BEIRUT — As anti-government protesters continue their struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad on the streets of Dara’a, Latakia, Damascus and other Syrian cities, Rami — a 20-something dissident in exile — fights his battle from behind a laptop screen in a cluttered East Beirut apartment.
Only 110 kilometers, or 70 miles, from the Syrian capital, Beirut has long been a transit point for Syrians — from former strongmen to failed conspirators and run of the mill dissenters — who have run afoul of their regime. Today, some exiles like Rami — who would disclose only his first name for fear of retribution — arrive armed with technology and contacts. A local cellphone number, an internet connection, and Skype and Facebook accounts are all the tools they need to continue an effective opposition from across the border.
The Syrian government has been mostly successful so far in keeping journalists out of the country — and expelling or curtailing the movements of those who have managed to get in.
In the absence of journalists, people like Rami have been responsible for disseminating much of the news coming out of the country. Every day, Rami collects reports from his activist contacts who remain in Syria and passes on the information to international media outlets.
Afraid that direct contact with the foreign media would help the feared Syrian secret police — the mukhabarat — pinpoint them, Rami said that most of his contacts answer calls only from him. “We are sure that our regime is ready — if it’s in the dark and nobody sees — it’s ready to kill thousands,” he said.
“Our role is to light these incidents, to tell our regime, ‘Every bullet you’re going to shoot on civilians will be reported and it will be shown for the whole world.”’
Rami’s decision to flee to Lebanon last year was made in haste. During his last year in Syria, he attracted the attention of the secret police and was called in to dozens of daylong interrogations. While they were unable to link him to his online pseudonym, his travels abroad and contacts with the activist and media communities kept them suspicious.
“They do not need to prove something — they do not need to get evidence to put me in jail,” he said. “But first, they need themselves to be convinced.”
Eventually, he was told that he would be barred from leaving the country. Sensing that his arrest was near — and convinced by his friends that if he were arrested he would be tortured until he gave up other major activists — he went into hiding in Damascus. In the end, he paid a gang of smugglers $500 to take him across the border with Lebanon to the relative safety of Beirut.
Another exile — who spoke on the condition of complete anonymity — was spreading news about Dara’a and Damascus from within Syria when one of his colleagues fell into the hands of the secret police. Within hours, he said, their workplace had been raided. After he spotted an unfamiliar car circling his neighborhood, he was dissuaded from going home to gather his passport, money or other belongings before he fled.
He arrived in Beirut two weeks ago, he said, “with these clothes on and $600 we had arranged to get from some friends.”
He was able to cross the border with only his state identification card. But now, without a passport, he is limited to either staying in Lebanon or returning to his homeland, where he is convinced the secret police are still looking for him.
Upon his arrival in Beirut, he said, it was initially hard to gain access to a workspace because his contacts here were “more afraid of the Syrian secret service than the Syrians.”
“We spent the first four days without any TV or internet,” he added, “totally isolated, while four days earlier we were the source of the whole information.”
In Beirut, Syrian dissidents are far from safe. The Lebanese capital was under Syrian military occupation from 1976 to 2005 and the Syrian security apparatus had plenty of time to build relationships.
It is still suspected of operating in Lebanon and local armed political parties with strong ties to Damascus — such as Hezbollah and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party — can also be tapped to do the Syrian regime’s bidding.
Pro-Assad demonstrations by Syrian nationals in Beirut have served as a reminder of the country’s continuing influence within Lebanon.
“I was hiding in Damascus and I am hiding in Beirut now,” Rami said. “It’s the same, completely the same. The secret police, if they catch me, I will disappear.” Such fears are not unfounded.
In February, a Syrian, Jasem Meri Jasem was detained by Lebanese Military Intelligence after handing out flyers calling for protests and democratic changes in Syria. After being told that he was to be released, his brothers Ali Jasem and Shabib Jasem went to pick him up on Feb. 25. None of them have been heard from since.
Similarly, in 2008, Nawar Abboud, a member of the Syrian opposition group United National Alliance, was detained in the northern city of Tripoli. Lebanese security forces say he was soon released, but he, too, has disappeared.
The United National Alliance is headed by Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of Bashar al-Assad who went into exile after a failed coup attempt and a falling out with then President Hafez al-Assad in the 1980s.
Official investigations into both cases have yielded little. Such incidents have raised fears that there could be continuing cooperation between the Syrian and Lebanese security forces to deal with the regime’s enemies here.
“Lebanon has an obligation to protect anyone who is on its territory and protect their freedom of speech,” said Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch’s Beirut office. “You can’t pick and choose who is allowed to protest.”
Copyright 2011 by The New York Times