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Who watches the watchers?

Protesters name Syrian informants on Facebook, often with deadly results.

Syria watchers 2011 09 12Enlarge
Syria's web of informants means that someone is always watching. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — A set of eyes watched from the shop as a group of young men dashed down a side street, with security forces close behind. The eyes watched as a resident opened his door to let the men in, just in time.

It was a Friday in Duma, a suburb northeast of Damascus, and, as every week for the past five months, pro-democracy activists were defying the heavy security presence and organizing a protest against the Assad regime.

The security forces turned the corner, but the protesters had disappeared. The uniformed men slowed and looked around. There was no sign of their targets.

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The watcher walked up to the security forces. The conversation was brief. He lifted his arm and pointed to the door behind which the protesters were hiding. As it was kicked down, three of the activists inside ran to the roof of the three-storey house, desperate to find an escape.

One of those three men who fled to the roof gave an account of the incident of July 29 in a lengthy Skype call with GlobalPost, having been introduced by a trusted activist in Duma. GlobalPost also spoke separately to an activist in Duma, known only as Sami, whose cousin was a second eyewitness to the incident.

One of the three men, GlobalPost’s source, ran to the edge of the roof and jumped the narrow gap across the alleyway to the adjacent building. By now the security men were on the roof and Jihad Shalhoub, 43, a second protester, had only one way off.

But Jihad stumbled as he ran toward the edge. He fell, but managed to grab a balcony banister on his way down.

In a video of the scene, supplied to international rights group Avaaz by activists in Duma, security men gathered concrete blocks and other heavy objects and hurled them from the roof.

“Jihad tried to jump, but slipped,” said one of the three men chased onto the roof. “The security men threw stones down at Jihad until he fell.”

As he lay injured and bleeding on the street three stories below, the security men on the roof continued to throw blocks down on Jihad, said both eyewitnesses. That night Jihad died of his injuries in hospital.

A second set of eyes, a second watcher — the cousin of the activist interviewed by GlobalPost — saw the whole incident from behind a curtain. A phone call was made to a leader of an activist network in Duma.

Outing the informers

In nearly a half-century of one-party rule, Syria’s Baath regime has maintained its iron grip on a nation of 22 million people through a network of civilian informers known to Syrians are the awainiyya — the watchers.

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From the man at the next table listening in on conversations in the café, to the local shopkeeper, taxi driver or real-estate agent, Syrian society is rife with those who will inform on their fellow citizens to the security services.

The watchers do it primarily for money, said activists and analysts, but also out of fear. Others still believe in the ideals of the Assad family's rule. 

It’s impossible to estimate the number of informers, but with the ruling Baath Party estimated at some two million members, and with at least 16 individual branches of the security services, the numbers of awainiyya at work in Syria could reasonably be estimated in the tens of thousands.

As the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime enters its sixth month, Syrian security services are relying ever more heavily on their network of informers to suppress protests, activists said.

“They tell the security forces about the movement of activists and protesters during demonstrations,” said Sami, the Duma activist whose cousin witnessed the attack on Jihad Shalhoub.

“When there are campaigns of arrests, the informers guide the security forces to the suspects’ houses wearing masks.”

Now, with Syria’s revolution transforming power relations in one of the world’s last true police states, protestors have adopted the radical tactic of using social media to fight back against the nation’s awainiyya.

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Facebook now hosts dozens of awainiyya sites run by Syrian activists