x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

Mystery grows over Syria's missing opposition politicians

Al Assad's feared air-force security agents blamed for abduction of three men but other theories raised add to country's fear and confusion.

DAMASCUS // Three leading politicians opposed to the regime of Bashar Al Assad have been abducted by Syria’s feared air-force security agents at a checkpoint on the Damascus airport road.

Abdul Aziz Al Kheir, Iyas Ayash and Maher Tahan, all members of the moderate National Coordination Committee (NCC), have not been heard from since Thursday, when they flew back from meetings with the Chinese government in Beijing.

“The car they were in was stopped by the air-force intelligence checkpoint, which detained them and escorted them to one of its branches,” the NCC said yesterday.

There has been no formal confirmation of the detention by Syrian authorities, a silence that is standard practice. The dozen or more powerful security organisations rarely contact the families of detainees, or announce who has been arrested.

Dr Al Kheir, a medical doctor with a reputation for astute political thinking, is a longstanding critic of the Assad family’s authoritarian rule, and was jailed for 13 years by the former president Hafez Al Assad.

With the regime now facing the greatest challenge to its rule, and demanding absolute loyalty, Dr Al Kheir’s dissent arguably takes on a renewed significance. He is not only an Alawite, but comes from the same village as the Assad family: Qardaha, a tightly knit community integral to the regime.

Syria’s Alawite minority has largely – although far from entirely – sided with the authorities since the start of the uprising last March. Disintegration of that backing would pose a major threat to its hold on power.

Dr Al Kheir and his colleagues have made repeated efforts to persuade China and Russia to end their support for Mr Al Assad and, instead, put real pressure on him to end a deadly military crackdown and effectively stand aside.

Any hint that those efforts were showing signs of success might prove enough to see them detained.

But Damascus is a complex, conspiratorial place and some say the arrests were, in fact, a ploy by the authorities to boost the NCC’s flagging credibility.

A widely held theory is that the NCC is a regime-backed puppet – tame opposition designed to deceive the world into believing Damascus does tolerate reasonable political dialogue.

The NCC has refused to support the armed revolt, calling instead for peaceful demonstrations, and is resolute in opposing any form of foreign military intervention or support for the rebels.

As the uprising has grown, the NCC appears to have haemorrhaged support. A number of its younger, more active members have recently left or are planning to leave, amid criticism that the old-fashioned socialists and Arab nationalists of the NCC – many of them elderly men – are at best out of touch, and have done nothing to help those suffering on the ground or further the cause of unifying the opposition.

“All opposition groups know the NCC is orchestrated by the Assad security bodies,” said a leading activist in Damascus.

“The regime wants to say this group is genuine by arresting three of its leaders. But they were returning from China on an official visit, they had visas and they openly left and returned from Damascus airport,” something only possible with a green light from the authorities.

While other opposition groups such as the Local Coordination Committees have been forced underground, their members arrested or killed, those in the NCC have had their names taken off international travel blacklists and have been able to work in the open.

There remain unanswered questions surrounding the disappearance of the men. If air-force security had simply wanted to detain them, it could have done so as they passed through immigration, without even allowing them to leave the airport.

Also, through unofficial back channels, commonly used by opposition groups to find out where detained activists are being held, there has been no indication they are under formal detention.

Experienced political dissidents depend on personal contacts inside the security apparatus – or bribes – to obtain information on “disappeared” colleagues. This time, however, those channels turned nothing up, activists say. Instead, Syrian officials were saying yesterday that the men had been kidnapped by an armed gang.

While that may be unlikely, it cannot yet be ruled out. As violence has spread in Damascus and law and order continues to break down, armed groups, associated either with the regime or rebels, have proliferated. Increasingly there are reports of their being involved in criminal acts including kidnapping for ransom and motorway robbery.

The airport road has been closed by fighting on more than one occasion, and daylight abductions are far from rare. In July, Italian workers were kidnapped en route to the airport, and Syrian state media said at the time they had been abducted by “terrorists” and freed during military operations.

The prisoners said later they did not know who had abducted them.

psands@thenational.ae

Read more from Phil Sands in Syria