questioned Barakat about the leaks. Another employee of the Crisis Cell told Barakat that his secretary was spying on him. Barakat decided to escape the country, but not before securing the minutes of the meetings, which were stored in the members’ offices. He also planned to steal correspondence between the Crisis Cell and the Presidential office, the Prime Minister, and the minister of the interior. On a day off, Barakat ransacked the offices, taking as many documents as he could, before driving some two hundred and fifty miles north from Damascus, to the Turkish border.
Syrian troops controlled the crossing point. But, with more than a thousand pages taped to his body, Barakat managed to slip through and check into a hotel under a false name before anyone in Damascus realized that he was gone. The next month, once his mother had safely left Syria, Barakat went public. He told Al Jazeera that he wanted the documents to go to the International Criminal Court.
Shortly after Barakat fled, the Crisis Cell moved its meetings from the Baath Party Regional Command to the heavily guarded premises of the National Security Bureau. In July, amid rumors of an impending coup, a blast inside the meeting room killed the chairman of the Crisis Cell; the head of the National Security Bureau; the minister of defense; and Assad’s brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who had recently taken over as the deputy minister of defense. (At least two rebel factions claimed credit for the attack, but they offered wildly inconsistent accounts of the logistics behind it.) The next day, a headline in the Times read, “WASHINGTON BEGINS TO PLAN FOR COLLAPSE OF SYRIAN GOVERNMENT.” Then Assad’s Prime Minister defected to the opposition. So did the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry. Even the top general responsible for preventing defections accused the military of “carrying out massacres against our innocent civilian population,” and announced, “I am joining the people’s revolution.”
The commission’s Syrian investigators forged alliances with key Free Syrian Army brigades as they gained territory. The rebels initially “had no interest in the documentation,” Wiley said. “They would go in, capture a regime facility. The smartphones would come out. There would be great joy and shouting and firing in the air. They would loot the place, looking for weapons and ammunition, because that’s what they needed. And then they would set the place on fire.” All potential evidence would be destroyed.
Wiley says that the commission told the rebels, “Take the documents first, and set them aside until they can be moved out of the country. And make a note—a very simple note—of where the documents were acquired and on what date. Box them up. Seal the boxes to the best of your ability with Saran wrap, or something like that—whatever’s at hand. And then, as those materials move, chart that movement. But don’t tamper with or rifle through the materials,” because in court a defense lawyer could argue that exculpatory evidence had been discarded.
Often, Syrian investigators accompanied moderate rebel groups as they attacked security-intelligence buildings, but government forces attempted to destroy any files that they couldn’t bring with them. In the days after a retreat, “there would be relentless shelling” at key sites, the CIJA’s chief investigator, a Syrian, told me. Water pipes would explode, destroying hundreds of thousands of pages before he and his colleagues could enter. Sometimes armed groups would call them to come and collect the files after a firefight ended. “Chain of custody is important, but it’s not a deal breaker,” Wiley said. “It’s not worth getting—Well, people have been killed and wounded moving this stuff.”
The first casualty was a courier, shot and wounded in 2012 as he ran toward a smuggling route out of Syria with a suitcase full of documents. Since then, two others have been injured during extractions, and one—the brother of the commission’s deputy chief investigator—was killed in an ambush by Syrian troops. Also in 2012, a courier and his wife came to an unexpected checkpoint outside Aleppo. It was manned by fighters belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra, a jihadi group that later revealed its affiliation with Al Qaeda. The militants discovered the courier’s documents in the back of his car. They let his wife go, but took him into custody. “They were threatening to put him on trial and execute him as a regime spy,” Wiley told me. “We worked out a deal where he was convicted of something by the Sharia court and the fine was five thousand dollars. So we paid the fine.”
Several CIJA investigators have been kidnapped by jihadi groups, but all of them are free today. Radical Islamists pose as great a threat to their work as the regime does. These groups regard Western affiliations, as well as the often unfamiliar concept of international justice, with deep suspicion. And yet, in the pursuit of documents, many investigators made their mission known to rebel commanders with murky connections. “Our people are extremely well trained on what to do if they’re captured,” Wiley told me. “The equipment they have is encrypted and sufficiently sophisticated that anyone going through it would not find any evidence of the work they’re doing.” Only one investigator, a Syrian woman, who was captured more than two years ago, is currently detained by the Syrian regime.
Moving documents to the international borders is by far the most dangerous step in the CIJA’s operation. Paper is heavy and incriminating for the carrier; on the other hand, photographs, while more portable, can be difficult to authenticate in court. Bundles of up to fifty pounds typically arrive “in a dizzying array of crappy suitcases” smuggled across borders, Wiley told me, while large loads demand more intricate planning. “Think in terms of a box of paper that sits next to the photocopier,” he explained. “That box has five bricks, each with five hundred pages in it,” weighing a total of about twenty pounds. “And that’s only twenty-five hundred pages. We’ve extracted from Syria approximately six hundred thousand pages”—several tons. “So you need vehicles. Those vehicles need to get through checkpoints. You need to do reconnaissance. You need to know what kind of checkpoints you’re going to run into.” The commission pays rebel groups and couriers for logistical support. “We burn enormous sums of money moving this stuff,” he said.
