Spying fears pervade Syrian conflict

A fighter with the Free Syrian Army throws a homemade smoke bomb to blind government soldiers in Aleppo. With informants a major concern to both sides in the conflict, FSA leaders have created their own intelligence branch to weed out spies and to recruit them. (European Pressphoto Agency / October 24, 2013)

ALEPPO, Syria — Rebel Col. Abduljabbar Aqidi was at his desk in a repurposed school when an assistant came in and slipped him a piece of paper about his plans for the evening.

"Should we go to this operations room, or this one?" the assistant asked cryptically.

Aqidi, who heads the Aleppo Military Council, was planning a dinner with a group of Syrian rebels on the front lines that night. But even here, in the heart of opposition territory, he and his aides were wary of discussing their movements aloud.

"There are lots of spies," he said. "They hurt us; they inform the regime of our movements and our battles. When I go out, the people in my own party don't even know where we're going."

For more than four decades, Syria's ruling family — President Bashar Assad and his late father, Hafez — has depended on informants — or the fear of them — to help keep the population in line.

"It was a regime of informants," Aqidi said.

The fear remains strong in the midst of a civil war that has destroyed entire towns and fragmented the population, the legacy of an era when the Assads held a tight grip on Syria and loyalty and information were for sale.

The government and opposition groups alike rely on spies to wage urban warfare and attack military targets. High-level government officers who want to defect, for example, may be asked to remain in place to feed information to the rebels. Likewise, rebels say they've suffered numerous setbacks because of spies and informants among their ranks.

There's a joke among some in the opposition: Who is the leader of the Free Syrian Army? Bashar Assad. Because everyone is an informant.

The Free Syrian Army's general staff has created its own intelligence branch to weed out spies and to recruit them within the government. All of the vehicles in Aqidi's convoys are riddled with bullet holes from attacks he believes were made possible by spies in the rebel ranks. Last year, his son was wounded in one such attack.

Aqidi has changed his cellphone number so many times — believing it was tracked — that he struggles to remember it.

The opposition's fear of informants now extends to journalists and humanitarian workers, who increasingly risk being kidnapped in rebel areas where their presence was once welcomed. In August, a militant website issued a recommendation that all journalists be kidnapped, interrogated and searched under suspicion of being spies.

Last month, clashes erupted between Free Syrian Army rebels and the Al Qaeda-linked rebel faction known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria when the latter tried to detain a German doctor who had gone to a local hospital. The Al Qaeda-linked group alleged that the doctor had been taking video of its headquarters in the town in order to spy.

In Bustan Qasir, an opposition-held neighborhood in the heart of Aleppo that abuts government territory, journalists and media activists are not allowed to take photographs or video before they are vetted by rebel commanders.

"I fear that there might be spies among them," said Sheik Aamir Abu Huthaifa, a commander in the district. "They might expose our positions."

Brig. Gen. Yahya Bittar, who heads the intelligence division of the Supreme Military Council, the nominal head of the Free Syrian Army, said he has operatives throughout Syria who monitor FSA rebel groups for possible informants. He wouldn't reveal how many operatives the division has.

Bittar, a former fighter pilot, said his operatives have had intelligence training and that his division has officers who worked for various government branches, including national security and military security.

Suspected informants are monitored and eventually brought to the intelligence headquarters in Bab Hawa, by the Turkish border, or handed over to local Islamic courts for interrogation. Bittar denied that detainees are beaten and tortured, for which the government prisons are notorious.

"It's the threat of beatings that gets him to confess," he said.

Those found guilty of spying can face prison or death.