BEIRUT: For half a century, Syrians lived in terror of the secret services, who held a vice-like grip over every aspect of daily life. In March 2011, they finally threw off the shackles.
In towns and cities around the country, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand an end to the Assad family’s four-decade rule, in a show of defiance that had long been unthinkable.
The security services responded with lethal force – they had to because fear alone was no longer enough.
Like the former East Germany’s Stasi or Romania’s Securitate, Syria’s mukhabarat operated a network of informers on every street and in every workplace that held the whole country in thrall from cradle to grave.
“‘Don’t meddle in politics or the mukhabarat will get you,’ every parent would tell their children,” said Abu Ghazi, an anti-regime activist in the central city of Hama.
“Fear of the secret services conditioned every Syrian,” he told Agence France Presse via Skype.
The mukhabarat began its long reign of terror when the Baath party – the same secretive Arab nationalist organization that dominated Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – seized power in Damascus in 1963.
When President Bashar Assad’s father Hafez mounted a coup in 1970, the secret services cemented their hold, particularly the intelligence branch of the air force that was his power base within the dominant military.
“The secret services established a disproportionate place in the regime, becoming its sole executive apparatus,” a Damascus-based Western analyst told AFP.
Obsessed by a determination to stamp out even the smallest gesture of dissent, the mukhabarat built up an all-pervading network of informers to spy on people at work, at play and even in their own homes.
“A Syrian had no right to think or else he would pay the price,” said Michel Kilo, a dissident who spent many years in prison.
“You were watched at home, at work, in cafes, on the street. Your views could put you and your family’s lives in danger.”
In 1979, the Muslim Brotherhood led an uprising against Assad’s father that he met with a wave of deadly violence that culminated in an assault by the army on Hama in 1982 that killed between 10,000 and 40,000 people.
“It was a reign of terror that left a permanent mark on Syrian society,” the Western analyst said. “It cast a shadow on the collective memory.”
When Bashar succeeded his father in 2000, there was a brief political opening dubbed the Damascus Spring, but the mukhabarat remained in the wings and made a comeback when the political wind changed.
“It was less violent but more sophisticated,” the Western analyst said, asking not to be named.
“People were afraid of their own shadows. Even people who didn’t talk about politics and had no reason to be scared were afraid. The thought of terror was enough.”
It was the paid network of informers that sowed the most fear. “The informer could be your grocer, your baker,” said Abu Ghazi.
Two years ago when the uprising finally broke the mukhabarat’s iron grip, suspected informers were the first to pay. Thousands lost their lives in a wave of revenge killings, the activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Ironically, the network of informers meant the intelligence services were the first to detect the mood of dissent.
“While the regime was in denial, they saw the rapid social changes under way. It was extremely worrying for them,” the Western analyst said.
The panic was such that “you had to show your identity card just to buy a can of paint, because of the fear of graffiti.”
Abu Ghazi said there was a determination to make sure there could be no return to the mukhabarat’s reign of terror that turned him into an activist.
“The important thing is that after Assad there be no new dictatorship,” he said. “We will no longer be terrorized.”