Large extractions often depend on friendly countries to negotiate openings in otherwise sealed borders, so captured documents can remain hidden for months. On one occasion, several thousand pages of evidence were left with an old woman in a remote farmhouse in southern Syria, but the investigator didn’t explain the significance of the files. When winter came, Wiley said, “in fairness, she was cold, so she burned the whole lot of it as fuel.” The commission’s chief investigator told me that in exceptionally hostile areas he and his colleagues hide boxes in caves or bury them in the ground, log the location, and hope to retrieve them months or years from now—whenever the killing stops. Wiley said, “We have enormous quantities of material still in Syria that we’re not moving,” because it’s too dangerous. “Probably up to half a million pages.”
As the Syrians collected documents, Wiley hired military and political analysts, investigators, translators, and lawyers in Europe. By 2015, theCIJA’s budget had grown to eight million dollars a year, and its staff to around a hundred and fifty, including employees at the headquarters and at a video-analysis office elsewhere in Europe, in addition to the investigators in the Middle East. The CIJA employs about as many investigators as the International Criminal Court has working on all its cases combined.
Many of the documents have come from security-intelligence facilities far from the capital. These pages often refer to decisions made by the Central Crisis Management Cell, but to complete the chain of command the commission needed notes from those meetings. Barakat, who now lives in Istanbul, told me that in 2014 Chris Engels and an analyst visited him to examine his documents from the Crisis Cell. (The CIJA, which doesn’t publicly identify witnesses, refused to acknowledge this.) “They spent three days here, asking me in very great detail about the work I did, details about how the meetings would go,” he said. They also photographed the smuggled papers, and Barakat promised them that he’d supply the originals if the case went to trial.
As Barakat and I spoke through a video feed, he lifted up a heap of files, which are usually kept in a secure facility. “These are the meeting minutes for the Central Crisis Management Cell,” he said. He pulled out a page and pointed to the embossed emblem at the top. “As you can see—that little gold hawk? These are the original documents, and they’re signed in green.” The commission began sifting through Barakat’s files, analyzing connections between the Crisis Cell’s decisions and the criminal behavior of security agents in distant provinces.
The task of tracking down former regime agents who were willing to explain their roles in the system was simplified by the fact that so many had defected from the government. Analysts for the CIJA found wealthy defectors in the Gulf states, Turkey, and Europe. They also took witness statements in southern Turkey, in a heavily guarded refugee camp called Apaydın, which is wholly populated by former regime officers and their families. (None of them are listed as suspects in the case, which focusses on higher-level officials.)
Wiley said of the witnesses, “If I could use a rather cold metaphor—they’re a dime a dozen.” The CIJA preferred to interview victims who remained in Syria and had never spoken to reporters, human-rights groups, or the U.N. commission of inquiry. (A defense lawyer could suggest that, inside crowded refugee camps, testimonies might unfairly converge on a damning narrative.) So the CIJA’s Syrian investigators interviewed roughly two hundred and fifty victims across several provinces, to secure “pattern evidence” showing that crimes had been perpetrated in a systematic manner, in accordance with evidence in the documents. The goal was to draw strong links, through regime documents and testimony by witnesses and victims, between Syrian government policies and their effects on individuals.
One afternoon this winter, in a hotel room near Amsterdam, I met a gaunt thirty-eight-year-old Syrian activist named Mazen al-Hamada. The story of Hamada, who is not a CIJA witness—those people’s identities will remain secret unless they are called to testify—offers an opportunity to trace the specific effects of the Syrian regime’s policies on the citizens that it was trying desperately to subdue.
Hamada was born in 1977, the youngest of seventeen children in an educated, middle-class family in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor. His siblings grew up to be pharmacists, teachers, and lawyers, and he became a field specialist at Schlumberger, the international oil-services company, which operated in the rich oil fields around Deir Ezzor. Members of Hamada’s family were outspoken critics of the government, and even before the revolution they were routinely followed and periodically arrested. They were especially outraged by the government’s failure to do anything about the widening gap between the rich and the poor. “It was all organized to benefit the élites,” Hamada told me. In 2011, the head of the National Security Bureau wrote a secret memo to the chairman of the Crisis Cell, attributing the scarcity of patriotism in Deir Ezzor to “the corrupt judicial system, long delays in adjudicating lawsuits, nepotism, and the resort to bribery to restore rights.”
The security-intelligence agencies in the district were competent, and loyal to Assad. Beginning with the earliest hints of unrest, in February, 2011, the head of Deir Ezzor’s military-intelligence branch, Brigadier General Jameh Jameh, sent instructions to all of his subordinates to “prepare cameras . . . in order to film the participants and instigators so they can be identified and held accountable in the future.” (