x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Fighting for Syria from Beirut with information

Kinan is part of his country's quest for democratic change, one of a number of activists who fled to Lebanon and now gather and disseminate information about the crisis in Syria.

Syrian activist 'Kinan' photographed in a cafe in Beirut.
Syrian activist 'Kinan' photographed in a cafe in Beirut.

BEIRUT // Kinan moves around the city constantly looking over his shoulder, regularly changes his mobile numbers and switches apartments every few weeks.

Just six months ago, the Syrian man in his late 20s was a journalist in Damascus, watching from afar as uprisings were gaining pace across the Arab world.

Now, he is part of his own country's quest for democratic change, one of a number of activists who fled to Lebanon and now gather and disseminate information about the crisis in Syria.

Kinan - whose name has been changed to protect his identity - has been documenting crimes including deaths, injuries and detentions, and disseminating the information. Human rights groups estimate that more than 2,500 people have been killed since the Syrian government's crackdown on protests began in March.

Lighting yet another cigarette, Kinan blends in well at the bustling Beirut cafe. But he looks more harried than others, his head darting around.

Working from Beirut is not without its risks, he says. Like other Syrian activists in Lebanon, Kinan is concerned about what he sees as the long arm of the Syrian security services.

He glances at calls coming through to his two mobile phones, the numbers for which he changes frequently to deter detection. He stays with friends and colleagues, but insists on moving every three or so weeks - just in case.

Kinan arrived in Beirut in April, after he was tipped off that he was about to be arrested.

Five months on, he is still here, still working almost non-stop to circulate information, video and images on the crisis in Syria.

"We are just an echo - the real sound is coming from inside Syria," he said.

Most days are spent on the phone, on Skype and in front of his laptop, maintaining his connection to contacts in towns and cities across Syria, and then liaising with journalists, human rights groups and activists outside the country.

"I'm an activist, but I'm a journalist at the end of the day. I need to get the accurate information out; there is no need to exaggerate. The situation is bad enough as it is," he said.

While continuing to focus on online activism, Kinan also started getting involved in smuggling items into Syria - satellite phones, modems and cameras.

"Anything that could help citizen journalists to get the information out of Syria," he said. "So, now I'm a smuggler, an activist, a journalist, a security technician, an editor, translator, refugee...I almost forgot how my life used to be before."

While he has not been threatened directly during his time in Lebanon, Kinan says a fellow Syrian activist was briefly detained recently by Lebanese security services. He claims they blindfolded and interrogated him before letting him go.

Kinan's concerns are not necessarily unfounded. Some of his fellow activists have moved on from Lebanon, seeking asylum elsewhere. And in the five months since the uprising started, several Syrian nationals have been apprehended or gone missing in Lebanon.

Shibli Al Ayssami, one of the founders of the Syrian Baath Party, is believed to have been kidnapped during a visit to Lebanon earlier this year.

Mr Al Ayssami, who is in his 80s and has lived outside Syria for many years, allegedly was taken in the city of Aley in May. He has not been heard from since.

In February, three Syrian brothers disappeared in Lebanon, reportedly after distributing pro-democracy flyers.

Still, Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch's Beirut director, believes the threat for Syrians in Lebanon has been somewhat overstated.

Syrian opposition supporters staying in or working from Lebanon tend to remain within communities where they feel they are protected, he said.

"There is no doubt that many activists don't feel safe, in large part because they feel that the Lebanese state is not willing to protect them," he said.

"The Lebanese state is not going after them. The threat is that the Lebanese state has not taken steps to guarantee their safety. They feel the Syrian security services have a long reach into Lebanon."

Damascus still holds significant sway in the country. In recent weeks, however, even Hizbollah, one of Syria's closest allies, has started to advocate for reform in Syria. After months of remaining largely silent, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of the Lebanese Shiite movement, spoke of the need for reforms and a peaceful solution.

Thousands of Syrians have sought shelter in Lebanon since the outbreak of violence. Every week sees demonstrations in Lebanon, both for and against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad - sometimes with Lebanese security forces wedged between the opposing camps.

With the fate of the two countries so closely linked, there have been concerns that the troubles in Syria could spread across the border. Last week, United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams, expressed concern about the prospect.

"There needs to be political consensus that what happens in Syria is not allowed to affect Lebanon. Prime Minister [Nejib] Miqati told me...that he too is determined to keep stability and calm in Lebanon," Mr Williams said in a statement. "It will not be easy, but great effort is needed."